We don’t talk about whiteness enough, yet we talk about it all the time: An anti-racist consideration

Image credit: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

I am going to argue that whiteness flavors the assumed norms in our society just as much as it does in our social service system. We must remember that whiteness—like all of the racial categories—is a socially constructed phenomenon. The meaning of whiteness is contextualized by culture and history that we are surrounded by and immersed in. Further, being White is linked to having both privilege and power in our society. Being aware of the power of the White way of doing things (what can be called White supremacy when we look at it structurally) in how social work practice plays out on a day-to-day basis is, therefore, vital. Yet we don’t talk *explicitly* about whiteness very much…but we do talk a lot about Black and Brown cultures as diverse in contrast to whiteness, which is the assumed norm. As whiteness is the dominant paradigm for our lives and our work, it is set up as the normative neutral, and, therefore sets up how we talk and think about racial diversity, for example. I argue that if we are not thinking about White identity along with Black and Brown identities then we are not working to equalize groups.

I find myself asking this type of question more and more as I listen to conversations amongst the members of the social work profession and as I read the publications we surround ourselves with. In fact, this pattern of diversity as Black and Brown *only* plays out all over the media landscape where the default just seems to be, well, White! This phenomenon is characterized with crystal clear precision by famed writer Junot Díaz who described living in American society as “where default whiteness goes unremarked—no one ever asks it for its passport.” Further, Michael Harriot who writes in The Root news magazine builds on this, saying “they have constructed a universe with whiteness at its center and everything else orbiting around a star so bright that it is unsafe for us to stare directly into it.”

So what can we learn from this observation? Why is this consideration important to social work practice? And how can this work support us in our efforts to be better anti-racist social work practitioners? Ignoring the role of race upholds the dominant framework of whiteness, and invalidates the racial identities and lived experiences of people of color. The fact is, we can’t truly talk about racism unless we talk about whiteness. Being aware of the “racialization” of our interactions, systems, perspectives is vital to social work practice in a society that is characterized by structural racism. Racialization is the act of giving a racial character to someone or something, and noticing it is something social workers need to get good at, if they aren’t already. An awareness of whiteness is a vital aspect of noticing racialization, and engaging in anti-racist practice – especially for White social workers.

We know that social workers are committed to assessing their clients through the use of the person-in-environment approach, so taking a look at how someone’s race or ethnicity impacts their experience in life is a vital part of our work. Considering race and ethnicity is also a vital part of the interactions we have with one another as colleagues, especially if we are of different races and ethnicities, and especially if one of us is Black or Brown and one of us is White. These are uncomfortable dynamics to notice, much less dialogue about, but we need to start digging deep, and going there if we are going to make progress as a profession and as a society. We have to understand the White side of the coin, so to speak, as well as the Black and Brown sides of the coin when talking about diversity – yet that White part is something that is rarely discussed in some circles. But we have some models for how to do this work.

Whitney Dow produced and directed a documentary called The Whiteness Project about which she states “Until you can recognize that you are living a racialized life and you’re having racialized experiences every moment of every day, you can’t actually engage people of other races around the idea of justice.” These words should ring true for social workers just as much as anyone else. Feelings that came up for White people participating in The Whiteness Project who begin to reflect on their whiteness spanned the gamut. Let’s take a look at their reactions and learn from them. One person said “As a white person, I wish I had that feeling of being a part of something for being white, but I don’t.” Other feelings verged on resentment, such as “I just don’t buy into the nonsense about discrimination,” or, “Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?” This question deserves significant unpacking! 

In the social work realm, all of these feelings need to be aired, explored and unpacked for how they may impact one’s practice. For example, White social workers may simultaneously wrestle with feelings of internalized social dominance as well as a search for cultural connection amidst the White cultural spectrum. Making sense of this duality is important work for White social workers to engage in as it relates to practice just as much as the rest of a person’s social identities do in their lives. Noticing whiteness, understanding the patterns that come along with White culture, can, in part, help us to understand the ways in which racism is sustained and perpetuated. My bet is that social workers of color are well-aware of whiteness and those patterns that come along with it, but that White social workers are less aware of what may seem like accepted societal norms that emanate from White culture. Practicing “seeing whiteness” makes White people, for example, more aware of the social advantages they experience as a result of being White given the ways whiteness is the norm in our society. This practice will also hopefully assist in reducing the discomfort and defensiveness that some White people feel when they are confronted with information about racial injustice or evidence of their own racism. “Seeing whiteness” can improve the racial awareness lenses people have, and their capacity for doing meaningful and non-performative anti-racism work in social work practice settings. 

Here are three questions all social workers can consider today to begin this personal work:

1. How does whiteness play out in your social work practice world vis-à-vis expectations for client behaviors in the intervention process?

2. What are some of the ways whiteness influences your views about the reproduction of societal norms as a powerful participant in the social work intervention process?

3. For White social workers, how are you likely to engage in defensiveness when examining your social work practice patterns for the vestiges of racist actions, however unintentional?

Readings on whiteness:

Appiah, K. (2020, June 18). The case for capitalizing the B in Black. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/time-to-capitalize-blackand-white/613159/

National Association of Black Journalists (2020, June 11). Statement on capitalizing Black and other racial identifiers. https://www.nabj.org/news/512370/NABJ-Statement-on-Capitalizing-Black-and-Other-Racial-Identifiers.htm

Perlman, M. (2015, June 23). Black and white: Why capitalization matters. Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/analysis/language_corner_1.php