Methods: A group of incoming first year white, mostly liberal-identifying MSW students (N = 139) were asked to provide open-ended responses to a vignette about a Black mother engaging with Child Protective Services. The vignette explores structural analysis and decision-making in response to real-world examples of structural racism and anti-Blackness. These data are from a larger multi-methodological, longitudinal study examining the effect of an immersive virtual experience of racism on empathy, structural analysis and decision making. The thematic analysis focused on racial projects or social work students making meaning of race and racism and how this informed their proposed actions.
Results: Thematic qualitative data analysis yielded two main categories Analysis Themes––how students interpret and make meaning of the vignette––and Action Themes––the actions students proposed based on their analytical frame. Analysis themes included considering injustice as a ‘glitch,’ positioning race and racism (ranging from not mentioning race to system-level understanding of racism), evaluating deservedness, and the use of analytical binaries (i.e. (un)just, (in)appropriate, (un)fair). Action themes included students positioning themselves as information gatherers/investigators, advocates, educators, neutral critiquers, service providers, and compliance officers.
Conclusions and Implications: This study provides key insights into how incoming white liberal social work students make meaning of race and racism in everyday practice and also alludes to gaps in student understanding of structural racism and their efficacy for anti-oppressive practice. This analysis allowed for a baseline assessment of racial projects embedded in the everyday practices of white liberal social work students, which serve as a critical site for better understanding the ways social work practice perpetuate systems of oppression. Moving forward, social work education must take into account a misalignment in student knowledge and skills as anti-oppressive practitioners when training future social workers. Analyzing the perceptions and intentions of incoming white liberal social work students is necessary for any effort to deconstruct manifestations of the neoliberal racial project in future social workers and the profession as a whole.