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Critical Race Theory and the Cultural Competence Dilemma in Social Work Education

Critical Race Theory and the Cultural Competence Dilemma in Social Work Education

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245
Journal of Social Work Education,
Vol. 45, No. 2 (Spring/Summer).Copyright © 2009, Council on Social Work Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY AND THE CULTURAL COMPETENCEDILEMMA IN SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION
CULTURALCOMPETENCE
is a fundamental tenetof professional social work practice. A cultur-al competence mandate is contained in boththe Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)Educational Policy and Accreditation Stand-ards and the National Association of SocialWork (NASW) Code of Ethics, and it is pro-moted in numerous practice textbooks. His-torically, cultural competence with diversepopulations referred to individuals andgroups from non-White racial, ethnic, or cul-tural origins. However, the term has evolvedto encompass group differences pertaining togender, sexuality, religion, age, ability, lan-guage, nationality, and others. Knowledgeabout the complexity of personal and socialidentity formation as well as the intersection-ality of multiple axes of oppression thatunderscore social work problems, practices,and interventions led to the broadening of cul-tural competence beyond racial and ethniccategories (Razack, 1999; Rothman, 2008).Scholars note several challenges associatedwith the dominant cultural competence
Laura S. Abrams
University of California at Los Angeles
Jené A. Moio
University of California at Los Angeles
Cultural competence is a fundamental tenet of social work education. Althoughcultural competence with diverse populations historically referred to individu-als and groups from non-White racial origins, the term has evolved to encom-pass differences pertaining to sexuality, religion, ability, and others. Criticscharge that the cultural competence model is largely ineffective and that its ten-dency to equalize oppressions under a “multicultural umbrella” unintentional-ly promotes a color- blind mentality that eclipses the significance of institution-alized racism. In this article we argue that critical race theory (CRT) can be usedto address some of these noted problems with the cultural competence model.We define the major tenets of CRT and analyze its benefits and limitations forsocial work pedagogy around race, racism, and other oppressions.
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246JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION
model, including the eclipsing of race as a cen-tral mechanism of oppression, student resist-ance, and the unintentional reinforcement of a color- blind lens (Razack & Jeffery, 2002;Schiele, 2007; Yee, 2005).In this article we argue that critical racetheory (CRT) can be used to address some ofthese noted problems associated with the cul-tural competence model. We provide an in- depth discussion of challenges associatedwith cultural competence education, with anemphasis on educating social workers torespond effectively to institutional racism. Wealso introduce the basic tenets of CRT andapply these central concepts to the challengesinvolved in delivering effective diversity edu-cation in social work. In addition, we pose the benefits and limitations of infusing CRT intothe graduate social work curriculum.
Cultural Competence:History and Overview
The origins and development of the culturalcompetence (often called “cultural sensitivi-ty” or “multicultural”) model and its role insocial work ideology, practice, and pedagogyare documented in published articles andtexts (e.g., Potocky, 1997; Rothman, 2008;Schiele, 2007; Spencer, Lewis, & Gutiérrez,2000). We provide here a brief summary before presenting empirical and philosophicalcritiques.Although aspects of traditional socialwork discourses have long espoused a mis-sion to examine and remedy issues of oppres-sion, including racism, the evolving emphasison diversity and cultural competence has itsroots in the civil rights movement of the 1960sand 1970s. Social workers of color, along withWhite advocates, challenged some of the long-standing Eurocentric biases in social workteaching and practice, including a predomi-nantly deficit-oriented view of individualsand communities of color. This activist pres-sure led to increased attention to race andracism in social work history, gave a voice tothe lived experiences of faculty and socialworkers of color, and eventually led toCSWE’s adoption of standards that mandatecontent on race, racism, and people of color(Spencer et al., 2000).Working to meet the CSWE mandate, the1970s and early 1980s ushered in key educa-tional texts. Pivotal publications on race andethnicity included Barbara Solomon’s (1976)
Black Empowerment
:
Social Work in OppressedCommunities
, Wynetta Devore and ElfriedeSchlesinger’s (1981)
Ethnic-Sensitive SocialWork Practice
, and Doman Lum’s (1986)
SocialWork Practice and People of Color: A Process-Stage Approach
. With variation, these textsgenerally rethink social work’s Eurocentricpurview; challenge social workers to becomeaware of their personal value orientations andworldviews; expose how racism creates struc-tural disadvantages that impact individualand community well- being; and offer sugges-tions for working with increased competencewith racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities inthe United States. Race, ethnicity, and, to someextent, culture more broadly constituted theprimary focus of this earlier literature.Since the mid-1980s the tone and charac-ter of “ethnic-sensitive practice” has expand-ed beyond race and ethnicity to promoteawareness of multiple forms of oppressionsuch as sexism, heterosexism, ageism, andableism. This trend responds to the postmod-
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ern emphasis on the intersectionality of multi-ple categories of identity (Williams, 2006), andawareness of the existence of multiple formsof oppression that affect individual and com-munity functioning (Schiele, 2007). CSWE’s(2001) revised standards for cultural compe-tence reflect these discursive developments byidentifying 14 axes of difference as potentialsources of oppression and diversity. In keep-ing with these trends, contemporary “culturalcompetence” texts now include chapters onwomen; disabilities; and gay, lesbian, bisexu-al, and transgender/transsexual issues (e.g.,Appleby, Colon, & Hamilton, 2001; Rothman,2008), and earlier works are now expanded ormodified to reflect this broadened view (e.g.,Devore & Schlesinger, 1999; Lum, 2003).Although the cultural competence modelhas diverse epistemological interpretationsand curricular applications (Williams, 2006),two major ideological underpinnings can bediscerned: self-awareness and skills develop-ment. The cultural sensitivity framework as itis used in social work and related fields (suchas education and counseling) understandsthat all people, including people of color, pos-sess values, beliefs, and assumptions that they bring into the helping relationship. Socialwork students are encouraged to undertake a
 process
of becoming aware of the origins anddevelopment of their personal values andworldviews with regard to differences so thattheir deeply rooted and perhaps unconscious beliefs can be recognized and subsequentlyset aside, or “bracketed,” in the helpingexchange.Yan and Wong (2005) critique this bracketing process as unrealistic and argueinstead that the social work exchange is mutu-ally influential and intersubjective, ratherthen morally neutral. Nevertheless, culturalcompetence frames self-awareness as a life-long endeavor, because issues of differenceand value orientation are context specific andconstantly in flux. In addition to this process- oriented work, cultural competence focuseson a
skills-based
componentthat includes building knowledge about specific ethnic orcultural groups and developing practice tech-niques that accompany this knowledge (Roth-man, 2008). This population-specific pieceentails a set of practice skills that build on astandard helping relationship yet are modi-fied according to the needs, styles, world-views, and customs of the focal group.
Critiques of Cultural Competence
Scholars adopting a critical lens toward the cul-tural competence model often contend that theframework’s focus on individual attitudesleaves social workers unequipped to deal withinstitutional racism and oppression on all ofthe levels where it permeates—individually,structurally, and globally (Pollack, 2004;Razack, 1999; Razack & Jeffery, 2002; Yee,2005). In historically tracing social work’s var-ious movements surrounding diversity,Potocky (1997) notes that the “cultural sensi-tivity” model targets change at the level ofsocial workers’ personal beliefs and agencypractices, whereas the “antioppression model”works toward change across individual,agency, and systems levels. Hence, an overar-ching critique of the cultural competenceframework is that it does not reach far enoughin addressing systemic and institutionalizedoppressions. Additional critiques of culturalcompetence emerge from philosophicalangles as well as limited empirical evidence.
247CRITICAL RACE THEORY AND CULTURAL COMPETENCE
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