The magnitude of racial disparities in life outcomes (e.g., health, wealth), recent calls for antiracist social work, and the profession's ethics highlight the critical need for antiracist social work education; however, the social work curriculum often relies on the dated and reductionist model of cultural competence to respond to structural racism (Olcoń & Gulbas, 2018). This study aims to build initial evidence to support implementing and evaluating an antiracist social work curriculum.
Evidence suggests that students of color and white students experience social work programs differently (Singh, 2019). Additionally, Guest and colleagues (2017) indicate that two to three focus groups will likely identify 80% of themes on a topic among a relatively homogeneous sample. Therefore, we conducted eight focus groups stratified by self-identified race: Black participants (n=3); non-Black people of color participants (n=3); and white participants (n=2). Participants completed at least one semester in the MSW program or graduated from it. Focus group participants and facilitators' racial identities were concordant, with two to four participants in each group. We analyzed data using Guest and colleagues' (2012) applied thematic analysis for focus groups, specifically answering the research question, "What are the perceptions of social work students and alumni of one social work program in the Southern United States about their preparedness to engage in antiracist social work praxis?"
Across stratified focused groups, participants expressed urgency to address racism and lack of preparedness to engage in antiracist social work praxis. Focus on addressing racism in the curriculum was minimal, typically isolated to two courses focused on diversity in the local and global contexts. In the remaining courses, the focus on antiracism was inconsistent (instructor-dependent), often superficial ("checking the cultural competence box"), or absent. Developing skills for antiracist praxis required engagement in extracurricular activities. One white participant's statement summarizes, "I've definitely fallen behind [...] on keeping up with reading about [antiracism], just because I'm almost done with the program, and the thought of reading anything other than what I have to read is overwhelming. But once I graduate, I'm looking forward to going back into [antiracist literature]." All participants discussed "just-in-time" teaching during class as a missed opportunity to learn skills for antiracist praxis, emphasizing the professors' lack of responsiveness to racism occurring in class. The professors' behaviors toward students or failure to address racism in the classroom resulted in a differential impact on students based on their racial identity, with Black students experiencing the most harm. Participants recommended antiracism integration throughout the curriculum, emphasizing application and skills. These included role-plays, addressing racism in the classroom, engaging with antiracist practitioners, and analyzing experiences at practicum placement using the antiracist lens.
Conclusions and Implications:
Social work students and alumni report being eager but unprepared for antiracist praxis. Limited focus on antiracism in the MSW curriculum impacted all participants negatively, but the nature of the impact varied by race and ethnicity. Findings have implications for curriculum and instructor development, highlighting different learning needs based on students' racial and ethnic identities.