Academic journal article Social Work

Challenging Privilege through Africentric Social Work Practice

Academic journal article Social Work

Challenging Privilege through Africentric Social Work Practice

Article excerpt

Privilege permeates the social structure of the United States and the daily lives of its inhabitants. Access to unearned privilege sustains continued inequality in the distribution of power and resources (Brand, 1977; hooks, 1990; Hurst, 1976). Privileges accrue to those who (consciously or not) oppress others and are generally invisible to those who enjoy them. It is quite visible to those to whom it is denied. Access to unearned privilege also influences the process and outcomes of social work practice, particularly when it occurs in a context of ethnic or cultural diversity (McMahon & Allen-Meares, 1992; Pinderhughes, 1989). Too often, when privilege is invisible, the effects of the lack of privilege are misconstrued as pathology within the oppressed individual.

This article examines the pervasiveness of privilege throughout the daily lives of people in the United States and discusses Africentric theory to exemplify how knowledge developed from the standpoint of another culture can challenge the pervasiveness of privilege and can transform the practice of social work.



Privilege has been defined as the right to reap private benefit from the use of the means of production (Brand, 1977). That is a fairly narrow conception of privilege, the privilege of the capitalist. A more encompassing understanding of privilege frames it as unearned advantages enjoyed by a group simply because of membership in that group. A comprehensive list of the kinds of privileges enjoyed by particular groups would be enormous, but some illustrative examples include capitalist privilege, racial (white) privilege, gender (male) privilege, socioeconomic (high income) privilege, sexual orientation (heterosexual) privilege, married privilege, religious privilege, and age (youth) privilege.

Mcintosh (1988) defined privilege as those conditions of daily experience that are taken for granted as normal, neutral, and universally available to everybody. Mcintosh observed that

some privileges allow one to feel at home in the world. Other privileges allow some groups to escape penalties or dangers which others suffer. Through privilege, we escape fear, anxiety, and the sense of not being welcome or not being real. Some keep us from having to hide, or be in disguise, or to feel sick or crazy ... most keep us from having to be angry. (p. 11)

Privileges are those daily interactions with individuals and society that help individuals experience themselves in the center of their world. The center is where power, resources, and money (and a concomitant sense of social efficacy) are located. Exclusion from this center of the social structure marginalizes individuals, who then have less access to social, economic, political, and other resources.

Basis of Privilege

Through social structural arrangements, marginalized groups are not only constrained in their access to money, education, and opportunity but also denied the right to define themselves in their own terms. Marginalized groups are denied the right to have their own terms or to define their experiences within their own contexts and meanings. To survive, they must understand themselves and the world in the terms of those at the center of power. Marginalized groups must fit their construction of reality into the knowledge base of those with the privilege of education.

The dominant culture in the United States has its roots in Judeo-Christian, European traditions. All other ethnic groups must adapt to that culture or constantly explain their deviation. The values embedded in the English language affirm white Judeo-Christian superiority - on our way to heaven, we will be bathed in a white light or on our way to hell, it will be a black day. Most publicly recognized holidays celebrate European customs and culture. The heroes and role models presented by the educational system and the media are primarily of European ancestry. …

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