Background and Purpose:
This study explores whiteness in the wake of what is now commonly described as a “racial reckoning” in the United States following the highly public murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests over police violence and racial injustice. Specifically, this study interviews social work graduate students who do not
identify as white about whiteness today. With no directional hypothesis, but exploratory intent alone, the overarching objective is to obtain a clearer representation of the ways whiteness exists in the present day. The underlying rationale follows from issues of timing, method, and perspective. First, as mentioned, recent history makes a reevaluation of whiteness necessary both for the sake of social justice and in order to redress historical avoidance of critical reflection, as well as prevalent misunderstanding. Second, methodologically, research and scholarship on whiteness, to date, have relied almost exclusively upon either retrospective, secondary investigation or theoretical interventions; the former does not capture contemporaneous lived experience, and the latter, no matter how well it is supported, can ultimately only be speculative. Finally, as far as perspective is concerned, the overwhelming majority of writing on whiteness positions itself as either a self-reflective white critique of whiteness or an analysis from an ostensibly race-neutral vantage point, either of which fails to acknowledge or access insights unique to modes of subjectivity directly juxtaposed with whiteness. Taken together, these factors suggest that an interview-based study of whiteness in the here-and-now according to those who do not
identify as white stands to make a novel, important contribution to our understanding of whiteness.
Methods: This study draws on semi-structured, qualitative interviews with 30 social work master’s students, who identify as Black, Indigenous, or persons of color, in order to collect data capable of clarifying how to understand whiteness in the present moment. Participants are recruited from a population sampling frame that includes all 349 social work master’s programs registered with the Council on Social Work Education as fully accredited, conditionally accredited, or completing the pre-candidacy or candidacy stages of accreditation. These programs span all 50 U.S. states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and online social work education.
Results: Participants report their experiences with and perceptions of whiteness in three areas: social work curricula, their field placement work, and their graduate institutions. Within each of these areas, participants speak to their understandings of whiteness, its professional and personal effects, the relationship between whiteness and white persons in specified contexts, and instances of the potential for change to occur in these domains, for better or for worse. Interviews conclude during the late summer or early fall of 2022.
Conclusions and Implications: The results of these interviews incorporate viewpoints from previously overlooked and excluded populations; voices without which whiteness has never been fully apprehended, and whose lived experiences constitute an informational resource that is essential to the task which social justice demands—that we make sense of whiteness today. Clear implications follow for social work research, practice, and education, as well as racial justice initiatives more broadly.