What is the epitome of white privilege

Social work as a white * space - a critical whiteness perspective on social work in post-migrant society


Many social work institutions still represent white * spaces in a (post) migration society. This text explores the question of why this is so. He first gives a historical overview of how migration-related differences are dealt with, which shows that the issues of racism and power relations have long formed a void that is now being addressed by Critical Whiteness Studies. These focus on the white * dominance culture and reveal how "the completely unsuspicious, well-meaning subject in the middle of society" unconsciously re / produces racism. Subsequently, a qualitative study on the importance of whiteness in social work is presented, which uses narrative interviews with social workers to analyze how they contribute to making social work a white * space and themselves complicit in the colonialism of power . However, social work as a human rights profession can find its way out of this situation contrary to mandate.


Many social work institutions still represent white * spaces in (post-) migration societies. This text looks at why. First of all, a historical overview of the handling with migration-related differences is given, which shows that the issues of racism and power relations have long been a void. This is followed by an introduction to critical whiteness studies, which address this void, look at the white * culture of dominance and reveal how “the completely unsuspicious, well-meaning subject in the middle of society” unconsciously re / produces racism. A qualitative study of the importance of whiteness in social work is then presented. Using narrative interviews with social workers as an example, we analyze how they help to make social work a white * space and become accomplices of the coloniality of power. Finally, it shows ways in which social work, as a human rights profession, can find out from this non-mandated situation.

On the history of dealing with post-migration societal differences

Social work in German-speaking societies can still be seen as white *Footnote 1 Space. Even if many people with migration and racism experience are interested in this discipline as a human rights profession and want to study, practice or do research and teaching, the field is dominated by whites *. However, this fact is de-thematized. A critical discourse on structural racism in social work is only slowly developing. The fact that this critical discourse takes place relatively late in an international and European comparison is due, among other things, to National Socialism (NS). After 1945 it seemed as if the shock of the fascist racism was so deep in society that one no longer has to talk about racism. There was therefore no noteworthy reappraisal in Germany until the 1960s, and even after that, racism was only seen as a problem on the fringes of society, with "perpetrators" from circles of right-wing radicalism and "victims" who were seen as "foreigners" were considered. In Austria, to this day, people do not feel responsible for the Nazi racism and position themselves politically as its victim, although the traces of Austrofascism in politics extend into contemporary right-wing populism. Switzerland's principle of neutrality was undermined during the Second World War through cooperation with the Nazi regime, and there were quite a few supporters of Hitler's policy in German-speaking Switzerland. But there, too, the reappraisal after 1945 did not play a significant role.

Up until the 21st century, the terms race * and racism were taboo in social discourse. The attempt to end the meaning of the category race * for general thinking with this taboo failed. Racism remained omnipresent, only there was no longer any language to adequately address it. The preferred terms “xenophobia” or “xenophobia” do not describe what is happening. The targets of violent attacks or everyday racism are not white * Swedes or white * Canadians, but Afro-Germans, "Albanian Austrians" or "Turkish Swiss". The reason for the exclusion and hostility is not the supposed foreignness, but the imagination of a dangerous difference, which is marked by phenotypic or culturalist-racial characteristics such as an accent, a name that does not sound German or a non-Christian (secularized) religious affiliation - in short: race * .

According to the racial theories of the 18th and 19th centuries, it is still imagined that whiteness * means to be (western and northern) European. According to this order, people who have a white * skin color, but are, for example, “Slavic”, Muslim or Jewish, are imagined as “off-white”. Blacks * represent the starting point on this racist scale as "primitiveness" and the opposite pole to whites *; The latter emerge from this order as the epitome of civilization.

The pedagogical concepts for dealing with (post-) migration societal differences reflect the de-thematization of racism. The first of these concepts was the so-called foreigner education, which was developed in the 1970s in response to the realization that the children of the so-called guest workers, who were living in Germany from the mid-1950s and in Austria from the early 1960s recruited that could no longer be ignored in educational institutions. The compensatory, deficit-oriented and assimilatory approach of this pedagogy (cf. Mecheril 2010; Nohl 2006, p. 17 ff .; Krüger-Potratz 2005, p. 121 ff.) Came under fire in the 1980s and was implemented in the 1990s the so-called "intercultural pedagogy" replaced.

However, it quickly emerged that the difference-as-problem thinking had extended into “interculturality”. Instead of, as the term suggests, addressing the “between” the “cultures” in the form of exchange and development as well as the potentials and opportunities that arise from differences, but also commonalities (cf. Terkessidis 2010), were - and will be still - “cultures” homogenized, understood as static entities and arranged hierarchically. How self-evident and often completely unreflected is the “Western”, Christian-secularized “culture” as the norm, from which all other “cultures” deviate and as such are “special” and their subjects are “changed”. The successful program "Interculturality" culminates conceptually in "Intercultural Competence", the participants - mostly belonging to the normatively dominant "culture" - in corresponding courses from adult education courses to university courses through supposed knowledge of the "others" certainties about how to deal with migration-related difference suggests. “Interculturality” has become a strategy, euro- and androcentric Dominancecultures (Rommelspacher 1995) without exposing oneself to the accusation of doing just that - after all, "Interculturality ”has become“ cross-sectional competence ”in the educational landscape of these“ cultures ”(critical to this, among others. Hamburger 2012; Castro Varela 2012; Freise 2005; Eppenstein 2003). If one scratches the surface of discourses about culture or ethnicity, race * usually appears underneath (Seshadri-Crooks 2000); “Culture” has become the “language hiding place” (Leiprecht 2001) for racism.

Up into the 21st century, the mainstream of intercultural concepts was characterized by the fading out of racism and power relations and thus contributed to their stabilization. There are now a number of new approaches that aim to overcome the deficits of intercultural concepts and also leave the term behind, such as social justice (Czollek et al. 2009), criticism of racism (Melter and Mecheril 2009), diversity-conscious pedagogy (Leiprecht 2011) or post-migrantism Perspectives (Foroutan et al. 2018; Yildiz and Hill 2015; Foroutan 2013; Langhoff 2011). Critical Whiteness Studies are one of these approaches, whereby they see themselves less as a concept than as a critical perspective. The term of the post-migrant society refers inter alia. to the fact that many people are referred to as migrants who have no migration experience at all, but were born and raised in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, but whose ancestors migrated. The term thus refers to the problem of the lack of “willingness to integrate” of the white * dominant culture due to its racism. Since this text deals with the situation of migrants as well as “post-migrants”, the spelling “(post-) migrant” is also used.

Critical whiteness

Critical Whiteness arose in the nexus of the confrontations with racism and feminism as the theory and practice of hegemonic self-reflection and represents an epistemological critique at the core of its academic field - Critical Whiteness Studies. Critical Whiteness Studies mark a paradigm shift in research on racism. Triggered by those who were seen as objects and “victims” of racism, the finger that had previously pointed to them and perpetrators in the form of right-wing extremists is now directed towards the subjects of racism - those who perpetuate it and often do so against their will and despite better knowledge. The focus is on the completely unsuspicious white * subject in the middle of society. Accordingly, the text at hand addresses precisely this subject and takes his perspective. It is the task of whites * to overcome racism, because they are its protagonists and the ultimate beneficiaries of racism as a social structure. The Critical Whiteness Studies examine the constitutive importance of racism for the genesis and maintenance of the structure of (Western) societies. The institutions of social work are also important spaces in which racism is produced and perpetuated, or else can be addressed, thwarted and overcome.

A simple example may illustrate the difference between critical whiteness studies and anti-racist approaches. For whites * it is easy to say: “I am not racist” and to back it up with arguments such as the statement: “I have“ Turkish ”and black * friends, I am involved with Amnesty International and recently stood up for it the hiring of an “Asian-German” applicant. ”So the problem is the racist institutional or social structures - other people - but not me. From this position it is possible for whites * to have nothing to do with racism, i.e. to be “innocent”. In contrast, it would be absurd for whites * to say: “I am not white *.” The latter means that even if I marked myself racially for oneFootnote 2 Hire a colleague, me Nobody will discriminate on the basis of race constructions in an application process. For me, no doors remain closed because of a racist mark; nobody bothers me with questions about my origin or "changes" me in any other way. Whites * permanently benefit from the structural racism of society and are thus - albeit against their will - part of racism, ie "guilty".

Dealing with one's own whiteness * and with whiteness as a powerful signifier of the cultural symbolism within the racist dominant cultures therefore goes beyond individual anti-racist activities. There is no longer a “comfort zone”. Just like all racially marked people who perceive at any time where they are obviously or subtly excluded and "changed", also those who were previously de-marked in racism - who were considered neutral - perceive in what way they are through their whiteness * empowered and discriminate against non-whites *. George Yancy (2004) writes that Whiteness is “guilty” as long as it constitutes an ensemble of power relations in which whites * are endowed with power and advantages over non-whites * (cf. Yancy 2004, p. 6). It is precisely these power relationships that are often ignored by those who benefit from them. Only when those who are de-marked in racism perceive their whiteness * as a marking can they develop an awareness of its importance and thus the prerequisites for the ability to act - provided, of course, they want that at all.

Whiteness - Articulations in the Codes of Enlightenment Modernism

Whiteness is understood as the structuring moment of a domination dimension - a racist matrix - from which the subjects of a society are measured, marked and positioned against the norm of whiteness *, whiteness * as a norm remains unnamed, invisible and de-thematized. Whiteness is so significant for everything that Western modernity has declared to be ideal; on the other hand, the "darker others" are endowed with all the opposite characteristics. In any white * dominance-cultural situation it can be observed that non-whites * are considered with negative characteristics and the discourse about immigration "blackens" them accordingly; the prosperity of whites * and the status of a society always seem threatened by the immigrants. The slightest differences between “autochthons” and “allochtones” can lead to racialization - the ontologization of cultural differences. Whiteness lies in the symbolic and can therefore be materialized in different ways. It does not need the "white skin color", but the reference to the ideal of the Enlightenment Modern with its imperialist episteme - it needs the symbolic capital of these episteme in order to be able to reproduce other others. Whiteness as a signifier of the cultural symbolism of racism is therefore rarely articulated in openly racist forms, but rather in the codes of the enlightenment, paternalistic, emancipatory and development narratives. Here we can already guess how much social work is at risk of becoming an accomplice to the coloniality of power (Quijano 2016).

Race * is a social construction, that is, it is dependent on its permanent re / production. "Whitebe"And" Blackbe“To designate the two extreme poles of the construction race *, are effects of racism. Naming these is important. To take it as the starting point for investigations into racism and practices against racism would mean to ignore the essence of racism, namely the mechanisms of its re / production: the division of humanity into groups and their hierarchical arrangement - the ontologization of people according to racist categories . Whiteness describes more than ontologized subject positions such as “being white” or “being black”. Whiteness is a structure that has become historical, which has arisen from concrete political, economic and social power constellations and which pervades all areas of life. As such, it is a power structure from which subjectivation proceeds. She is a power that does not reveal her name. It emerged together with racism, as its de-thematized power center - a powerful imagination that works collectively as well as individually, mostly unconsciously. As such, whiteness cannot be translated into German.

Whiteness at the intersection of racism and gender

The forerunners of Critical Whiteness Studies can be traced back to the 19th century, for example to the Afro-American philosopher and sociologist W. E. B. DuBois and the Afro-American abolitionist and suffragette Sojourner Truth, both of whom publicly criticized racism. S. Truth, who at the same time campaigned for the abolition of slavery (in which she had still lived) and for women's suffrage in the USA, brought in a speech that had become famous as early as 1851 with her question "Ain't I a woman?" the theme of intersectionality is pointedly expressed. She made it clear to her white * comrades-in-arms that in their struggle for women's * rights they were by no means taking into account all women * and she showed them with numerous examples from their life as a black * woman * - former slave - that there are very different ways of existence of women * there and that racism is structural to white * and black * women * separates. As the Enlightenment thinkers, who only considered white *, possessing (heterosexual) men * in their universalist bourgeois concept of freedom, the protagonists of the American women's rights movement had set the whiteness of these women and their rights as the norm, and then this circumstance but at the same time faded out.The first American women * movement arose in connection with abolitionism; So it was founded in the intersection of racism and gender, a constitutive connection that was hardly considered epistemological.

Toni Morrisons (1994) literary criticism "Playing in the Dark" is considered a founding text of Critical Whiteness Studies. In this collection of essays, she analyzes literary “playing in the dark of modernity” on the basis of literary works. T. Morrison takes an empirical approach and examines the gaps in the texts - that which is not said, but what, as a black reader and author, perceives as an absent presence, that shadowy existence that, for example, blacks in the USA as slaves and condemned as descendants of slaves were and are. The subjects of these texts, like all of their authors, are white * and we know it because it Not is said (Morrison 1994, p. 104). The thing on the other hand, that appears in all the texts, is an Africanist presence or persona, a disturbing population that, as a constitutive outside, as a non-I - as a negative - enables the formation of the I in these texts.

Another important work in Critical Whiteness Studies is Richard Dyer's book “White” (1997), in which the film theorist uses visual culture to work out how Whiteness (historically) became the symbolic center of Western cultures through representation and how sexualities were transformed into racist ones Figuration are incorporated. He shows how in the visual culture not-whiteness *, femininity * and "deviant sexuality" become the constitutive outside of a whiteness endowed with spirit, divinity, heteronormative masculinity * and sublime, which also unfolds its effectiveness through de-thematizing remains. The work became the central point of reference for Critical Whiteness Studies because R. Dyer (1997) captured the epistemic, symbolic and material dimensions of whiteness in his analysis. He borrows theoretical principles from psychoanalysis as well as from discourse analysis and uses their methodological instruments. Few subsequent papers have described the phenomenon of whiteness in such a comprehensive and detailed manner.

Ruth Frankenberg's (1993) work "White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness" was the first empirical study that explicitly dealt with the phenomenology of whiteness and therefore co-founded the field of critical whiteness studies. In this research, which was very innovative at the time, R. Frankenberg wanted to “explore” and “map” the terrain of Whiteness. R. Frankenberg states that race * is important to the lives of white * women * in the US not only because of structural racism. The women * interviewed by her involuntarily took their unnamed and unmarked places in the “racist landscapes” into which they were born, but they also actively reproduced these places. It is the subjects themselves who locate privilegesFootnote 3 and perpetuate the normativity of white * culture - albeit mostly unconsciously. An “undoing of whiteness” is therefore not just a matter of politics, but of the individual, so the summary of this study.

What is accessible to consciousness can be changed. Whiteness, however, seems to be most powerful precisely where it eludes consciousness. Shannon Sullivan (2006) writes: “White privilege functions best when it appears not to be functioning at all […] The flashy obviousness of white supremacy will be its downfall in a“ civilized ”world that prides itself on its democratic tolerance and inclusiveness "(Sullivan 2006, p. 187).

In the German-speaking countries, Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz (later May Ayim) and Dagmar Schulz (1986) published the book “Color confess”, in which Afro-German authors described their lives and the racism that shaped it. The authors already discussed German colonialism there, which was almost concealed in Germany until 2004 - the hundredth anniversary of the Herero uprising in what is now NamibiaFootnote 4 (see also Camp 2004; El-Tayeb 2001). Ursula Wachendorfer (1998) wrote the first text on whiteness * and further works stimulated thought about it (Fuchs and Habinger 1996; Rommelspacher 1995; Mamozai 1982).

By the end of the 20th century, however, the individual studies failed to stimulate a broader debate about whiteness. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that "critical whiteness" became a topic in German-speaking countries and in the mid-2000s it became an independent field of research. Gradually, individual monographs appeared - mostly dissertations, but also interdisciplinary edited volumes (Tißberger et al. 2006; Eggers et al. 2005) and research overviews (Röggla 2012; Amesberger and Halbmayr 2008), as well as concrete elaborations in connection with diversity and intersectionality (Tißberger 2019, 2017, 2016).

Social work as a white * space - researched

Racially marked people represent a significant figure among the addressees of German-speaking social work, because on the one hand they are discriminated in all areas of social life and thus get into precarious situations, on the other hand they are influenced by the white * dominance culture through the colonial episteme (Quijano 2016; Mignolo 2012) per se as “in need of social work”. Not least because of their experience of discrimination, they are often committed to becoming part of the social work professionals in practice, research and teaching, but there, too, they encounter structures that are marginalized. The white * majority in social work are seldom aware of this. We have therefore carried out a qualitative teaching research project on the importance of whiteness in social work in Austria at the master's degree in social work at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria in Linz (October 2014-January 2016)Footnote 5. Various areas were included for this purpose. We conducted narrative interviews with six social workers, six addressees, three teachers and six social work students (Rosenthal 2000, 1995). In addition, a discourse analysis (Parker 2013; Jäger 2006, 1993) of publicly accessible models, annual reports, etc. was carried out by eleven social work organizations in (Upper) Austria. The evaluation focused on the meaning and function of whiteness, the intersection of racism and gender and the interdependencies between personal, symbolic-representative and institutional levels (cf. Winker and Degele 2009). The focus here is on social workers, for whom our research interest was directed towards the question of whether they are aware of their (majority) whiteness * as a position in the network of social power relations and their racist matrix.

The narrative-generating initial question for the interviews presented a challenge, because the question of one's own whiteness * does not trigger the desire to tell stories, as the method would like, in most members of the German-speaking dominant cultures, but rather irritation (Tißberger 2017). The "discomfort in white * culture" (Tißberger 2013) sets in. So we formulated our narrative request more harmlessly:

I would like to ask you to tell me about your work against the background of the power balance of racism and gender relations and your own position in it. You can start where you want and take as much time as you want. I am interested in everything. I will not interrupt you, I will take notes and ask you later.

When making contact, however, we gave the interviewees a detailed description of our research interests and so whiteness and whiteness were also discussed.

According to Gabriele Rosenthal's (2000) narrative interview, the narrative-generating initial question and the subsequent offhand narrative are initially asked along with the notes that are intrinsic to the narrative. So the topics are deepened that already appear in the on-the-hand narrative. Only at the end are external questions asked about the topics that the interviewees left out but that are important for the research interest. In this way, researchers can find out how the interviewees prioritize topics within a field. For example, it was particularly interesting for us to find out whether and at what point one's own whiteness * is discussed, which examples of racism are given and in which order they are told and whether intersections are perceived.

Three of the interviewees worked in facilities that explicitly address clients who are marked as migrants, the other three in facilities that do not, but in which there are nevertheless a high proportion of people marked as migrants among the addressees. Two of the interviewees worked in a migrant self-organization, all the others worked for the large agencies.

The only person who spoke about their whiteness on their own was marked as a migrant himself and worked in one of the migrant self-organizations. In this organization, postcolonial theory, decoloniality, feminist and queer theory, intersectionality, critical whiteness and other critical approaches guide action. This makes them an exception in the social work landscape in (Upper) Austria. All other interviewees dealt with the question of power relations, racism, gender and other power relations intersectionally linked to racism such as class in their narrations, but they did not address their own position within the racist social matrix. They even evaded the thematizing questions. One of the interviewed persons, who in her narration had discussed racism among the users of the facility, the police, the authorities and the intersections of racism and gender for more than an hour without reflecting on her own role, ended of the interview asked directly:

So if you now think in the context of racism, then we, as white * social workers who were born in Austria, are already in a position of power. And how do you experience that in your work now, that is, this position of power in the power relationship?

She reacted irritated with the question:

"What do you mean by white * social worker now?"

As described above, members of the white * majority societies in German-speaking countries generally do not see themselves as white * subjects, but rather think of themselves from the normative point of view, which for them does not need to be explained. Even those who define themselves as “anti-racists” think of “perpetrators” and structures that are beyond their own standpoint as a liberal, humanistic subject of a democratic society, namely on the fringes of racism. However, social workers, as professionals in a human rights profession, find it particularly difficult to imagine that they are part of racism simply because of their whiteness *, because they per se believe that they are on the “good side”. The majority of social workers do not realize that society as a whole is structured in a racist manner.

All of our interview partners reported in detail on the racism that their addressees experience in public offices, authorities, the police, in the healthcare sector, etc.Footnote 6 However, they located the area of ​​social work beyond their racism map. It is perceived as a “safe place” for “migrants”, where they are supported and protected, also from racism “outside” in society. The institution of social work immunizes to a certain extent against the realization that even well-meaning, “good” people who have made it their business to help other people can be part of the problem and not the solution in the context of racism.

On the subject of racism, two of the interviewees first think of the alleged racism among the addressees. An interviewee who works in refugee aid put it this way in his offhand narrative:

Yes, in terms of Power relations and Racism, what can I say about it? So what about me beautiful It is noticeable that there is a lot of racism among the clients themselves, so you can tell that very much. When you talk to me, tell me how great it is that you are in Europe, and that it doesn't matter what religion and gender and what you do, that it doesn't matter. But among each other, for example Syrians with Afghans, Afghans with Pakistanis, there are actually always a lot of reservations, one has to say. I often come to this like that location, where I then also act as a mediator. […] There are Individual caseswhere a client then says: well, well, well. I can remember a Christian Iraqi. [...] He was just upset that there were so many Muslims in the house. He said no, he wanted to go to a house where there were only Christians. It's an impossibility because it doesn't actually exist. Ah, otherwise, what else can you say about racism? Actually there aren't a lot of problems, I have to say.

At a later point in the interview, he complies with the request to deepen the topic as follows:

Now I have a house where there are a lot of Syrians and Arabs aah and Afghans. The image of Syrians often reigns over and over again, it is believed that Afghans are all farmers and they don't mind the dirt anyway and that sort of thing.

This is followed by a long sequence in which he explains how he comes into the role of mediator and mediator ("so there is always a lot of clarification needed"). So he has to educate these clients about equality. When the Syrians demand, for example:

Give us asylum because they are there, it is not for them anyway […] well just because he is an Afghan, or what do I know, then he is not so important whether he is threatened in his home country, because for them there is often real rule also the opinion, they really are? (Whether they die now or not), my God. But we are the important ones, you have to save us.

An interviewee who works in the homeless service put it this way:

Racism is also a topic again and again, especially [...] between clients, that is to say, it plays a major role among clients. Where there is also a lot of discrimination and where the team keeps thinking about how we can respond to something like that, how we can deal with it (2). I think that as a team we have always reflected a lot about that.

In view of how strongly racially marked people - especially refugees - are at the mercy of all forms of racism by the white majority society in Austria, it is remarkable when these interviewees, when asked about the importance of racism and power relations in social work, who work (exclusively) with racially marked addressees, who turn “victims” into perpetrators. I have also seen this reaction frequently in courses and other social work contexts; When it comes to racism, the addressees are immediately discussed. The interviews with both social workers show that they are aware that migrants in Austria are generally exposed to racist discrimination and they cite numerous examples where they directly experience this racism through working with their racially marked addressees. Even if they believe that as social workers they have nothing to do with this racism, but rather belong to the “good” Austrians, it is surprising that they place discriminatory behavior between refugees at the center of their discussion about racism. This defense mechanism of reaction formation protects them from having to think about the racism of Austrians and, above all, their own racism.

As the narrative construction of the first interview excerpt shows, Austrians as Europeans and therefore as whites are admired by asylum seekers for their supposedly progressive, non-discriminatory culture. The clients have fled to Europe because they are persecuted in their countries of origin or because there is war and, as the narrative construction suggests, religious motives play a central role. The classism that is expressed by the addressees and that even downgrades the “Afghan peasants” as unworthy of life also refers to the supposed “civilizational backwardness” that is attributed to the refugees. In this way, any responsibility for the current wars in the “Arab world” is shifted to the “culture” of the countries concerned.The (neo-) colonial relations between “the West” and the Muslim countries, in which Western powers have played off religious and ethnic groups against each other according to the principle of divide and rule for centuries, the dependence of capitalism on the oil-producing countries, the geostrategic and economic interests, which “the West” has ruthlessly and sometimes violently enforced, which corrupted the governments of the Muslim countries, are not an issue in the narrations of the white *, Austrian social workers * about refugees. The colonial episteme is reproduced by the interviewees without them realizing it. The refugees are the racists, the white Austrian social workers, on the other hand, represent human rights.

Another strategy for the subversion of the conditions and for the immunization of social work against the realization of its participation in the coloniality of power is the professional self-image of mediating, educating, protecting, helping and reflecting - all skills that are used in the narratives exclusively for social work self-description , but not be used for the addressees. Addressees marked as migrants constantly mediate between social workers or employees of authorities, the police or the employment office and other migrants who do not yet speak German. They clarify facts and help addressees as well as social workers in institutions. They are often forced to reflect, as they are confronted with very different living conditions as a result of migration, have to adapt and change their habits.

If the behavior of the addressees is not mentioned as the first example of racism, other institutions are there: authorities, offices, the magistrate, other social work institutions, but above all the police. An employee in a violence protection center mentioned racism for the first time in an interview as follows:

And ah, yes, as far as racism is concerned, there are of course always (3) more or less major abnormalities, so how, how naturally people deal with people who, let me put it simply, have a different skin color, a certain ethnic affiliation have, be it now through police authorities, just as an example. […] Yes, it is natural, I say once for migrants, it is often more difficult to get to the authorities alone. That can have a linguistic background if I don't speak the perfect language, i.e. either don't speak at all or don't speak very well, ahem, or I am now also talking about German and dialect.

Experiences of racism that addressees have outside of the interview partner's institution, for example in other social work institutions, but above all in offices, authorities and the police, are shared by all interviewees several times over the entire period of their interviews described. In all of these narratives, the normativity of whiteness becomes clear and also how this norm is "hidden". The formulation, people who have a “different skin color”, specifically addresses the race construction as a deviation, while the norm, or the ideal of whiteness *, which is brought about performatively by this formulation, remains carefully hidden. The reasoning figure that someone has “a certain ethnicity” and therefore receives a certain treatment is based on the fact that the norm is either not ethnically marked or that this ethnicity does not need to be mentioned. Finally there is in this narrative the Language that you can speak or not. It is precisely because it is not named that the German language becomes normative. The fact that migrants * (in contrast to many white * Austrians) often speak a number of other languages ​​in addition to their first language is not included in the discourse. What matters is only the Language, the mastery of which is ultimately tied to human rights. We heard in many interviews that addressees who “don't very good “speak German, important documents are not handed over to authorities, information is withheld and permits are denied. The Austrian dialects, which are difficult to understand for outsiders, are also often used in the service of discrimination.

A social worker in the probation department speaks for almost an hour before the term racism is mentioned. However, she then immediately applies racist behavior to her own team:

So what do we have now, not racism at all. Racism, well, what we certainly don't look at enough, um, what is being discussed here and there in other areas, is this ethnic profiling, that one says that this is a Turk and that is why he is like that. Um, I sometimes notice in case discussions that there are also remarks, where we also say that when you are in the case, when you are like that in the case discussions, we have an open atmosphere that there are, um, colleagues, Some people point it out or one says somehow, hey, now please. Um, but that's (1) I've heard from my colleagues, like Russians, Chechens, somehow they looked around and then it is interpreted that way so whenever he got somewhere, well usually they steal.

She admits that social workers also reproduce racist constructions, but racism remains at the level of the individual. The structural and epistemic dimension, such as the fact that even the most criminal white Austrians are never caught in the “ethnic profiling” grid, remains de-thematized. Finally, this formulation also hides racism in language. The official term is "Racial Profiling" and is located in the area of ​​police work. The ugly race * term is in it and refers to the racism of society. The term also describes a systemic, symbolic-structural, epistemic dimension of racism; it refers directly to the racist matrix of society that the police use. The interviewee shifts a concept from the structural level to the individual (individual colleagues in the team express themselves ethnically) and hides race in ethnicity. Racial Profiling is based on the racist construction that the external appearance of people gives clues about how they think, feel and act. For example, a skin color is linked to crime. The ontologization of crime thus uses the body as a vehicle. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is located in the area of ​​culture, so it is a flexible category. Cultural behavior is learned, but can also be forgotten again. A skin color, on the other hand, cannot be discarded.

A self-criticism comparable to that described above does not often appear in the interviews with regard to one's own team. Much more frequent are the stories in which the social workers experience themselves as victims of other institutions, such as the asylum authority, but above all as victims of politics and even their clients. In representing the interests of their clients as asylum seekers, job seekers, etc., they quickly come into the famous contradiction of the triple mandate of social work (Staub-Bernasconi 2018). Several of our interviewees emphasized (and this in the sequences in which they were asked to speak about their dominant role in the social balance of power as white, relatively educated and wealthy professionals) that they were by no means on the side of the Stand mighty. Rather, they fight for the rights of their addressees and, as their representatives, get to feel the racism of the white * Austrian officials at the authorities.

Unfortunately, the addressees do not always understand this, which, it is suggested, has to do with their lack of education and information; therefore, they viewed the social workers as well as the asylum authorities as their enemies. One interviewee is indignant about one of these situations: “Yes, I have Not the power. That is often a false power that is then attributed to me "and then explains how difficult it is to explain to the addressees, for example, that it is not he but the asylum authority that decides on their application or that he is not allowed to pay out the minimum income, because the addressees do not meet certain requirements. A lot of "trusting work" has to be done, he says. In fact, it is always a challenge for social work to adequately fulfill its three mandates. However, the perception that it is just a misunderstanding on the part of the racially marked addressees that social workers are on the side of the powerful is wrong, as will be shown in the following.

White complicity

The majority of our interviewees tell unsolicited situations in which they accompany their racially marked addressees to an office, an authority, to the police or to a doctor, and they are then granted rights and services that they were previously unaccompanied , were denied. One of these examples is that of a social worker accompanying her client to the police to file a complaint about a neighborhood conflict:

Because she was actually hurt. And I was really really happy that I went with the ad, because I saw a lot, even through my presence toned down. Yeah, but I think it would have totally messed up if I hadn't been there. It might not have been able to report it at all, it wouldn't even have been recorded. Where you can tell, so this one Take seriously is not so there. There was also one, a woman, I say, who seemed a bit more traditional in terms of appearance, I'll say now, from West Africa, where the language, the idiom, the gestures or whatever just not quite like an Austrian would do it. And there is a lot of ridicule and ridicule [...] that people are not taken so seriously, they are not accepted as so credible and perhaps it is not ascertained as precisely (3), faster what is assumed (5) is that the people a lot more justify must for things that for which there is actually no justification, yes (18).

When asked how she feels in such situations, she replies: “A little bit satisfying that I was able to help in this specific case (3). But actually that shouldn't be necessary. That is actually the prevailing feeling. "

She does not describe exactly what her presence at the station did. She takes it for granted that her interviewer and all members of the majority know exactly what she means. The “difference” of the client is described, but from where it is defined remains strangely undescribed. In the presence of a white * person, especially a representative of an institution of the majority society, the police officers cannot seem as uninhibited as when a racially marked person stands alone in front of them. However, the social worker does not notice the white complicity in which she is involved. It shouldn't be as she says, but she doesn't analyze what exactly is happening.

When accompanying their addressees to authorities or to doctors, white social workers often experience that the doctor does not speak to the racially marked addressee, but to the social worker, even if the addressee is good Speak German. But even in these sequences of the narrations, the interviewees circumvent the symbolic capital of whiteness, which is responsible for this behavior. They name their professionalism, language barriers or other aspects as the reason why whites * speak about non-whites * instead of with them, but not the whiteness * and the complicity that emerges among whites * and that ensures that suddenly services become possible and resources freed that are illegitimately withheld from non-whites *.

A social worker in the field of asylum tells of difficulties that occur again and again in quarters that are run by private individuals. As a supervisor, the clients ask him, for example, to persuade the neighborhood operator to finally repair the washing machine. In the conversation, the operator does not see the social worker as the lawyer for the residents, but believes him on “his” side, because he explains to him that the residents “do everything on purpose and that these are simply animals that don't Can't pay attention to anything. ”So he reckons with the“ pact among whites * ”and counts on the racist consensus.

When social workers experience such situations, they see individuals or certain milieus as being responsible for racism. Most of our interviewees blinded most of our interviewees that society is structured by a racist matrix in which whiteness always goes hand in hand with power active out. At least there should also be rooms that are free from racism and that is what they see in their practice of social work. When asked about the nexus of whiteness and power in social work, one interviewee replied:

[…] because I at all don't feel that way. That white* Social worker (different), I just don't feel that way at work. We have a lot of migrants who also work as social workers, but I think there is no power difference, for example. So whether this is white * social worker or (.) Social worker or interpreter, we have a lot, I wouldn't say that there is any difference in power. In fact, migrants actually have a lot better, I would say, because they often find it easier to use the language. And I think we always look to see if new employees are hired, and it actually works out, that's a good thing. So if there is really a migrant who is already there, is bilingual, maybe is still a social worker, or not, I don't always think that this is an insane advantage, and we white * social workers really appreciate it, because we can also use them as interpreters.

Here, too, we can observe a subversion. To support his argument that there are no racist power relations in his organization, the social worker refers to the multilingual staff, who are mainly used as interpreters and are reduced to working with migrants. The fact that an anti-discrimination personnel policy has recently been in place that prefers multilingual applicants for vacancies (and that often only in institutions whose target group is migrants) is interpreted, as it were, as discrimination against whites * - migrants have it " even a lot better. ”It is faded out that for a long time and still, many social work institutions (in Austria) have barely (d) employ employees marked by migrants and racist marks. The omnipresent racism is faded out. Only when this structural discrimination is destabilized as a norm by an affirmative personnel policy does the issue of discrimination come into focus and it is not uncommon for those who have been massively privileged for the longest time to suddenly experience themselves as victims of discrimination.

Ultimately, the question arises of how these relationships can be changed. The last section can only outline two essential aspects. The adequate answer to the question would require the space of a separate essay. Also within the framework of the teaching research project that was cited here, we left it to a follow-up project to work out the topic (Tißberger et al. 2017).

Critical Whiteness as a Practice of Hegemonic Self-Reflection in Social Work

If the diagnosis isn't correct, the cure won't work either. Dealing with racism and trying to give it as little space as possible can only succeed in social work if racism is understood as a general social, structural phenomenon in which all subjects are more or less entangled. As I hope to have shown, there is no space beyond racism in a society that is structured in a racist way. Even if social work conscientiously implement its mandate as a human rights profession and does not want to accept racism or other forms of discrimination, we live in a society that is shaped by a history of colonialism and racism that goes back more than 500 years. The colonial episteme with its racist archive of knowledge is in our consciousness and Sedimented unconscious. With Columbus ’supposed" discovery "of America in 1492, the modern age, whose constitutive co-condition is coloniality, is heralded.Race *, in turn, functions as a naturalization of the colonial power and domination relationships that were initiated with this epochal event and that continue to affect today's (post-) migration societies. It is therefore a matter of performing epistemic disobedience (Mignolo 2012). Especially those members of our societies who are positioned as white * must become aware of their racist knowledge archive and understand how it influences their thinking, feeling, speaking and acting. This racist knowledge should be exchanged for knowledge about racism. So we have to “learn in order to unlearn colonial knowledge” (Mignolo 2012, p. 41). That doesn't happen in a weekend seminar. It takes patience. It's a lifelong task.

We are protagonists in this colonial episteme not only because of our racist knowledge, but also because of the constitutive meaning of race * for the coloniality of power through our bodies and the symbolic capital that comes with being white *. Whites * need to learn to understand where their whiteness * is and where they are not going, what it means for other people and how it structures relationships with non-whites *. Only when we understand the importance of whiteness for hegemony in German-speaking societies can social work be practiced as a human rights profession without being corrupted by the unconscious of racism. Because the racism that social workers * can usually recognize in German-speaking societies - that is, of them deliberately is - represents only the tip of the iceberg. As I tried to show in the empirical examples, white social workers are often just onlookers in the arena of the fight against racism. They should become protagonists in it. If they do not want to be complicit in colonial power, whiteness has to be reflected and this complicity has to be thwarted. The racist pact is to be terminated on all levels: the personal, the institutional and the symbolic-representative. Practicing critical whiteness as hegemonic self-reflection means constructively making oneself insecure; Applying uncertainty as a method (Tißberger 2005), or as bell hooks (1994b) would say: "to become comfortable with being uncomfortable".


  1. 1.

    All terms relating to the social constructions gender * and race * are marked with an asterisk in this text. This practice of the gender gap - a linguistic strategy for overcoming heteronormativity and sexism - is transferred to race * in order to do justice to both constructional characteristics and to avoid ontologizing effects through language. The asterisk at the end of terms such as woman *, black *, white * or male * is intended to make it clear that these terms are used for gendering and racializing and do not designate a quality, “characteristic” or “essence” of subjects. The ontologizing effect of race * and gender * is the problem and object of gender and critical whiteness studies: the question of how the individual subjects (unconsciously) reproduce the ontologization of race * and gender *.

  2. 2.

    Racism is an act of (de-) marking. I call the marking racist and not "racial" because it is the mental act of marking that gives rise to race *. The mental act of tagging is racist. In this text there is no mention of migrants or even “foreigners”, but the term “racially (or migrant) marked” is used for all people who are treated in a racist manner by the dominant culture.

  3. 3.

    Critical to the concept of privileges in critical whiteness discourses: Leonardo (2005).

  4. 4.

    Exceptions are Zeller (2000) and Zimmerer and Zeller (2003).

  5. 5.

    The student research report was published as a book contribution: Tißberger et al. 2016.

  6. 6.

    see also Wagner (2017).


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