By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.
The world watched last week as Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd. Tragically, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot minutes before the ruling was announced. A few days later, Kenosha, Wisconsin police officials announced that the officer who shot Jacob Black in the back would not face any discipline. While many felt relieved in the wake of the George Floyd ruling, we all know much more needs to be done to bring an end to the violence in our communities; violence that studies find disproportionately affects people of color. It is not an easy topic to address succinctly in a blog post, and yet it is a critical time in our field’s history as we work to prevent abuse. What makes this such a difficult area for open dialog?
At first glance, there may not appear to be an obvious connection between the experience of people of color in respect to violence and sexual abuse, but there is. One of the biggest common denominators in the lives of people convicted of a violent offense (including sexual abuse, which is a form of violence) is their frequent dual status as both past victim and current perpetrator. International research on the risk factors related to offending indicates that people who commit violent crime have a greater likelihood of having experienced past trauma and/or adverse childhood experiences. These experiences have impacted their development and lifestyle.
Too often, we choose to ignore these individuals’ backgrounds and vulnerabilities, focusing instead on their behavior. This is approach fails because we are looking at the severity of the crime and not the nuance of the person. The challenge is how we talk about violence, including sexual abuse, across diverse communities where experiences and practices, and opinions about violence are vastly different. The important word here is “community,” because there are several communities with differing perceptions all grappling with their response to violence and sexual abuse. These include the geographical community, the victims’ community, the political and press community, and the professional community. This diversity highlights the importance of an intersectional approach to understanding and responding to violence and sexual abuse. There are many challenges: Kieran grew up in Northern Ireland during the peace process and saw firsthand how challenging it was to change social norms, ideals, and cultural beliefs. The important thing to remember is that violence and sexual abuse, in all their forms, are community issues and that we need an engaged and united community to tackle them.
From a professional perspective, changing social and cultural norms, as well as beliefs, can present additional challenges. Being on the front lines of social justice means recognizing flaws within the system while working steadily and proactively to reduce them. Our clients suffer, often in silence, understanding that they are measured on scales that may be biased against them, particularly with factors like a past criminal record and substance abuse. Meanwhile, too many professionals of color have their own experiences with such biases, maybe even with violence, and may have reactions to these events that they can’t share openly with others. Far too often, we are blind not only to our clients’ everyday challenges but to those of our colleagues, too.
It is encouraging that so many conferences in recent years have had pre-conference workshops and keynote addresses that examine the backstories behind racial bias and violence. The apparent dearth of open dialog about these matters elsewhere is unfortunate, even as it is understandable. The intersection of sexual abuse, discrimination, racism, and prejudice creates a perfect storm that can cripple professional teamwork. If we as a global community don’t feel comfortable talking about these issues with our most trusted friends and colleagues, why would professionals in the field be any different? Individual professionals are members of many communities and may only discuss these issues within receptive communities, but that part is easy. We need to make the hard choice to talk about these issues across all of the communities we belong to so we can learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives in order to develop a better understanding of these different communities and their experiences. This presents its own challenges because
- people often enter such dialogs with firmly entrenched opinions and beliefs;
- people tend to make assumptions about what others have to say without asking for clarification;
- many people listen to others primarily with the goal of responding and making their own points;
- people often fail to listen to others with the goal of truly understanding; and
- one of our colleagues expressed it well several years ago when he said that professionals should assume ethical intent and practice among our colleagues until we see evidence to the contrary. Otherwise, it is too easy for discussions to go off the rails.
This places all of us in a quandary: On one hand, the expression that “silence equals violence” may never have been more true. On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine being pilloried for speaking up and speaking out.
Too many of us were raised with conversational taboos on certain subjects (religion, spirituality, and politics come immediately to mind). The unfortunate result is that many people have never learned how to have difficult discussions. The challenge in having difficult conversations is significant, but the payoff can be significant as well. Social change takes time. While we should not expect it to happen overnight, it’s vital that we keep trying.