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'It’s not normal to be a black academic'

Social work education should be leading the way in challenging 'white privilege' in academia but is not, says a black social work lecturer...

Professional Social Work magazine, 28 October, 2020

I write this as an act of rebellion. It is a one woman protest and should be read as a display of activism.

Currently it feels like the only tool available to me to demonstrate my disillusionment with social work. Social work is more than a job title. Yes, we embark upon our own unique journeys into the profession and thereafter, but surely we are all essentially here for the common goal of social justice.

I qualified as a social worker in 2007. I have worked in local authority child protection teams and have had some roles in higher education but always alongside my practice. 

A few years ago, I began a part-time social work PhD and more recently made the difficult decision to leave my beloved advanced practitioner social work job to become a social work academic.

I describe myself as a working-class black woman with multiple identities. Racism didn’t feature in my practice as a social worker as much as one might think. Yes, there were a few sly looks here and there and racist stereotyping from colleagues. But the ACTUAL racism – the racism that is visible and expected and met with horror and disapproval, REAL racism, the racism of ‘service users’ – wasn’t that prevalent.

There were a few times when service users I was working with who were in seriously desperate situations, where they were clinging onto any scrap of power they could find, would resort to racial abuse. But other than that, it wasn’t really something I felt when I was knocking on doors. 

Racism, however, is not about the personal prejudice and discrimination of powerless individuals. It is most potent when it is about unstoppable collective power and unquestioned entitled authority and privilege at the expense of others.

In contrast to my social work practice job, it was when I became a social work academic that I really experienced racism at its worst. I entered a sterile world of emotional disconnect, privileged disinterest, white denial, the protection of fragile white feelings with a dose of insincere apologetic smiles of apathy and a few sympathetic nods. 

Let’s get this out in the open: in academia, being white is normal. That means that my black face and my black experience is a visible mark of difference. It’s not normal to be a black academic. And in this respect, social work academia is no different. 

We talk about it at length, how terrible this is. On very special occasions, like Black History Month, being black in academia is desperately celebrated as a commendable achievement. 

When being a black academic is not the flavour of the month, I’m regularly hurried along out of corridors and lecture theatres by white lecturers who can’t even see that I too am trying to set up to deliver a lecture.

I have been shuffled out of buildings with the students during fire drills. I have been looked at and questioned with utter contempt by a white academic because they thought I didn’t belong in the room: “Are you sure you’re in the right place? This is for academics.”

As I walk down the academic corridors, through the public spaces on campus and sit in very important intellectual meetings, I have been subjected to the invasion of a white hand in my black hair. 

A white hand, with the unquestioned privilege and feeling of entitlement to inflict an act of silent terrorism on my black hair, to lay a powerful white hand on my black body. My unprotected black body that cannot fight back. Can you imagine if I did?

The appearance of my black body is constantly and overtly under public scrutiny. My body shape, my body size, what clothes I’m wearing, how old I look, what my hair is like…

This has happened in formal public forums, in rooms filled with prospective social work students coming for admission interviews. It happens in social work lectures full of social work students and in meetings with academic colleagues. 

In these white spaces I am reduced to a body. I am reduced to a powerless black body, exhibited for scrutiny and publicly judged. During my time as a social work academic the exposure and spectacle of my blackness has been so much greater than my professional and academic credentials.

My practice specialisms, the relationships I have with students, my teaching and my scholarly activity is not as important as the fact of my blackness.

Soon after I started in the social work department at the university, I was interrogated by a few of my new academic colleagues. Naturally everyone wanted to know who the new person was. 

One such interrogation involved, of course, my own confession. As usual, social workers are compelled to share parts of their struggle and I was no different. And so, during the interrogation, I laid out some of my experiences as a working-class black woman and how this has shaped my politics, social work practice and teaching.

While clutching imaginary pearls in horror, my white academic colleague told me of their shock and disbelief. I was told, as if it were a compliment: “But I just think of you as middle-class.” 

It was as if by occupying the white space of social work academia somehow the stains of race and class are washed away. As if I would want them to be! 

As I casually talked about being followed around shops by store detectives and having to regularly negotiate unwanted police attention, my colleague was well and truly clinging on to those imaginary pearls.

With visible discomfort and now I’m sure wishing the pearls would transform into some sort of extremely comfortable, luxury protective booth, my colleague managed to tell me how terrible it is that this still exists. 

As I fumbled around frantically clutching my imaginary chunky African beads, I was horrified that a social worker was actually shocked that my black life was affected by racism.

I have an ongoing battle trying to prove myself and justify my appointment as a social work academic. After all, we all know that in teaching and learning evaluations, black women academics are much more harshly treated than white men.

I pondered this when I realised, after some time, that a colleague had somehow turned me into a receptionist. It was weeks before I realised. When I did, I noticed that another colleague was coming into my office to ask me how many students had been knocking; did I take a message; next time would I mind taking a message; can I pass on this and that message?

It was being made clear to me that my place was servitude. I was so busy getting on with my work that I hadn’t noticed my worth was being constructed before my very eyes. It was so skillfully and naturally executed. When I did realise, it stopped with immediate effect. 

As a PhD researcher in the final stages I planned to use my position as an academic to gain as much relevant experience as possible. I expressed a real keen interest in becoming involved with social work PhD supervision.

However, I was told that to sit on a PhD supervisory team I would need to have completed my PhD. Within a matter of days, it came to my attention that a white colleague in the team, with less relevant experience than me and who did not have a PhD and was not on a PhD research programme, had been appointed to sit on a social work PhD supervisory team.

After the Tory win in the General Election, I was in discussions with a white colleague about how scary it feels as a black person in Britain. My white colleague told me that I will be all right because I have family in Jamaica so I could go there. I’m not Jamaican. I have no family in Jamaica. I have no connections whatsoever with Jamaica. This is lazy and sloppy racism. I was speechless. It reminded me of the 1980s where we were all half-caste and coloured and we needed to go back to where we came from - Jamaica.

Working in social work academia still feels like an honour and a privilege to me. It thrills and excites me. I love social work and I love teaching, learning and research. But having these experiences feels hostile. It is shameful and humiliating. Social work academia should be radical, responsive, adaptable and transformative.

For me, social work academia has a duty and responsibility to set a precedent. It should be one of scholarly protest and activism where academics are enthused to shift and collide with power, privilege and marginalisation rather than to be slumped in passive disconnect. A disconnect from social work practice, real life practice and the felt realities and lived experiences of people who live in the real world.

As a profession we should be leading the way, setting an example of challenging the hegemony of white privilege that places a barrier to anyone else holding positions of power and influence. It is an illustrative reality that in writing this I have no alternative but to remain anonymous for fear of damaging my career and repercussion from that exact same powerbase.

Racism exists because of white privilege - and I can’t breathe because of it.

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