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Anti-racism in social work: 'the struggle is real and you are part of it'

Academic Zoe Thomas on why she's backing a day of action by students, other academics and practitioners on 19 March calling for anti-racism to be taught on social work courses and in practice...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 2 March, 2021

Something is happening in social work. Social workers are mobilising and demanding change. Following the recent wave of interest in anti-racist practices and anti-racist ways of being, a grassroots movement has mobilised on social media. 

Those of us part of this community have never met, in fact we don’t even know each other, yet we have come together with a strong and shared commitment. We’re social workers, we’re an anti-racist movement and through our activism we’re demanding systemic change.

In the wake of police brutality and murder against black people being less hidden, it’s harder to ignore without being exposed as complicit. Collectively, it needs to be made clear by social work that we refuse to move on from this position. We want more than slight disruption for as long as it is on point to describe oneself as anti-racist. 

We want measurable and felt change in social work. Change that can be called out, questioned and publicly held to account. It is not acceptable to tirelessly continue whitewashing our demands to dismantle racist systems with the smoke and mirrors fallacy that individuals and teams are trying to change things from within. We need a whole new system and here is an opportunity for those of us who decline complicity to do something about it. 

Inspired by the social work activism of student social workers Omar Mohamed, Diana Katoto and Charlie Perrett at the University of Birmingham and their visionary book campaign as a means to begin a process of decolonising their social work education (see the March edition of Professional Social Work magazine) we also call social workers and student social workers to action.

It’s amazing what happens when those who hold white power exercise it by opening doors to the loud knocks from those of us who are so often silenced, ignored or offered a half-eaten piecemeal carrot. It’s much less exhausting and much less infuriating when the doors we are hammering on are opened from the inside. Better still, when the doors are left unlocked or where they are completely removed from their hinges and we invent a whole new way of passing from one space to another.

Our social work collective voice exists loudly and is active because our beloved profession and those of us who are committed to it require the system within which we practice to be dismantled and changed. We call upon student social workers and social workers to challenge their employer, directors of services or their university vice chancellors to include anti-racist social work education, teaching and learning and continuous professional development.

It’s not enough talking about being anti-racist or describing one’s workplace as anti-racist, or having black history month on the team meeting agenda. Ensuring there are a few colourful tokens on the team is not anti-racist activism. Nor is this about disapproving of St George’s or the Union Jack flag and EDL marches. This is about creating anti-racist systems; less about individuals and more about a complete dismantling and change in the existing systemic and collective racist systems that hold together our ‘great’ British institutions of social work and social work education.

For anyone still thinking that all lives matter, then remember if one house on the street is burning you would not expect the fire service to pour water on the whole street. If you’re born black, you’re on fire. Your life chances are at the very least much slower and seriously hindered than if you’re born white. If you’re a black student then your attainment is likely to be compromised because of racism. If you’re painfully one of the few of us that are black academics then you’re likely to feel more of a pinch than your white peers.

When anti-racist participation and action at leadership and control levels is needed, when those who exercise power on behalf of our profession are overtly complicit and in a society where it’s okay for the first ever black university vice chancellor to be appointed in 2020, then the call to action needs to be a collective army of social workers demanding better. 

We are not passively asking for positive change, development or a move in the right direction. Our starting point is that this should never have been the case in the first place. It is only with this starting point can we measure the type of society we are; a racist society. And that includes our institutions. 

As a profession we need to demand an anti-racist social work education and anti-racist continuing professional development with enabled ways of working. As long as this is not happening then the ‘great’ British institutions within which we are teaching, learning and practicing social work are complicit. 

Those who are making executive and legal decisions about what we learn, what we do and what is important need to be held to account and collectively it is our responsibility to take action. Forget about that token on the team appointed as a gesture towards being representative of society. This is about allowing marginalised groups power to make change.

We wouldn’t have only black women as social work professors or all black local authority social work directors of service. So why, then, do we not blink an eye when it’s all white men running the show? 

It is, of course, under the existing system we have the unsurprising statistics about student attainment, pay and other horror stories about institutional racism. Is it time to give someone else a turn? We don’t want to be representative of society, we need to be ensuring there are enough black voices in powerful positions who are able to make things change. 

It was the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said we know we have equality when all nine justices on the supreme court bench are women. I wonder if social work has a lot to learn here. 

The struggle is real and you are part of it. Get involved.

Zoe Thomas is a social work lecturer at the University of Bradford

Social Workers Against Racism: A Call for Anti-Racist Action webinar - to join click here

For more information about the day of action on 19 March click here

Follow the hashtags on Twitter #SwAction21 #AntiRacistSW #riseAgainstRacism #AntiRacistAction

A new book, OUTLANDERS: Hidden Narratives from Social Workers of Colour, edited by BASW professional officer/anti-racism visionary Wayne Reid and Siobhan Maclean, is to be launched on 16 March. Click here for more information