‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression’
BASW England professional officer and activist Wayne Reid on why social work must continue to promote anti-racism long after the media focus on Black Lives Matter has gone
Professional Social Work - 11 December, 2020
Black History Month has passed but we must not stop ringing the alarm on racism in social work.
The level of inaction from many within the profession's establishment is both deafening and revealing. To quote US novelist and activist James Baldwin: "I can't believe what you say, because I see what you [don't] do."
Being ‘let in’
I write this article from both personal and professional perspectives. I do not speak on behalf of all Black and ethnic minority people or social workers as we are not a homogenous group. Also, I refuse to be the tokenistic ‘Black voice’ of BASW. I’m one of many Black voices in the profession. I realise that I’ve been ‘let in’ (to some extent) to express my views because, to quote Black historian and TV presenter David Olusoga, I “won’t scare the horses”: I am supposedly well-spoken and middle-class or so I’ve been told.
For the record, I’m not aspiring to be a ‘nice guy’ when it comes to combating oppressive regimes and systems. ‘Niceness’ is often weaponised against people of colour. My motivation is not for career ambition or financial gain. It’s for the cause, not applause – and the cause is Black Lives Matter.
My narrative is based on my lived experiences and those of other people who are routinely judged on the basis of their skin colour.
The prevalence of anti-black racism and the stealthy manoeuvres to gloss over our contributions and downplay our legacies is discombobulating. Some of us learn to live with the burden of our exposure in white spaces, even though it punctuates the rhythm of our everyday lives, and some do not.
Most Black and ethnic minority people recognise early on that we are forced to try harder and tolerate multi-layered oppression for our endeavours and to be recognised. This is evidenced by the tiny number of Black people honoured with a statue or trophy name; the groundswell of racism aimed at Marcus Rashford for campaigning to provide meals for disadvantaged children and the avalanche of complaints and relentless racism targeted at Ashley Banjo for leading a BLM-themed dance.
Interestingly, some people have likened Black actor John Boyega being cut out of the Chinese launch of a perfume advert to a photo tweeted from a Guardian Social Care Lives 2020 event in which I was cut out as a panelist.
People must make their own minds up about any similarities. The reality is the list of minimisations and omissions (accidental or otherwise) for me and other Black people is endless and normalised.
Critics argue that politics is for politicians and Rashford should ‘stick to football’ and Banjo should ‘stick to dancing’. These modern-day revolutionaries are accused of ‘playing the race card’ by some. Reducing our life experiences to a game of cards serves only to undermine the importance of what we say.
This minimisation strategy disturbingly correlates with attempts to de-politicise social work policy, practice and education. Have social workers been ‘dumbed-down’ to simply become agents of the state? This debate has continued for decades to a point where social workers are now regarded by some as agents of social control. Being politically and socially aware is essential to promote social work values and ethics – otherwise, surely, we are just automated robots.
To quote Black activist Guilaine Kinouani: “Any attempt at portraying [social work] (or any scholarly discipline) as an apolitical, decontexualisable and ‘neutral’ field of knowledge production which can operate outside of the realm of politics and ideology is not only ill-informed, it is naïve.”
Does the automation of tasks that social work has become in some places stifle this type of critical and free thinking? I’d argue it does and that there has been a silent (but deliberate) shift to devoid social workers of their political nous and social activism.
I’m not talking party politics here, but all the local and national activities through which people make, preserve and amend the written and unwritten rules under which we all live. The activities associated with making decisions for groups, power relations between individuals and the distribution of resources or elevated status by central government.
From this perspective, politics is inextricably linked to the phenomena of conflict, cooperation, fairness, social justice and human rights.
It’s a bad state of affairs when those in power use the media to corrupt our societal world view, so that to be 'woke' or to 'do-good' is considered something to sneer at. Accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘victimhood’ do not evoke compassion or humanity, but provide an insightful measure of their sensibilities.
For those politicians of colour who deny 'white privilege' and denounce critical race theory, 'Skin folk ain't always kinfolk' is an apt mantra from my upbringing.
Nowadays, I take the view that some white wolves exist in Black sheep’s clothing. Let’s be clear, these people are cleverly disguised gatekeepers and handlers. White supremacy is often more palatable when it is communicated by people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Of course, the incentives of money and power are enough to seduce most human beings regardless of their ethnic background.
I’m Black all year round not just for one month
Black History Month (BHM) is not really a celebration of Black history. It’s more a filtered window of remembrance to pacify us. If those in power were serious about Black history, they would integrate it into all aspects of mainstream education.
There is a very real danger of BHM, the BLM movement and anti-racism all being caricatured and side-tracked by the insidious multi-dimensional forces that exist to suffocate them. Namely, different manifestations of white supremacy and institutional ‘whiteness’.
This is why we have ‘bigger fish to fry’ than Rule Britannia or whether Adele should have her hair in Bantu knots! Examples of this suffocation in social work include: racial harassment, gaslighting, and marginalisation. When white people attempt to police the dialogue and language of Black and ethnic minority people (based on what they view as palatable), this is how the ‘psychosis of whiteness' is socialised and teaches perceived entitlement and superiority over Black people. An example of this can be seen in the responses to rap music and Black culture.
Also, there are attempts to derail, discredit and devalue Black lives through social media, including through auto-generated ‘bots’ which is deeply sinister. The mission to educate, equip and empower hearts and minds on anti-racism has never felt more urgent in my lifetime.
The mainstream media and politicians think BLM is old news. However, since the resurgence of the BLM 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 in the profession.
As an organisation, we also realise that we are not immune to the perils of white supremacy and institutional ‘whiteness’. However, BASW has shown a willingness to address and tackle these issues internally and in the profession more broadly.
Cringe position statements, feeble blogs and noteworthy silences
Since my last article in Community Care on promoting anti-racism in social work, there have been some decent position statements from some organisations and prominent social workers. However, there have 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. Lightweight placatory comments like: “we are against racism and oppression in all its forms” is just not good enough anymore. Also, shamelessly flogging a blog from the only non-white staff member is a glaring attempt to tokenise the issues at hand. This is semi-skilful subterfuge to avoid addressing the real-life cause and effects of racism in social work.
What message does this really convey? Far from transformative, this approach is performative allyship or lacklustre window dressing at best. You know it, I know it – we all know it.
To quote Kinouani again: “When organisations perform anti-racism, it does not take long for the mask to fall… When performative committees are formed, they soon give themselves away. Justice is actually hard to fool.” Less fakery and more authenticity please.
Here is a reminder of the three typical organisational responses to racism that you might want to cross-reference with the white identities table by social work academic Gurnam Singh. How does your organisation match up?
- 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 Black people. Such an organisational response usually commends staff for being resilient and deflects attention away from the essential redesign of systems that routinely make people suffer.
- 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 brief statement; possibly delegating responsibilities to an already overworked equalities officer or proposing minor changes to already vague policies and 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 Black people face every day. Unfortunately, this response is common.
- Publish an authentic anti-racism action plan, outlining significant reforms that commit to specific, measurable, achievable and realistic targets (suggestions below). Examples include publishing a strong mission or position statement condemning George Floyd’s murder and racism in all its forms and committing to the British Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics, anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory and anti-racist practice. This approach interlinks with the Anti-racist Commitment Framework. It sees white allies fully involved in challenging, deconstructing and dismantling racist systems in solidarity with Black people.
It is fantastic that Brighton & Hove Council are recruiting a lead practitioner for anti-racist practice on a permanent contract. My hope is that other social work employers will follow suit. At BASW England, we hope to work with employers to promote these types of innovations.
Equally fabulous news is that De Montfort University have developed a fully-funded PhD Studentship on BLM, which seems like a pioneering opportunity. Also, the progress being made on Frontline’s Racial Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan is encouraging. Social work organisations must build on this impetus and swiftly (and proactively) embed anti-racist strategies into how they operate.
BASW England are pleased to be working in partnership with the chief social workers for adults and various cross-sector stakeholders in developing the Workforce Racial Equality Standards for Social Care (WRES). The aspirations for the standards and interest from local authorities is promising. At this juncture, I’m unaware of any national provisions in the pipeline specifically for children’s services.
Dr Muna Abdi, a leading anti-racism educator, says: “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.”
I will continue with my own activism. If my contributions remain that of a muzzled, side-lined agitator, on the fringes, throwing rocks at the throne - then I’ll just continue to be authentic and stay true to myself.
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. What have you done to enforce anti-racism and promote Black liberation lately?
Let’s not forget the saying, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. The only real enemy of progress is ignorance and ‘wilful blindness’.
‘One world, one race… the human race!’