As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Daphne Jeyapal and Rupaleem Bhuyan—Essay

Theorizing the racial orientation of the social work classroom: The making and unmaking of whiteness in social work


“It matters how we arrive at the places we do” – Sara Ahmed

Throughout its herstory, the social work profession has been intertwined with the project of whiteness and settler colonialism. From early settlement house workers, to the Daughters of the Imperial Order Society across the British Empire, social workers drew upon notions of “white civility” (Johnstone, 2015) as they promoted individual and family well-being through changes in lifestyle, behavior, and social reform. Though social work today includes a broader diversity of people, the centrality of whiteness as an unmarked social, cultural, and epistemological orientation continues to organize social work education and practice.

While social justice is a core value in the profession, anti-oppressive frameworks that critique whiteness remain an optional, if not contested, epistemology. Schools of social work have different levels of institutional commitment to anti-oppressive practices (AOP) and pedagogy. Some schools embrace anti-oppressive principles in their decision-making, hiring, and curriculum. Other schools may incorporate social justice or AOP rhetoric in their institutional goals, with little to no influence on organizational culture or educational practices. As racialized social work instructors who foreground AOP frameworks in our teaching, our lived experience of the social work classroom regularly encounters the incongruities and erasures that continue to thrive within our discipline. When foundational features of social work knowledge—empathy and democratic facilitation processes—are deeply rooted in whiteness, our teaching of these concepts inevitably grapples with the invisibility of racial logic that lies within.

Drawing inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s conceptualization of “orientation,” we examine the social work classroom as a site where the racialization of social workers takes shape. In Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), Ahmed offers the theory of “orientation” to demonstrate how queer theory can deepen our analysis of how some subjectivities (e.g. sexual orientation) are constructed as normal and others as deviant. Orientation dictates how, what, or with whom we inhabit spaces. It shapes how we are made to feel in place or out of place. She shares a powerful metaphor to illuminate her point—the “path well-traveled”. Ahmed explains that this well-traveled path comes into being because it is walked on. It is walked on because it has been walked on before. It is a path because it continues to the made visible as the natural path of choice. To create another path, or take another path, requires intention, and likely, more effort and energy. Initiating another path also implies that others may not follow.

Whiteness represents a well-worn path within social work. As a construct, Whitenessrefers to a constellation of preferred racial, gender, class, and ableist characteristics. Connecting this understanding to racialization, helps us theorize the orientation of the social work classroom vis-a-vie whiteness. As a process, racialization requires both social and spatial orientation, i.e. it informs racial hierarchies, while simultaneously creating the conditions of who is made to be in place or out of place through these hierarchies. Furthermore, the formation of racial hierarchies within social work education is symbolically expressed in the physical spaces that institutions of higher education occupy: institutions that were created by white settlers on unceded Indigenous territories. In these spaces, anti-oppressive education is as much about intentionality as it is about epistemology. It also relates to the cultural context of our profession and who and what we come into contact with through educational spaces. Theorizing our racial orientation in the classroom allows us to reconsider and reposition our relationships as academics within the institution: who and what are we orienting towards? What is at stake when we tread less worn paths?

Why share these stories?

Critical race theory’s tradition of counter-storytelling provides the basis for how and why we share our experiences as social work educators. As Solorano and Yosso (2002) assert, the narration of racialized people’s experiential knowledge challenges the distorted, positivist paradigm that seeks “objective” research, typically containing deficit-informed methods that silence racial others. Yet, racism justifies the use of a “master narrative” in storytelling. It provides the dominant narratives embedded in mainstream education which we come to accept as the natural pathway (Montecinos, 1995). The West’s legacy of racial oppression turns these “majoritarian” stories into the norm (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). Majoritarian stories of social work tell us that anti-oppressive education provides tools to disrupt social and racial hierarchies. Whiteness is presumed to be the norm that requires disruption. To be legible, our stories as racialized, gendered academics, when told, must be shared within the logics of whiteness. We are required to magnify our differences to be hypervisible in order to be seen, while simultaneously rewarded when our differences are invisible.

In the following anecdotes, we share two stories to problematize the strategies we employ to negotiate vulnerabilities, complicities, and responsibilities as social work educators. In these stories, our orientation to students and to the classroom pivot in relation to our social consciousness and how our subjectivities are enacted in the context of social work education. We theorize this orientation in the spirit of Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1990) challenge that “if we have been gagged and disempowered by theories, we can also be loosened and empowered by theories” (p. xxvi).

Daphne—As a first-generation Canadian, politics of identity, belonging, and nationhood have deeply informed my life and my work. Born in the Middle East, to parents who are Sinhalese and Tamil, I embody the many conditions and contradictions of racialization, citizenship, coloniality, and belonging in the “age of terrorism”. My combination of identities, alongside my position as academic, has often highlighted the complexities of being an “insider” and an “outsider” to racial and social groups. I was drawn to social work’s promise of activism and social change, but quickly realized that within social work spaces, many inconsistencies emerge. Despite resistance rhetoric, the relations of dominance inherent in our discipline remain unnamed and oftentimes, unchallenged. As a social work student, I spent years in classrooms feeling unrepresented, unheard, silenced, and disciplined. I recall countless times where violently racist acts perpetrated by both my instructors and peers were excruciating. It was only through my own reading of feminist anti-racist scholars like bell hooks, Sara Ahmed, Sherene Razack, and Sunera Thobani, that I found the language to make sense of my experiences within social work, and within the broader Canadian context of othering, securitization, and imperialism. Today, I am a social work professor, grappling with the potentials and limitations of the discipline, while aiming towards pedagogy that disrupts the centrality of social work’s whiteness. I live, and perform this work, on the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc territory, the unceded traditional lands of the Secwepemc Nation.

Rupaleem—I came to social work after working in international development in rural Thailand, then returning to the United States where I focused on violence against women through advocacy and popular education with Indigenous and immigrant communities in the United States. I was drawn to the social justice orientation of social work, but as a doctoral student was soon disoriented by the often vacuous use of social justice jargon in social work classrooms. My questions, however, were typically dismissed as not relevant or even distracting from the “real” knowledge we were supposed to be learning. Having grown up in the United States in a middle class immigrant household, I understood what was expected of me in academic settings. I was socialized to do well in higher education. But my Assamese parents knew little about the impacts of racism (and nothing about white settler colonialism) on our lives. I had to chart my own path to understand how intersecting oppressions contributed to my sense of alienation and misrecognition in higher education. Through reading radical Black, Chicano, Indigenous, and South Asian feminists like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Cherrie Moraga, Andrea Smith, and Chandra Mohanty, I was inspired to adopt an intersectional analysis for how race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and nationality are inherently intertwined.  As a non-white settler and treaty person on the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit River, I continue to seek ways to bridge my immigrant rights and anti-violence against women activism with struggles for sovereignty and recognition for Indigenous ways of knowing.

Our stories

The following anecdotes are based on our own teaching experiences. Respecting that others may have different memories of the events we share, we have included minor alterations to obscure the identities of those involved. We also draw some creative license to draw attention to things we grapple with. In our counter-storytelling, we aim to maintain the integrity of our own memories and histories in order to unpack the ways in which our subjectivities as instructor can be eclipsed when they hook into racial histories of oppression. For heuristic purposes, we employ “strategic essentialism” to make meaning of the students’ and our own interrelated subjectivities. By considering the subjectivities of students and instructor, we hope to elucidate how the constellation of our subject positions vis-a-vie each other, the class, and the institutional context of social work education illustrate our struggle with the centrality of whiteness.

The first anecdote pivots on the role of empathy in social work. Empathy is widely regarded as a central feature to effective social work practice. In the Social Work Dictionary, Barker (2003) defines empathy as “perceiving, understanding, experiencing and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person”. Gerdes and Segal (2011) argue that empathetic social workers can better serve their clients and be better equipped to regulate their own emotions. Drawing upon research in social-cognitive neuroscience, they suggest that empathy is an innate trait in human behavior, but can also be learned and developed as part of social work education. In a recent article for Social Work Today, MSW Joelle Ruben (2015) stresses the potential to teach empathy through creative activities, role plays and art where students can practice active listening, examine their own experiences and biases, and learn about cultures or groups with whom they do not share common experiences. It is assumed that the instructor can provide a “safe space” in the classroom within which students can explore the boundaries of their self-awareness and deepen their perception of others’ experiences.

However, conversations regarding empathy as central to social work, particularly in therapeutic interventions, at times gloss over the structural inequalities that shape the lives of instructors, students, and those we serve. Considering the orientation of the social work classroom, what does the practice of “empathy” signify? To what extent does invoking empathy overcome the structural differences, social divisions and oppressive forces that are inherently part of the social work profession?

While both anecdotes share the complexities of democratic processes in sharing power and roles of facilitation for anti-oppressive education, the second focuses sharply on this reality. In this story, decision-making power over the race-related content of social work education itself becomes contested. Here content management is also an issue of spatial management as students push back against “too much race” in a course. While the critique over content is a response to a democratic feedback process, the framing of the issue uncovers some insidious discomforts: how much is too much anti-oppressive education? As anthropologist Ghassan Hage (2000) urges us to consider, the charge of “too much” in relation to race provides insight into socio-spatial relations: some are entitled to make statements regarding the conditions of how much inclusiveness can be tolerated, while others are made to inhabit their spaces more passively—to simply accept them for what they already are.

Together, these stories highlight the context of the social work classroom where racial microaggressions, even towards instructors, are simultaneously incidental and structural. They are a challenge to follow the path more travelled. They are indicators of racial orientation. The racial orientation of whiteness produces teachable moments, but also violently constructs ourselves and racialized students as teachable moments, or bodies directed at destabilizing whiteness. To ensure that our narratives move beyond complaint, we also consider the strategies of resistance they offer.

Anecdote One: The many faces of empathy

It is the spring of my second year in doctoral education. I was teaching with a team of instructors in a year-long course on intergroup dialogue for fourth-year BSW students. The team consisted of an experienced professor and another doctoral student, who was a seasoned diversity trainer. Amongst the three of us, we reflected a range of subject positions in terms of our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and nationality. For the first term, our class explored theories of social oppression and identity development. We also practiced intergroup dialogue skills, which followed the iterative cycle of praxis–reflection, theory, practice. During the second term, the students worked in pairs to facilitate dialogue groups with third-year undergraduate students in the BSW program.

This scenario took place during a retreat towards the end of the course at a rustic lodge outside of the urban setting where the university was based. For two days, 25 students and three instructors, engaged in in-depth discussions about the highlights and challenges students faced when facilitating their dialogue groups. One afternoon, we set up a “fish bowl” discussion, where three pairs of students sat in the center of the room to discuss their experiences with facilitation. By this point, I perceived that we had formed a cohesive class environment with a high level of trust, acceptance of divergent views, and a shared commitment to improve our dialogue skills.

During the “fish bowl” discussion, I was particularly struck by the dynamics between a pair of facilitators who were close friends outside the classroom. They spoke about the different ways students in their group responded to their facilitation style, such that one student felt ineffective. One of the student facilitators talked about her frustration of being overlooked or ignored by other students. She wondered if this had something to do with her lack of skill or confidence in facilitation. She also wondered if her inability to connect to students had something to do with being Asian, since her co-facilitator and most of the students in their group were white. Her co-facilitator reassured her friend that she offered a lot to the facilitation. She shared that she also felt sadness and pain that her co-facilitator was not treated with respect. She assumed that because she was white, she was given more space to lead the group dialogue and shared her sympathy that her friend was not given the same chance.

As an observer of this discussion, I was moved by the honesty that this pair of students was able to express. At the same time, I was troubled as I watched the Asian student’s body appear to get smaller and smaller during the discussion, while the body of the white student appeared to remain stable and secure. As a South Asian woman, I could relate to the young Asian student’s comments of being ignored and felt “empathy”; I also felt concern when observing the impact that “empathy” expressed by her white counterpart, was having on her. I was struck by how empathy in her case was being used as a weapon that caused harm, and simultaneously allowed the white student to deflect and deny her own complicity. The misrecognition of her role was additionally challenging because it was shrouded in “empathy”—it was as if her empathy itself allowed her to commodify her co-facilitator’s pain over the racist context that was just uncovered, not assume any responsibility for it, and elevate her own status as white but “empathetic”.

When the dialogue shifted to members of the class who were outside the fishbowl to share their observations, I commented on my observation of the two students’ interaction. I remember thinking: would I get in trouble or “lose” the students if I challenged their desire to be empathetic? Nevertheless, I pointed out the potential pitfalls of empathy in situations where we may benefit from the very same oppressive dynamics that contribute to another’s pain. If we are witnessing oppressive dynamics and they impact us emotionally, this may not (and should not) be considered the same kind of pain that the individual who is dealing with the negative impacts of oppression may be feeling. I suggested that we should “tread lightly with our empathy”, so as not to reproduce the very same oppressive dynamics that moved us to intervene in the first place.

Despite my trepidation, the students in the class were receptive to my “intervention”. Perhaps my role as a student instructor who could relate to the student experience enabled me to communicate effectively. The presence of two other instructors also enabled me to pay close attention to specific dynamics, without having to worry about the whole; we complemented each other so could fill potential gaps in our individual consciousness.

Anecdote Two: “Too much race”?

This event took place when I was an instructor in a master of social work course. The main focus of the course was to unpack privilege through a variety of theoretical frameworks. As such, significant emphasis was placed on engaging with critical scholarship through critical race theory. In my teaching, I foregrounded critical pedagogy through the teachings of bell hooks and Paulo Freire, and consistently named and emphasized issues of power—not only in the production of social work, but also issues of power within the classroom, between the instructor and students. This incident took place at the mid-term point.

As instructor, my practice is to use the mid-point of the course as an opportunity to get feedback from students and incorporate their feedback into the rest of the course in order to enrich their learning experience. Students first fill out an anonymous feedback form. I then ask them, as they are already sitting in a circle, to share a reflection about their learning to date. I emphasize that the point of this exercise is to make space for shared experiences. They are also told that they can “pass” if they prefer not to participate. I add that I will also review their written feedback and share my reflections on it the following week.

Students completed the written feedback, and the circle sharing started off smoothly. A few students stated that incredible learning was taking place—that they were learning more about themselves than they expected. However, within a few speakers, the tone changed, and students began sharing that they had had enough: “Race, race, race… enough about race”. Then, one student after the other started sharing how they were tired of being exposed to and made to engage with issues of race. They also shared that they didn’t see the relevance of the framework of critical race theory in their future work. These comments were shared with disdain and confidence. As their pushback grew, it was noticeable that some racialized students were physically uncomfortable. A few passed and refused to comment.

I was caught off-guard. I felt defensive. I had taught the same material before to a very different reception. Why were they challenging the relevance of this content when the class dynamic seemed to be going so well until this point? In that moment, I couldn’t separate their resistance from feeling like they were challenging my own relevance too. I told them that I had heard their concerns and that that since it was the end of the class, we would revisit it next week.

During that week, I reflected on the events that unfolded. I considered the complexity of the student-instructor power dynamics, as well as the racial power dynamics that were surfacing. I realized that the assumed binaries of powerless/powerful were irrelevant in this case, as multi-directional oppressions and privileges were operating across roles and spaces. I also connected with my mentors to share what had emerged during this exercise that was meant to share power, but appeared to have turned into an opportunity to demonstrate white privilege and supremacy instead. I realized something had to be said for the sake of the course, and also for the other racialized students who in turn were silenced. I carefully drafted my teaching points. As next week’s theme would be on “spatial dimensions of inequality”, it was a perfect segue into issues of “race management” within the classroom. The following week, back in a circle, I shared my thoughts with them. Both my voice and my hands trembled as I spoke. While I had prepared my notes, I wasn’t prepared for how physically I experienced my own words.

I explained that since the work of learning requires us to engage deeply in issues of our own socialization, we should problematize the feedback of there being “too much” race through that lens. What does it really mean when we say we are talking “too much” about race? I invited them to not only consider their social locations as they reflected on this but also consider what these discourses contribute to when we think or say that a certain amount of engagement with race is enough. What kind of work does this type of statement do? At the end, I also challenged them to consider how my presence as a racialized woman, who is their instructor, invites or unsettles power narratives, particularly when I work in a collaborative way.

When I was done, the class was silent. I asked for feedback. One student said she appreciated my comments; again, the class went silent. At this time, I said that since it was an important issue we all needed to, at least, be given the opportunity to comment. We would go around the circle, and again they could “pass” if they preferred. We started with a volunteer.

Some shared that they felt attacked by me since they actually assumed they knew enough about race. Two began to cry. One explained that she felt uncomfortable as race makes her uncomfortable, and she hadn’t meant more by her pushback. Students began sharing their own thoughts about their peers’ responses. I facilitated the conversation to ensure it was respectful, but let it unfold. One racialized student admitted that it was her discomfort around her classmates’ behavior last week that made her shut down and pass. She emphasized how important it was for students in social work to learn about race, and for non-racialized students to hear these perspectives from racialized students and instructors. Students continued to debrief and started to agree. Some identified how important it was to speak from the “mind and the heart” when they challenged their discomfort over the issue of their white privilege. I felt like a veil of secrecy was lifted.

Over the following weeks, students continued to bring up the incident and state that it was a transformative experience. Many referenced it in their final course evaluations as an experience that changed the way they thought of themselves as people and as social workers, for better or for worse.

The unmaking of whiteness in the social work classroom

Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.  They are chaotic, sometimes painful, sometimes contradictory, but they come from deep within us.  And we must key into those feelings… This is how new visions begin. – Audre Lorde

In the social work classroom—where anti-oppression is considered necessary to reclaim our profession from the violence of its past and present practices with the “other”—the charge of racism becomes a wound. As instructors, we are expected to create “safe spaces” to “recover” from the discipline’s racist complicity—to create spaces of comfort, of healing, of reconciliation for our students. Yet, the social work classroom continues to be a spatial extension of its white orientation. Some bodies come to feel at home through the comfort of their “natural” inhabitance, while others experience the exclusions that white bodies, orientations, and epistemologies dictate and demand. White orientations organize the social work classroom to reproduce and reinforce white perspectives and interests; these then emerge as good, natural, and neutral. Put simply, it is the path well-travelled.

The repetition of white norms ensures that racialized students and instructors enter into that space with anti-oppressive ideas rubbing up against them, often in contradiction. Our stories uncover the ways racial orientation eclipse even the authority of the instructors’ significant point of privilege, as the only person in the room who is paid to be there, in the role of “teacher”. In being made out of place, we are made noticeable; an irony that highlights the intimacy of these jarring moments. Yet, as whiteness is only invisible to those who inhabit it  (Ahmed, 2004), the stark visibility of the microaggression allows us and our students to learn the limitations of AOP in practice, and the limitations of social work’s orientation more concretely. As racialized instructors who embrace AOP and anti-racist principles, our inability to decentre whiteness in the social work classroom, much less the profession, represents both a personal and symbolic failure.

Pedagogically, these incidents illustrate the “work” required to raise the class’s collective consciousness. Confronting racial microaggressions allow “real” learning to take place i.e. learning that can pierce through the veil of whiteness that shrouds almost everything we do in social work. In the face of these violent moments of encounter, our bodies and our experiences become teachable moments, but our classrooms become a microcosm of our experiences outside the classroom. We must teach defensively, in order to protect ourselves from complicity. Yet, when we choose to make these moments of violence learning opportunities, we do so oftentimes at the continued risk to ourselves and other racialized students. Paradoxically, we are made to center the needs of white students and the white orientation of the social work classroom, in order to disrupt it.

In social work, the charge of racism takes on a distinctive form. As social work students are often politically invested in anti-racist ideologies, the accusation comes to be a deeply political stain. Furthermore, these moments of challenge continue to be embedded within the logics of race. Sarita Srivastava (2006) unpacks this phenomenon, when she explains that the mode of discussion in many spaces inspired by feminist and collectivist histories—arguably like social work—is one that privileges the disclosure of personal experiences and emotion.  She suggests that this “let’s talk” approach also produces a tightly controlled space for the expression and suppression of knowledge and feelings about racism, and deflects and personalizes both racism and anti-racism. By centering the relations of language and power instead, she challenges us to consider: “What techniques prompt people to speak about their emotions regarding racism? What is done with their utterances? Who is doing most of the talking? How are representations of emotion racialized?” (p. 60). Because race is constructed as something that resides only in people of color, racialized people bear the social burden of race (Diangelo, 2015). Through this logic, much of the work we do in the classroom is marked as “epistemic disobedience” (Mignolo, 2009)—as knowledge that violates the formation of Western epistemologies’ geo- and body-politics.  Decentering whiteness affirms the epistemic rights of the racially devalued. But doing so, positions us as the “outsider”; the “stranger” in social work education. Challenging this burden exposes ourselves to being further racialized—we may come to appear angry, wounded, or simply over-sensitive. At other times, challenging the burden can incite change, at least within some.

Inevitably, there are unfettered risks to disrupting the path well-travelled by confronting racism when racialized. These are the personal, political, economic, and professional conditions that shape how we confront the orientation of the classroom. Not everyone faces the same consequences. The façade of liberal democratic culture in academia fosters spaces where racial microaggressions are framed as allowable if not necessary to maintaining the profession’s stature. As instructors, we assume the risks of challenging racial orientation, within academic contexts where no responsibility is taken to provide a “safe space” for instructors themselves to process and recover from their racially-charged classroom experiences. While racism within the classroom, like racism outside the classroom, takes its toll on our lives to degrees that our white counterparts never experience, this is constructed as the labour of social work education that marks some bodies as more burdened, because they are racialized.

The impacts of race-based traumas and chronic exposure to racism are tremendous. Recently, psychologists have termed this phenomenon “racial battle fatigue”, stating that “exposure to racial discrimination is analogous to the constant pressure soldiers face on the battlefield” (Nauert, 2011). The cumulative effects of racism are now recognized to lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, as Jose Soto, associate professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, explains: “While the term [racial battle fatigue] is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments” (as cited in Harris, 2013). The racial orientation of the social work classroom creates a chronically unsafe and hostile environment for racialized and Indigenous students and instructors. The burden of racialization and the structural conditions of social work education inform how we experience the whiteness of social work, and whether we confront it.

The decision-making involved in whether, when, and how we challenge whiteness is complex and deeply personal. As our stories narrate, we have taken proactive steps to address the re-orientation of the class following critical events. At other times, we chose to leave it unnamed and unchallenged. While we may value the unmaking of whiteness, as racialized instructors, this is but one face of the trials we experience within and between all the conflicting spaces of academia. Many scholars have documented the exclusions that continue to frame who receives the benefit of the doubt, whose opinion is valued, who gets mentored, and who is invited into collaborative opportunities. Unconscious racialized assumptions fundamentally shape whose presence is welcomed and whose is tolerated (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008, p. 3).

The many stories presented in the anthology, “Presumed incompetent: The intersections of race and class for women in academia”(Muhs, Neimann, Gonzalez, & Harris, 2012), echo the realities of our personal and collective context. They highlight how our subjectivity in academia is one that is framed through the complex negotiation of being marginalized, silenced, and disciplined through racial hierarchies—the general campus climates that we inhabit; the relationships we have with faculty and students; how we identify, challenge, and maintain allies across racial lines; and the overall academic terrain of promotion and tenure. These are experiences of exclusion that we live with daily. We face all the challenges and demands of the tenure-track/tenured system, alongside a constant negotiation of our racialization. At times, these take the form of racial insensitivities and erasures, and at other times, we face outright racial assaults.

Decisions about pedagogy are made within this framework of the privileges and indignities of our lived experience of academia. They account for the precariousness of our classroom cultures, career phases, supports within and outside the academy, and institutional barriers we confront. Inside and outside the classroom, to what degree are we willing to challenge whiteness when it can, and often does, reverberate back to us?


Social work is a white profession, demographically speaking, but also in terms of the ways in which it has been invested in, and has facilitated, imperial practices with Indigenous and racialized people around the world. Social work’s whiteness is cultural, structural, and epistemic. In sharing our counter stories, we want to distinguish our desire to make sense of our experience from making our experience itself a means to an end. Through the telling of our stories, our re-orientations allow us to reconsider and embrace the practice of epistemic disobedience within the institution. We seek to be intentional in whom and what are we orienting towards.

Teaching in institutions of higher education is a privilege and responsibility. For our students, and for us, individual confession must not come at the expense of collective action. Andrea Smith (2013) asserts, “the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges” (p. 264).  She provides a cautionary tale that simply naming social location is often a convenient pedagogical tool to orient people to notice their social location, but that the tool in itself is limited as it valorizes the more privileged and those who haven’t had their consciousness raised by life. For others, it is a frivolous exercise that allows the practice of reflexivity and reflection, but ends there: social change is not a prerequisite to this exercise. In this context, self-reflexivity itself is a privilege. Social work has much to learn from this critique.

In order to dis-orient the whiteness of social work, we must first complicate how we understand our orientations. The modernist tendency within social work continues to reproduce elite associations in academic spaces. This places the deconstruction of poststructuralist understandings of subjectivity at the margins. It enables a limited engagement of social justice that informs our curriculum, what anti-oppressive practice can and should look like, and how our profession itself is constructed. Reflection and reflexivity alone do not tap into a discussion of how our subjectivities emerge in spaces, nor how we negotiate its benefits and erasures. While a reflection of our social locations may signal the beginning of the conversation in social work, a deeper engagement with our subjectivities is necessary. Our selves are not simply abstract physical bodies and impenetrable categories that we inhabit; our subjectivities are historically constituted, within, and beyond the space of the social work classroom. They are constituted through social practices, identities, and experiences that are and, that come into being through each other. We are and continue to come into being in relation to a discipline that is deeply constructed through whiteness.


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Rupaleem Bhuyan comes from a family of Assamese heritage. She was born in the United States as the daughter of immigrants and now is an immigrant again in Canada. She currently works at the University of Toronto, where she teaches community practice and social justice advocacy to future social workers.

Since 1991, Rupaleem has been part of the anti-violence against women movement in North America, working in collaboration with indigenous, immigrant and refugee communities. Following the events of September 11, 2001 she became more active in immigrant rights and examining how immigration policies contribute to different forms of violence.

Rupaleem is currently the principal investigator for the Migrant Mothers Project, a participatory action research project that works in collaboration with a network of community-based organizations, grassroots activists as well as women’s rights and immigrant rights groups. The research documents different forms of inequality that are produced through Canada’s immigration system that intersect with the spectrum of violence against women. Through research and community organizing efforts, the Migrant Mothers Project aims to foster deeper knowledge about the inequities that shape lives and to identify strategies for collectively bring about changes that improve the dignity, and human rights for all.

Daphne Jeyapal is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work and Human Service at Thompson Rivers University. She is co-director of Critical Cross-Border Conversations, an interdisciplinary knowledge mobilization platform committed to the creation and dissemination of critical, socially transformative research. Her research centers on challenging racial discrimination in social activism, social work and Canadian social policy. She is a first-generation Canadian, born in the Middle East to parents who are Tamil and Sinhalese. At present, she lives and works on the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc territory, the unceded traditional lands of the Secwepemc Nation.

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Issue 3February 14, 2014
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