Reframing Multicultural Education: Teaching White Privilege in the Social Work Curriculum

By Abrams, Laura S.; Gibson, Priscilla | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Reframing Multicultural Education: Teaching White Privilege in the Social Work Curriculum


Abrams, Laura S., Gibson, Priscilla, Journal of Social Work Education


THE COUNCIL ON SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION'S (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) require accredited social work programs to include significant curriculum content on human diversity, populations at-risk, and social and economic justice. The MSW foundation curriculum, according to EPAS 4.1 must "... integrate content that promotes understanding, affirmation, and respect for people from diverse backgrounds" (Council on Social Work Education, 2001). Moreover, EPAS 4.2 stipulates that social work programs must "... educate students to identify how group membership influences access to resources" and "... provide content related to implementing strategies to combat discrimination, oppression, and economic deprivation and to promote social and economic justice" (Council on Social Work Education, 2001).

Many schools and departments of social work/social welfare strive to meet these educational policy mandates by integrating themes such as diversity and social justice across the foundation and advanced curriculum sequences. In addition, programs typically require students to take a specific course or set of courses on human diversity, cross-cultural practice, or practice with diverse populations. Among the various models for delivering diversity content, the most common pedagogical framework is a multicultural model that emphasizes tolerance for individual and group differences, understanding of various cultural norms, and cross-cultural communication strategies (Goldberg, 2000; Lee & Greene, 2003; Potocky, 1997). However, a review of models used to teach diversity in the social work curriculum reveal a lack of information on institutionalized racism and on White privilege in particular. Hamilton (2001) notes simply, yet aptly, "the matter of color is still a salient issue in social work" (p. 63).

Scholars and educators have long criticized the implementation of social work's multicultural lens as well as the lack of specificity in meeting CSWE's multicultural recommendations. Early on, Homer and Borrero (1981) charged CSWE's diversity mandates as being vague and impotent. Garcia and Van Soest (1997) have a different view about the locus of this confusion, asserting that it is social work programs' translation, rather than CSWE's mandate, that is unclear. Lee and Greene (2003) more recently discussed the challenge of teaching multicultural content due to the lack of student readiness to deal with these specific issues, and other educators have noticed barriers to students learning or applying the content (Comerfold, 2003; Mildred & Zuniga, 2004). One recent empirical study found that students were not learning as much content on oppression as faculty stated they were teaching (Bronstein, Berman-Rossi, & Winfield, 2002).

In this article, the authors recommend the inclusion of content on White identity and White privilege across the social work curriculum. They argue that teaching about White privilege is fundamental to understanding the systematic oppression of people of color and raising self-awareness about practitioners' roles and responsibilities with culturally diverse clientele and communities. An additional benefit of this alternative model is the opportunity for the majority group of social work students (namely White students) to explore the meaning of their own ethnic and racial identities in relation to those whom they will encounter in their fieldwork and future professional practice. Arguments concerning the value of teaching about White privilege aren't entirely new. Almost 10 years ago, Swigonski (1996) urged an acknowledgement and exploration of White and male privilege in social work practice. Moreover, Garcia and Van Soest (1997) found that 71% of White social work students enrolled in a diversity class reported that White privilege acted as a barrier to learning about oppression. However, in compiling this article, the authors were unable to locate articles that have explicitly presented a rationale or roadmap for including content on White privilege in the social work curriculum. …

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