Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Step One of Cultural Competency Addressing Privilege & Power

Note to readers: This week’s Blog by Cordelia builds upon and adds to the blog that myself and David Prescott wrote last week on “Race, culture, community & abuse”.  Thanks, Kieran.

by Cordelia Anderson

Child sexual abuse, sexual violence and pornography are not easy topics to talk about, but in my experience raising up questions related to power, privilege and race are even tougher. Just like trying to talk about “sex offenders”, invitations to talk about such difficult topics often results in defensive, protective, ambivalence, or even angry responses. Most organizations who work with victims and survivors are raising these difficult questions.  In fact, most of my thinking related to - power, privilege & what’s all involved in cultural competency -  I have learned from and with those who work with survivors/victims, and with those who work on social justice as part of prevention.  

However, I wonder how the sensitive but pervasive issues related to our own sense of power, race, class, and disabilities translate into the work of treating and researching those who sexually offend.  As a member of this ATSA Prevention Committee, I am hoping our entire organization will grapple with how this all fits within the priorities and engage in these discussions. I am writing this blog as an invitation to further conversations and perhaps more attention to this in your practice, your research and in discussions at our conferences.

Questions to consider include:
-     Are White/Caucasian professionals sensitive to the unique experiences of clients who are people of color? Or, what it is like for professionals in the field who are people of color who work in dominantly White organizations?
-     Do White/Caucasian professionals recognize limits to their understanding of ways clients of color experience prejudices across settings, including in our own offices?
-      Do we as White/Caucasian professional spend time reflecting on our own power and privilege and how this influences the personal and professional decisions we make?

We know that sexual abuse thrives in secrecy and shame. For years, our organization and our practices might have reflected the isolation of the very issue we have been working on.  More recently, we have begun to also understand the need for increasing cultural competency. However, if we expand our vision even further, we will see that there are tensions between the focus on cultural competency versus racial justice.  At the core of that difference is our need to not only learn more about the individuals we work with but to begin to address our individual and collective privileges as professionals that do this work.    We have made a commitment to healing and to minimize the harm that has been done.  But what if we are also, unintentionally increasing the harm? 

Therapists and advocates appreciate the importance of dealing with the whole person, their family and community of support to address the presenting problem or issue.  Those who do prevention work know the importance of expanding that view even further to also address the environment and social norms that create families, communities, organizations and societies where harm is likely to develop and continue. 

The issues we work with are complex enough that the tendency is to say we cannot afford to further muddy the waters by addressing race, power and privilege.  Or we may say that there are more pressing issues in the work we do in terms of community safety. 

I’ve been at this work for over 40 years and in the time, I have left, I hope to engage in meaningful conversations with colleagues and organizations that I care deeply about in ways that address the intersections of these issues. I believe the first step toward cultural competency and a social justice framework is to more fully and intentionally face my white privilege and the norms of institutional and systemic white supremacy. It is not comfortable to talk about or easy work to do but it is essential.  One example of the work in this area that’s underway is the 2018 theme of the MASOC/MATSA’s conference is cultural competency. 

Since first writing this blog in May, and then holding off on submitting it until closer to the ATSA conference, there has been so much happening in this country and around the world that raises the urgency of engaging in these discussions and taking appropriate action. With such challenging issues, it can be helpful to consider actions we can actually take. We can:
-    Commit to meaningful – though often uncomfortable – conversations about our own privilege and power.
-     Commit to on-going learning about how such power and privilege affects the effectiveness of our work and quality of our relationships.
-         Intentionally address power and privilege when creating goals for our own work and the goals of our clients.

I am writing with great humility about my own limitations related to all of this. I know likely, I stepped in it in one way or another. Still, I believe the risk is worth it to get more meaningful conversations on this topic going and to revisit ATSA’s role.  I believe it is an opportune time for ATSA to do even more with these conversations and related actions. The ATSA Prevention Committee is hosting a panel related to how this fits with prevention. It will be on Thursday, October, 26, from 5-6. We hope you can attend, read some of the writings below and/or find other ways to engage further in this work.

For those interested in this topic these readings may be of interest:

Hard Conversations: An Introduction to Racism

Say the Wrong Thing: Stories and Strategies for Racial Justice and Authentic Community, by Dr. Amanda Kemp, Lisa Graustein, June 16, 2016,

The Audrey Lorde Project;

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” by Peggy McIntosh,;

“Why I Left My White Therapist”, Chaya Babu, 1/18/17


  1. Cordelia – Very well thought out – thank you for taking the time to put this into words and share with our ATSA friends. I really appreciate that you are leading us on a very important journey – and are asking us to take a look at ourselves, as white people, and what we can do, and how we can acknowledge our unearned privilege and use it wisely to call out the injustices and dangers experienced by people of color every day. It’s time to take a long hard look at how we are helping to keep these oppressive systems in place. I am so pleased that the prevention committee, at your suggestion, decided to sponsor a panel discussion on this critical and difficult topic at our upcoming ATSA conference. With all that is going on – the events in Charlottesville, the NAACP travel ban, etc. we aspiring allies need to be stepping up our game. Karen Baker, Director, National Sexual Violence Resource Center

  2. Thank. You. For. This.
    As a black woman who is often the only person who “looks like me” in spaces where I am providing services to either adolescents who have engaged in sexually problematic behavior or with victims (specifically those of color), I often tire of being the one who has to “defend” the importance of acknowledging culture and its nuances in the ways one views treatment, the justice system, and us. We are often so quick to negate the impact of race/ethnicity on the clients we see, thinking that we are “doing the right thing” by stating they are all human and we are treating them as such. Doing this work and being the one arguing this problematic (and often dismissive viewpoint) is tiring—specifically for those of us of Color who view it as something we must do when we are “in the room”. I so appreciate Cordelia’s recognition that this is work we must all do, and that part of that work involves self-examination. I discuss the need to strive for cultural humility vs cultural competency...often. Thank you again.