Advocacy in Action

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

Why an Understanding of Diversity is Important to Social Work

Written by Baylor School of Social Work Team on 06.3.22

Standing against injustice, social workers defend and protect the disenfranchised, working with their advancement in mind. They are the proponents of equal rights; they’re the bastions of change.

At its core, the social work profession requires you to work with people in their most vulnerable moments. People of all ages, races, gender identities, sexual orientations, incomes, religious beliefs, and capabilities, mentally and physically. People who speak different languages; nonverbal people. People of all backgrounds. It’s up to you, as a social worker, to meet people where they are — and help from there.

Thus, an understanding and an embracing of diversity make social workers better at what they do. Diversity is paramount to success as a social worker — but it wasn’t always seen that way. 

Social work has evolved since its inception. And understanding the importance of diversity in social work — including what we can do to promote it in today’s landscape — requires a deeper dig into the past.

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


The History of Diversity in Social Work

Social work ethics has always stated that acceptance or tolerance of difference is crucial to the practice 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 then, the goal of early social work was closer to assimilation, 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 overall began to evolve, new theories emerged, and new approaches were adopted, changing the field for the better.

1. The Color Blind Approach

Main Ideas Beginning in the 1970s, this approach ignores race-based differences. All members of society are seen as equal.
Goal(s) of Intervention
  1. Promote equal opportunity
  2. Support people from diverse ethno-racial and cultural groups in achieving economic and social success
Strengths The Color Blind Approach acknowledges the inherent racism in prior social work practices.
Weaknesses 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.

1. The Cultural Sensitivity Approach

Main Ideas This approach espouses 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.
Goal(s) of Intervention Provide service informed by both surface and deep structures
Strengths The Cultural Sensitivity Approach emphasizes how important and relevant culture is to providing successful social work services.
Weaknesses 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 culture-less — “culture” becomes a euphemism for race.


3.  Antiracist Social Work

Main Ideas

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, antiracist social work operates with the economic understanding of the inextricable 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.

Goal(s) of Intervention

On individual, community, organizational, and structural levels, work to:

  1. Deconstruct systems that rely on racial divisions to function
  2. Reconstruct those systems in a more egalitarian way
Strengths Antiracist social work in and of itself highlights the issues related to race in care plans and social work delivery. Practitioners also gained an understanding of the experience and impact of racism in the lives of people of color and in the broader systems in which the relationships exist.
Weaknesses Because antiracist social work is slow to produce change, especially at organizational and system levels, those who use this approach 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.


4. Anti-Oppressive Practice

Main Ideas 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.
Goal(s) of Intervention
  1. Recognize the existence of oppression in its many varied forms
  2. Work at individual and system levels to overcome oppressive relationships and ensure a just society
Strengths Widening the definition of oppression allows a deeper understanding of marginalization, while still acknowledging the role of system-level inequities in contributing to problems at the individual level.
Weaknesses 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.


5.  Cultural Competence

Main Ideas From the 1990s to present times, Cultural Competence is an approach wherein 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 effectively work across differences.
Goal(s) of Intervention Deliver services at both the individual and organizational level that are appropriate and responsive to the cultural concerns of diverse groups
Strengths Cultural Competence responds to the needs of diverse populations and involves clients in the planning and delivery of social work services.

When you treat culture as something to be competent in, ethnicity and culture become something “fixed.” In addition, this approach in some ways hearkens back to the Cultural Sensitivity Approach, in the “othering” of culture — culture is something only people of color have.

There is also a lack of evidence linking cultural competence with positive health and mental health outcomes.

The social work field has come a long way, and it has more evolving to do. Diversity in social work is here to stay, though.

Embracing diversity may mean working through differences, not across: 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.


Diversity and Inclusion in Social Work Practice

Beyond the client and social worker relationship — beyond the theory that informs the care — is there equality and diversity in social work practitioners? 

As the US population becomes more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, some experts fear there will be a gap between the ideal and reality when it comes to social work education. To have a workforce that reflects the rapidly diversifying population, we need more diverse social work students taught by more diverse faculty.

The profession respects diversity; now the profession has to take the steps to reflect diversity.

-Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, President of Black Men at Penn, Inc.



Examples of Diversity in Social Work Education

After its founding in 2002, The Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc. works to strengthen the ties between the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Social Policy and Practice and the African American community. Their aim is to recruit African American males to the profession of social work. One way they do this is through workshops they hold at schools, libraries, recreation centers, and other community settings. These provide potential students with information about social work programs at UPenn and other schools. 

In addition to their mentoring, outreach, and intervention on the subjects of violence prevention/intervention, academic achievement, and anti-racism training for urban and suburban schools, they also provide group and individual psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for at-risk youth.

At the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, the Four Corners MSW program targets residents of tribal areas, especially those within southwestern Colorado. The program specializes in preparing students to meet the unique needs of rural and tribal communities. 25% of Four Corners students come from the region’s many Native tribes, and Native American faculty members teach some of the program’s courses.

And at Baylor University, 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. 

Their DEI policy outlines their overall antiracism approach, Anti-Oppressive Social Work method of Practice, Baylor in the Americas Initiative, and LGBTQ+ commitment to inclusion. Baylor is also committed to educating its staff and students on racial justice issues.


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!