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Can you call it racism? An educational case study and role-play approach.

SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION has long struggled to acknowledge cultural diversity and identify teaching methods to prepare students to work effectively with diverse populations (Council on Social Work Education, 2001). Garcia and Van Soest (2006) provide a conceptual framework that unites cultural competency and social justice in social work education. According to their model, the first steps are recognizing the centrality of the social construction of race and the practice of racism at personal, institutional, and cultural levels. This leads, in turn, to acknowledging racism as a mode of everyday human interaction, involving domination and exploitation, which reinforces an unequal socioeconomic system. During this process social workers must be willing to confront and work through unresolved conflicts in relation to their own role, status, and participation in an oppressive system (Van Soest & Garcia, 2003).

In this Teaching Note, we present an innovative case study and role-play approach to promoting student learning on diversity issues; to teaching diversity content; and to facilitating intelligent dialogue on such sensitive--issues as race, ethnicity, and gender. One class session of a multicultural social work course was devoted to a case study and role-play based on a real incident that took place in a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. One of the authors lived in Chiapas and was affiliated with the NGO. The report of the case study and role-play are based on direct observation and participation.

Here, we report on the ways in which MSW students experienced the educational case study and role-play approach and how they assessed the value of the intervention for understanding diversity and social justice. Student feedback and our observations address the merit of this multicultural educational intervention.

An Educational Case Study

The case study was set in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, home to many indigenous Mayan peoples. More than 90% of the population in the highlands of Chiapas is Mayan, and most inhabitants maintain their traditional language, clothing, and customs. Despite a wealth of natural resources, the Mayan population barely ekes out a living (Weller, 2000). Typically, they are subsistence farmers, but they must compete for land with highland cattle ranchers and often must grow their crops on steep terrain and in poor soil. Since the early 16th century, the Mayan people of Chiapas have experienced oppression because of their race and ethnicity (Stephen, 2003).

The setting for this case study is the Human Rights Center (HRC), which is located in a small town in Chiapas and is run by Jesuit priests. The HRC serves more than 200,000 people in the 500 Mayan communities within the Jesuit parish. The HRC has 25 full-time employees, and many more people from other community groups work closely with the HRC. These faith-based groups include Jesuit priests and deacons and a community of Catholic nuns, many of whom are indigenous. When the deacons, tribal judges, and health and human rights promoters who work in the different communities that the center serves are included, hundreds of people collaborate with the HRC. Mayan religious life is inseparable from public and political life, so the HRC uses existing church structures to carry out its work, and staff members collaborate closely with the deacons and health and human right promoters to reach the communities.

The central issue in the role play is a wage dispute, first acknowledged by the Mayan members of the HRC. The paid workers at the HRC are about one-fourth indigenous and three-fourths Mestizo. Most of the Mestizo workers come from other states in Mexico and are professionally trained; they come to the HRC because they are committed to working for justice for the indigenous people of Chiapas. The other Mestizo workers tend to be technical staff or secretaries. With a few exceptions, these staff members are less motivated by the ideal of working for justice than by having full-time, paid employment, which is rare in the small towns of Chiapas. Because of the HRC's youth and rapid growth, formal personnel policies and a salary structure have not been established. Each employee was hired by the HRC director, Father Juan, and negotiated his or her salary with him.

In the Mayan tradition, leaders who serve the community are chosen by consensus and work for free. Indigenous people who work for the HRC want to help their communities; they are also essential to the organization for their knowledge of the communities as well as their ability to speak the local dialect, Tseltal.

The Role Play

Students were provided with educational case study materials that included background information on Chiapas, the HRC, and the personnel issue a week before the in-class role play (set up as a staff meeting) took place. The personnel issue, based on a real incident, was the fact that the Mayan employees learned that they were paid at a rate that was about one-half the rate of the Mestizo employees. Each student was assigned a role along with a detailed description of his or her character; they were not given such information about other characters. There were 23 to 26 characters in the role play, including both Mestizo and Mayan roles.

Examples of Character Descriptions

A full list of characters is available from the first author, along with notes on information each character should not share, on each character's goal in the meeting, and on points each character should make during the meeting. Following are some examples of the descriptions of characters that were provided to students.

Father Juan: A Mestizo Character

* Your role: You have a bachelor-level university education. Many of the workers at the HRC are young people whom you met in your travels around Mexico. As a priest, you try to be a spiritual father to your employees as well as their boss. You are extremely overworked, persuasive, and charismatic.

* Do not share with the group: You believe that most of the employees are there because you personally invited them. You feel that lay peoples' commitment to indigenous people is not as valuable as that of the priests, who gave up secular life entirely, whereas lay people tend to stay only for a few years. You privately feel that you would never be able to work for a female supervisor. People tend to follow your advice and you believe that you know what is best for others.

* Your goals in this meeting: To retain control of the decision-making process and the salaries of HRC employees; to defuse the argument without making more work for yourself; and to make sure that the issue of racism is not raised or ascribed to your leadership or to the HRC.

* Points you must make in the meeting:

** The staff can make recommendations to the coordinating council, but they cannot vote on decisions as a staff. You do not explicitly state this last point.

** There are no funds to increase salaries. People with higher salaries are free to donate a portion of their salaries to people with lower salaries.

** The salary policy is not racist. People must be very careful to avoid deciding that a situation that appears to be defined by race is, in fact, racist.

** It is necessary to offer professional staff (such as lawyers) a salary that competes with the salary they might receive in the city.

Miguel: A Mayan Character

* Your role: You have been working for the HRC for 8 years as a community organizer. You know the Mayan communities intimately, and are well-known and trusted by the people. You also are a practitioner of traditional herbal medicine, which you learned from a "wise man" in your village. You play the guitar and write your own songs. At community events, you are sought after to sing, because there are not many popular songs available in Mayan languages.

* Your oldest son, Geronimo, is extremely ill with leukemia, and you and your wife frequently have to take him to the capital of Chiapas, 5 hours away, for treatment at a public hospital. Father Juan has been very supportive of you in this, giving you as much time off as you need, and sometimes lending you a car or visiting your son himself.

* Do not share with others in the group: You secretly dislike another HRC employer, Esequiel, who is from your village, whom you suspect of flirting with your wife when you are not around. However, in this group you and Esequiel are united as Mayan people in a Mestizo organization, and you would never openly disagree with his points or discredit him, because the stakes for the community are too high.

* Your goal in this meeting: To achieve a fair standard of payment that reduces the difference between the amounts that Mayans and Mestizos are paid, and to do it in a way that promotes a deeper understanding of indigenous culture.

* Points you must make in the meeting:

** At the beginning of the meeting, you mention that you'd like to discuss the issue of salaries, because it seems to you that the Mayan employees are making less than the Mestizos. You also indicate that you would like to open up a discussion about the values suggested by the salary differential.

** Because the Mayan employees of HRC work full time and do not have time to farm their land, they need the salary to feed their families.

** You want to continue to respect the Mayan tradition in which people serve the communities without being compensated, but you also need to provide for your family.

Josue: A Mestizo Character

* Your role: You have a PhD in biology. The current leader of the Agriculture Department wants to hand over the leadership to you, but you have only worked at the HRC for a year. You are beginning to learn the Tseltal language. You hope to devote the rest of your working life to this organization. You believe strongly in consensus decision-making and in building community among coworkers.

* Your goal in this meeting: To support the Mayans' request for more equitable salaries, and to call on the agency to be fair and transparent in its dealings.

* Point you must make during the meeting: At an appropriate point, suggest that everyone reveal their salaries, as an exercise in "transparency."

Prior to the role play, the instructor explained the source of conflict. During a staff meeting, a Mayan employee, Miguel, had raised the issue of the salary inequity. Father Juan's main reaction was to clarify that everyone in the organization had had a chance to negotiate his or her salary, and had chosen to take the offered salary rather than reject the job. Father Juan had stressed that although the discrepancy appeared to be divided along racial lines, this did not mean that the situation was racist, because that would imply intention to discriminate against a certain group based on race. Given that Father Juan was solely responsible for the salary scale in the agency, it is no wonder that he wanted to squelch any discussion of racism.

In Mayan culture, it is difficult to challenge the authority of a member of the dominant Mestizo culture, and a priest, aggressively. Outside their community, Mayans often are punished for speaking their minds. On the other hand, Mestizo staff are secretly ashamed of how they treat their Mayan coworkers, perhaps because they themselves feel out of touch with their own indigenous heritage. Father Juan had clarified that members of one ethnicity being routinely paid less than members of the other was not racism. So the question remained: What was the problem, and how could it be solved?

The entire class was engaged in the role play, an exercise that lasted about 45 minutes. Afterward, the following questions were discussed in class.

1. What was your experience of the meeting?

2. What was most helpful about participating in the role play? What was least helpful?

3. Do you think this is a racist situation? Why or why not? If you think it is, what is the source of the racism? How could the racism be changed?

4. Do you find it easy or difficult to talk about a race issue that occurred in a foreign country?

5. What other factors besides race and culture are at play here, and how do they affect the overall picture?

6. What should the Center do to solve its problem? Would you like to propose a solution?


Student feedback was collected through in-class responses to discussion questions and voluntarily written postings on the Blackboard course management system. Overall, students' perceptions of the role-play exercise were favorable. They described it as "a fun, interactive activity" and "a great teaching asset." They found it helpful to review background information on the region and the organization before class, as this allowed them to represent their characters in a more realistic manner. Students appeared to benefit from the experiential component of the learning process, as indicated in the following comment: "I learn better through hands-on activities such as this and it was nice to see everyone in the class take a role and then later learn why they acted the way that they did."

Students expressed discomfort about "not knowing enough about the cultural and political context" in a relatively remote region such as Chiapas. One student commented, "It was hard for me to grasp the reality of the situation but even if it was hypothetical I still think the activity was successful in educating the class about a topic I know I was previously unaware of." Some students reported their difficulties in relating to incidents in a foreign country and in reacting without knowing the specific cultural contexts. In spite of students' concerns about their lack of knowledge of the indigenous culture of Mexico, students took the risk of thinking out loud and putting themselves in the shoes of dominant or oppressed groups.

We observed that MSW students in courses on racism often struggle with emotional baggage regarding historical events in the United States, such as racial segregation and slavery, for which they are not personally responsible. Hence, in multicultural education, it is critical to help students to move beyond their guilt and self-censorship; this can be done by reducing the cognitive and emotional barriers students perceive when confronted with the oppression embodied in the dominant culture and their privileged social status in it (Abrams & Gibson, 2007; Mildred & Zuniga, 2004). Consequently, students especially appreciated the fact that the role play was based on a real and contemporary situation. A student commented "[instructors'] insight into the situation, because [author] was there, made it more powerful than just an exercise that was in a book for diversity classes."

Apparently, the role-play approach helped students extend empathy not only to the characters they played but also to the group dynamics and the power structure of the HRC. Characters in the dominant group were sanctioned to speak their unconscious, prejudiced remarks, which students would be extremely hesitant to do in a class setting. For those who played members of the oppressed group, it was a valuable experience to extend their empathy and try to understand the struggle of a vulnerable population. Hence, this teaching method has parallel emphases on the history and effect of oppression and the strengths and joys of diversity (Van Soest & Garcia, 2003).

This role play addressed a social problem in Mexico, but there are certainly parallels of the case study in the U.S. context. As a young White woman with a privileged background, the following student was able to identify with the character of Josue, who is an upper-middle-class Mestizo, while still feeling empathy for the indigenous characters. Her character plays a critical role by suggesting that everyone tell everyone else what salary they make, as an exercise in "transparency."
 I feel as if I could relate to [Josue's] perspective.
 I wonder what it might have
 felt like for some people to play the
 role of a Mayan, who in their own
 lives, have experienced little oppression
 and more privilege. I think it is
 critical to have the discussions about
 racism, oppression, and privilege in
 class, but we also need to make it more
 practical and think about what we will
 do when we are in situations outside
 the classroom.

The educational value of this role play is to help students strengthen their commitment to the promotion of social justice, which it may do more successfully than a more traditional approach to learning about historical oppression. As Van Soest and Garcia (2003) argued, exposure to content about social injustice and inequality forces students to re -examine many of the values and beliefs they have held about themselves and the dominant paradigm. It also evokes deepened awareness of social justice among students, providing a perfect moment for teaching.

After the role play, students identified unfair organizational structure as a root cause that influenced the distribution of money and power; weakened the traditional culture, which had no decision-making power; and perpetuated unequal gender roles. This identification of problems motivated them to come up with suggested solutions, including decentralizing the Center's leadership, establishing clear guidelines for a salary scale, creating a merit-based reward system, and establishing an antidiscrimination policy at the HRC.

It is important to note that this report of this case study and role play are based on the authors' understanding of the situation and do not represent the multiple realities experienced by many HRC members. Yet, the value of the educational case study and role-play approach lies in its use as a pedagogical technique rather than in its application to the particular circumstances in Chiapas.

Developing a case study requires an educator to think through the key issues involved in terms of conceptual frameworks, people, and the social environment, and to construct proactive rationales and strategies for the best resolution (Haulotte & Kretzschmar, 2001; Rivas & Hull, 2000). Toward this end, an educator should state the major problem, define the objective of the case study, describe key players within the organization, and identify the process of service delivery and decision-making. More creative educational interventions such as this should be designed with a goal of strengthening social workers' cultural competence and their capacity to work across multiple paradigms, and to find new ways to engage with clients.

Accepted: 01/08


Abrams, L. S., & Gibson, P. (2007). Refraining multicultural education: Teaching White privilege in social work curriculum. Journal of Social Work Education, 43, 147-160.

Council on Social Work Education. (2001). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Garcia, B., & Van Soest, D. (2006). Social work practice for social justice: Cultural competence in action. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

Haulotte, S. M. & Kretzschmar, J. A. (2001). Case studies for teaching and learning social work practice. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

Mildred, J., & Zuniga, X. (2004). Working with resistance to diversity issues in the classroom: Lessons from teacher training and multicultural education. Smith College Studies in Social Work. Special Issue: Pedagogy and Diversity, 74, 359-375.

Rivas, R. F., & Hull, G. H. (2000). Case studies in generalist practice. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Stephen, L. (2003). Zapata lives! History and cultural politics in southern Mexico. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Van Soest, D., & Garcia, B. (2003). Diversity education for social justice: Mastering teaching skills (1st ed.). Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

Weller, W. H. (2000). Conflict in Chiapas: Understanding the modern Mayan world. North Manchester, IN: DeWitt Books.

Eun-Kyoung Othelia Lee

Boston College

Betty Blythe

Boston College

Kassie Goforth

Latino Health Institute

Eun-Kyoung Othelia Lee is assistant professor and Betty Blythe is professor at Boston College. Kassie Goforth is with the Latino Health Institute.

Address correspondence to Othelia Lee, BCGSSW, 140 Commonwealth Ave., McGuinn Hall, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467; e-mail:
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Title Annotation:TEACHING NOTE
Author:Lee, Eun-Kyoung Othelia; Blythe, Betty; Goforth, Kassie
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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