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‘Day after day, racism kills us emotionally, mentally, psychologically, socially’

Social worker Theresa Chadenga’s powerful argument for why Black Lives Matter is needed

Photo of article author Theresa Chadenga

Professional Social Work Magazine - 8 June 2020

While the whole world is battling with the COVID pandemic, it is extremely saddening to find ourselves still in struggles against other pandemics that have been ongoing for years and years and years - like racism.

It is also extremely disheartening that while as black and ethnic minority people, we are already worn down by the research findings that are indicating that we are more at risk of dying with COVID we also still continue to get distressed by the ongoing cases and experiences of racism across the world.

When someone is killed, the police have to be informed. What happens when someone is killed by the police? Even if they have committed a crime or they are a suspect, do they not have the right to be alive to be proven guilty and/or to be appropriately sentenced?

‘If you are tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it.’ (A Protestor Placard)

To all black social workers, colleagues, people… I would like to say:

“Know that your voice does matter. There are different ways to be an activist and there are different forms of activism. Writing is activism. Find your activism and don’t let anyone tell you what that should look like. And know that you are not alone…” (Angie Thomas - Author of The Hate U Give)

To all social workers, colleagues, people… who wonder what experiencing racism looks like - I will not start with how it feels because I understand it can be hard for many to empathise.

I will admit that I also find it hard sometimes to fully understand what being white in a racist society feels like.

But the good thing about the social work profession is that empathy is at the heart of our profession and most of what we do is empathising and fighting for justice, equality, safety, well-being… for all.

Examples of experiences of racism

You are a black doctor on a shift in a ward and in that ward, all staff wear the same uniform. A white visitor walks into the ward and asks you,

“You are not the doctor, are you?”

You make a ‘give me a minute’ gesture at them because you are busy attending to a patient who is very poorly. Then after a few minutes, as you go around the ward looking for the visitor who was asking, you see and hear them asking your white colleague who is a health care assistant,

“You are the doctor, aren’t you?”

Then your colleague – the health care assistant - whose role you value very much just like all other roles as you all work as one multidisciplinary team and are all crucial, answers the visitor,

“No, I am a health care assistant. There is the doctor.”

What happened thereafter is a story for another day.

You are a black student and you are practically assessed similarly with a fellow white classmate who is more often than not automatically deemed competent because they are white-skinned while you are more often than not automatically deemed incompetent because you are black-skinned.

Your classmate’s wellbeing, self-esteem, confidence, motivation… is obviously a lot higher than yours as you are more often than not looked down on, belittled, put down…

My friend told me of an experience of how a white colleague confidently gave the wrong information to clients while she - after taking her time to research and seek advice etc - unconfidently gave the correct information.

And almost all clients who visited the service always asked to be served by her white colleague because, “she is the one who knows what she is doing,” they say.

In other words, as a black person you always need to prove yourselves more than your white colleagues and more often than not your efforts are not even appreciated.

You are walking towards a till in a supermarket. A white man is walking in front of you. He gets to a till where a black girl is serving.

The till operator shouts, “Good evening.” He looks at her, does not answer but just passes that till even though the till operator is free to serve.

He then goes to the next one because there is a white till operator there even though there are three customers with full trolleys ahead of him. You go to the black till operator to get served and she tries her best to smile but you can read a lot of pain and hurt written all over her smile.

You are taking a little walk during lockdown. You see a white couple walking towards you. There is a white man walking his dog in front of you. When the white couple gets to the white man walking the dog, they all maintain the two-metre distance but the couple say, “Hello, how are you?” and smile at the white man.

But when they get to you, they double the two-metre distance, look at you with frowny faces - like they are looking at the coronavirus itself. You say, “Hello,” and they ignore you. Then after they have just passed you a bit, they laugh out loud.

Later, however, you meet another white man with his little daughter. He greets you and has a little chat with you from a two-metre distance and the little one waves at your little ones. All your mind says is not all people are the same anyway and this is one in ten maybe… (just an estimation from my own personal experiences).

You are working as an agency health care support worker in hospitals. You book shifts on wards that you are happy to work in. When you get to work, they start moving agency staff from one ward to the other whether you are happy to work in that ward or not because ‘all staff have the responsibility to ensure that all patients are adequately taken care of’ - fair enough and very much understandable given the duty of care we all have.

However, you are in that ward with a white colleague from the same agency you work for. The night coordinators call the ward to ask for an agency staff to be moved. The nurse in charge of the shift asks your white colleague to move to the other ward. She refuses.

The nurse tells the night coordinators that your colleague is not happy to move. They ask to speak with her on the phone. They ask for her name and clearly from her name and her accent, she is white. She tells them she cannot move because that ward is too heavy for her as she has a back problem. They say they understand, and it is okay.

They ask the nurse in charge if there is another agency staff on the ward and yes you, the black worker, are there. You also refuse to be moved and give your own reason too. The care coordinator speaks with you and from your name and accent you are clearly a black person. They tell you that you must move else they report you to your agency and you are stopped from booking any shifts in that hospital.

Your excuse doesn’t matter because to be employed as a health care support worker, you are supposed to be fit to work anyway and if you are not fit enough, then you must not be doing this job at all. You decide, enough is enough, even if it means I lose the job, I am going to stand up for myself at this point. You tell them it’s either you work on the ward that you booked to work in, or you go home. What happens after that is a story for another day.

You are a black carer and a white colleague who is also a carer working with you comes to you with some fluid balance charts that need to be completed. She says, “Come… I will sit with you and show you how to complete these.”

You ponder, I thought I should be the one to ask for help if I need it. You look at them and smile, “Don’t worry, I am all right. I can do this. I have been doing this job for about four years, love. And I have a pass in my ordinary level Maths too. Thank you.”

You watch in frustration as people that you are probably at par with or you are perhaps even better than, get opportunities in fields that you have great passion and talent and ability to excel in – be it writing, singing, acting, dancing, sport, business...

You see your dreams getting slaughtered as days go by. You are very sure that given the opportunities to showcase your talents and abilities, you would be a much better person than you are and you would be living a much better, happier and healthier life than you do, yet you continue to be denied the chance to showcase your capabilities – more-often than not indirectly.

You get into a restaurant and someone white serving in that restaurant looks at you with an angry face though you don’t know what you have done to them and they try hard to make sure they give you as little as they can or if there is a bit of a burnt or not well cooked part of that dish, that’s where they take your portion from.

Then, they almost throw the plate or take away box at you. Need I say you are not getting this food for free. You are paying your hard-earned money for it.

You go for a couple of interviews after graduating and you keep getting told that you answered the questions quite well, but you do not have enough experience and there were applicants that were better experienced than you – fair enough.

However, you keep asking yourself, how come most of my university classmates who are white got offered jobs before we even completed the course when they had only completed a placement? Did they have experience in this profession already or is there something I am missing?

You are working as a social worker for an older woman. You communicate using text messages with his daughter and you always put your first name - ‘Elizabeth,’ at the end of each message, followed by social worker in brackets. Everything goes well.

You understand each other well and agree on a plan and all until the day the daughter meets with you face to face and finds out that you are a black person. Out of the blue, she says, “Is there any way I can get a different social worker?”

You do not bother to ask her what she means by ‘different’ social worker because after all, allocating social workers is not your job. You give her your manager and senior’s contact details and advise her to discuss her request with one of them. What happens thereafter is a story for another day.

These are just but a few examples that I even found hard to pick out of thousands of different experiences – my own experiences and experiences of black friends, relatives, and colleagues that I know. I would like to challenge fellow black people to share this post on their social media pages and in comments, share their own experiences of racism.

And I can bet that many shocking stories will come out – some things that one may never imagine are done and said to human beings by human beings.

And then, many people wonder why black people are at high risk of dying of this pandemic? Obviously, besides the fact that many black and ethnic minority people work in health and social care, one of the reasons is that they have already died in so many ways. Therefore, any pandemic that can finish them up, will just easily finish them up.

Day after day, we are killed emotionally, mentally, psychologically, socially… We continue living with slaughtered dreams, hopes, wishes, confidences, self-beliefs, abilities, capabilities, talents… As a result, many of us are distressed, stressed, frustrated, depressed, confused, hopeless, scared… In other words, many of us black people live with unhealthy minds in this racist society.

Some individuals then look for coping mechanisms. Some turn to alcohol, some to drug abuse, others to unhealthy eating habits… And then a lot of life-threatening health conditions develop in the same individuals. As a result, they develop weak immune systems. It means when pandemics like this current COVID strike, they are obviously more vulnerable. And the chain goes on and on and on…

To social workers and all other human beings, all I can say is:

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” (Angela Davis)

And

“If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have taken the side of the oppressor.” (Desmond Tutu)

And to all human beings, I would like to conclude by saying:

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.” (Audre Lorde)

Whether you are white or black, remember that many have been caught red-handed in hate crime, racism, discrimination…

Theresa Chadenga - social worker at North Manchester General Hospital

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.