Critical Race Theory and the Cultural Competence Dilemma in Social Work Education

By Abrams, Laura S.; Moio, Jene A. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Critical Race Theory and the Cultural Competence Dilemma in Social Work Education

Abrams, Laura S., Moio, Jene A., Journal of Social Work Education

CULTURAL COMPETENCE is a fundamental tenet of professional social work practice. A cultural competence mandate is contained in both the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards and the National Association of Social Work (NASW) Code of Ethics, and it is promoted in numerous practice textbooks. Historically, cultural competence with diverse populations referred to individuals and groups from non-White racial, ethnic, or cultural origins. However, the term has evolved to encompass group differences pertaining to gender, sexuality, religion, age, ability, language, nationality, and others. Knowledge about the complexity of personal and social identity formation as well as the intersectionality of multiple axes of oppression that underscore social work problems, practices, and interventions led to the broadening of cultural competence beyond, racial and ethnic categories (Razack, 1999; Rothman, 2008). Scholars note several challenges associated with the dominant cultural competence model, including the eclipsing of race as a central mechanism of oppression, student resistance, and the unintentional reinforcement of a color-blind lens (Razack & Jeffery, 2002; Schiele, 2007; Yee, 2005).

In this article we argue that critical race theory (CRT) can be used to address some of these noted problems associated with the cultural competence model. We provide an in-depth discussion of challenges associated with cultural competence education, with an emphasis on educating social workers to respond effectively to institutional racism. We also introduce the basic tenets of CRT and apply these central concepts to the challenges involved in delivering effective diversity education in social work. In addition, we pose the benefits and limitations of infusing CRT into the graduate social work curriculum.

Cultural Competence: History and Overview

The origins and development of the cultural competence (often called "cultural sensitivity" or "multicultural") model and its role in social work ideology, practice, and pedagogy are documented in published articles and texts (e.g., Potocky, 1997; Rothman, 2008; Schiele, 2007; Spencer, Lewis, & Gutierrez, 2000). We provide here a brief summary before presenting empirical and philosophical critiques.

Although aspects of traditional social work discourses have long espoused a mission to examine and remedy issues of oppression, including racism, the evolving emphasis on diversity and cultural competence has its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Social workers of color, along with White advocates, challenged some of the longstanding Eurocentric biases in social work teaching and practice, including a predominantly deficit-oriented view of individuals and communities of color. This activist pressure led to increased attention to race and racism in social work history, gave a voice to the lived experiences of faculty and social workers of color, and eventually led to CSWE's adoption of standards that mandate content on race, racism, and people of color (Spencer et al., 2000).

Working to meet the CSWE mandate, the 1970s and early 1980s ushered in key educational texts. Pivotal publications on race and ethnicity included Barbara Solomon's (1976) Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, Wynetta Devore and Elfriede Schlesinger's (1981) Ethnic-Sensitive Social Work Practice, and Doman Lum's (1986) Social Work Practice and People of Color: A Process-Stage Approach. With variation, these texts generally rethink social work's Eurocentric purview; challenge social workers to become aware of their personal value orientations and worldviews; expose how racism creates structural disadvantages that impact individual and community well-being; and offer suggestions for working with increased competence with racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities in the United States. Race, ethnicity, and, to some extent, culture more broadly constituted the primary focus of this earlier literature.

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Critical Race Theory and the Cultural Competence Dilemma in Social Work Education


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