Interrogating the operation of empathy in social work with noncitizens


  • Chizuru Nobe-Ghelani York University


Based on interviews I conducted with social workers in Canada, this article offers a critique of empathy as a foundation of good social work. More specifically, I examine how empathic feelings produce the social worker as a knowing, moral and innocent subject in their work with noncitizens. Drawing on critical theories of affect and emotions that reconceptualise feelings as social practice, I examine how empathy facilitates proximity with and knowledge production about noncitizens among social workers. I attend to various historical lines of empathic feeling among differently positioned social workers and trace the concrete ways in which the feeling of empathy circulates and ‘sticks’, as social workers navigate exclusionary practices towards noncitizens. I argue that empathy, while imagined as an affective entry to minimising the professional–client distance, could instead function to secure social workers’ sense of innocence and morality, confirming their professional identity as facilitated by the script of whiteness.


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Beyond “cultural competency”: Confronting whiteness in social work