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Social Work Education (Literature Review)

According to Sakamoto & Pitner with an ultimate goal of eradicating oppression through institutional and societal changes, anti-oppressive education and practice (AOP) has played a significant role in social work education in Canada. AOP is often presented as the key approach of social work theory, education and practice because of its emancipatory aspiration. On the other hand, Sakamoto & Pitner, highlight that more often than not, AOP theory often fails to translate into practice.

Dec 23, 2017   /   Visits: 14,493

Social Work Education and Anti-Oppressive Practice

Social Work Education
AOP came about as a response to the struggles of marginalized people, including racialized people, feminists and people with disabilities to challenge the power structure of the micro/individually driven conventional social work practice. With a focus on emancipatory theory and practices, AOP has an objective "to challenge structural power dynamic to eradicate various forms of oppression", establish a clear linkage between social work practice and social justice, and advocate that the state must play the most significant role in assuming the responsibility for transformative change.

Within the educational setting, AOP has an objective to ensure that students attain 'self-awareness', particularly in relation to issues of power, discrimination and oppression, and are imparted with the tools to analyze that different groups within society are systemically disadvantaged because of their ascribed marginalized status along various lines. To attain this, Sakamoto & Pitner suggest that social work students should embark on "critical consciousness", whereby they become cognizant of their own positions of power in relations to others. Also referred to as "reflexivity" or "critical self-reflection", critical consciousness is defined as the "process of continuous reflecting upon and examining how our own biases, assumptions and cultural worldviews affect the way we perceive difference and power dynamics" (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005, p. 441).

Sakamoto & Pitner argue that critical consciousness can only be attained when social work students and practitioners are willing to go against normative structures and implicate themselves as active participants in the reproduction and maintenance of domination and oppression within the dominant structures. It is further argued that the process of critical self-reflection entails more than just the mere acknowledgement of "superficial cultural differences" (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005 p. 440), and that paying lip service to the notion without recognizing one's position and addressing the negative impact of the power differentials, will only serve to further integrate the power imbalances AOP seeks to unsettle. According to this negative turn against the intended purpose, AOP is mainly facilitated by the fact that most social work students and practitioners are of the position that they have "always been practicing social work directed towards eradicating oppression and domination". Accepting that this is not necessarily the case, can lead to diminished moral.

According to Sakamoto & Pitner, minimizing and ultimately eradicating structural power imbalances can be achieved only when social work students and practitioners critically examine and reflect on themselves, and are able to see their positions of power relative to service users, and, are willing to call into question and give up their positions of privilege. This practice is noted as being necessary for all social work students and practitioners, including those who are marginalized because as service providers they "inevitably bring more power to their interactions with service users than vice versa" (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005, p. 438). It is important that anti-oppressive social work education does more than just acknowledge the "superficial cultural differences". Paying lip service to the notion that one recognizes their position without addressing the negative impact of the power differentials inherent to social work education and practice, will only serve to further the injustices anti-oppressive education seeks to curtail.

Barnoff & Mofatt note that anti-oppressive social work practice serves to promote equity, inclusion, transformation, social justice and "acts on a desire to eradicate the multiple manifestations of oppression, both within and beyond social work practice, thereby ensuring equality for all social groups" (p. 57). AOP is deemed to be most effective when it deals with multiple sites of oppressions, including race, gender and sexual orientation, and adopts an "integrated approach to organizational change that focuses on power relation throughout all an organization's systems, structures and processes".

The idea that the espoused theories of anti-oppressive education and practice often fall short of its intended mandate has been echoed by Barnoff & Moffatt While the noted objectives of anti-oppressive education and practice is to minimize and ultimately eradicate structural power imbalances, in order for them to meet their objectives, social work students and practitioners must be willing to "move beyond words" and advocate for "inclusion" on more than a superficial level. They highlight that AOP is often perceived by members of various marginalized communities as a more covert way to enforce inequality and domination as they believe that it often fails to address their particular form of oppression, since "not all oppressions are necessarily of equal significance" (Barnoff & Moffatt, 2007, p. 66).

The benefits of AOP are often championed within social work education for enabling students to attain "self-awareness" through self-reflection, particularly in relation to issues of power, discrimination and oppression. They argue that AOP has an objective to ensure that students attain 'self-awareness', particularly in relation to issues of power, discrimination and oppression, and are imparted with the tools to analyze that different groups within society are systemically disadvantaged because of their ascribed marginalized status along various lines. Chand et al. agree with Sakamoto & Pitner that critical consciousness can only be attained when social work students and practitioners are willing to go against normative structures and implicate themselves as active participants.

Heron notes that for anti-oppressive social work education to occur, it is imperative that students embark on a critical analysis of their social location. It is also cautioned that students need to investigate how their position of power as future service providers, helps to inform and shape their identities as people who occupy a space in which they are able to exert power over service users through the imposition of their knowledge and attained skills. Social work students and practitioners are often resistant to the process of critical self-reflection as it calls for resistance against "historically formed and is 'rooted deep in the social nexus'" (Heron, 2005 p. 347). Furthermore, the need to preserve ones reputation, often takes precedence over disrupting an unequal system of domination which oppress certain members of society.

The idea that AOP can have an adverse effect within social work education and practice has been echoed by Wilson & Beresford who argues the touted objectives of AOP theory are rather "grandiose" in nature and that the lack of involvement of service users in the creation of knowledge governing anti-oppressive social work education and practice, only serves to further reinforce unequal power structures. In positioning their argument, it is noted that "social work academics and practitioners play a key role in the definition, categorization, classification and assessment" of service users; thereby, allowing for the appropriating of the knowledge and experiences of oppressed groups and denies the socially situated nature of such knowledge.

Critical Race Theory and Education in Canada


Critical race theory (CRT) is a social movement and way of understanding cultures and groups of people who have been oppressed. The framework was developed by scholars from marginalized groups to help explain and understand experiences regarding racial equality and collective change. The original movement can be traced back to the African American legal scholars Alan Freeman and Derek Bell from the United States. They worked toward increased visibility of the structures of racism and methods of successfully opposing them. Their work was a reaction to the slow racial reforms occurring in the United States during the civil rights era.

Critical race theory has developed into an intellectual tool for understanding racial inequality in its variety of forms. There is a challenge of traditional ideologies with CRT that questions the accepted social hierarchies. This is done through an examination of how the society is organized into hierarchies according to racial groups. In general, CRT is a challenge to the legitimacy of structures in society, which are oppressive to marginalized groups. There is a careful consideration of the historical context in which the uneven relations of power have occurred. There is also a study of how race benefits have been constructed in order to extend across class structures. The goal of CRT is to understand how Anglo-Saxon domination of other groups was created and has been perpetuated.

Class and race structures frequently serve to secure race privilege. Scholars of CRT explore the ways in which power, privilege, and cultural systems are related and complex ways. There are biases and advantages, which are inherent in specific racial personalities. These are unconsciously and consciously perpetuated by the majority of societies. CRT can offer a method of looking at the situation from a different angle and understanding distinct ways to pursue racial justice. The exploration of CRT topics can frequently initiate dialogue and debate in order to raise consciousness for political struggles of those who have been marginalized.


There are several characteristics of Critical Race Theory, which are relevant to AOP in Canadian education. One of these characteristics is the endemic nature of racism. There is a deeply ingrained sense of belonging to a certain racial group in nearly all people. This means that racism continues in all levels of the society. The basic premise of racism is that some groups are superior to others. The superiority can be due to physiological and biological differences and lead to political, economic, and social inequalities in society.

Theories of racism affect both conscious and unconscious beliefs. Society is racialized in a manner, which affects the everyday lives of those in Canada and many other developed countries. According to critical race theorists construction of the race benefits frequently benefits Caucasians while placing other groups at a disadvantage. The ideologies which maintain privilege of Caucasians are a central facet of CRT's critique regarding liberalism.

Another characteristic of critical race theory which is pertinent to education in Canada is the notion of liberalism. This is a belief in individuals. According to liberalism, many social problems can be solved by negotiation, and all individuals should be regarded as equal. CRT is critical of liberalism as it is believed to have not led to legislation, which makes rights equivalent for all racial groups. The proponents of CRT point out that liberalism attempts to deny and trivialize any type of ethnic concerns. The ideology of liberalism is based on equal opportunity and as such does not challenge institutions and structures, which take no account of a person's race. In other words, liberalism is based on meritocracy, neutrality, and an ignoring of racial matters.

Another characteristic of CRT which is important for education in Canada is the use of counter-stories in order to challenge societal oppression. This includes an emphasis on the experiences and reports from people of marginalized racial groups. This type of focus allows for history to be experienced through oral histories, poems, and journals. The reader of these accounts can gain experiential knowledge regarding the history of oppression, and to a particular racial group. Counter stories can legitimize the realities and experiences of those who have been oppressed. The stories are a method for examining the common culture of a race as well as its presuppositions and myths. The stories serve as a vehicle for the critical reflection of experiences shared by members of a marginalized group who have experienced racism.

Aboriginal Students and Racism in Canadian Schools

This section will explore how racism occurs towards aboriginal students in the Canadian school system. However, this group is merely being used as an example of how any type of marginalized group can experience racism within an established system. In other words, examples of racism towards aboriginal students could as easily be applied to students of African or Latin American descent.

Critical Race Theory can be used as a foundation for understanding racism, which exists at an institutional and structural level within Canadian school systems. Marginalization and underachievement by native students indicate that systemic racism may be prevalent in Canada. CRT serves to challenge the stereotypes created by racism and respect the cultural differences between the aboriginal students who continue to fail in school. According to CRT, structural inequalities in the system can significantly decrease the performance of aboriginal students in school. It is interesting to note that the use of meritocracy, neutrality, and the practices of color blindness in Canadian schools serve as a disadvantage for many minority students. In other words, programs which have been designed to grant marginalized groups equal rights result in a disadvantage due to no consideration of their racial and cultural heritage.

Most people involved in education in Canada are not involved with any type of racist behavior, which is overt. The educators will argue that they are not prejudiced as they are well-meaning individuals who do not purposely engage in any type of hateful language or actions. For most, this is true. However, even individuals who believe in social justice and wish only good for others can still be considered racist.

To understand how a well-meaning educator can engage in racist behavior inadvertently one must consider the CRT critique of meritocracy, colorblindness, and neutrality. With regard to neutrality in the Canadian education system, there is a significant problem because being Caucasian is considered the norm. This means individuals who are neutral on racial matters equate this position with Caucasian being the normal position. However, aboriginal students are not Caucasian and are thus judged to be of a type which is not the norm. In other words, the indigenous students are viewed as the same as all other students. The teacher who is exhibiting colorblindness will merely hope that the aboriginal student will blend in with the Caucasian students with regard to their needs and wishes.

Meritocracy is also a problem for aboriginal students in the Canadian education system. This is a system in which all students who work hard are believed to have a chance for success. However, aboriginal students in many Canadian schools are excluded from significant opportunities to succeed. This means that racism persists in the assumptions and beliefs that structure, and policies in education can be equivalent for students regardless of their racial or cultural background. In other words, providing all students with the same opportunities does not necessarily mean that they experience similar chances for success. For example, Caucasian students may tend to be good at one type of activity while aboriginal students may be better at another. If the opportunities for success are based on the activities for which Caucasian students tend to excel, native students will be at a significant disadvantage.

Implications for Caucasian Educators

An analysis of the educational system in Canada according to a CRT framework has considerable implications for Caucasian educators at both the professional and personal levels. Since racism is endemic, Caucasian teachers have a special responsibility to acknowledge its presence within the school system, society, and policies. It is important that they explore and understand the impact that racism can have in the classroom and the education system in general.

Critical Race Theory emphasizes the importance of race in anyone's life and work regardless of the societal group to which they most readily identified. It is important that the issue of race be brought into the open and clearly discussed. It should be remembered that racism has a considerable historical context and can continue to be manifest despite modern attempts to avoid this public ill. In order to understand the present, the individual must reconstruct the past and understand the part that their forebears had with regard to the marginalizing of other groups. This is true even for educators who are staunch supporters of equal rights and benefits for all students. As it was previously discussed, equal rights may only mean that all students have the same right to pursue success through the method preferred by Caucasians.

Social Work Education as a Vehicle for Change?

The notion that social work education plays an integral role in the continuation and perpetuation of Eurocentric and sexist discourse has been articulated by various scholars. Social work is by history and nature oppressive in that workers hold power over their clients. It has been noted that the language and discursive practices within social work education "are not simply reflections of ideology and the manifestation of power, but active agents in the hegemonic process of constructing and maintaining ideology"(Park, 2005, p. 16).

According to Abrams & Moio, social work frameworks "under a 'multicultural umbrella' unintentionally promotes a color-blind mentality that eclipses the significance of institutionalized racism" (p. 245). Challenges for implementation of effective cultural competence education include student readiness, teacher preparation, and possible resistance from both groups. Within this context, resistance means social work students, and educators can deny their own role "in occupying privileged or more powerful social identity positions, and it may even take the form of outward anger, resentment, or an overwhelming sense of guilt" (Abrams & Moio, 2009, p. 247). The self-reflexive identity techniques employed in critical race theory (CRT) can be used in social work education to overcome identity issues surrounding race and other mechanisms of oppression.

Within the context of social work education, educators and those shaping the curriculum, including school administrators and professors must reflexively acknowledge their cultural ideologies and biases they bring to discussions so that they do not perpetuate unintentional privileging of certain views.

According to Abrams and Moio, "the issue is not that these reactions arise, because the literature on teaching about white privilege suggests that these responses are part of a normative process" (p. 247); rather, current "cultural competence" models employed in social work education do not move students beyond defensive responses to a more reflective critique of privilege and then to collective social action in the way that CRT can.

Although there is the potential to perpetuate oppressive ideologies by social work students and practitioners, contemporary social work education is generally guided by AOP and has an aim to create a space in which unequal power structures are called into question and ultimately uprooted.They assert that educators have the responsibility of "knowledge building, social welfare and preparing graduates for leadership roles" (Shera & Bogo, 2001 p. 199). They further argue that the educative mission of social work is to integrate both academic and professional imperatives and work within societal shifts and values so that students can meet the needs of social service.

As Rabaka discusses in the analysis of W.E. Du Bois's African philosophy of education, "it is the history of the particular people, in their specific geographical, social and political settings, that informs not only their pedagogical process but also the very purpose and life principles of the people" (p. 404). In other words, education structures and processes are built upon what is socially and culturally relevant to individuals in that place and time. Du Bois' pedagogic approach stated African education "should be founded on a knowledge of the history of their people in Africa and in the United States [and other parts of the African diaspora], and their present condition[s]" (Du Bois, 1973, p. 93). Applied to social work education, this approach considers people's history and cultural context before placing them in a theoretical framework that is not relevant or that normalizes judgment of "whiteness" or otherness before acknowledging the individual's own beliefs.

In close examination of social work pedagogy, Van Soest observed that students who were exposed to a course on diversity and justice were the ones who made the most significant progress in self- reported advocacy behaviors for their African American and gay clients. When students understand and locate themselves in relation to issues facing oppressed individuals there is an increased potential that they will expand their advocacy for other oppressed groups. Within the field of social work education various tools exist to help educators and students counter perpetuation of hegemonic and oppressive ideologies.

The use of Language and Discourse in Social Work Education: An Exploration of Race, Culture and Multiculturalism

Despite significant social and political advances in social inequality, various forms of oppression and domination still exists. Like all other social intuitions, the social work institution is governed by the prevailing dominant hegemonic discourse of Euro-centrism.

Eurocentric discourse is implicit in the formulation and perpetuation of racism (oppression) in all social institutions, including social work education. While anti-oppressive social work education and practice calls for the questioning of ways in which normalized notions such as 'culture' is embedded with power relations, it often falls short of its intended mandate, as there is often resistance by social work students and educators to go against what is considered to be a normative structure. This is because social work students and educators are asked to implicate themselves as active participants in the reproduction and maintenance of domination and oppression. Many social work students and educators often object to implicating themselves in fear of losing their privileged positions. Due to this noted resistance, social work education often fails to impart its objective of equality and the abolishment of oppression and instead often serves to reinforce the overarching normative discourse of oppression and domination.

Saleebey & Scanlon suggest the normalized nature of hegemony and continual entrenchment of unequal power relations continue to permeate all social structures, including social work. The exertions of power by the dominant group over those marginalized along various lines, including race, ethnicity, class and gender, are tied to perceptions of otherness and carried out by populations who accept that "values and beliefs of the status quo are true and unchangeable" (Saleebey & Scanlon, 2005, p. 3). Even with the best intentions of equality, hegemonic discourses exists within social work education as social norms of power and are unintentionally reinforced through language choices and perceptions of otherness.

When efforts to critically analyze and interrogate the ostensible "neutrality" of the status quo in the classroom are initiated, those with interests in maintaining their positions of power, often object. Lopez speaks to this aforementioned point in his antidotal story about one of his white students who expressed his discontent for the emphasis being placed on the systemic nature of racism in his class. According to Lopez, the student's declaration that "racism is rooted in IGNORANCE and not in (social) power", (p. 69) serves as an example of how racism has an "individual construct, as opposed to a social and/or civilization construct" (p. 69). This is relevant for approaches to multicultural discourse in social work education and professional practice because when racial discrimination is ignored or conceived of as an individual act, which can only be remedied through individual actions, it can enable dominant ideologies to go unchallenged.

To this end, the language employed by social work theory and its noted mandate to instigate and advocate for social change, has become one of its most effective tools in reinforcing domination and oppression. Pon argues that the view of culture that it is "neutral and devoid of power" (p. 59), allows whiteness and white privilege, to serve as "an ontology of forgetting Canada's (western) history of colonialism and racism" (p. 60).

The hegemonic nature of Euro-centrism is such that it permeates all aspects of society including the political, economic and individual. Although new language protocols governs what is considered politically correct speech within multicultural societies, other more covert forms of racism and otherness have manifested in perpetuating oppressive ideals. Pon asserts that this "is evidenced in how it constructs 'other' cultural groups, because whiteness is the standard by which cultures are differentiated" (p. 60). By not using language that explicitly identifies and calls into question the privileged and pervasiveness of whiteness as a mechanism of control and power, social work education then serves to perpetuate and further entrench the very unjust ideals it has mandated to disrupt.

A Gap in the Literature

A significant amount of research has been done with regard to the way in which social work education is designed to observe and respect anti-oppressive education and practices. There has also been a significant amount of work done regarding the way in which social workers interact with marginalized members of society. However, there has been little research regarding how members of marginalized groups who are becoming social workers experience the AOP in Canada. Exploring this subject is the purpose of this study.


Abrams, L. & Moio, J. A. (2009). Critical Race Theory and The Cultural Competence Dilemma in Social Work Education. Journal of Social Work Education, 45 (2), p.245-261.

Barnoff, L., & Moffatt, K. (2007). Contradictory Tensions in Anti-Oppression practice in Feminist Social Services. The Journal of Women and Social Work, 22(1), 56-70.

Brubacher, T. (2009). Beyond good intentions critical race theory and the role of non-indigenous allies.. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada = Bibliotheque et Archives Canada.

Chand, Clare & Dolton, 2002.

Gupta, T. (2007). Race and racialization: essential readings. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.

Henry, F., & Tator, C. (2009). Racism in the Canadian university: demanding social justice, inclusion, and equity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Heron, B. (2005). Self-reflection in Critical Social Work Practice: Subjectivity and the Possibilities of Resistance. Reflective Practice, 6(3), 341-351.

Johnson, G. F., & Enomoto, R. (2007). Race, Racialization, and Antiracism in Canada and Beyond. University of Toronto Press.

Lopez, G. (2003). The (Racially Neutral) Politics of Education: A Critical Race Theory Perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 39(1), 68-94.

Pon, G. (2009). Cultural competency as new racism: An Ontology of Forgetting. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 20(1), 59-71.

Rabaka, R. (2003). W. E. B. Du Bois's Evolving Africana Philosophy of Education. Journal of Black Studies, 33(4), 399-449.

Sakamoto, I., & Pitner, R. (2005). Use of Critical Consciousness in Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice: Disentangling Power Dynamics at Personal and Structural Levels. British Journal of Social Work, 35(4), 435-452.

Saleebey, D. & Scanlon, E. (2005). Is a Critical Pedagogy for the Profession of Social Work Possible? Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 25(3/4), 1-18.

Shera, W., & Bogo, M. (2001). Social work education and practice: Planning for the Future. International Social Work, 44(2), 197-210.

Van Soest, D. (1996). "The Influence of Competing Ideologies About Homosexuality on Nondiscrimination Policy", Journal of Social Work Education, 32(1), pp. 53-64.

Wilson, A., & Beresford, P. (2000). 'Anti-oppressive practice': emancipation or appropriation?. British Journal of Social Work, 30(5), 53-573.

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