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Saturday, June 15, 2024
Mariam Coker works for the dignity of those in need of social work assistance. 

Mariam Coker works for the dignity of those in need of social work assistance. 

Mariam defies white-saviorism

Black Girl Magic

Welcome to “Black Girl Magic.” This week’s Magician of The Week is First Wave scholar, ASM councilwomyn and Equity and Inclusion Committee Chair, Mariam Coker. Her magic, beyond talented artistic writing and performance as a poet, is her study and activism in social work. Mariam’s work often focuses on enlightening about damaging misconceptions about social work and improving the UW-Madison campus climate. Listen to her explicit story about a disappointing class experience as a black girl, who lived in poverty and works to improve her life and the lives of others.

Just a few weeks into my first social welfare classes, I was already the angry Black Bitch. Since my sophomore year of high school, I knew that I would major in social work. Even after disappointing my mother, sister and teachers all saying, “There is no money in social work,” and “You are so much smarter than that,” I stuck to my guns. I loved helping teenagers, I loved community organizing, I was interested in mental health and wanted to go into clinical social work. To me, social workers were superheroes and there was so much freedom in the field. I knew I would make a great social worker. So this past fall, I declared social welfare as a major with the intent to apply to the social work program.

The only time I ever doubted my place in the major was when I started taking classes for it this past fall. The issue was not the class content. I loved everything I was learning and could actually see myself as one of these heroes I looked up to. My mind opened up to opportunities and avenues that social work could take me down. While in awe of this thing I sought for so long, I was so angry at the same time. Even though I found value in everything I learned, I hated class. The most discrimination and hostility I have faced while being a student at UW-Madison was within the social work department.

It all started with a discussion on poverty that included very white savior-like and very privileged comments such as, “We shouldn’t be worrying about iPods and iPhones because people are starving every day,” like poor people cannot own these things, and, “I feel bad for kids in poverty. They know what their parents are going through,” as if their pity can help impoverished families. I was shocked that the professor was not checking these comments, so I had to do her job for her. I raised my hand and said, “We shouldn’t be talking about poverty like this. We are talking about it as if people who grew up in poverty cannot be in this room and that they are in need of saving. I grew up in poverty. It’s not such a far-off thing.” Then some old, white man had to make an irrelevant comment saying, “Then you need to go out and fix it.” I got pissed and screamed, “How!? If it’s that simple, it would have already been fixed!” and stormed out of the room with 10 minutes left in class. And where was the professor during all of this? She was holding her head in panic, and pacing the room while this whole altercation happened. She was unfit to mediate a classroom argument. A few days later, in the discussion class I overheard two white girls saying, “If she is so poor, how can she afford a Mac?” I wished I had responded, “By having a job.” Instead, I turned my trap music louder and waited for discussion to start.

Being a Black, Muslim womyn, I knew that no matter what major I went to, I would face some sort of hostility because of how overwhelmingly racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic this campus is. But, I expected more respect out of a school dedicated to making the world a better place. In the first few weeks of that social work class, we were basically taught how to not be a shitty person! But I digress.

A good chunk of these people in my classes want to essentially work with kids and teenagers who grew up like me, with all of the boxes checked: lower-income, first-generation college student, minority, first-generation American, etc. But, they won’t treat me with dignity or respect—two morals of the National Association of Social Work code of ethics, ethics that drive the social work profession.

The School of Social Work is filled with very well-intended white women who do not understand white saviorism. Both faculty and students ostracize students of color and have no repercussions for it. The School of Social Work cannot keep students of color because of this. Students who want to and should be in this program continually have to defend themselves in a program that supposedly preaches understanding. Can you sense the hypocrisy?

After that incident I cursed out some white classmate talking shit about me, I had a series of meetings with professors who nodded without listening and I endured more gossiping, a few times hearing “Black Bitch.” If social welfare was this bad, I can’t even imagine actually being a social work major. But, in the wise words of DJ Khaled, “They want you to quit.” Social work was founded by white women wanting to help people they felt sorry for (imagine my disappointment). It is still very much so that, but has grown since then, and is changing. Some of the strongest, most amazing people in my life have been social workers. And in this field, I can directly help all kinds of people in the most unconventional ways. I feel like I can go anywhere with this major, and I love that option. This is why I refuse to leave the school. What I am learning, I care about. Despite what I went through, despite the label of Black Bitch that I will carry to graduation and probably into the field and despite this school not calling white saviorism what it is, I need to be here. I need to be in this school for future people like me, who are constantly told they do not belong there. I need to help pave a way.

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