A Critical Perspective on Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and Social Justice in Social Work


  • Autumn Asher BlackDeer Washington University in St. Louis, Brown School of Social Work
  • Maria Gandarilla Ocampo Washinton University in St. Louis, Brown School of Social Work




social justice, social work education, code of ethics, white supremacy, settler colonialism, antiracism, social work practice


To date, social work continues to be a predominantly white-dominated profession; this is true across all levels of the profession’s current and aspiring membership, including students, practitioners, and faculty members. This racial composition is remnant of our profession’s history of upholding white supremacy and legacy of white saviorism. Not surprisingly, foundational teachings of social work center and champion white women (e.g., Jane Addams) while neglecting the important contributions of Black and Brown social workers to the profession. The harm done by continuing and upholding these practices extends to all spheres that social work education touches, directly or indirectly. While the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics would lead one to think of social work as a noble profession, the reality demonstrates that we continually fall short of that reputation. Social work education is guilty of exploiting vulnerable and marginalized communities for the benefit of the profession under the guise of promoting social justice. For example, field placement, a cornerstone of social work education, continues to send mainly white students into communities of color for the purposes of learning, often treating the community as guinea pigs in the pursuit of white knowledge through experiential learning. Although in the long run, field placements can have some benefits for communities, we need to be more critical about the practices we engage in and the ways in which they fail to advance social justice and reinforce the status quo. We are at a pivotal moment in our profession as we reckon with the dissonance between our preaching and practice. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the many ways in which social work education haphazardly 1) perpetuates colonialism and upholds white supremacy, 2) harms marginalized communities, and 3) fails to model our code of ethics. We make a call for serious introspection within the field of social work: to evaluate the power dynamics at play, reckon with our past, and plan for a profession that strengthens and lives up to its commitment to social justice. We conclude with recommendations for transformative change within the social work profession.


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