Introduction. Oppression is no longer defined simply as the overt tyranny of one exerting power over another, but rather the everyday oppressive actions of well-intentioned people. Oppression is embedded in the unquestioned habits we follow everyday that unknowingly reflect the social order we have created by our institutions. Oppression is the consequence of following that unquestioned social order (Young, 1990, p. 41). In 2015 I experienced a significant “critical incident” (Harro, 2000, p. 464). It shook me deeply and spurred a change in what I believed about myself at the very core (Harro, 2000, p. 464). This individual experience awoke an understanding of gendered marginalization that I had not known before. It wasn’t overt, and as Young (1990) indicates, the marginalization I experienced was felt through a series of unquestioned norms and symbols that left me feeling isolated and silenced through the experience. This awakening connected me to Feminism, which ultimately led me down the path of social work practice. Harro’s article, “The Cycle of Liberation” (2000) helped me to understand the personal journey I’d taken in my experience of gendered marginalization and my resulting transformation to social advocate.
I began my journey through the cycle of liberation (Harro, 2000) with a rudimentary understanding of Feminism that was informed by my privilege and social position as a white-middle-class-educated woman. Fortunately, along my liberation journey and via this coursework I was introduced to Feminist scholar, bell hooks. Through her article, “Talking Back” (1989) I finally grasped my privileged use of Feminism and came to understand that, “Feminism, as a liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact” (hooks, 1989, p. 22). It is this more nuanced understanding of Feminism that I have arrived at near the end of my own liberation journey.
The critical liberation process begins at the individual level, but the result does not stop at individual change, but rather moves to, “’name the problem’ in terms of system assumptions, structures, rules, or roles that are flawed” (Harro, p. 88). The cycle of liberation is a process whereby an individual undergoes a critical transformation. I will use my own critical liberation process to investigate the transformation of my personal understanding of Feminism and gendered oppression from a rudimentary concept informed by my privilege to a nuanced grasp of the intersection of race, class, and sex on a woman’s experience of oppression. I will begin by dissecting my personal experience of gendered marginalization, then expand upon my growing understanding of the intersection of race, class, and sex on gendered oppression and finally what this nuanced understanding means for my social work practice and my role as a social justice advocate.
My Critical Transformation. As my creative poster indicates, I experienced a critical incident in my life where, “something that used to make sense…cease[d] to make sense” (Harro, 2000, p. 465). My partner of four years was very publicly unfaithful to me and as a result I felt a level of marginalization, I had not experienced before. At 36, I was alone, embarrassed, and alienated from my community, while my unfaithful partner, a white-middle-class-educated man, continued to thrive and be lauded for his successes. The international community of climbers we belonged to nary even acknowledged the damage he’d done to the person who’d sacrificed many of her dreams and goals to help further his own. This experience exposed me to gender marginalization, something I had never considered before. I felt a change come over me and the experience marked an interpersonal shift at my very core about what I believed about myself and the world around me (Harro, 2000, p. 465). I could never go back.
My eyes were now opened to what I previously did not know, and in the getting ready phase of Harro’s cycle of liberation (2000) I enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work program at the University of Victoria. I needed to know more, to understand what was really going on, not only in myself, in society at large. An exploration of Feminism became the focal point of my educational efforts and I sought to, “develop a consistency among what [I] believe, how [I] want to live [my] life, and the way [I] actually do it” (Harro, 2000, p. 465). I moved through each of Harro’s phases and as I expanded my knowledge about gendered marginalization I started to speak out more boldly (Harro, 2000, p. 466). What I had personally experienced, and what I now knew about gendered marginalization meant I could not stand idle. I established strong connections to a variety of organizations that supported me in my continued exploration of Feminism and provided an opportunity for me to share my own experience as a way of allying with other women. As I moved through the creating change phase of the cycle (Harro, 2000), I increasingly sought connection with women outside of my circle of oft-privileged climbers. At the same time, while navigating the coursework for Understanding Oppression I finally synthesized that, “sexism, racism, and class exploitation constitute interlocking systems of domination” (hooks, 1989, p. 22). Feminism was not simply a war between angry white women and thoughtless white men. I’d arrived at a place where my expanded community and the partnerships I’d formed assisted me in identifying new assumptions, new structures, and new roles of Feminism. In the maintaining phase of the cycle (Harro, 2000) I fostered mentorship relationships with women who could help to challenge, strengthen and integrate this nuanced Feminism in to my life and social work practice.
Implications for my Social Work Practice. Several concepts explored in this paper hold significance for my social work practice including the cycle of liberation (Harro, 2000) and my expanded understanding of Feminism to include the intersection of sex, race, and class (hooks, 1989). As a practice tool, the cycle of liberation offers a way for me to ally with my clients through their own critical transformation. Many social work clients engage with services as a result of a critical incident and having an understanding of the process of liberation will allow me to ally with my clients through the cycle, and help demystify for them what they are experiencing. From my own experience of liberation, the transformation can in some ways feel foreign and unexplainable and being able to name what is happening can provide power and a commitment to the process.
As discussed above, the result of my own personal liberation process was an arrival at a more nuanced understanding of Feminism to include the intersection of sex, class, and race. I’d entered social work studies with an expectation that my practice would focus on working with women through a Feminist-based practice approach. Though my desire to work with women has not changed, my practice focus has shifted to include theoretical and practical applications that acknowledge and address the intersection of class, race, and sex on a woman’s lived experience. My advocacy efforts should not simply focus on that of white-middle-class Feminism, but rather advocate for systemic change on a race, sex, and class level.
Finally, throughout the course readings I have paid attention to the academic battle being waged between social work scholars. It is clear to me that there are two camps of social work practitioners, those who value and acknowledge that, “perceptions are never theory-free because they are based on certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of people, society, and the relationship between the two” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 205). And those who feel theory has no place in social work practice where, “structural thinking supports a relative devaluing of social work practice experience as against radical and sociological theory” (Fook, 2016, p. 8). Through my own journey of critical transformation I have gained an appreciation for the theories that help describe my experience, and also the practical tools to take action in my journey. I hope to apply the same approach in my social work practice. I want to educate my clients on the “why” of what they are feeling and experiencing, and also to arm them with the “how” of taking action in their own critical liberation process.
Conclusion. The cycle of liberation is a process whereby an individual undergoes a critical transformation. Using my own critical liberation process I investigated the transformation of my personal understanding of Feminism and gendered oppression from a rudimentary concept informed by my privilege to a nuanced grasp of the intersection of race, class, and sex on a woman’s experience of oppression. I also explored the application of both the cycle of liberation and my expanded understanding of Feminism to my social work practice. At the heart of the critical liberation process is, critical reflexivity, and as hooks states,
I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life, and I really believe that a person who thinks critically who may be extraordinarily disadvantaged materially can find ways to transform their lives that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful. In the same way that someone who may be incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically (hooks, 2006)
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