Are Social Workers Complicit in Perpetuating Oppression?

The history of social work is often told as a story about white women who saw poverty as a morality issue and felt called to help those in need. While settlement houses and the suffrage movement were both significant in promoting social justice, the majority of it was justice for White Americans. Why do we know the names of Jane Addams and Dorothy Day, but never even learn about social work pioneers of color like Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Association of Colored Women, and E. Franklin Frazier, director of the Atlanta School of Social Work from 1922 to 1927? For far too long, the profession of social work has excluded social workers of color and their contributions to the field. Not to mention the white saviorism that continues to pervade the profession. Despite claiming social justice and diversity to be core values in the field, most social service organizations only have one or two people of color in leadership (to include managerial positions), and the rest, if any, are direct service. What does it mean when the people making the decisions are opposite in almost every way from the people they serve?

But it doesn’t stop here. On top of the muddled and quite frankly racist history, social work also participates in enabling classism– often treating clients as second class citizens. A study on shame, anger, and frustration in the context of experiences with welfare found that, “most participants shared experiences of being shamed, humiliated, and belittled by the staff at the welfare offices, Human Resource Administration, Social Security, and Homeless Services offices”. Stereotypes surrounding low income populations can affect how workers interact with the people they are supposed to be serving. From being condescending and standoffish to belittling those who do not understand professional jargon, if you are not fluent in code switching, shame and oftentimes embarrassment are headed your way. While refraining from too much self-disclosure is an important aspect within the professional relationship, it should not go so far as to condescension toward the client; especially knowing that some self-disclosure can actually be beneficial to the working relationship via rapport building.

In addition to these ongoing micro level grievances, social work also perpetuates harm as a system. With non-profits being one of the main practice areas for social work, are they really not for profit if the majority of the funding they secure goes toward paying the staff; especially C-Suite Executives? Social workers earn their salaries off of the suffering of others, when that money could be given directly to those in need. In essence, this cycle puts social work front and center in the nonprofit industrial complex:

Businesses within an industrial complex were created to advance a social or political goal, but profit most when the goal is not reached.

Rather than taking the suggested bottom-up approach to activism and social justice work wherein the community identifies a need and works together to promote change, the nonprofit industrial complex creates a top-down relationship that causes nonprofits to engage with communities on the terms of the select few who have the most power. Any system that resides within capitalism will cause harm because of capitalism’s oppressive hierarchical nature, including social work. Even though social workers do good work, at the end of the day, the profession itself is hierarchical and therefore, until the money gets into the hands of the actual people who are struggling, social work will continue to be just as oppressive as the next.

So where do we go from here? It may sound elementary, but imagination may very well be the key to a brighter future. Using our imagination and then our creativity to build a society in which people’s basic needs are met seems utopian to most, but why not strive for a world in which social work ceases to be necessary? The same could be said about prisons. And even though white antislavery abolitionists were represented in the dominant media of the period as extremists and fanatics, the same was eventually said about slavery too.

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