Advocacy in Action

Through the stories we share, the Admissions Team at Baylor University hopes to inspire and educate future leaders in social work.

Connecting the Dots: Social Work and Diversity

Written by Baylor School of Social Work Team on 06.3.22


At its core, a career in social work requires you to work with people who are vulnerable. You cross paths with people of all ages, races, gender identities, sexual orientations, incomes, religious beliefs, and capabilities. 

So understanding and embracing of diversity is key to making social workers better at what they do. 

But to understand how we can promote the incorporation of diversity into social work today, it’s important to take a look at how the connection between the two areas has evolved over the years

See all the ways social workers support diversity, equity, and inclusion >>


The History of Social Work and Diversity

The ethics of social work have always dictated that acceptance or tolerance of difference is crucial to the profession of social work. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that professional literature began to highlight how important it was to recognize race and ethnicity in social work.

Before this time, the goal of early social work was closer to assimilation. That is, bringing the values, behaviors, and norms of so-called “others” more in-line with White and Eurocentric ideals.

And while, in some areas, this cultural inferiority approach dominated the field until the early 1980s, social work began to evolve, new theories emerged, and new approaches were adopted, changing the profession for the better.

  •  The Color Blind Approach. Originated in the 1970s and ignores race-based differences. All members of society are seen as equal. Its weakness is that by ignoring race, you deny the existence of racism and racial inequality in society, including the reality of structural inequality and barriers to resources and opportunities in daily life. This also compromises the efficacy of service and the clinical relationship itself, as race is a critical component of one’s identity.

  • The Cultural Sensitivity Approach.  Focuses on the belief that practitioners should strive to acquire, develop, and use an “accurate cultural perceptual schema” when working across differences. In this approach, culture is divided into two main dimensions: surface (superficial characteristics, like music and food) and deep (social customs, history, traditions, etc.) structures. The weakness of this approach is that with cultural sensitivity, the effects of oppression and issues of race and class for people of color are disregarded. And when culture is viewed as something “others” have — White people (the mainstream) being cultureless — “culture” becomes a euphemism for race.

  • Anti-Racist Social Work. Originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and operates with the economic understanding of the link between race and power. Individual problems are due to an unjust society. While racial differences are biological in origin (and are themselves meaningless), race classifications are seen as socially constructed. Therefore, racism is a social attitude, introduced by those with power to justify (and continue) their exploitation of people without power. The weakness of this approach is that because antiracist social work is slow to produce change — especially at organizational and system levels — those who use it can become discouraged. Though race is critical to understanding oppression, antiracist social work ignores the other salient aspects of an individual’s identity that could result in marginalization.

  • Anti-Oppressive Practice. This approach embraces the idea that identity is complex and not necessarily singular. A person’s identity is formed, negotiated, and maintained through complicated, ever-evolving social processes. Rather than a sole focus on race, oppression is understood to happen whenever those in positions of power and privilege establish (and sustain) systems where some have access to power and resources, while others are marginalized. The weakness of this approach is there are plenty of interesting, useful discussions of how social workers incorporate anti-oppression into their practice. But there is little research (and therefore evidence) that points to its long-term effectiveness or impact on client outcomes.

  • Cultural Competence. From the 1990s to present times, cultural competence is an approach where social workers must demonstrate a particular level of self-awareness, knowledge, and skill related to the client’s ethnicity, race, religion, and cultural background. This is believed to work effectively across differences. The weakness of this approach is when you treat culture as something to be competent in, ethnicity and culture become something fixed. In addition, this approach in some ways connects back to the Cultural Sensitivity Approach, in the “othering” of culture — culture is something only people of color have.

The social work profession has come a long way, and it has more evolving to do. Regardless, diversity in social work is here to stay.

Embracing diversity may mean working through differences, not across. It means social workers and their clients working together with an honest appreciation for the implications of these differences in the life of the client. With the capacity to explore and address those cultural differences, power dynamics, and oppressive relationships, both client and social worker can move to a common space where new understanding results in positive outcomes.

With the capacity to explore and address those cultural differences, power dynamics, and oppressive relationships, both client and social worker can move to a common space where new understanding results in positive outcomes.


Making an Understanding of Diversity Part of Social Work Education

At Baylor University's Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, administrators, faculty, and students alike have come together to appoint a Race Equity Work Team. This team was designed to identify elements in the school that did not support DEI efforts, collaborate with the necessary parties, and facilitate meaningful change. 

Also, the school's DEI policy outlines it's overall antiracism approach, Anti-Oppressive Social Work method of Practice, Baylor in the Americas Initiative, and LGBTQ+ commitment to inclusion. 


Explore diversity, equity, and inclusion in social work, and learn more about how social workers support those initiatives



Posted by Baylor School of Social Work Team

We are the admissions team at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, at Baylor University. We believe social work is about service and justice; it is about the dignity of individuals and the power of relationships; it is about integrity and competence, and our mission here is preparing social workers to do these things well. We hope you find our resources helpful and informative as you explore and pursue a degree in social work!




If you're interested in learning more about the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work and the programs we have to offer, we invite you to reach out to our team! 

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