Subvert the Dominant Dinner

August 23, 2010

So, my BIL i s a police officer. For the first time last month, BIL drove his police cruiser home from work. He has also recently arrested some people that live in or near his development. Then, the other day, one of the signs marking an entrance to his development was spray-painted with gang symbols and anti-police epithets. A couple Sunday dinners ago, we discussed “those people”, “that kind of thing” and of course we worried that BIL and SIL were being targeted. They were talking about moving.

The three of us — Wifebian, BIL and myself — all work with low income black people. Except BIL is conservative and we are progressive. The three of us are abreast on current events and embrace our profession as an identity, so, we get into these, like, conversations where we try to relate to one another about, well . . .  our jobs. Also known as 50% of our lives. It can be hard. I’ve never been related to a racist, anti-immigrant police officer before. So, I’ve tried to understand how a republican thinks, a republican police officer, and his version of the world, which makes me think a lot about social work and my version of the world. Some days, talking with him makes me think I am totally naive and other days talking to him makes me think he is a total asshole.

But, what has my profession really taught me about the world? What is my job good for? Especially compared to what other professionals know about and what they get from their job. Like, my SIL, who’s a vet tech, can squeeze my dog’s anal glands and get us half-price vet meds and I am really grateful for that.  My college friend who interviews celebrities and my other college friend who is a traveling musician and the one who is on TV — they all get fantastic social capital — everyone thinks their job is awesome all day long and want to talk to them about their jobs. Free samples, travel, pictures of you on your Facebook page posing with Mark Summers — all serious perks creating real social capital. I think the term is “fringe” benefits.

But, then there is perspective. Everybody looks at life differently. But a lot of it depends on what your job is. Like, the other day, I met a guy who used to be a chemist and he worked for a company that researched the best way to make rubber adhere to metal. We had this whole talk about his new grill that I couldnt have had with anyone else at the party. Five minutes in a house and my dad could tell you how much it would cost to paint it. Five minutes in a math classroom and my wife can tell you if the kids will pass their end of grade exams. Our jobs give us fantastic insight into some very interesting and very small parts of the world.

My small, interesting part is people. People concern me. Poor ones. And justice, too. So, I ended up becoming a social worker. (Or is it that I’m a girl that I ended up a social worker, hard to say.) Sometimes I day dream about journalism or law, though. They do people and justice, too. And lawyers make money. (And journalists can too. They have a much better chance of getting a book deal than social workers.) But, they say lawyering promotes depression and journalists are in a worse position than social workers right now with like, job security. (That’s the awesome thing about poverty.) And we see what policing has done to my brother in law.

So, with social work, I get some perks, some capital. I mean, although nobody wants to talk to me about my job at  dinner parties, I get the sense that social work is considered honorable and valid, an actual profession. Especially if you’re one of those social workers that calls yourself a “therapist”. But, mostly, what I get from my job is insight into people and how to live a decent life. I get a lot of reality checks on how bad it can get and how good I have it. I get a sense of purpose. I mean, the alleviation  of human suffering is a pretty awesome gig. I get to constantly work to improve my own self and think about myself which is a real luxury. I get to hit the streets and meet hookers and drug dealers and wife beaters. That is, I dont have to stay in the box I was born in for more than two days at a time, which is an awesome privilege, really.

I also totally understand bad behavior. I can’t explain straw polls, or cell phone towers or seafood inspection, and I definitely can’t fix your TV, but I can tell you all about that son-of-a-bitch hoodlum and that crackhead bitch, yes I can. I can also give you some insight into those weirdos over there. And I’m really grateful for that. I can’t imagine how totally fucking irritating drug addicts would be if I didnt understand why they dont just fucking quit.

Basically, I think social work helps me stay cool. My fringe benefit is not being an asshole. It could just be the anti-depressants kicking in, but I think social work might be good for my mental health, for my relationships — to myself, my loved ones and the world. Dare I say, it’s good for my spirituality? And even if it is the meds talking, it’s the daily practice of social work that got me within ten feet of an SSRI to begin with. (I also used to be against OTC pain relievers, therapy and the DSM, too, if you can believe it. By the way, I had my first Lexapro orgasm this weekend! Woo hoo!)

Back to Sunday dinner. Wifebian tried to make the point that BIL needed to have relationships with black people outside of a patrol car, except she just ended up saying, “Yeah, well, I have more black friends than you!” And that wasnt very effective, you know, as a rhetorical strategy because BIL missed the point and asserted that his college roommate was black and so is his (patrol) partner so he clearly knows everything he needs to know about being black in a patrol car. Then, FIL kind of changed the subject and wondered if black people complain about white people as much as white people complain about black people, alluding that he and BIL indulged in their totally racist world views during their recent road trip together. That was a refreshing moment of insight and self-reflection. We all agreed that they probably do. (I tried to avoid citing Get On the Bus. It is the only empirical data I have regarding black male road trip behavior, but I can’t remember any of the scenes.)

We capped off the evening with middle SIL telling her favorite race story. It’s about the time she was vacuuming and a very large black man accidentally walked into her unlocked house. When he walked in, she looked up and said, “Oh my,” to which he replied, “My bad, my bad my bad.” SIL always says, “I never say ‘Oh, my,’ why did I say ‘Oh, my!’ ? ”  and then she makes fun of being so white. Then, I was like, “That black dude probably never says ‘ My bad’ and he’s telling his story like, ‘I never say “My bad!”  — what was I thinking!’ ” And we laughed. Which was fun since that’s the fourth time I’ve heard that story and it was nice to make a new joke that didnt come at the expense of someone else.

So, the conversation didnt go so badly, really. No one said the N word or cried, so . . . success? I guess I wish that my social work background gave me some sort of edge in conversations like that, but it doesnt, or hasn’t so far. I don’t change minds or swell hearts. Nobody at the table wanted to subvert the dominant paradigm or go volunteer after dessert. Could I get better at translating my experiences to a general audience, to average people in average situations like my BIL and SIL? I want somebody to say, “Oh you should talk to my SIL Mrs. Basement, she’s a social worker and she can totally explain learned helplessness to you.” Except it appears that I can’t. And most people don’t care to know. I need talking points!

My brother and sister-in-law ended up putting their house on the market last week. My sister in law says that she has finally become as racist as her husband. She is angry that she has to leave her first home because of those people and wishes they could just stay in their neighborhoods and we could just stay in ours.

Nonetheless, I wish her well. And I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make me naive.


5 Responses to “Subvert the Dominant Dinner”

  1. LPC said

    Wonderful post. My sister is a researcher with a PhD in social policy. So she went to school for a long time with social workers, and now does studies and talks to lawmakers about how to set up programs that make things better for social workers and their clients.

    At least I think that’s what she does. My sister and I are very close. I love her with all my heart. I think she’s smart and charismatic and good. And I have such a hard time understanding just what she does. It’s a job in a world completely outside my (what we used to call) frame of reference.

    The little details help. When she was doing field research, and she would tell me about the interviews where she would not be able to do longitudinal work because people kept falling off the face of the earth. Or the sofas they sat on. (Is longitudinal the right word?)

    If people are willing, tell stories about the details. Keeping all privacy intact, of course. That is, if you want to. Otherwise just rest assured that many of us are thanking you, if in a sort of ignorant, blinking, kind of way.

  2. The Professor said

    I loved this post. Glad you shared your thoughts about all of this. Interesting reading.

  3. A. said

    I agree, and could really relate to this. While I am not a social worker, my many social work-related jobs taught me a LOT about people, what makes us tick, etc. I am very proud of this. It’s important.

    In the meantime, your BIL scares me.

  4. Lindsay said

    This was a really great post. It can be hard sometimes feeling like you’ve got insight into a world that most people are afraid of; and even harder sometimes to figure out how to protect it in social situations where the people around you will, most likely, never understand your opinions and your experiences. Your BIL is probably having equal counterpart feelings about this conversation, too. I, however, will probably pass on his blog. Keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Elizabeth said

    Wonderful Post. Having tried my hand at social work, and realizing I was not built for it all, I’ve always been so impressed and proud of you for pursuing your passion for people and justice. And your empathy and love for your SIL and BIL in the face of their radically different POV’s…I’m equally proud of you about that.

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