Black History Month 2023 – Recognising racism in the workplace is just the first step

SWU Blog: Black History Month 2023 - Recognising racism in the workplace is just the first step

I am elated to have been connected with the Social Workers Union (SWU) to write this piece for Black History Month.

My passion

When I was initially asked what I was passionate about and wanted to bring to the role, I did not have to think twice – racism in social work, and specifically within the workplace. Sadly there continues to be relentless amounts of current data confirming this continues to be a significant issue for us as social workers and is significantly impacting our overall work experiences, career progression and the mental wellbeing for many practitioners.

Here are some articles from 2023 for further reading on this issue:

Celebrating Our Sisters

I am pleased to therefore be able to write a small piece from my own lens, the lens of a black, young, educated woman who has been a qualified social worker for over a decade.

This Black History Month is focused on Saluting Our Sisters. I would therefore firstly like to celebrate myself – I fell into social work (I think most of us do) but I know it was not a mistake as the writings were clearly on the wall. I come from humble beginnings being the first to be university educated in my immediate family obtaining not just an undergraduate degree at a well acclaimed London university, but going onto complete a Masters degree and obtaining a Distinction. I am career focused and remain committed to both my personal growth and professional development.

I am proud of my achievements to date and proud of all of the other black women I continue to meet; there has never been a time that I have felt so inspired by each and every one of their journeys but sadly those journeys have all come with difficulties including with what they have experienced within the workplace. I continue to be amazed at their perseverance and wisdom of my sisters, but most importantly the psychological safety they provide. 

Finally and most importantly I am proud of my mother and my late grandmother, who have faced their own challenges but have persevered, enabling me to have the opportunities that I have had. Without them there would be no me. They are the strongest women I know and they have been a huge inspiration to me.

The abuse needs to stop

I am passionate about being a social worker and the work that we do. However, sadly, I have continued throughout the years to hear of awful experiences from colleagues and people they know, who like me, are simply trying to do their best in the jobs and for the profession. These are specifically experiences around workplace racism. These experiences continue to leave workers anxious, lacking confidence and either feeling silenced or forced to tolerate such negative treatment. 

The emotional impact is huge, not just on the abused, but on those close to them. Many don’t want to secure permanent roles to have more autonomy and control, particularly as this enables them to have a quick escape if they ‘sniff’ any signs of what they, or those they know, have experienced. Noone should have to go to work, where we spend most of our time, constantly feeling like they are having to tip-toe or watch their backs due to macroaggressions, micromanagement and trauma from previous experiences.

We should all be able to simply be our authentic selves and feel safe and comfortable in our skin, in and out of work, irrespective of our shade or tone. This cannot continue and employers need to be more responsive and accepting of these experiences- in not doing so they are enabling it – no action is an action in itself. I am pleased there appears to be a growing recognition of these issues and I have attended several conferences this year on anti-racism. But it needs to go beyond just recognising this. I have engaged in several discussions with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) about racism in the workplace.

However, more needs to be done and I am keen to be a part of driving and championing these changes. If we are not treating one another with love and care, how are we treating our most vulnerable children and families, who are from such a range of ethnicities and who are entitled to receive a fair and good service?

What more can be done?

I have so far led two BASW virtual events on allyship and racism in the workplace and intend to do more as this is evidently an area where my sisters, and others, need more support and education.  There is a clear gap in providing support and safe spaces for real discussions which I hope to help plug, however small and I am keen to campaign for more embedded and universal spaces locally across our profession.

I am keen for trade unions particularly, who often become our ‘crutches’ during these experiences, to collectively pull together to help make a difference and hold employers more accountable. Tackling racism, however, is everyone’s responsibility – we all, irrespective of ethnic background, need to be a part of the change. So I’d encourage you all to be brave and commit to pro-actively being part of this necessary change- seek advice if you are concerned about what you witness in the workplace, educate yourself, as well as others, on biases, take responsibility for researching and knowing your workplace policies so you can feel more confident in challenging them when and where you need to.

These are all steps that will start to make a difference and be a huge help for probably at least one of your colleagues. So if you have any particular ideas about what I have raised or about what future events can cover to support members and our social workers, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Author’s biography

A photo of Rebecca Bethune

Rebecca Bethune is an experienced qualified social worker currently working in Quality Assurance within Children’s Social Care. She has worked in a range of Local Authorities across child protection services and has significant court work experience. Rebecca is also a member of SWU, a registered social worker and currently the BASW London Branch Chair and continues to be involved in various race equality forums and groups to build her network and continues to support in driving positive changes in this area.