by Ebony Hall, Ph.D., M.Div., LMSW, and Shelia Lindsey
Editor’s Note: Our ethics columnist, Allan Barsky, will return in the next issue.
The new social worker of tomorrow is emerging with a new way of critical thinking and a new way of application. The new social worker is different, not settling or conforming for reasons of financial stability and job security. The new social worker is on a path of self-discovery and has embraced acceptance, where he or she is from, and all that it entails. The new social worker speaks with confidence about race and ethnicity and knows about his or her culture. Are we ready?
For several decades, the social work profession has effectively saturated academia with various models of practice for students to be knowledgeable about other cultures in order to be culturally competent and sensitive (Sue, 1991; Locke, 1992; Poston, 1990; Rodgers & Potocky, 1998). As a younger generation of social workers emerges, the emphasis on identity not only creates a “more comprehensive view of cultural competence” (Garran & Rozas, 2013, p. 99), but attributes to a larger notion of being a healthy professional. The competency of social workers is limited when they do not possess tools of acknowledgment that can affect them when working with diverse populations. Teaching students to be mindful of and sensitive to issues, from potential language barriers to recognizing various religious sects, plays a role in effective practice. However, if the massive “elephant in the room” continues to be overlooked, ethnicity and race will continue to have an influence on professional and personal relationships, leading to insufficient cultural competence resulting in poor services (Seipel & Way, 2006).
The social work profession is built upon culturally sensitive practices that advocate for social and economic justice for those who are disadvantaged, oppressed, and/or discriminated against. Standard 1.05(c) in the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics (NASW, 2000), reminds social workers of their duty to be culturally competent and to purposefully “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression.” NASW’s National Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity (NASW, 2001) highlights this necessity by identifying standards that make up culturally competent practices, including self-awareness, cross-cultural knowledge, skills, and leadership. Although “diversity is taking on a broader meaning to include the sociocultural experiences of people of different genders, social classes, religious and spiritual beliefs, sexual orientations, ages, and physical and mental abilities” (p. 8), the historical impact of race on American society continues to play an integral part in the development and effectiveness of culturally competent practice.
Race is a social construct (American Anthropological Association, 1998) with the sole intention of separation and power based on the color of one’s skin. More accurate terms of ethnicity and ethnic origin have begun to emerge, not to displace the term of “race,” but rather to highlight a significant component of ethnic and national origin. Because of the impact “race” has had on society, it continues to be a necessary concept to acknowledge as the profession takes the journey toward fully embracing racial and ethnic identity.
Many institutions of higher learning create such space for students to explore identity formation through its emphasis on self-awareness. Within that emphasis is the basic act of each student to acknowledge one’s own racial and ethnic identity, especially White social work students, who are too often lumped together and struggle with identifying their ethnic roots and culture. Because White social workers make up more than half of the social workers in the United States (Whitaker, Weismiller, & Clark, 2006), it becomes vital for White students to take a journey of racial and ethnic self-discovery, not on the backs of students of color, but alongside them.
Some continue to ask, “Why is racial and ethnic identity important to social workers in practice?” The answer is that knowing who you are influences how you interact. Casey Family Programs (2013) promotes identity formation through a three-part curriculum for social work professionals. It assists professionals in knowing how to explore race and ethnicity. The Knowing Who You Are curriculum prepares social workers to foster “healthy development of their constituent’s racial and ethnic identity” (Casey Family Programs, 2013). Carolyne Rodriguez, LCSW, retired Texas State Strategy Director of Casey Family Programs, emphasizes the need to promote and instill identity formation for future and current social workers. She states, “It is essential that social workers providing services to children, youth, and families have a solid understanding of their own cultural identities. If they are to effectively promote racial and ethnic pride with clients and are to demonstrate an understanding of the importance of culture, race, and ethnicity, this starts with knowing themselves. It is from this foundation that children, youth, and families will experience respect and appreciation for their cultural identities from social workers who are working with them and on their behalf.”
Efforts that promote racial and ethnic identity formation are beneficial. However, it means students have to acknowledge and accept a history that is filled with acts of hatred based on power and privilege. Acknowledging institutional and individual acts of racism is uncomfortable for both White students and students of color, but all students need to learn about the history of racism and its role in American society. Racism continues to be “a silent code that systematically closes the doors of opportunity to many individuals” (NASW Delegate Assembly, 1998). As stated by Blank (2006), “Despite the decades that have passed since the beginning of the civil rights movement, racism is still a major issue in America.” This fact urges students to acknowledge the role that race plays in society, but also to accept their responsibility to acknowledge their own racial and ethnic identity and the role it plays and will play in their personal and professional life. Without such awareness, “social workers contribute to [the] oppression when working with clients” (Seipel & Way, 2006), and any other persons with whom they may interact.
Having a healthy sense of racial and ethnic identity needs to be fostered in the classroom. Many social work programs offer a course that speaks to diversity and culture as part of the student’s degree plan. These courses serve as great opportunities for students to begin or continue their self-awareness. Through its Center for Diversity and Social Economic Justice, the Council on Social Work Education (2013) promotes the integration of education that “fosters the achievement of diversity.” Social work practitioners are charged with delivering culturally competent services to the participants served. They should be able to respond to “people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors” (Garran & Rozas, 2013, p. 98). This charge is accompanied by the expectation of social work programs to instill such competency through active learning strategies, allowing students to examine their racial and ethnic identity and how it contributes to who they are personally and professionally. These courses are pivotal in equipping culturally competent and culturally sensitive social work practitioners.
The social work program at Tarleton State University continues to emphasize the importance of all social work students to acknowledge, accept, and activate their racial and ethnic identity as one of the first steps toward becoming a healthy social work professional. Similar to other smaller social work programs, Tarleton’s main campus is primarily comprised of traditional White social work students with limited exposure to diverse groups and different cultures. The inception of the “Diverse Populations” course has provided an avenue of self-discovery, which has proven to be valuable for all of the students.
“The importance of learning your own race and ethnic identity is being able to understand and acknowledge where you came from. The more you understand about yourself, the easier it will be to work with all types of individuals who are trying to find themselves,” wrote Alexis, an undergraduate sophomore of German and Hungarian descent.
Social work students of color are also learning from the course in a manner that allows them not only to share their personal stories of institutional racism, but to hear stories from their White colleagues to develop a better understanding of White culture, ethnicity, and White privilege. “When they ask me questions about my hair or about the music I listen to, I try educating them. Then I will ask them to tell me about some of their physical characteristics and interests,” said Brandi, a senior of African American and Indian descent.
During a project for the course titled “Individual Diversity,” students are encouraged to explore their own diversity. Christina, a junior with various racial and ethnic backgrounds (German, Blackfoot Indian, Swedish, and African American), utilized Poston’s (1990) Biracial Identity Development Model to assist her on her journey toward racial and ethnic identity formation. She said, “I remember as a child receiving a Black doll for my birthday. I cried. At that time, I thought the color of your palm determined what color you were. It was at that time my mother told me that I was Black. I didn’t understand.”
Like Christina, many students who have taken this course and others similar have continued to support such educational activities to allow them to increase their self-awareness to better inform and equip them as generalist practitioners.
Overall, such efforts by accredited social work programs across the country value the importance of facilitating the racial and ethnic identity of all students and supporting an atmosphere of professional health. The course has proven to be effective for students of other majors as well. “Both parents came from Mexico at a very young age. My parents did a good job integrating their culture in my upbringing and I never felt ashamed. As a result, I am also teaching my son about my culture, not the Mexican American one,” said Crystal, a junior of Mexican descent majoring in nursing. The course has evolved to include students pursuing degrees in child and family studies, criminal justice, nursing, and psychology.
American Anthropological Association. (1998). Statement on race. Retrieved from: http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm
Blank, B. (2006). Racism: The challenge for social workers. The New Social Worker, 13 (4).
Casey Family Programs. (2013). Knowing who you are. Retrieved from: http://www.casey.org/resources/initiatives/KnowingWhoYouAre/
Council on Social Work Education. (2013). Diversity Center mission. Retrieved from: http://www.cswe.org/CentersInitiatives/Diversity/AboutDiversity/51129.aspx
Garran, A., & Rozas, L. (2013). Cultural competence revisited. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 22 (2), 1-10.
Locke, D. C. (1992). Increasing multicultural understanding: A comprehensive model. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
National Association of Social Workers. (2001). NASW standards for cultural competence in social work practice. Washington, D. C.: NASW.
National Association of Social Workers. (2000). NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC: NASW.
National Association of Social Workers Delegate Assembly. (1998). Racism. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/pressroom/2013/Racism.pdf
Poston, W. (1990). The biracial identity development model: A needed addition. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 152–155.
Rodgers, A., & Potocky, M. (1998). Preparing students to work with culturally diverse clients. Social Work Education, 17 (1). 95-100.
Seipel, A., & Way, I. (2006). Culturally competent social work: Practice with Latino clients. The New Social Worker, 13 (4).
Sue, D. W. (1991). A conceptual model for cultural diversity training. Journal of Counseling & Development, 70, 99-105. Whitaker, T., Weismiller, T., & Clark, E. (2006). Assuring the sufficiency of a frontline workforce: A national study of licensed social workers. NASW Center for Workforce Studies.
Ebony L. Hall, Ph.D., M.Div., LMSW, is an assistant professor and campus coordinator at Tarleton State University. Shelia Lindsey is a BSW student at Tarleton State University. Shelia will graduate with her BSW in the summer of 2014.