Seeing White: Turning the postcolonial lens on social work in Australia


  • Tanja Dittfeld The University of Sydney


Social work is a profession based on (White) Euro-American concepts, problems and historicity in which Indigenous knowledges and cultures are marginalised, and the effects of colonisation are obscured to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous social workers. Cultural competence is increasingly emphasised and expected of social work graduates internationally to make the voices, stories, and knowledges of Indigenous peoples who have been, and continue to be, marginalised heard. The conventional approach to cultural competence in social work is however problematic as it maintains rather than challenges the universality of Whiteness in Australia through a fixed gaze on the Indigenous ‘other’. To decolonise social work however requires a critical understanding of the development of social work identity and ideology within the context of colonialism and postcolonialism. The article subsequently argues for the use of postcolonial theory to shift the focus from the effects of colonisation on Indigenous peoples to the colonial origin and continued coloniality of the social work profession, practice and curriculum within Australia. The purpose of turning the postcolonial lens on social work is not to build an argument for non-White social work but to build an understanding from which social work can support the Indigenous struggle for self-determination, decolonisation and social justice.

Author Biography

Tanja Dittfeld, The University of Sydney

As a PhD candidate with the University of Sydney's School of Education and Social Work, I explore the broader conflicts over social change, political (state) power, and global hierarchies in which the (de)criminalisation of LGBT+ peoples in Uganda are embedded. I'm particularly interested in understanding the opportunities and constraints that these conflicts present for LGBT+ activists and organisations in Uganda, and how these are, in turn, negotiated and navigated. Prior to my PhD, I worked for public and not-for-profit organisations focusing on socially excluded populations such as sex workers, people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, people with disabilities, and LGBT+ persons in Denmark, Thailand, Uganda and Zambia. Most recently, I worked as a project manager for the AIDS-Foundation in Denmark.


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Beyond “cultural competency”: Confronting whiteness in social work