Social work is a profession that revolves in and around systems of oppression, so conversations about microaggressions should be frequent within the field. Discussions about how microaggressions affect clients are fairly common, but the dialogue rarely shifts to reflect on how social workers (and social work students) experience microaggressions within the field--from their clients, social work faculty, supervisors, school curriculum, and even their fellow social workers.
One Michigan social work student reflected, “In social work, there’s an awareness of the importance of pronouns and gender identity. Numerous instructors and social work students have their pronouns in their bios and email signatures, but their pronouns are rarely respected or used for students who identify as gender non-binary.”
Another student echoed these concerns. “A classmate of mine (who identifies as non-binary) told me that a professor refused to call them by anything other than their legal name that was present on the class roster, even though they always go by a more gender-neutral name. The professor also refused to acknowledge them with gender neutral pronouns and consistently used ‘her.’”
These stories are not uncommon, and the implications for our profession are concerning. If social work faculty are exemplifying behaviors that are disrespectful towards students with diverse identities, their students are sure to notice. Not only do these actions set a terrible example for budding professionals, but they also directly oppose the core values of competence and the dignity and worth of every person.
So, what can we do? One student advises that “There needs to be more education about gender identity and issues pertinent to the LGBTQ+ community. Professors, students and field instructors need greater diversity training.”
Another student suggests that “A larger discussion about microaggressions needs to be had in the field of social work. I don't believe that this long-standing professor lacks the knowledge about non-binary people but rather that they either 1) don't understand how important it is to respect people's gender or 2) they just flat-out don't respect their gender. Both of these issues could be solved with a larger ongoing discussion, where they could understand.”
The students’ proposed solution is valuable and reasonable: increased education and diversity trainings in schools of social work around the state. Though events and educational opportunities concerning the LGBTQ+ community are becoming more common, the T often takes a back seat in the conversation; efforts to understand gender identity get overshadowed by efforts to discuss sexual orientation (this is sometimes referred to as “the invisible T”). Both topics are more than worthy of our attention as social workers and students of social work. Careful attention needs to be paid to each group in the LGBTQ+ community in order to be culturally competent and ethical professionals.
Though this article has focused specifically on microaggressions based on gender identity, there are several other intersections should be considered: sexual orientation, race, class, gender, educational and professional status, religion, mental health, physical ability, nationality, language, and age. There is a critical need for more research on microaggressions in the field of social work in all of these areas. As a profession, we claim the values of social justice and an appreciation for diversity, but our schools and professional environments do not always wholly reflect that. Schools of social work must critically examine their program policies and curriculum guides and account for diverse perspectives and inclusive content; they also need to ensure that faculty and staff are properly trained and informed on diverse identities. This is an important way to make certain that each cohort of practitioners is equipped with the knowledge to both sensitively serve their clients and to contribute to the betterment of the broader society.
Storytelling is a valuable tool for teaching and learning. Do you have a personal story about microaggressions in social work that you would like NASW Michigan to share? Share your story with NASW-Michigan at https://bit.ly/2CDWsNj, along with your recommendations for improvement in our field.