Photo: Giovanni Cancemi/AdobeStock
By Wayne Reid, BASW England professional officer and social worker
A senior social work manager joked to me recently that I “was the only authority on anti-racism in social work”. Although she was jesting, it did make me wonder what accountability and protections actually exist to support social workers of colour within the profession, given what we know about the omnipresence of racism. It didn’t take me very long to conclude – very little.
I write this article from my perspective, not on behalf of all Black and ethnic minority people or social workers – as we are not a homogenous group. I refuse to be the tokenistic ‘Black voice’ of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). I’ve had a diverse social work career and anti-racism is in all our interests. I’m one of many Black voices in the profession. It’s just my reality that my role at BASW enables me to be heard more broadly than others. Also, I realise that I’ve been ‘let in’ (to some extent) and ‘won’t scare the horses’, to quote the playwright and critic Bonnie Greer, in relation to the historian David Olusoga. I use Black and ethnic minority people here for ease.
Yes, social work is institutionally racist
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 interact with each other 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.
Since my previous article on promoting anti-racism in social work, there has been some decent position statements from some organisations and prominent social workers. However, there has also been some cringe statements, some nauseatingly feeble blogs and some noteworthy silences. Unfortunately, there remains a scarcity of cast-iron and explicit actions and/or commitments to anti-racism.
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 from the 1999 report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. There is evidently a “collective failure to provide an appropriate and professional service to social workers of colour based on 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 disadvantage ethnic minority people.
This correlates with the over-representation of Black and ethnic minority social workers in fitness to practise cases; reports from the Social Workers Union of Black social workers being failed on their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) and various other detrimental career outcomes. Basically, the modern-day social work equivalent of 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 deployed by our oppressors generally involve seek and destroy; smokescreens and mirrors or deafening silence.
Is there appetite for real change?
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 my previous article, 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 taken a bashing on my way home. My ideas are not perfect (by any stretch of the imagination), but your homework is done for you, nonetheless.
We must now ask, whether there is really the appetite for real change? Is there the actual commitment, intention and motivation? Because if not, why not? Financial investment is not necessarily a 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 neverending 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.
Disappointingly, neither Social Work England’s education and training standards for 2019 or 2021 nor the professional standards for social workers explicitly refer to anti-discriminatory (ADP), anti-oppressive (AOP) or anti-racist practice. The professional standards refer to “challenging the impact of disadvantage and discrimination, promoting social justice and helping to confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion”.
But is that really explicit enough? How can social workers be properly educated and held to account on promoting basic human rights for marginalised groups with the bar so low? Or is this just not a priority for us anymore? Social justice in this context feels like another catch-all to me – like BAME or EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion). Without explicit inclusion of these principles how can we ensure they are applied in policy, practice and education? Simple answer? We cannot. Why is this no longer important?
There is a long history of ADP, AOP and anti-racist principles being intrinsic to social work values and ethics. The legal backdrop and framework is built on the Human Rights Act 1998, Race Relations Act 1976, Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equality Act 2010. Therefore, it’s almost incomprehensible in my mind that these hard-fought principles are omitted from today’s regulatory standards and supplementary guidance.
Regressive social work standards
The previous social work standards, regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), were stronger, expecting practitioners to “be able to practice in a non-discriminatory manner” and “use practice to challenge and address the impact of discrimination, disadvantage and oppression”. Prior to that, the General Social Care Council’s (GSCC) codes of practice required employers to “put into place and implement policies and procedures to deal with dangerous, discriminatory or exploitative behaviour and practice” and social workers to use “established processes and procedures to challenge and report dangerous, abusive, discriminatory or exploitative behaviour and practice”.
Therefore, the current social work standards are regressive and do nothing to advance the principles set out by their predecessors – despite the desperate and obvious necessity. Many believe these principles are now diluted and de-prioritised beyond the point of complacency. Similar concerns have been raised by the chief social worker for children and families, with regards to the teaching of anti-oppressive practice in social work education.
Social Work England’s professional standards do acknowledge the impact of “difference and discrimination” on service users, but what about how these factors impact on minority groups of social workers? There has been a silent shift to sweep the protected characteristics under the carpet of ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ (EDI); which we know masks individuality – much in the same way as ‘BAME’ does to Black and ethnic minority groups. It conveniently rolls off the tongue – but subtly dehumanises and ‘others’ us.
The importance of incorporating these values and ethics was highlighted by BASW England in our response to Social Work England’s (SWE) consultations on rules and standards in April and June 2019 (prior to Social Work England’s inception). Unfortunately, our recommendations were not included. Reminders were issued to Social Work England (via Twitter) on 17/06/20 and 23/06/20. As of yet, there has been no response. I refer to these facts to underline the importance of these fundamental principles and how their omission in social work regulation is a travesty of social justice in itself. Without explicit inclusion, how else can social work educators and workers be properly educated and held accountable on ADP, AOP and anti-racism? There are real concerns about the standards being superficial, cold-hearted, corporate benchmarks, as opposed to empirical and evolutionary cornerstones of social work that advance human rights and social justice.
I still find it astounding that social workers are so heavily regulated and that their employers are not.”
The Local Government Association’s (LGA) employer standards, are not mandatory and insufficient accountability exists A few other equality frameworks and ‘innovations’ exist or are in the pipeline, but again the big questions are: Are they mandatory and enforceable? Do they apply to all social work employers? Do they explicitly embed ADP, AOP and anti-racism in social work policy, practice and education? Not as far as I can see. So, the provisions all seem very piecemeal and one-sided to me and rather oppressive for all – especially Black and ethnic minority social workers.
Do Social Work England and the chief social workers support the idea of the LGA’s employment standards becoming mandatory and universal? We know from BASW campaigns, research and our ongoing discussions with members that the working conditions for social workers remain diabolical in many organisations. However, there is little evidence of this being taken into account and appropriate action taken against employers (when necessary) as part of fitness to practise cases.
No more questions – just actions
Community Care has reported that Black and ethnic minority social workers are “over-represented in fitness to practise cases [and] adjudication hearings are disproportionately white compared to the profession”. This evidence needs to be categorised and scrutinised in the context of social work employers (public, private and third sectors). Also, these conclusions are not new. The GSCC and HCPC have historically reported on this too. So, what efforts have been made to address these longstanding issues of poor working conditions and inequality? Again, how much of a priority is it? Why are we continuously asking the same old questions? No more questions – just actions please.
As reported in another Community Care article, how much of a priority is given to employing ethnically diverse workforces and senior leaders? I think most Black and ethnic minority professionals (and their allies) would be keen to know what is actually being done to reverse these trends.
Since George’s Floyd’s killing and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, BASW has been at the forefront of anti-racist social work activism. BASW England has championed anti-racism in social work on a scale unrivalled by any other organisation within the profession. Our activities have involved: the publication of numerous articles (1, 2, 3, 4 & 5); incisive and timely position statements (1 & 2); a campaign to change the racist imagery on the KCMG medal; establishing the Black & Ethnic Minority Professionals Symposium; developing the Black & Ethnic Minority Social Workers Anthology (working title); several podcasts (1 & 2) and webinars (1 & 2); a response to the minister for equalities’ report on the disparate impact of Covid-19 on Black and ethnic minority communities and presentations on anti-racism in social work (specifically designed for social work organisations) across England (and internationally).
The KCMG campaign is ongoing. We have received an acknowledgement from Buckingham Palace and our letter has been redirected to the Cabinet office. However, in a bizarre twist, the original tweet (which went viral) has now been deleted from Twitter. We have asked Twitter to explain this, but no response has been forthcoming. We know silence on racism is complicity with the oppressors. I think silence can also be construed as blatant racism in some scenarios. It seems when our oppressors choose not to attack us, the wall of silence is their other favoured tactic. Open dialogue has remained a prominent source of conflict resolution for good reason – it works! It helps to positively undermine any covert or overt power imbalance.
BASW England will continue to educate, equip and empower social workers of colour and allies. As an organisation, we realise that we are not immune to the perils of white supremacy and ‘whiteness’. However, BASW has shown a willingness to address and tackle these issues internally and within the profession more broadly. We will consider all anti-racist proposals from partnership organisations and specialist collaborators that will potentially benefit social work. I like the idea of an Office for Minority Heath, as proposed by Professor Dinesh Bhugra, to promote proper accountability and ensure people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds have their holistic health (and social care) needs considered.
You can’t read yourself into activism
Anti-racism in social work risks being perceived as radical activism or anarchic ideology. Our social leaders must reverse this flawed belief system. I live in hope that social work policy, practice and education will now begin to properly recognise and reflect that ‘race’ is a socially constructed idea with no scientific validity – invented and refined principally to oppress Black people.
Race remains an unstable concept because it is superficially based on physical appearance. When race was constructed people knew very little about DNA, genetics and human origins. It is an outdated colonial invention that still permeates modern society. Intellectually and morally, as a profession and as a society, we must see beyond what was pre-determined for us centuries ago.
So, if society is built on plantations of racism, still celebrates racist history and traditions and reminds us daily of the inescapability of white supremacy, it’s not enough for social workers (and social work organisations) to be ‘colour-blind’ or ‘non-racist’.”
We must be PROACTIVELY anti-racist – otherwise anything else is just tiresome lip-service. If anti-racism in social work does not exist for social workers, can it ever truly exist for service users? Anti-racism is absolutely integral to social work, so when will it be given the credence it deserves? Without standing up for our defining values and ethics, what is to stop us succumbing to the pervasive and pernicious post-modern sleaze?
“The work of anti-racism is to fight racism wherever you see it… even in yourself. The struggle cannot be found in the pages of a book. You can’t read yourself into activism. Sooner or later, you’ll have to make a choice… Do what is safe or do what is right.” (Dr Muna Abdi).
Ultimately, if my destiny is to try and fail, then I can live with that. I’d rather die trying, thanks. Otherwise, how can I look my kids in the face or even look myself in the mirror? My scruples dictate that I must do what I know to be right (personally and professionally). My only wish is that more people did the same. I do not want to appear ungrateful, but I can live without the acclaim, the ‘likes’, ‘retweets’, plaudits etc. I want revolution! So, brothers, sisters and allies – if you know your herstory, if the ancestral spirits live within you, if you know right from wrong – then now is the time to show and prove yourself – RISE UP! What have you done to enforce anti-racism and promote black liberation lately?
Let’s not forget, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. The only real enemy of progress is ignorance and ‘wilful blindness’. Social justice must prevail.
‘One world, one race… the human race!’
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