As I enter my first year of graduate school as an MSW student, I am learning profession is an imperative part of my development as a future practitioner. The exposure to the histories and origins of social work have challenged my former perspective about what it means to be a social worker. My prior impression of social work before entering the program was based on the moral imperatives of compassion, nurturance and helping to be the core of the profession. My perspective was formed by observing social workers in settings that required “helper” services such as hospitals, communities, private therapy clinics.
I realize that my idea of social work minimized the impact of history, colonization and theory and how they have shaped the identity and practices of social workers. If I do not consider social work from a historical and political perspective, I will surely make the error of blaming clients and my practice will simply be reduced to assistance and support, individually and in isolation. I must target the inequalities related to gender, sexuality, class and race and their intersections to challenge the oppression clients face. To challenge oppression and inequality, I realize the importance of the awareness of my own social identity and privileges and how my social location can shape my assumptions of clients and groups.
Understanding the social work profession begins from understanding its origins and histories. My perception of social workers is one where they are helpers and although we are human and make mistakes, the idea that we could do harm is a painful realization for me. I will be working diverse and vulnerable populations and I am aware that my actions or inactions may be influenced by the status quo or stereotypes. The most notable example of this is visible in social workers actions towards “improving” the Indigenous people through cultural genocide.
“As interventions with Aboriginal children by non-Aboriginal helping professionals testify it is a delicate balance between freedom and dignity of individuals and societies at one end with cultural arrogance and oppression on the other.” The tension between social justice and social control is evident as social workers wanted to make the best decision for these individuals, but their decisions were bound in the dominant social work discourse influenced by colonization and Eurocentric ideology that suppressed Indigenous culture. As I become a social worker, I am aware that my perception of social justice may be framed by Western and Eurocentric ideologies, such as the idea that all children, regardless of culture, must receive a formal education to have more opportunities. My privileges of education, language, literacy shape my notions about how I help people, such as assuming the English language is essential for all Canadians to learn.
Earlier actions of assimilation and cultural hegemony are important aspects of social work for me to consider because they can affect the way I perceive clients in terms of my position of power. Social work was based on the premise that social workers were superior because they were innocent and good, and that others were less moral or civil but was really based on class, race, and religion. This resulted in disguised practice of regulation through the charity and caring of early social workers. An example of this would be the settler feminist who saw her white race as more valuable which qualified her to help people, such as immigrants from a lower-ranked race (Johnstone, 2018). The tension between charity and empowerment is apparent as social workers believed that their social assistance would empower people, but instead their social support initiatives were guided by colonial ideology, such as assimilation and exclusion, which were oppressive to those who did not follow the colonial perspective.
As a future social worker, this is significant to me because assimilation and cultural hegemony continue to be current issue, especially with immigrants. Although I consider myself Hispanic, my privilege comes from being a Canadian citizen where I have not experienced the political, social and economic barriers many immigrants and refugees experience. I must be considerate of power in relationships with clients and others and remember that my privilege and actions should emphasise acculturation rather then assimilation and that I be mindful about how Western ideologies, such as individualism, shape my ideas and responses. Although I believe in individualism in a sense that an individual can change their outcomes to a certain extent, I must consider and challenge the structural inequalities that impede development and progress. I must also be critical about my definition of race and what constitutes as being Canadian.
Being mindful that my definitions are a subjective construct and are shaped by governments and societal ideology will help me to be aware of stereotypes and bias. I continue to develop my role as a social worker by remembering the mistakes from the past and become critically conscious and critically reflective to challenge oppression and inequality. Previously, social workers demonstrated their good intentions by helping others but lacked critical consciousness and critical reflection making their efforts superficial and ineffective. In my role, I must practice critical consciousness by continually analyzing my interactions with clients and other social work professionals.
This awareness will help me to be cognizant of my thoughts and behaviours that perpetuate oppressive practices, such as the teacher/student trap where the social worker’s authority sets power over the client (Pitner ; Sakamoto, 2005). It is also imperative that as a social worker, I adopt an intersectional approach to my practice especially because gender, sexuality, class and race power relations may be normalized and invisible (Mattison, 2013). By understanding how these categories interact on different levels, I can challenge any stereotypes or normalized thinking to change oppressive conditions. Adopting this anti-oppressive perspective as a part of my professional identity, I can see myself in a collective role where I can challenge oppression from a micro perspective with clients to a macro perspective by challenging social structures and ideology with other social workers.