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Why anti-racism is needed in social work education

The experience of Black and ethnic students suggests social work is falling short of its own values, says Patriche Bentick and Pamela Shodeinde

Pamela Shodeinde (left) and Patriche Bentick

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 22 October, 2021

The International Federation of Social Work states that: “Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.”

Therefore, the core values of social work practice should be aimed at working with those who are disadvantaged and most importantly, standing against systemic oppression and discrimination.

Although this definition doesn’t specifically talk about anti-racism, there is a clear understanding that social work values and ethics are underpinned by anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice. This places a collective responsibility on all within the profession to promote and uphold fairness and equity for everyone.

Social work is a profession that requires a great deal of empathy and advocacy for the rights and justice of those we work with. It should provide a platform and opportunity to empower people in society who face the day-to-day societal constructs and systemic structures that marginalise and subsequently puts them at a disadvantage.

The Black community are often disproportionately overrepresented in multiple areas such as school exclusions, mental health interventions, gang violence, poverty. It is vital social workers and social care practitioners are equipped to understand, investigate and adequately support families to navigate barriers underpinned by systemic racism.

Why is anti-racism relevant in social work education?

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are often left to take discretionary measures to address issues that affect students. But research and evidence has shown that this approach is not always fair or equitable for Black and ethnic students. Research by Dr Claudia Bernard et al shows Black and ethnic students are more likely to fail their course or finish with lower grades.

Research conducted by Universities UK in 2019 found the attainment gap to be at 13 per cent. This number is likely to have increased since the start of the pandemic with Black students feeling far less supported, according to research conducted by Dr Prospera Tedam, ‘To Shield or Not To Shield’ 2021.

Evidence highlighted by Gill Calvin Thomas, Kate Howe, and Steven Keen in 2011 has also shown that when Black and ethnic students experience discrimination or unfair treatment during their work placements, there is usually an unwillingness from HEIs to properly investigate these incidents. This leaves students feeling lost, helpless and in some extreme cases, traumatised leading to a lack of confidence, which might set the tone for their future practice.

Latest figures from Skills for Care for 2018-2021 show 3.2 per cent of Black and ethnic social workers failed to complete their ASYE compared to 0.9 per cent of white social workers.

Skills for Care’s Annual data report for 2020-2021 shows that Black and ethnic practitioners accounted for over half of ASYE failures in 2018-19, despite making up a quarter of participants.

This pattern clearly demonstrates that the problem persists far beyond pre-qualifying education. Racism is embedded in the fabric of social work practice where, as stated by Dr Tedam, it is experienced overtly, covertly, systemically and institutionally.

Collective responsibility in promoting anti-racism in social work

The last year has put a spotlight on the structural biases and inequalities that exists in social work.

As Black students and practitioners, we have had to navigate through a system that is lacking in support when experiencing particular challenges due to systemic racism. We have observed white colleagues enjoy favouritism, even in cases where our abilities or circumstances were similar or exactly the same.

Speaking in safe space forums, students, newly-qualified and experienced practitioners recount their lived experience as one that leaves you “doubting yourself”, “less confident in your practice”, feeling traumatised”, “afraid to be yourself” and “walking on eggshells”.

One Black student said: “I had to redo my observations for my portfolio (pertaining to placement), although my white colleagues had no issues with the exact same experiences. I feel like I am being picked on just because I am Black. Now I failed my placement and will not continue with my social work career.”

Another Black student shared: “During my placement, I was undermined/dismissed frequently. I did not share similar interests with the majority of the team and was told during my first review that, ‘I need to try harder in regard to contributing to team and may not make it far in social work’. Following that, I started laughing at their crude jokes, going to the pub even though I felt uncomfortable and felt forced to engage in ‘banter’ that I felt was culturally inappropriate. I was later told that ‘I had made much improvement and had come out of my shell’.”

It is no wonder that Black and ethnic social workers have a higher number of fitness to practice cases in comparison to their white counterparts. The ‘glass ceiling’ is set high whereby Black and ethnic practitioners are expected to work much harder to progress. Smashing through the glass ceiling, therefore, becomes almost impossible. Yet many questions continue to be asked about the lack of diversity in leadership roles.

As Black women, we are painfully aware of the many barriers and systemic structures that are against us developing further within our social work careers. The easy alternatives are either leave the profession altogether or becoming comfortable with the multi-layered discrimination which can spill over into outright abuse.

But we want Black and ethnic people to have the same opportunities as everyone and for the processes that provide these opportunities to be fair and equitable. It is therefore important to continue having these challenging conversations. This requires a collective effort from all within the profession to begin to promote an anti-racist culture.

So, what now?

Since the tragic murder of George Floyd, there has been a ‘rebirth’ of the anti-racist movement. Within social work, there has been an acknowledgement that there is a need for a rethink in addressing the issue of racism in practice. What is yet to become clear is how this will be implemented.

We believe a good starting point is the importance of recognising the ‘white supremacy’ that is prevalent within education and practice. Coupled with this, is the need for an individual and collective approach in challenging these norms. By normalising this approach in practice, it becomes a priority for regulators to implement policies that underpin and promote anti-racism in practice.

Wayne Reid, a professional officer at BASW and an anti-racist visionary, argues that “those who finance, regulate, inspect and dictate the professions’ polices must do more than just be seen to acknowledge the issue’’.

If the events of the last year has taught us anything, it is that we live in a society where white privilege prevails, resulting in societal constructs that continue to promote and maintain this norm. As Black social workers practising in the UK, it is important and timely that we interrogate these societal norms to promote and normalise an anti-racist society that is fair and equitable for all.

The onus of delivering anti-racist work should not fall on Black social workers to invent the solutions to the abuse they experience. There must be individual effort in challenging unconscious biases, alongside a collective effort from everyone to work together to promote authentic anti-racist cultures both within social work education and in wider practice.

We cannot continue to deny these issues exist because it further perpetuates the trauma for victims of racial injustice. We are asking social work regulators to take a more affirmative approach in working with universities to address the attainment gaps and update the professional standards. If universities begin working collectively with social work organisations, we could begin to see a real shift in the social work curriculum whereby placements are also held accountable.

When an organisation acknowledges and implements anti-racist practice with a zero-tolerance approach, the implication for practice will be evident in the overall performance of students, ASYE, practitioners and the community, because people will be allowed to be themselves whilst thriving in their differences.

The theme of World Social Work this year is ‘Ubuntu’, which simply means ‘I am because you are’. When injustice affects one of us it affects us all. As a profession, we must apply it to ourselves.

Pamela and Patriche are both practising social workers and members of BASW’s Black & Ethnic Minority Professionals Symposium