Being Accountable: Understanding the Daily Injuries of Racism

Jennie Encalada

Jennie Encalada

Editor’s Note: NASW-NYC in partnership with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, houses the Undoing Racism Internship Project students.  For more on anti-racist social work practice, please click here.

From the major victories of the civil rights movement to the election of a Black president many Americans complacently conclude that we have eliminated racism. They cling to the belief that we live in a post-racial America. People are entitled to their views, but the idea that America is post-racial is problematic for many reasons.  These reasons included that it forecloses discussions of ongoing race and racism and leaves little room to address the subtle ways internalized racial superiority[1] insinuates itself into ordinary interactions every day.

There is no doubt that our country has moved forward. Yet I challenge just how far we have come.  Despite the end of Jim Crow and reduced legal discrimination, racism creeps into our daily life. In fact, the United States is experiencing an epidemic of Institutional Racism in many social institutions evidenced by the disproportionate stop and frisk of Black and Brown men and the growing number of imprisoned Women of Color among many other racial injustices.  It is also the case that the practice of racism had changed over the years from overt acts of violence and exclusion to more covert and obscured acts of marginalization, stereotyping and social hostility.  Even the most progressive people often find they have held onto derogatory ideas about people of color.

Some call these covert and subtle acts racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions[2], which include microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations, convey hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights toward people of color. Embedded in personal interactions, they show up every day in verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentionally or not.

In 2008, William Smith, coined the phrase, “Racial Battle Fatigue” (RBF) to refer to the cumulative effect of being ‘on guard’ and having to finesse responses to insults, both subtle and covert.  RBF is experienced by People of Color as they work in mostly white institutions, where they regularly face prejudice, discrimination and denigrating comments from peers and/or superiors.[3]

We cannot let social work off the hook. The racial microaggressions that contribute to RBF can be experienced and committed by social workers if we do not ensure that we are explicitly discussing the pervasive and insidious nature of institutionalized racism in social work education. They continue to arise in the field given that most graduates, including those working in the mental health area continue to be White and trained primarily in Western European models of service delivery[4]. However, social workers can also play a corrective role by calling out the racial microaggressions they witness in schools or on the job.  This will both reduce the potential psychological harm to People of Color resulting from micro-aggressions and will help us build a less racist and more just society.

The Undoing Racism Internship Project (URIP) supports organizing by social work students seeking a stronger antiracist and anti-oppressive lens in social work education.  URIP has received considerable interest in and support of this work. The Interschool Council on Undoing Racism (ICUR), a URIP project, hosted a lab on February 22nd entitled: Racial Microaggressions: Real Pain, Invisible Scars. It was facilitated by Alberto Guerrero and Andrew Lawton.  Some 46 social work students from 4 of the 9 NYC graduate programs attended and role-played scenarios showing how racial microaggressions manifest in common interactions. Most importantly, participants left with concrete skills and information about strategies that students of color and white allies can use when working toward “undoing” racism. The strategies include naming microaggressions in the classroom, field placements, and in their lives. This and other ICUR workshops prepare social work students with the knowledge and tools they need as new and emerging professionals to be the true change agents that the profession calls for.  However, there is so much more work to be done.  I invite NYC area Schools of Social Work to assume even greater leadership to advance racial, social and economic justice in America NOW.

[1] People Institute for Survival and Beyond defines Internalized Racial Superiority (IRS), as The acceptance of and acting out of a superior definition is rooted in the historical designation of one’s race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based upon race.

[2] Wing Sue, et al, (2007), “Racial Micro-Aggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice, “ American Psychologist, Vol. 62 No. 4.

[3] Hernandez, A. V. (2013). Christopher Dorner and Racial Battle Fatigue. The Huffington Post. New York.

[4] Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.

*The Interschool Council on Undoing Racism (ICUR) is a project of URIP that began in 2008. ICUR supplies foundational community organizing skills to students from the NYC schools through Skill Labs and Theory Labs.  Community Organizing skills are essential to building and sustaining the movement to undo racism. ICUR provides a space for all anti-racist organizing groups, at each of the individual schools, to report on their organizing work, suggest ways others can support, and to build across institutional lines. Finally, ICUR organizes events for anti-racism organizers/supporters to meet and socialize in order to create cohesion between students involved in the movement to transform social work education.


Jennie Encalada is a second year community-organizing student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.  Jennie is a current intern with the Undoing Racism Internship Project (URIP) and is dedicated to bringing awareness to racism and the need for an institutional racism-lens in the social work curriculum beginning with NY social work programs.  She is Latina with family roots in Colombia and Ecuador.  To learn more about URIP or ICUR please email Jennie at

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10 Responses to Being Accountable: Understanding the Daily Injuries of Racism

  1. Well said Jennie. As a MSW student, I am very interested in learning more about this project and how I can get involved.

    • Thank you for your comment! The Undoing Racism Internship Project (URIP) has a Facebook page which would definitely be the first step in getting more information and how to be more involved. We are also having two events, an upcoming Love Conference and an Open Mic. Please feel free to reach me by email as well. Here is the Facebook page:

  2. This is a great space with potential to build understanding and community! Thank you URIP for the endless ways in which you have worked to build networks of communication.

  3. Elizabeth R. says:

    Great job Jennie!!

  4. Julia says:

    Well said, Jennie. I think you show smart and fierce determination to undoing racism in social work and beyond. I’m with you!

  5. Lisa Blitz says:

    What a thoughtful and poignant essay. The social work profession is lucky to have you!

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