Wringing Out the “Whitewash”

Confronting the Hegemonic Epistemologies of Social Work Canons (Disrupting the Reproduction of White Normative)


  • Anna Ortega-Williams CUNY
  • Denise McLane-Davison




Anti-Black Racism, Womanist, Historical Trauma, Dismantling White Supremacy


In the 21st Century context of violent racial divides, dismantling racism in social work education requires deep trust that social transformation and healing is possible. “Wringing out the whitewash” metaphorically captures the heavy labor of interrupting the rigid Eurocentric epistemological hegemony undergirding the pedagogy, research, and praxis canons of social work. It requires rigorous attempts to unsettle and decenter entrenched white supremacist ideology, assumptions, and values. In this labor, we create space for the multiple identities and worldviews that students and professors occupy to reshape educational encounters. In this paper, we present our critical pedagogical approaches as Black social work educators committed to liberation and healing. We articulate how our positionalities as Black cisgender women at urban universities, one a Northeastern Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and another at a Northeastern public university, facilitate our intentions to honor truth-telling and intergenerational interdependence. We present differences and similarities in how we use assignments to disrupt the institutional reproduction of racism, provide solace for repair and healing, and re-center collective identity as strength. We present transdisciplinary frameworks shaping our pedagogical choices, namely historical trauma and urban womanist social work pedagogy. Implications for the future of social work education will be discussed.


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Rev. ed.). The New Press.

Asante, M. K. (1991). Afrocentric curriculum. Education Leadership, 49(4), 28-31.

Baker-Bell, A. (2017). For Loretta: A Black woman literacy scholar’s journey to prioritizing self-preservation and Black feminist-womanist storytelling. Journal of Literacy Research. 49(4), 526-543. https://doi.org/10.1177/1086296x17733092

Bent-Goodley, T., Fairfax, C., & Carlton-LaNey, I., (2017). The significance of African-centered social work for social work practice. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 27, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2016.1273682

Bostic, P., & Manning, K. (2013). Learning to (re)member the things we’ve learned to forget: Endarkened feminisms, spirituality, and the sacred nature of research and teaching. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(1), 131-136. https://doi:10.1080/09518398.2013.834391

Bowles, D. D., Hopps, J. G., & Clayton, O. (2016). The impact and influence of HBCUs on the social work profession. Journal of Social Work Education,52(1), 118-132. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2016.1112650

Brave Heart, M. Y. H. (1998). The return to the sacred path: Healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the Lakota through a psychoeducation group intervention. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 68(3), 287-305. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377319809517532

Brave Heart, M. Y. H., Chase, J., Elkins, J. E., & Altschul, D. B. (2011). Historical trauma among Indigenous peoples of the Americas: Concepts, research, and clinical considerations. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43(4), 282-290. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2011.628913

Brice, T. S., & McLane-Davison, D. (2020). The strength of Black families: The elusive ties of perspective and praxis in social work education. In A.N. Mendenhall & M. Mohr Carney (Eds.), Rooted in strengths: Celebrating the strengths perspective in social work (pp. 25-37). University of Kansas Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/1808/30023

Byrd, B. (2016, August 13). The Black intellectual tradition and the myth of objectivity. Black Perspectives. AAIHS. https://www.aaihs.org/the-black-intellectual-tradition-and-the-myth-of-objectivity/

Carlton-LaNey, I. (1999). African American social work pioneers’ response to need. Social Work, 44(4), 311-321. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/44.4.311

Carlton-LaNey, I., & Burwell, N. Y. (2014). African American community practice models: Historical and contemporary responses. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315792941

Carter, C. S., & College, J. (2005). African-centered rituals: Reflections of social work practice students. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 11(1), 18-24.

Chunn, J. C. (1975, April). Promises of power: Actual and potential. Promises of Power: Actual and Potential. Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference of the National Association of Black Social Workers. In the National Association of Black Social Workers, Inc. C. C. T. Press. Collection, Beulah M. Davis Special Collections Room, Earl S. Richardson Library, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland.

Collins, P. H. (1998). Intersections of race, class, gender, and nation: Some implications for Black family studies. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 29(1), 27-36. https://doi.org/10.3138/jcfs.29.1.27

Council on Social Work Education [CSWE]. (2015, July 15). Educational policy and accreditation standards: Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs. https://www.cswe.org/getattachment/Accreditation/Accreditation-Process/2015-EPAS/2015EPAS_Web_FINAL.pdf.aspx

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43, 1241-1299. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039

Crewe, S. E., Brown, A. W., & Gourdine, R. M. (2008). Inabel Burns Lindsay: A social worker, educator, and administrator uncompromising in the pursuit of social justice for all. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 23(4), 363-377. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109908323974

Crutchfield, J., Fisher, A., & Webb, S. (2017). Colorism in police killings of unarmed African Americans: A retrospective descriptive analysis from 1999-2014. Western Journal of Black Studies, 41(3), 1-20.

DeGruy-Leary, J. A. (2005). Post-traumatic slave syndrome. America’s legacy of enduring injury and healing. Uptone Press.

Dillard, C. B. (2016). Turning the ships around: A case study of (re)membering as transnational endarkened feminist inquiry and praxis for Black teachers, Educational Studies, 52(5), 406-423. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131946.2016.1214916

Diop, C. A. (1974). The African origins of civilization: Myth or reality? Lawrence Hall.

Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the Earth. Grove Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.

Garver, K. L., & Garver, B. (1991). Eugenics: Past, present, and future. American Journal of Human Genetics, 49, 1109-1118.

Gary, L. E., & McClure, J. (1969). The new resources for Black social work training. Inside and outside the system. Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the National Association of Black Social Workers. In the National Association of Black Social Workers, Inc. Collection, Beulah M. Davis Special Collections Room, Earl S. Richardson Library, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Gilbert, G. (1974). The role of social work in Black liberation. The Black Scholar, 6(4), 16-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.1974.11431481

Harvey, A. R. (Ed.). (2018). A reader of Afri-centric theory and practice: Philosophical and humanistic writings of Aminifu R. Harvey. Third World Press Foundation.

hooks, b., & West, C. (1991). Black women intellectuals. In b. hooks & C. West (Eds.), Breaking bread: Insurgent Black intellectual life (Chapter 9, pp. 147-164). South End Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315437095

Howard, S. (2017). Social work in the Black community: A collective response to contemporary unrest. The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 44(1), 81-97. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jssw/vol44/iss1/7

Huckaby, M. F. (2013). Much more than power: The pedagogy of promiscuous Black women. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(5), 567-579. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2013.786843

Hunter, M. (2007). The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociological Compass, 1(1), 237-254. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00006.x

Hutchinson, E. D. (Ed.). (2015). Dimensions of human behavior: Person and environment (5th ed.). Sage.

Jaggers, G. (2003). “That rare moment in history”: A documented history of the formation of the NABSW [Self-published]. Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Annual Conference of the National Association of Black Social Workers. In the National Association of Black Social Workers, Inc. Collection, Beulah M. Davis Special Collections Room, Earl S. Richardson Library, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Jemal, A. (2018). Transformative consciousness of health inequities: Oppression is a virus and critical consciousness is the antidote. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 3(4), 202-215. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41134-018-0061-8

Jennings, M. E., & Lynn, M. (2005). The house that race built: Critical pedagogy, African-American education, and the reconceptualization of a critical race pedagogy. Educational Foundations, 19(3-4). https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320902995467

Johnson, A. E. (1978, May). Roots: Reflections of the NABSW ten years later. A week of history. Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Conference of the National Association of Black Social Workers. In the National Association of Black Social Workers, Inc. Collection, Beulah M. Davis Special Collections Room, Earl S. Richardson Library, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Johnson, A. E. (1991). The sin of omission: African American women in social work. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 1(2), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1300/j285v01n02_01

Jones, L. V. (2015). Black feminisms: Renewing sacred healing spaces. Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work, 30(2), 246-252. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109914551356

Kaur, H. (2020, November 26). Indigenous people across the US want their land back and the movement is gaining momentum. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/25/us/indigenous-people-reclaiming-their-lands-trnd/index.html

Kelley, R. D. (2002). Freedom dreams: The Black radical imagination. Beacon Press.

King, J. E. (2017). Education research in the black liberation tradition: Return what you learn to the people. The Journal of Negro Education, 86(2), 95-114. https://doi.org/10.7709/jnegroeducation.86.2.0095

King, M. L., Jr. (1986). Remaining awake through a great revolution. In J. M. Washington (Ed.), In the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr (pp. 268-279). Harper.

Maparyan, L. (2012). The womanist idea. Routledge.

Marr, V. L. (2015). Ditchin’ the master’s gardening tools for our own: Growing a womanist methodology from the grassroots. Feminist Teacher, 24(1-2), 99-109. https://doi.org/10.5406/femteacher.24.1-2.0099

Martin, J. M. & Martin, E. P. (1985). The helping tradition in the Black family and community. National Association of Social Workers.

McGee, E. O., & Stovall, D. (2015). Reimagining critical race theory in education: Mental health, healing, and the pathway to liberatory praxis. Educational Theory, 65, 491-511. https://doi.org/10.1111/edth.12129

McLane-Davison, D. (2017). Emancipatory engagement: An urban womanist social work pedagogy. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 27(5), 474-486. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2016.1273158

Morrison, T., St. John, P., Callahan, Jo., Callahan, Ju., & Baker, L. (1975, May 30). Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2 [Panel discussion]. Special Collections: Oregon Public Speakers; Portland State University. http://archives.pdx.edu/ds/psu/11309

Mullings, L. (2000). African-American women making themselves: Notes on the role of Black feminist research. Souls, 2(4), 18-29. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999940009362233

NABSW. (n.d.). NABSW code of ethics. https://www.nabsw.org/page/CodeofEthics

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of ethics (Original work published 1996). https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

Ortega-Williams, A., Crutchfield, J., & Hall, J. C. (2019). The colorist-historical trauma framework: Implications for culturally responsive practice with African Americans. Journal of Social Work, 0(0), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468017319890083

Perlow, O., Wheeler, D. I., Bethea, S. L., & Scott, B. M. (2018). Black women’s liberatory pedagogies: Resistance, transformation, & healing within and beyond the academy. Palgrave MacMillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-65789-9

Phillips, L., & McCaskill, B. (1995). Who’s schooling who? Black women and the bringing of the everyday into the academe, or why we started “The Womanist.” Signs, 20(4), 1007-1018. https://doi.org/10.1086/495031

Reid-Merritt, P. (2010). Righteous self-determination: The Black social work movement in America. Imprint Editions.

Reisch, M. (1998). The sociopolitical context and social work method, 1890-1950. Social Service Review, 72, 2, 161-181. https://doi.org/10.1086/515748

Richards, D. M. (1994). Let the circle be unbroken: The implications of African spirituality in the diaspora. Red Sea Press.

Rivas, J. (2017). Solidarity in Standing Rock. World Policy Journal, 34(4), 62-75. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/686278.

Schiele, J. (1996). Afrocentricity: An emerging paradigm in social work practice. Social Work, 41(3), 284-294. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/41.3.284

Schiele, J. (2017). The Afrocentric paradigm in social work: A historical perspective and future outlook, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 27(1-2), 15-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2016.1252601

Schultz, K., Cattaneo, L. B., Sabina, C., Brunner, L., Jackson, S., & Serrata, J. V. (2016). Key roles of community connectedness in healing from trauma. Psychology of Violence, 6(1), 42-48. https://doi.org/10.1037/vio0000025

Small, Z. (2018, November 28). Betye Saar washes the congenial veneer off a sordid history. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/471941/betye-saar-washes-the-congenial-veneer-off-a-sordid-history/

Sotero, M. M. (2006). A conceptual model of historical trauma: Implications for public health practice and research. Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice, 1(1), 93-108.

St. Julien, J. (2020, February 21). The Atlanta Washerwoman Strike of 1881: A lesson in unity and persistence. New America. https://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/blog/atlanta-washerwoman-strike-1881/

Stevens, C. S. (2003). Unrecognized roots of service-learning in African American social thought and action, 1890-1930. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 9(2), 25-34. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/p/pod/dod-idx/unrecognized-roots-of-service-learning-in-african-american.pdf?c=mjcsl;idno=3239521.0009.203;format=pdf

Sy, F. W. (2013). The artist, the activist, the academic: Building a critical pedagogy of embodied knowledge. Reflections: Narratives of the Helping Profession, 19(3), 7-20. https://reflectionsnarrativesofprofessionalhelping.org/index.php/Reflections/article/view/125/1128

Vakalahi, H. F. O., Starks, S. H., & Hendricks, C. O. (Eds.). (2007). Women of color as social work educators: Strengths and survival. CSWE Press.

Viglione, A., Chirico, G. B., Komma, J., Woods, R., Borga, M., & Blöschl, G. (2010). Quantifying space-time dynamics of flood event types. Journal of Hydrology, 394(1-2), 213-229. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.05.041

Walls, M. L., & Whitbeck, L. B. (2012). Advantages of stress process approaches for measuring historical trauma. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 38(5), 416-420. https://doi.org/10.3109/00952990.2012.694524

Walters, K. L., Beltrán, R., Huh, D., & Evans-Campbell, T. (2011). Dis-placement and dis-ease: Land, place, and health among American Indians and Alaska Natives. In Burton L. M., Kemp, S. P., Leung, M., Matthews S. A., & Takeuchi, D. T. (Eds.), Communities, neighborhoods, and health: Expanding the boundaries of place (pp. 163-199). Springer. https://doi.org/10.3109/00952990.2012.694524

Walters, K. L., Johnson-Jennings, M., Stroud, S., Rasmus, S., Charles, B., John, S., Allen, J., Keawe’aimoko Kaholokula, J., Look, M. A., de Silva, M., Brooks, J., Noonan, C. W., Belcourt, A., Quintana, E., Semmens, E. O., Boulafentis, J. (2020). Growing from Our Roots: Strategies for Developing Culturally Grounded Health Promotion Interventions in American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Communities. Prevention Science, 21, 54-64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-018-0952-z

Wang, J. (2004). Race, gender, and laundry work: The roles of Chinese Laundrymen and American Women in the United States, 1850-1950. Journal of American Ethnic History, 24(1), 58-99. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27501531

Wells-Wilbon, R., McPhatter, A., & Vakalahi, H. O. (Eds.). (2016). Social work practice with African Americans in urban environments. Springer Publishing.

Whitbeck, L. B., Adams, G. W., Hoyt, D. R., & Chen, X. (2004). Conceptualizing and measuring historical trauma among American Indian people. American Journal of Community Psychology, 33(3-4), 119-130. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:ajcp.0000027000.77357.31

Williams, C. (1987). Destruction of Black civilization: Great issues of a race from 4500BC to 2000AD. Third World Press.

Young, W. M. (1968, May 26). Reason and responsibility in the elimination of bigotry and poverty. In Proceedings of the 95th Annual National Conference on Social Welfare (pp. 141-156). Columbia University Press.

Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States. Harper Collins.