All over the world, there are societal barriers which restrict marginalized people from living happy, successful lives, and their level of safety in their own neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries. Some of these barriers have impacted my life, such as my disability, my mental health, my queerness, and my sex and presumed gender. Other barriers, however, indirectly benefit me while discriminating against others, such as my status as a white, middle class college student. In all of my intersectional marginalizations, the ability to participate in a group and have this group be a 'safe space', either by being a space specifically for a particular facet of my identity or being a space in which I can talk about my experiences and feel heard, not othered.
As social workers, it is important to recognize how these barriers affect clients on a macro, mezzo, and micro scale. Knowing these barriers and the hardships marginalized people face helps in understanding how best to help them. Alongside this, knowing one's privileges and marginalized identities can strengthen the ability to help a client who is struggling with similar situations.
Autism is much more than a disability or a diagnosis. It is an integral part of my identity, irremovable from who I am, how I interact with others, and how I view myself and the world around me. Kathie Snow's article People First Language has only good intentions, but generalizes by saying all disabilities should be referred to in person first language. Snow, an able bodied mother of a son with cerebral palsy, is speaking on behalf of people with disabilities. Snow writes that [i]f people with disabilities are to be included in all aspects of society, and if they're to be respected and valued as citizens, we must stop using language that devalues them and sets them apart (2009). My choice to use identity first language does not devalue my contributions as a citizen, but ableism, which is deeply rooted in our society, does. Using autistic as a self identifier is not implying that autism is the only defining trait about me, but it allows me to embrace autism as a part of myself. As such, I choose instead identify using identity first language.
While certain aspects of autism mean that I struggle with certain skills, such as social cues and fine motor skills, there are other aspects that I have begun to embrace, such as my specialized interest in music and my sensory responses to music and other comforting stimuli. I began to detach from the idea that eventually I would be able to operate as my non-autistic peers did, and accepted that I was never going to stop being autistic. This self-acceptance was fostered as a result of supportive parents but also the camaraderie shared among people in various autistic online communities. The research of Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, Charlotte Brownlow, and Lindsay O'Dell for their article Mapping the social geographies of autism aligns with my experiences in online autistic-only spaces.
The importance of such an autistic space is therefore in providing a space within which to develop autistic identities and advocacy narratives. The purpose is not to develop social skills for face-to-face ([neurotypical]-dominated) environments, but to offer a challenge to the need to 'fit in' to the [neurotypical] world.
Rosqvist et al. also explain that online autistic communities also serve as 'safe' spaces for autistic people to interact with confidence (2012). I place the most importance on the fact that having an all autistic space means that there is a high likelihood of like minded people who have shared experiences. This comfort has helped me to normalize my struggles and embrace the neurodivergent aspects of myself. I have also begun to challenge the need to fit in while also recognizing the benefits of understanding how to interact in neurotypical environments (2012). I continue to contribute in and benefit from these online communities, and have begun to engage in face-to-face autistic communities. Having a deep understanding of my autistic identity can aid in my social work in two different ways. If I have a client who is autistic, I can offer that client resources to foster self acceptance with regard to being autistic. I hope to show them their value and worth in relation to autism. I can also offer my own experiences while maintaining professional boundaries.
Another marginalized portion of my identity is that I am a person with anxiety and depression. In the public school system, I was ridiculed for my mental illnesses due to the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety. The ideas of stigma and ignorance surrounding mental illness, as well as the emphasis on resilience and overcoming hardships at any cost in my community resulted in many of my peers bullying ridiculing me for my depression and anxiety attacks. Other students with mental illness also experienced bullying from perceived neurotypical peers. The hurtful comments and lack of support from my community still affect me today. Fortunately, I had access to therapy and medication, along with the support of my parents, and solidarity among other students who were being bullied as a result of their mental health. However, I had just begun therapy and did not have the skills to cope with both my depression and anxiety and being bullied and ridiculed by my peers. In the article Depression, Anxiety, and Peer Victimization, authors Miriam K. Forbes, Sally Fitzpatrick, Natasha R. Magson, and Ronald M. Rapee explain the relationship between anxiety and depression and peer victimization: [p]eer victimization predicted increases in internalizing problems over time, and internalizing problems also predicted increased risk of peer victimization over time. Bullying increases the chances of internalizing distress and victims may also be targeted as a result of how they manage these symptoms (2018). The cycle of being bullied because of my mental illness, which increased my anxiety surrounding school and fed my depression, and then being bullied because of my increased anxiety and depression snowballed out of control.
Unlike my success in seeking out a positive community for my autistic identity, the shame I felt for having depression and anxiety was immense, and I kept my healing to therapy and talking with my mother about my depression and anxiety. Tanis Doe's essay Thoughts on Thinking Differently is the reading that most resonated with my experiences. The teachers in my school were afraid of believing and accepting the fact that because of my anxiety and depression, staying in class was difficult, and even coming to school at all was a struggle. I did not receive support on either this or the fact that I was being bullied because of my mental illnesses. The students saw that my anxiety and depression gave me a weakness and made me a target for the reaction they wanted to elicit. Reading Doe's writing on mental illness, particularly depression, as a person who is disabled in other ways as well, was a comfort, especially considering that the reading is from 1992. My depression and anxiety can be treated, but it is something that I will live with for the rest of my life. Through therapy and my lived experiences, I have come to accept that, but society has not. Doe's explanation of the lack of services and accomodations for people with mental illness is an unfortunate reality: for mental health and mental disabilities, there is less hope and less help (1992). Akin to my experiences with the autistic community, however, I have found acceptance from people who also have mental illnesses after being able to accept my diagnoses. Community is by no means a solution to the oppression that marginalized communities experience, but it is an important and powerful tool.
My queer identity is another aspect of my identity that experiences marginalization. Unlike autism and mental illness, however, my experiences with queerphobia are mostly indirect, and are a result of the systemic oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, and queer people. I identify as a lesbian, and my gender identity falls under the category of non binary and gender non conforming. The ways in which I experience queerphobia are a result of the history of oppression faced by LGBTQ people, which continues to affect the community and by extension my life. In the article We Won't Go Back into the Closet Now Without One Hell of a Fight by Cindy B. Veldhuis et al., research and qualitative studies support an increase in the stigmatization of the LGBTQ community in the aftermath and outcome of the 2016 presidential election. This increase in structural stigma, which is stigmatization that stems from societal norms and attitudes towards a marginalized community which puts up structural barriers for the affected community, has negative implications for mental health and well being, and creates stress. These stressors may be related to queerphobia as a whole or internalized queerphobia and 'homonegativity'. Among the fears that participants of the qualitative study shared, I resonated with increased hate speech and violence, loss of rights, and a fear of being out. I also resonated with heightened levels of stress and lack of hope related to these fears (2017). In reaction to this, I have participated in the LGBTQ+ community, both through utilizing the safe space it provides me and through activism, because of the increased need for community as self care.
Having social workers who identify as LGBTQ+ is incredibly important for LGBTQ+ clients, as many may feel alone or misunderstood, especially considering queerphobia and structural stigma. This is another situation where I would choose to disclose my identity to a struggling client if I felt it would be of comfort to them and while maintaining professional boundaries. My queer identity can also help me in engaging in conversations with fellow social workers who may be straight or cisgender, as I can offer them my experiences, answer questions, and be an educator pertaining to a community which experiences stigmatization and discrimination because of their status as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
As an assigned female at birth (AFAB) person, I have experienced discrimination in the form of a slew of incorrect or incomplete diagnoses, as well as having my experiences with mental illness discredited because of my AFAB status. Underdiagnosis is a problem in all aspects of health care, however I have experienced firsthand misdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of autism in AFAB people. In the article The Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism by Timothy M. Krahn and Andrew Fenton, the idea that people who were assigned male at birth (AMAB) have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with autism is explored in depth. Krahn and Fenton explain that the leading expert on autism research, Simon Baron-Cohen, uses evidence which reflects overt gender stereotyping girls and women tend to be altruistic, nurturing, and chatty, while boys and men tend to compete and engage in overt aggressive behaviours (2012). These stereotypes of typical feminine behaviors, as well as stereotypes about autistic people, greatly influences the higher levels of diagnoses in males than in females. Given prevalent social pressures on females (in certain cultures) to deal with their problems in more contained ways than males and to use internalization as a means of coping, it may be that females with autism are escaping clinical notice for reasons that are, at least in part, the product of sex stereotyping (Zahn-Waxler, Shirtcliff, & Marceau, as cited in Krahn & Fenton 2012). Although I was diagnosed at an early age with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, I was not diagnosed as autistic until my last year of middle school. The reasoning is in part due to the underdiagnosis of autism in AFAB people, which is perpetuated by gender stereotyping, but also the social pressures placed on AFAB people to deal with their problems in more contained ways. If I had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at an early age, I wonder if I would have received more adequate benefits in addition to the benefits I was receiving for NLD. My depression and anxiety may have also been underdiagnosed due to being AFAB for the same social pressures. Recognizing this can help me to help AFAB clients obtain diagnoses, and help to dispel stereotypes that other social workers around me might have about gender and certain male-dominated diagnoses.
In addition to these marginalized portions of my identity, it is equally important for me to touch on my status as a white, middle class person, and the privilege that both of these identities afford me. Talking about privilege is just as difficult as opening up about marginalized identities, as it is a vulnerable topic. As social workers, it is vital to recognize the privileges that one has. The first article I read for this class, 'I can't breathe': A case study, was, in some ways, an eye opener for me. One of the sad realities about racism is that white people generally do not engage in conversations about racism because there are not opportunities to do so in many communities, or if there is an opportunity to do so, the tenderness of the subject drives white people away. Therefore, when I do have conversations about race, they take place at school, mostly in the classroom, or I engage in conversations about race online using social media. Samuel R. Aymer's descriptions of police brutality are not surprising to me, but his account of his experiences with Jamal asserted my beliefs that police brutality is a traumatic event, particularly for black men (2016). I have not experienced police brutality, and this is because of my whiteness. I have the privilege to be reading this article and not fear for my life, but instead feel anger, sadness, and powerlessness in changing the current situation. The article that resonated with me the most was White Privilege and Male Privilege by Peggy McIntosh. Reading the list of privileges afforded to white people in addition to McIntosh's analysis of white privilege reminded me of thoughts I have had after the first few confrontations I had about my privilege. In particular, her discussion of white people's ability to not broach the subject of whiteness at all struck me, as this is something I have the privilege of doing, while people of color do not have that privilege. In addition, her usage of male privilege is a tool for white people, in particular white women in women's studies, to come to terms with the fact that they also have privilege, despite also being oppressed (1988). Intersectionality and interlocking oppression identities are important to recognize, and it is also important to recognize how white people can use their privilege to support rather than create barriers for people of color.
The topic of class is one that I have not had to give much thought about. I never saw myself as being more privileged than others in this way because in my neighborhood and school, my family's status as lower middle class was average or below average. Additionally, in comparison to other members of my extended family, our status as lower middle class was well below average. However, after three years living in Maine and attending the University of Southern Maine, I have gained other viewpoints which has lead me to realize my class privilege. Although I was not present for the in-class activity of the Race Race, the discussion afterwards opened my eyes to other viewpoints and walks of life. This eye opening experience is similar to the one described in Peggy McIntosh's essay on white privilege. I could not relate to the experiences of working class families and families who were below the poverty line. Education in both the instance of being white and being middle class are integral for my career as a social worker, and I will continue to educate myself on issues regarding both people of color and working class people.
The process of writing and editing this paper was filled with emotion. However, reflecting on both my marginalized identities and privileged identities was an important exercise and has opened my eyes to new intersections of my identity that I did not pay much attention to. Knowing oneself is an important part of being an effective social worker, and knowing one's privileges and marginalizations will not only benefit one's own self, but one's surroundings, other social workers, and clients. The NASW Code of Ethics places importance on Cultural Competence and Social Diversity, and also the belief that every person has inherent worth and is deserving of dignity. My biases towards marginalized groups, in particular people of the LGBTQ+ community, those struggling with mental illness, and people with disabilities, may make it difficult for me to hear out and respect the concerns of clients who differ in values than me. It will be challenging for me to do so, but it will be one small effort towards promoting tolerance and the core values of the social work profession. I also hope that my openness as an autistic, non-binary lesbian human with mental illness will be impactful in the people I work with and the clients who I choose to share this information with. The information I have learned from the readings, experiences in this class and in other classes, and experiences with the world will continue to inform my knowledge and will integrate into my life and my work.
The Importance of Examining Intersectionality and Interlocking Oppression in Social Work. (2019, Mar 18).
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