Abstract: Confronting Whiteness: White U.S. Social Work Students' Experiences of Studying Abroad in Africa (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

518P Confronting Whiteness: White U.S. Social Work Students' Experiences of Studying Abroad in Africa

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Katarzyna Olcon, PhD, Social Work Lecturer, University of Wollongong, Liverpool, Australia
Dorie Gilbert, PhD, Professor and MSW Program Director, Norfolk State University, Norfolk, VA
Rose Pulliam, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor, Texas State Univerity, San Marcos, TX
Background and Purpose: Despite the Eurocentric foundation of social work and the overrepresentation of Whites as social work practitioners, students, and educators in the United States, the profession has engaged in limited dialogue and research about Whiteness including Whiteness as an identity, ideology, and power structure present in every aspect of U.S. society. This omission has implications not only for the way social work students are taught about their profession, but also how White students engage with racially and ethnically diverse individuals and communities. This study examined the experiences and responses of White social work students as they became exposed to and learned about Whiteness during a study abroad program in an African country. It further explored the impact of these learning experiences on the students’ racial identity, their understanding of global racial inequalities and commitment to anti-racism in social work practice.

Methods: Using a case study methodology, the data presented draw from ethnographic observations during the study abroad program conducted by the first author, individual, in-depth interviews three months after the program, and written journals of eight White social work students. Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and coded. The data analysis process was managed through NVivo and guided by elements of a narrative inquiry framework to organize and examine meaning in the participants’ stories. The first author incorporated the analysis of her positionality and how it has shaped her relationship with the study participants.

Results: We identified four story types of how the students responded to the new and difficult learning and exposure to the history of racial oppression and White dominance such as slavery and colonization as well as interactions with African American and African peers. These stories expose a continuum of reactions and outcomes: 1) avoidance of self-reflection and dialogue about Whiteness, 2) “turnaround” from defensiveness and resistance to a strong desire and first steps towards becoming a White ally, 3) humility and openness to an in-depth self-critique, and 4) “back and forth” between building a new, non-oppressive identity and acting on White privilege and resisting critical self-reflection. Nevertheless, a commonality among all the story types was an acknowledgement that their experiences in Africa were extremely “eye-opening” and provoked intense learning and consciousness-raising about Whiteness and race, which many expressed was missing from their educational experiences in the United States.

Conclusions and Implications: Social work’s multicultural education is incomplete without adequate discussion of Whiteness and the aim to move White students to a place where they can actively and competently engage in anti-racism advocacy. This paper concludes with several implications for teaching about Whiteness in social work classrooms, including: (1) engagement with critical Whiteness studies; (2) not placing the responsibility on students of color to educate White students about Whiteness; and (3) effective management of students’ emotional responses when teaching about Whiteness. Considering the current political climate in the United States, the increased “othering” of people with marginalized identities, and the rise of white supremacy movements, critical Whiteness pedagogy is more important than ever in social work education.