Sunday, April 14, 2013

Essay on personal socialization history, substance abuse

How your ethnic and/or racial identity has shaped your understanding of who you are.
As a white middle class male, growing up in a mostly white middle class community, racism was not something which was talked about as a current issue. Looking back, I can see how stereotypes were woven into the fabric of my community, and for the most part none of it was on purpose, but rather because of ignorance. For example, there was always the "token black kid" on the football or basketball team, who was expected to perform well "because he was black." Apparently other factors didn't contribute as strongly to his athletic ability as skin color. There were comments about how "the Asian kids always do better at math." No matter that "Asian" refers to hundreds of ethnic groups. Growing up, none of those comments applied to me, a big deal wasn't made about them, and because in my mind I would never want to discriminate against someone because of their race, I didn't view it as racism. However I rarely thought about the ways these stereotypes put pressure on my classmates, and played out in their lives.
I didn't start to see what I thought was "real racism" until I got my first job at age 16. During my five years in the restaurant business, I was a witness to large amounts of overt racism. Servers would literally fight over taking white couples and families. Interestingly, it didn't seem to matter what the ethnicity of the server was, either. The stereotypes were so strong that it just didn't matter. The stereotypes played out in the service customers received as well.
Despite being outspoken about the problems in this practice, and frowning upon other servers engaging in this blatantly-racist customer choosing, I couldn't help but be partially sucked into the the dynamic. I was almost always very gracious to the host staff for seating any tables my section at all. However I can clearly remember many times when I felt a tiny bit frustrated or bummed out when a black or Latino table was sat in my section. This fact makes me very sad. Part of me couldn't help but tacitly consent to the beliefs of my coworkers.
Another interesting experience in the restaurant business was observing how the host staff would tend to match customers to their server by ethnicity. I worked at a soul food restaurant for two years, and was the only white person on staff. I can't count the number of times I would look up on a busy night and see the whole room a sea of color except for my section. I felt uncomfortable when I would see that, and my coworkers sometimes made jokes about it. I used to wonder what customers thought about me when they undoubtedly noticed.
The overwhelming mentality in the restaurant business is that the further from mainstream society a customer appears to be, the less they will spend and the lower the tip they will leave. I can't say that at first I didn't follow the mentality and believe it to be true. Over time, however, I noticed that server who thought that way would be slightly less pleasant and give less attentive service to their stereotyped tables. No wonder the tips weren't good. It is quite difficult to hide stereotypes. People have millions of years of evolutionary programming that drives their ability to perceive the social environment. So it is no wonder that the customers didn't feel as good about their experience in the restaurant, and tip less.
My experiences in the restaurant business were my most racially educational experiences. Race issues were not part of my thought process until I worked at restaurants. The fact that racism was not much on my mind speaks volumes about how a part of the problem I have been, without even knowing it. Tatum (2003), in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? describes how mainstream society unknowingly dismisses racism. It is still alive, and primarily continues not through the fault of most people, but through their unexamined prejudice beliefs. Racism goes unnoticed so often because segregation is still very common and it is not overt, like it was in the past. Today's racism tends to be built into society and because few people in the media examine it at length, those who do point it out are easy to tune out, or consider to be outliers.
    As a young professional social worker, I believe my lack of a racial identity has made it more difficult to connect to racism. Being part of the oppressive group, rather than the oppressed, has built a less aware attitude in me. I can see that I will have to continue to work hard to not be as blind to race matters. McIntosh (1990) wrote an enlightening article on things white people often take for granted because of their skin color. Racism stretches to even simple things like "flesh" colored bandages, which are only flesh colored to white people. That floored me, because it is as if the oppressed cannot even cover a wound without opening up another one.
How your spiritual and/or religious experiences beliefs has shaped your understanding of who you are.
At the age of just a few months, I was baptized Catholic. Growing up, it was simply expected that we went to church and believed everything that was taught. Everyone in the family was that way, as were their parents for generations.
    It was quite difficult for me when I started to realize that there were many holes in my faith. Part of my self had been Catholicism, so when I was unable to accept parts of my faith, I felt much termoil because I could not accept parts of my self. Resentment brewed inside me, toward my family, my former religion, then religions as institutions.
It has taken much time and study of philosophy and psychology to remove that set of resentments. I feel confident that those resentments are completely gone at this point. I have been able to help several clients restore their faith, because it works for them, without revealing my lack of religious beliefs. For myself, I know that faith is not for me, because by definition it is the opposite of reason. At the same time I know that it works and holds incredible meaning in many peoples' lives, so I cannot be so arrogant to turn them away from their happiness.
    Bein (2003) describes a way of interacting with clients called the ethnographic perspective. He stresses how important it is for social workers to let the client be the leader and expert on their situation. The ethnographic perspective comes from an anthropological approach to the world, trying to remove our own cultural biases from our assessment of the world. In working with clients, it is important to work within their framework, and seek to help in ways that the client ultimately would view as helpful.
What other aspect of your multicultural self has played a formative role in shaping your understanding of who you are?
    At the age of 14 I entered into the world of mental health treatment. After bouncing around for a while, I landed in a outpatient counseling. Since the age of 15 I have not had a drug in my body for the purpose of intoxication, except for nicotine and caffeine (nicotine has been gone for 4 years, caffeine will soon be next). At 14 years old I was yanked from mainstream society, and forced to find my way as a teenager in twelve step culture.
    Being in recovery from addiction, depression and attention deficit disorder has profoundly impacted the development of my self. Probably the most significant way these experiences have shaped me has been to instill a commitment to personal growth. It is seen as a requirement that I continue to move forward, or I will slip backward into addictive patterns and become a mess. That principle has driven my life, and for better or for worse has shaped the culture I immerse myself in. There's a certain mentality that I have become accustomed to in the twelve step community - that suffering and death can be right around the corner, if the wrong decisions are made. I can tell that there are parts of my implicit memory which are forever scarred from that fear.


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