Social Workers, Privilege and Advocacy

advocacy Jun 03, 2020


While I’m writing this post about the Social Work profession, it’s also relevant for many other helping professions.


The International Federation of Social Workers published a post titled Time for a New Social Rights Revolution.



Social Workers are trained in Anti-Oppressive Practice and more importantly, Social Workers are people who have high levels of compassion and empathy and believe in the inherent dignity and worth of persons.   For these reasons we are well suited to advocate for equality.


Social Workers are also human and are having internal reactions to what is happening around the world with respect to the protests of systemic racism and violence through the Black Lives Matter movement. 


We need to reflect on any privileges we have experienced because of our race, gender, class, age, abilities, religion.  While we may not belong to all of the dominant groups in these categories, the fact that we have a post-secondary degree means we have certain privileges. 


If we are part of the dominant race in our community (white in North America) then part of our work in advocating for social rights is to acknowledge our privilege and reflect on any uncomfortable thoughts/feelings/urges that we experience when talking about the protests of systemic racism. 


Some Social Workers, who are part of the dominant race, are having the following thoughts/feelings/urges:


  • I’m nervous when race comes up in the conversation because I don’t want to say the wrong thing, use the wrong word/term or offend anyone. 


  • When I hear about people using violence, while asking for peace and equality, it doesn’t sit right with me.


  • I'm struggling to talk about race with my team when, as a white person,  I’ve never struggled with it.  I’m not sure how they will perceive my intentions or message.


  • I’m very uncomfortable when my clients say things that are racist and I struggle with my professional role to respect their worth and rights and provide non-judgemental support to help them.  When/how do I challenge and when do I support?


  • I work with other non-dominant races who feel their oppression is not being included in the protest, I'm not sure how to respond in a respectful way.


  • I know that I have benefited from my privilege and that as a Social Worker I try to advocate for change.  Work is always busy and I can barely keep up, so advocacy often gets dropped.  I feel ashamed of this. 


  • I have family/friends who, like me, in elementary and high school learned history from a white perspective.  We didn’t learn about the laws that the dominant population created to take land from Indigenous peoples and own slaves.  We didn’t learn how the government controlled resources (financing, health services, land) so that non-dominant races didn’t have equal access.  So while I learned this in Social Work, they didn’t and I see their indirect racism.  Sometimes I try to help them see the systemic racism and sometimes I’m too tired and then feel shame that I didn’t.


  • As Social Workers we are supposed to leave politics and religion out of our work and be neutral.  We shouldn’t be discussing this. 


  • I am going to leave the conversation/group because people are just arguing now.   


As a profession, if we want Social Workers to advocate and lead by example, we need to help Social Workers with these experiences.   We need actionable strategies to help Social Workers handle these experiences.  We cannot assume that because one has a Social Work degree that they know how to deal with this.  We know that if given the strategies, resources and support Social Workers will fight hard for equality. 


Social Workers, we need to do our internal work identifying any of these thoughts/feelings/urges and deal with the discomfort that comes with challenging them so we can take action.
We need to know about systemic oppression of non-dominant races in our countries and understand that rage is being felt for hundreds of years of pain.
As we learn and grow through this we will likely make mistakes and may offend people. And we will learn from that, apologize to those we offended and not do it again. That’s okay, we will be leading by example.


And Social Workers, you are being asked to do this while still trying to manage your own daily vulnerability, stress and grief from Covid-19.  Please see my other post on Staying Safely While Advocating For Anti-Racist Policies and find peer support.  


Want to learn more and take action? The doctoral student committee of The Society for Social Work and Research has created a list of resources and actions you can take to support the Black Lives Matter movement for human rights and the protest of systemic racism and violence.  CLICK HERE FOR THE LIST



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