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Working (in) the gap: a critical examination of the race/culture divide in human services Open Access


Other title
minoritized immigrants
cultural competence
human services
critical qualitative inquiry
race/culture divide
extended case method
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Wolfe, Ruth Rebecca
Supervisor and department
Williamson, Deanna (Human Ecology)
Examining committee member and department
Mayan, Maria (Extension)
Kelly, Jennifer (Educational Policy Studies)
Etowa, Josephine (Nursing)
Dorow, Sara (Sociology)
Abu-Laban, Yasmeen (Political Science)
Department of Human Ecology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This project entails a critical examination of the race/culture divide in human services from the vantage point of middle women – non-professional grassroots advocates who emerged in the 1990s to address inequities that minoritized immigrants experience with main stream human services in Canada. The race/culture divide denotes critical race theorists' critique of a focus on cultural difference that obscures racism. Shaped by critical race theory and critical research methods, and drawing on interviews and participant observation involving 25 middle women, my findings reveal that the middle women's articulations of barriers and gaps as systemic inequities are at odds with main stream services' tendencies to focus on cultural challenges. This tension results in the discursive production of a cultural niche, a gendered space of exploitation of a culturally defined Middle Woman, who is thus rendered perpetually immigrant. The study illuminates how the Middle Woman navigates a complex and perilous tension between jeopardizing relationships with main stream organizations and simultaneously resisting what she experiences as disrespectful, unacceptable, unethical and overtly racist interfaces with human services. Although the middle women recounted numerous, visceral and detailed culturalist-racist interfaces in systemically racialized human service systems, they were equivocal about naming racism until I raised it directly. They gave meaning to "in Canada" experiences through their particular pre-migration realities in a process of continuous comparison between "back home" and "here," positioning them differentially in relation to Canada, and therefore also to the possibility of naming racism in Canada. The middle women engage in a continuous process of discerning racism, always weighing it against other explanations for inequitable treatment. The project thus draws attention to the toll that navigating the race/culture divide takes in embodying the sensed and draining the spirit. It draws attention to the process through which I, as a white researcher, came to see the workings of our racialized society. My research contributes to the literature on the race/culture divide and whiteness studies, and has implications for research on racism, dialogue about cultural competence and anti-racist practice, and conceptualizing settlement and responsive human services.
License granted by Ruth Wolfe ( on 2010-08-06T15:56:17Z (GMT): Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of the above terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis, and except as herein provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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