‘Critical Consciousness’ in Social Work Education

Critical Consciousness is a term often said to be derived from the work of Paulo Freire in the 1960s. Freire’s critical consciousness approach was a response and an attempt to invert the ‘teacher-student trap’ in education and community activism, or as Freire stated,

“[t]he teacher teaches and the students are taught; the teacher knows every thing and the students know nothing; the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students.”

Rather than a top-down approach, a critical consciousness approach attempts to equalize power between ‘experts’ and ‘clients’ and thereby pre-empt social inequality and hierarchies being inadvertently re-inscribed by well-intentioned community advocates. It also poses unsettling questions about how much ‘experts’ really know about the experiences (of oppression) of ‘service users’ and whether such definitions meet their realities and the meanings given to these.

The concept of critical consciousness and has therefore often been used in social work pedagogy to push and enable social work students and practitioners to identify and navigate potential power differentials between themselves and their clients. Critical consciousness teachings support and complement an anti-oppression social justice social work practice—often invested in the “eradication of oppression through institutional and societal changes” (Donna Baines)—by continuously asking unsettling questions about whether and to what degree anti-oppression social work praxis truly is anti-oppressive.

Donna Baines, in her book Doing Anti-Oppressive Practice: Social Justice Social Work, emphasizes that social work is a “contested and highly political practice” that is not inherently liberatory. Anti-oppression theory is only one approach to social work, an approach viewing social problems and their solutions as shaped by one’s access to power and resources, and guided by notions of equity and justice; systemic change and empowerment is often the goal. Yet, other approaches are less political and “seek solutions by tinkering with the existing social system, applying managerial techniques to most or all social questions, or encouraging individuals to seek medical or psychological intervention for the problems they experience”; such approaches rarely address systemic issues and transformation.

Critical consciousness has been referred to the “process of continuously reflecting upon and examining how our own biases, assumptions and cultural worldviews affect the ways we perceive difference and power dynamics” (Sakamoto & Pitner) feeding, ideally, into the desire to actively change oppressive conditions.

Critical consciousness intervenes at multiple levels, such as our “professional training schema,” which may be thought of as “a cognitive roadmap that predisposes us to attend to information in a certain way” (Sakamoto & Pitner); we listen for ‘oppression,’ for instance, as part of anti-oppression training. This intervention is needed particularly when anti-oppression terminology has become a ‘buzzword’ or is ‘mainstreamed’ and has been internalized to the extent that we start to assume that what we are doing is anti-oppressive work, that service users are oppressed, and that we know what they need to be empowered and escape oppression.

As summarized by Sakamoto and Pitner,

“[w]hen social workers automatically frame service users’ problems in terms of oppression (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, ableism), they may inadvertently do so to the detriment of the needs of the service user. In fact, service users may not define their problems in these same terms. Thus, the service users’ … problems become transmuted into a mission that social workers (as the teachers) accept in order to address social injustice. If social workers (teachers) impart their knowledge on oppression to teach the ‘uneducated’ service users, it raises a further question: Who knows more about oppression? Those who teach it or those who live it? … [as a result] … social work students tend to … seek ‘correct’ solutions, ‘rather than seeing their own involvement as crucial to the outcome.’”

The concern that we inadvertently deepen inequality and hierarchies despite our efforts to do the opposite—i.e., to practice anti-oppression—therefore necessitates a fertile and generative grounding in critical consciousness practices. Unfortunately, as Sakamoto and Pitner caution, self-reflexivity may often be only a marginal addendum to anti-oppressive practice (‘AOP’). Consequently, the “ways in which social workers examine [themselves] with an analytic lens from multiple identities and oppression are often not articulated in detail, leaving social workers (and students) a challenging task, with few tools” (Sakamoto & Pitner).

In my own experience of studying at the School of Social Work at McGill, for instance, I have yet to take a course in which whiteness was critically analyzed as it relates to social work theory and practice; the tools that I did gather, I gathered largely on my own initiative or by chance.

I would like to distinguish between the terms ‘White’ and ‘Whiteness’ and find the definition provided on the RacialEquityTools website useful. As described on the website,

“[t]he term white, referring to people, was created by Virginia slave owners and colonial rules in the 17th century. It replaced terms like Christian and Englishman to distinguish European colonists from Africans and indigenous peoples. European colonial powers established whiteness as a legal concept after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, during which indentured servants of European and African descent had united against the colonial elite. The legal distinction of white separated the servant class on the basis of skin color and continental origin. The creation of ‘whiteness’ meant giving privileges to some, while denying them to others with the justification of biological and social inferiority …

… Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color. This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviors that some individuals may or may not demonstrate, and goes beyond naming specific privileges. Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined, and elevated through their racialization and the individual and collective consciousness’ formed within it (Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone). Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels. These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.”

Sara Ahmed, in her article ‘White Men,’ provides another useful definition, highlighting the institutional/cultural dynamics at play. She writes,

“[w]hen we talk of ‘white men’ we are describing an institution. ‘White men’ is an institution. By saying this, what I am saying? An institution typically refers to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. “White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.”

The lack of attention to theorizing whiteness not only makes it fade into the background, but also foregrounds non-white identities in problematic ways. It is worrying, for instance, that even master of social work (MSW) syllabi for courses engaging explicitly with diversity and social justice themes can operationalize the flawed assumption that “social workers are dominant group members and those with whom social workers engage as clients are members of nondominant social groups.” This finding is based on an interesting study published in 2019 by Gita Mehrotra and colleagues, called “A critical examination of key assumptions underlying diversity and social justice courses in social work.”

The authors assert that the syllabi that they analyzed “implicitly constructed social workers as white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, non-Indigenous, non-disabled, adults (not youth or seniors), who are U.S. citizens” and constructed the service user as the oppressed ‘Other’ about whom one needed to learn and theorize.

Course objectives and skills to-be-learned, for instance, “often highlight[ed] these socially-constructed categories creating a kind of ‘hypervisibility’ of oppressed groups within the courses’ frameworks which reinforces the assumption that social work students identify with U.S. dominant culture identities.”

Interestingly, while many syllabi emphasized self-awareness as mitigating oppression, words like white, whiteness, and/or white privilege were missing from the syllabi that the authors analyzed. This suggests that nothing much important could be gained from a critical inquiry of whiteness, thereby entrenching white supremacy; whiteness as the norm is established “in part by [its] absence and obfuscation” (Mehrotra et al). The experiences that non-white students bring into the classroom are thereby also marginalized and funneled through a curriculum whose audience they are not assumed to be.

Courses and pedagogical approaches, in contrast, that are designed with non-white students (also) in mind, would critically analyze the dynamics of whiteness and its role in perpetuating oppression: “in order to engage in true race dialogues, a humanizing violence must occur. Simply put, whites who are entrenched in whiteness must feel uncomfortable lest they be complicit in maintaining white supremacy” (Cheryl Matias).

This discomfort will not be felt if whiteness never becomes a matter of self-reflection in the classroom. Alternatively, the discomfort of whiteness will emerge indirectly and remain just beneath the surface of communicable awareness for lack of language. This dynamic is well explored in Natasha Stovall’s article, ‘Whiteness on the Couch.’ Stovall writes that,

“[a]n old saw about therapy is that the thing you don’t talk about is the thing. The therapist and patient together avoid this thing, this shameful and threatening thing. The thing is unconscious — sometimes partially, other times totally. You only know it by the silence and illogic that surrounds it, and the extremes to which the patient will go to erase any sign of it in their own mind, and in their therapist’s, too. The first step towards unpacking the thing is finding a way to talk about it. Just talk about it, moving step by careful step into a psychic place so raw that even acknowledging this unconscious thing is a threat to safety and sanity. Freud called this process “making the unconscious conscious” and it has defined psychotherapy ever since. What if whiteness is the thing?”

The inability of many white students to have, or feel comfortable having, complex conversations about whiteness surfaced when I presented on whiteness as a barrier to social work praxis in a course dedicated to ‘The Use of Self’; while students seemed generally to be curious about the content of my presentation, several white students admitted that they had never really reflected much or explicitly on whiteness despite having taking courses that explicitly adopted an anti-oppression lens.

The gap in awareness should underscore the importance of foregrounding critical consciousness, including race consciousness, in classrooms to ensuring that anti-oppressive practice, which emerged out of and was intended to serve the political projects of marginalized groups, remains useful to the(ir) pursuit of justice and equity.

The alternative to addressing this gap may be more of the status quo—a social work education, including diversity-focused courses, that remains primarily “about and for white subjects.” Mehrotra and colleagues note, for instance, that “[i]n her [2015] study focused on the experiences of social workers of color, Badwall found that most participants reflected that their social work education focused significantly on how white practitioners could work more effectively with populations of difference, while they received very little opportunity to reflect on the complexity of practicing social work as a person of color experiencing racism.”

The concern over whom social work courses (are intended to) benefit should also inspire us to ask difficult questions about other concepts that we have taken for granted as valuable learning objectives, and tease out the nuanced ways in which they might operationalize problematic assumptions and perpetuate hierarch and oppression. In an earlier blog post, I reflected, for instance, on cultural competency as one such ‘concept-turned-buzzword’ that can have problematic implications for social justice based social work practice.


Further Reading

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1997).

Izumi Sakamoto & Ronald O. Pitner, “Use of Critical Consciousness in Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice: Disentangling Power Dynamics at Personal and Structural Levels,” (2005) 35:4 The British Journal of Social Work 435.

Kevin K. Kumashiro, “Toward a theory of anti-oppression education”, (2000) 70 Rev of Educational Research 25.

Tim Moore, “Critical thinking: seven definitions in search of a concept”, (2013) 38:4 Studies in Higher Education 506.

Gita R. Mehrotra, Kimberly D. Hudson & Jen M. Self, “A critical examination of key assumptions underlying diversity and social justice courses in social work,” (2019) 30:2 Journal of Progressive Human Services 127.

Janet E. Helms, “I also Said, ‘White Racial Identity Influences White Researchers’”, (1993) 21:2 The Counseling Psychologist 240.

Joseph G. Ponterotto, “White Racial Identity and the Counseling Professional”, (1993) 21:2 The Counseling Psychologist 213.

Arianne E. Miller & Lawrence Joseph, “Whiteness as Pathological Narcissism”, (2009) 45:1 Contemporary Psychoanalysis 93.

Cheryl N. Grills, Enola G. Aird & Daryl Rowe, “Breathe, Baby, Breathe: Clearing the Way for the Emotional Emancipation of Black People,” (2016) 16:3 Cultural Studies 333.

Cheryl E. Matias, “‘And our Feelings Just don’t Feel it anymore’: Re-Feeling Whiteness, Resistance, and Emotionality,” (2014) 4:2 Understanding & Dismantling Privilege 135.

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