Long Reads

Social work is institutionally racist – here’s how we fix it.

Sensible people know racism is not just an isolated event or incident.  It’s also a reflection of institutions, structures (including micro and macro socio-economic and socio-political factors) – which all interplay and shape the lived experiences of Black people.  When will we accept that the philosophy of white supremacy runs deep in most organisational cultures?  It really is not that hard to see. 

Clearly, anti-racism in social work is not universally accepted as high importance or as urgently needed.  The response from the social work elite has been about as coherent, convincing and speedy as the Government’s response to COVID-19, the A-Level fiasco and the Windrush scandal combined.  However, the social work profession (like many others) is not broken.  What we are experiencing and witnessing has been designed.  If we truly want an equitable and inclusive profession that really encourages critical thinking, prioritises social justice and truly values diversity of service-users and staff – then we need to reimagine new structures, new systems and new discourses.  A paradigm shift!  Anything else is just papering over gaping tectonic plates. 

Yes, social work is institutionally racist – but so are many institutions, organisations and professions (not just the Police) when you consider Sir William MacPherson’s definition.  There is evidently a “collective failure to provide an appropriate and professional service to [social workers of colour] because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. This is visible in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages Ethnic Minority people…”.  This correlates with the over-representation of Black and Ethnic Minority social workers in ‘fitness to practice’ cases;  reports from the Social Worker’s Union of black social workers being failed on their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment and various other detrimental career outcomes.  The modern-day social work is equivalent to lynching.

 

I observe many key social work leaders asking the same old tired questions, then promising another exploration of the long and gruelling wilderness we meandered through in previous decades.  Just like another Government enquiry into, well… take your pick!  The ongoing Windrush scandal?  Stephen Lawrence? Stop and search?!  The tactics generally deployed by our oppressors generally involve seek and destroy; smokescreens and mirrors or silence.

The question is not: ‘is social work racist?’  More incisive questions are: ‘As racism in society becomes more overt, what is social work actively doing to promote anti-racism?’ or ‘when will social work commit to (something like) a mandatory Anti-racism Commitment Framework?’  With respect, in a previous article of mine, I literally outlined a blueprint for large-scale anti-racist organisational change.  I feel like I’ve done the class bully’s homework and then still took a bashing.  My ideas are not perfect (by any stretch of the imagination), but your homework is done for you, nonetheless. 

We must now ask, is there really the appetite for real change?  Is there the actual commitment and motivation?  Because if not, why not?  Financial investment is not necessarily the major hurdle here – it comes down to the priorities and values of the existing leadership.  I’d rather have some meaningful action, even if it is not perfect, as long as it is genuine – rather than this never-ending paralysis of fear and/or indifference.  Let’s have more clarity about what your change looks like and the timescales for implementation.  If not, it’s all just performative window-dressing and pitiful.  No more questions – just meaningful actions please.

My aim in this article is to outline some practical (and skeletal) ideas for social work organisations to consider.  I will use the terms people of colour (POC) and Black and ethnic minority interchangeably for ease.  There is a multitude of live weblinks.  Again, I write this article from my own viewpoint, not on behalf of all Black and ethnic minority people or social workers – as we are not a homogenous group.  Also, I’m by no means an expert in organisational development/leadership, but I do consider myself as an ‘expert with lived experience’ of personal and professional racism in life and in social work.  These are purely my opinions.  Contemporary scholars include: @gurnamskhela, @consultancy_hs, @kguilaine and @muna_abdi_phd

Black and ethnic minority social workers cannot and should not be expected to ‘fix’ racism

Black and ethnic minority social workers cannot and should not be expected to ‘fix’ the racism in their workplace.  However, those of us who are confident and capable enough (with the right support) can have a crucial role in educating, empowering and equipping ourselves and (potential) allies and influencers to enhance and shape anti-racism initiatives in our workplace settings.

EVERYONE has a duty to combat racism (and other forms of discrimination) in the spaces they occupy.  This includes reporting racist incidents when they occur; forming like-minded alliances with peers to tackle key issues; raising awareness and making suggestions for positive reform.  However, this article is aimed primarily at social work employers, educators and key stakeholders.

Typical organisational responses to tackling anti-racism:

From my cultured social work experience, the responses below generally indicate an organisation’s prioritisation and level of commitment (or not) to anti-racism.  However, before any meaningful change can be achieved, social work educators and employers must acknowledge the inherent and intrinsic nature of ‘whiteness’‘White fragility’‘White privilege’ and white supremacy as subconscious default positions in most (if not all) institutions, structures and organisational cultures.  Individual and organisational awareness is an imperative first step for social workers, social work employers and social work educators to address workplace racism effectively.  “In a [multifaceted] racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist.  We must be anti-racist.”

Broadly, there are 3 typical organisational responses when attempting to tackle racial inequality:

  1. Keep silent, keep things the same and “hope all this Black Lives Matter (BLM) ‘stuff’ just blows over”.  This kind of inaction and paralysis of fear correlates with and reinforces perceptions of ‘White fragility’‘White privilege’ and white supremacy for some POC.  This type of organisational response usually commends staff for being resilient and deflects attention away from the essential redesign of systems that routinely make people suffer.
  2. Publish lukewarm organisational statements that recycle and regurgitate previous rhetoric on workforce unity with predictable (and borderline offensive) platitudes – often proposing only superficial changes.  For example, publishing a sympathetic, but non-committal kneejerk brief statement; possibly delegating responsibilities to an already overworked Equalities Officer or proposing minor changes to already vague policies/procedures on ‘valuing diversity’ with little or no accountability.  Approaches at this level are usually well-intended, but tokenistic and overlook the nuanced obstacles and pitfalls POC face every day.  Unfortunately, this response is common.  
  3. Publish an authentic anti-racism action plan outlining significant reforms that commit to specific, measurable, achievable and realistic targets (suggestions below).  For example, publishing a strong mission/position statement condemning George Floyd’s murder and racism in all its forms and committing to BASW’s Code of Ethics, anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory and anti-racist practice.  This approach interlinks with the ‘Anti-Racist commitment framework’ (below).

The acid test is to share this article with your social work leaders and see what response you get.

Covert, entrenched and everyday racism in the workplace

If the recent news of police officers taking ‘selfies’ beside the bodies of 2 murdered black sisters; the recent far-right violent protests in London or the racist comments by Suffolk councillors do not outrage you or alert you to the fact that racism is thriving in this country right now – then you really need to consider whether you have sleepwalked into being an opponent of anti-racism.  At the very least, we must be self-aware and honest (with ourselves and others) when our boredom threshold is reached.  This can be subliminal and counterproductive to anti-racism at every level.  Everyday micro-aggressions (including ‘banter’ in the workplace) can fuel violent racist incidents.

The covert, entrenched and everyday racism in the workplace sometimes indicates the lack of quality cultural diversity and multicultural education and training available (to all staff).  Surprisingly, it is rarely acknowledged in social work that race is simply a socially constructed idea with no scientific validity – invented and refined principally to oppress POC.  This has modern and everyday ramifications in the working environment.  Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, Black and ethnic minority practitioners have reported to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has clearly been prioritised/withheld on occasions for their white colleagues.  Others explained they were made/ordered to visit service-users with suspected COVID-19 (with no PPE and no guidance/support), whilst white managers stayed at the office with ‘their’ supply of PPE and engaged in racist banter.  These perverse experiences can be impossible for victims of ‘naked and slippery’ everyday racism to articulate to others or reconcile internally themselves.  Furthermore, these incidents are normalised and subsumed in many workplace cultures, with limited opportunities to ‘professionally offload’.  In some cases, it’s really not hard to see who the direct descendants of slave-owners are.  With some people, it stands out like a beacon, regardless of what they say and do.

As outlined in my previous article, there is a long [history] of atrocities and brutalities endured by Black and ethnic minority people globally.  ‘Black lives matter’ is an acknowledgment that our lives need to matter more than they have, that society should apportion them equal weighting.  That is why the retort of ‘White’ or ‘All’ Lives Matter in response to BLM is not really comparable or relevant.  Would it be right to ask: “What about colon cancer?” during a discussion about breast cancer?  Or advise a bereaved mother that ‘all lives matter’ at her child’s funeral?  “Save the whales” does not mean other sea life is unimportant.  This is not complex stuff and just requires us to revitalise our basic human qualities – compassion, empathy and humanity.  Factually, unlike the lives of Black and ethnic minority people, white lives have always mattered.  So, to keep proclaiming ‘White lives matter’ adds excessive value to them, tilting us further towards white supremacy.  In hard times, surely it is right to protect and support certain groups – particularly vulnerable ones.  This does not devalue, disadvantage or discredit any other groups; it just raises general awareness and improves the support available to specific groups that require immediate attention.  BLM has its critics, but it is unclear why a movement that promotes equality is demonised by some people who vehemently claim they are not ‘a’ racist.

Anti-racism in social work must be fully considered and dismantled through collaboration with Black and ethnic minority social workers in roles as ‘experts with (personal and professional) lived experience’.  This is the only way that Black and ethnic minority social workers’ basic needs can be properly met and their wide-ranging expertise fully utilised.  Of course, this approach can only improve the experiences of black and ethnic minority service-users too.  It really is just a question of how much of a priority is anti-racism in social work?

So, how can social work employers implement ‘anti-racist practice’ in the workplace?

What might an anti-racist working environment look like?  What can social work employers do to promote anti-racism in the workplace?  What would the experience be like for Black and ethnic minority social workers?  Here is my vision of how this might work in reality:

Recruitment

Anti-racist recruitment targets are set to employ Black and ethnic minority senior leaders and educators to better reflect local communities and the workforce (where necessary/possible).

The ‘Rooney Rule’ is adopted, similar to senior recruitment in American National Football League.  This involves at least one POC candidate being interviewed for each senior leader vacancy. 

Operations

Anti-racism is: explicitly promoted in mission/position statements (good example here) along with other forms of anti-discrimination; included in relevant polices/procedures and forms part of employees’ employment contracts to underline its importance. 

The data on workforce diversity and ‘protected characteristics’ (ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality etc) informs the support available for minority groups; training for all staff and organisational policies and procedures.  The workforce is encouraged to self-declare their identity and individual/group wellbeing at work provisions are developed in partnership with them.  Creative wellbeing at work provisions are developed for those who have experienced workplace trauma associated with racism (and other types of discrimination).  This includes peer-led support groups for members to reflect fully on their personal and professional experiences.  Personal wellbeing is a mandatory agenda item for supervision meetings.  By using this ‘identity dashboard’ approach, organisational efforts are more focussed and genuine; progress is properly managed through a cycle of reviewing data output and periodic verbal/written feedback from the workforce.  

Safe and informal systems are introduced for Black and ethnic minority social workers in the workplace.  For example, discriminatory practices or constructive solutions are made anonymously in an ‘honesty box’ to empower POC without fear of reprisals.  Arising issues are then explored in supervision, team meetings or with senior leaders (if necessary).

Annual ethnicity pay audits ensure that any anomalies and discrepancies for Black and ethnic minority staff are properly reviewed and resolved.

The Covid-19 risk assessment is consistently used for all staff (particularly those from Black and ethnic minority groups). 

Education

Anti-racist education is recognised as being at the heart of developing a more cultured and inclusive workforce and healthy workplace.  

Education providers ‘decolonialise’ social work training programmes with the input of black and ethnic minority academics, social workers and service-users integrated at all stages of programme development and delivery. 

Anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive and anti-racist practice  

form a fundamental and mandatory requirement of social workers professional development and registration.  This includes a range of educational tools and training opportunities (for different learning styles) to ensure quality cultural diversity education is prioritised and valued.  Staff continuously learn and better understand microaggressionsstereotypes and how they can demonstrate ‘anti-racist practice’

The expertise of specialist external trainers and consultants is instrumental in shaping effective anti-racist approaches – with no reliance on tokenistic online courses.  

Here are some additional weblinks to anti-racist education: 12 and 3.

  • Allyship 

Anti-racist allyship is understood by senior leaders, educators and practitioners to be vital in combating all manifestations of racism.  Educating, empowering and equipping allies to actively support colleagues from marginalised and minority groups is common practice.

Allyship actively promotes ways in which managers and staff can become allies or become better allies to support their Black and ethnic minority colleagues.  Social work employers and educators demonstrate they are willing to keep listening and learning from POC to instigate any meaningful change.

  • Reverse mentoring

Anti-racist ‘reverse-mentoring’ enables Black and ethnic minority social workers to mentor senior leaders and educators on anti-racism (especially those with identified ‘anti-racist needs’).  It is important reverse-mentoring allows mentors some autonomy in their approach.  Furthermore, mentoring agreements (considering confidentiality, power dynamics and conflict resolution) are agreed and signed by both parties at the outset.

  • Leadership programmes

To combat ‘glass ceiling racism’, various professional development opportunities are available designed to provide advice/support colleagues from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to enhance their career progression.

‘Positive representation’ recognises the disadvantages and obstacles for POC and provides opportunities (mentoring, nominations, secondments, shadowing etc) to support them in reaching their full potential.  

Due to the representational imbalance, ring-fenced investment and operational resources to support leadership programmes is in place.  This addresses the lack of Black and ethnic minority social workers in senior roles and provides support for those who are.  

Ok, so what needs to happen nationally?

The existing national frameworks and initiatives to support Black and ethnic minority social workers are fragmented and optional.  This can create confusion and dilution in their coherence and implementation in practice.  Social work has a long history of committing to anti-discriminatory practice, but less in the way of practical mandatory implementation or robust challenge on these issues.  Now is the time for the profession to properly address this.  I (and no doubt many others) would welcome the prioritisation of sector leaders (including the Chief Social Workers, Social Work England, Directors of Social Services and other key stakeholders) to meaningfully and purposefully move this agenda forward to establish a mandatory ‘anti-discriminatory national framework’ that is universal across social work – in collaboration with BASW.  

An important first step, would be to explicitly reintroduce anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive practices and anti-racist values and ethics into the professional and qualifying education and training standards.  This new regime should involve partnership working between key stakeholders to enforce these values and ethics across the professional landscape.  Key aims/objectives would be to: ensure consistency, introduce mandatory requirements, emphasise ‘anti-racist’ values and be universally applicable to all social workers like the Professional Capabilities Framework and the professional standards.

We all know that organisations can sometimes be avoidant of anti-racism, but as social workers we must recognise that silence (or inaction) on racism is complicity with the oppressors.  Unfortunately, as a profession we have been complacent and have much more to do to cultivate equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and society.  

I sincerely hope this article resonates with those with power and influence within social work to rigorously combat racism by integrating a mandatory ‘Anti-racist commitment framework’ (below).  I am confident that this will embed anti-racist values and ethics into practice (not just theory).  Also, I also hope anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice can be reaffirmed generally, as sadly, these have slid off the agenda significantly in recent years.

As a footnote, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (Section 95), contains a section requiring the Home Office (changed to the Ministry for Justice) to annually publish the results of Criminal Courts in England and Wales.  This makes it unlawful for those employed in Criminal Justice System (social work educators and employers) to discriminate on the grounds of ‘ethnic background’.  This is a powerful tool, possibly under-used, by black and ethnic minority professionals and white officers (allies) who identify racism – particularly in social care generally.  This has the potential of legislative support for operational staff who raise the issue of racist practices (where perceived).

Let’s not forget, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”.  The only real enemy of progress is ignorance.  Social justice must prevail.

 ‘One world, one race… the human race!’

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