As a black male entering the social worker field, I am often the only person of color at an agency and in a classroom. My supervisors are white, my professors are white, and my peers are white. This has been surprising for me because the majority of the folks we are serving are people of color.
Whenever I mention this, friends often remind me that “social work is a predominantly white woman profession.” Indeed, it is true that nearly 70 percent of social workers in the United States are white, according to a 2019 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
I refuse to accept that this can continue to be the status quo for social work. It undermines the expansion of social services and can run the risk of replicating existing disparities.
As proponents of social change, social workers should not accept such convenient discourse. Social workers seek to uncover alternative explanations for phenomena and execute steps to remedy them, which in this case is the lack of diversity in most agencies. I assert that racially homogeneous social service and welfare agencies are offering biased services to children and families of colors.
Members of minority populations are often untrusting of members of dominant cultures because of their experiences with discrimination, racism and poverty. Black Americans are especially vulnerable given their history of slavery and lowered status due to restrictive laws.
These forces affect their interactions with white workers, which lead to high rates of treatment dropout and other adverse behavioral health outcomes. In accordance, black families tend to self-disclose less to white workers in clinical settings, when compared to sessions with black workers.
Another familiar narrative is that black people are reluctant in therapeutic relationships; however, research has invalidated this assumption. Studies have found that ethnic or racial matching between workers and clients can improve retention, treatment outcomes and completion. Clients believe that ethnically-similar workers will have similar experiences and are more likely to perceive workers as trustworthy and credible.
If the client is not the problem, then we should begin to look at the workers. In interracial interactions, the worker’s internal preconceptions of the client can ruin the therapeutic relationship.
Living in America, we are the products of a society that has intentionally oppressed people of color and other minority groups. Even a well-intentioned white ally can engage in microaggressions against black families and other culturally marginalized groups. According to the aversive racism theory, discriminative beliefs are held by those of power and perpetuated intentionally or unintentionally. The defining feature is that the individual attempts to avoid unnecessary contact with black people, which can mean ignoring the existence of black people, acting cold toward them, or being too polite.
Joel Kovel, in his book “White Racism: A Psychohistory,” found that aversive racism in social work is commonly characterized by “a pronounced willingness to undertake social reform via remote, impersonal means, and by a corresponding reluctance to engage in any kind of intimacy with black people.” Being in a social work program, I have been able to overhear conversations between my white peers about subjects that include their discomfort being in predominantly black communities and apprehension when interacting with diverse clients. I have also noticed how uneasy they are in my presence.
Black people and other marginalized groups have been experiencing discrimination for centuries; unfortunately, many depend on the services offered by social service and welfare agencies. Microaggressions experienced within these settings are directly detrimental to the health of individuals. When an organization neglects to take the appropriate steps required to prevent or address inequality within their systems, they betray the community they intended to support. In this sense, an agency with no or few black workers employed is engaging in a systemic form of institutional betrayal.
In 2000, John F. Dovidio and Samuel L. Gaertner constructed an experiment to examine racial bias in hiring for a behavioral health setting.
They found that when black and white candidates are both qualified, they are more likely to rate the black candidate as unqualified. White subjects assumed the best about the racially similar candidate. This covert action is unacceptable, but all too likely in a current workforce dominated by white leaders and supervisors.
Social work is a profession founded on the principles of advocating for the disenfranchised. While contemporary efforts follow the same value, the practice itself is biased and oppressive if it lacks a diverse workforce. Until social workers begin to scrutinize why so many social service and welfare agencies that serve non-white populations are disproportionately white, we will continue to perpetuate the same inequality that we strive to dismantle.
Raekwon Burton is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Social Work program.