Part 1. The Problem: Racism

Social Workers Union Blog Series | Social workers are facing discrimination and disadvantage with employers | Part 1. The Problem: Racism

This is the first part of a collaborative series with SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher and Advice and Representation (A&R) Trade Union Officials.

Over the next 6 months I plan to write about trends being brought to my attention by SWU-BASW A&R Workers / Trade Union Officials. These are significant issues specific to the discrimination and disadvantage social workers are facing with employers, because of the actions of individuals or the cultures of organisations. I am adopting a 2 part approach: part one a brief of the problem and some critical thinking; part two will be written up from a focussed discussion with a SWU-BASW Trade Union Official so as to represent members concerns.

I ask for the help of all Social Workers Union members, acknowledging I am not an expert or empirical beacon of knowledge, I will value hearing from members on the substantial issues I plan to cover.

Our voices are crucial to challenging racism, all forms of oppression, and we need to stand in solidarity to create anti-racist and inclusive workplaces.

In June I delivered a presentation at an event co-hosted by SASW and the chief social work office to the Scottish government, as part of national agenda Leading to Change. I wondered from the onset if I was the right person to deliver a presentation on racism, highly conscious of my white status albeit being less privileged and working-class origins.

I then read something by former social worker now professor of sociology Robin DiAngelo: who argues whiteness is a social construct perpetuating racist harm. We are socialised to be ignorant, oblivious, apathetic, and silent about our white privilege. Racism is a white problem and people of colour bare the harm. It is white people who need to step up to discuss current discrimination, acknowledge and accept the historic but residual impact of colonialism, irrespective of how uncomfortable this is. We do not need to belong to extremist white supremacy groups to support systemic racism. We only need to be quietly complicit.

For those of you who have not read the SASW report Racism in Scottish Social Work I urge you to do so but forewarn this will elicit shock, disbelief, and strong emotions.

Reading people’s testimonies, I found it incomprehensible events had occurred this century. I am ashamed to admit they are current, and I acknowledge the ignorance of my disbelief that any social worker encounters such discrimination.

White supremacy has been inbuilt to society over centuries, as an ideology, it forms the basis of conscious and unconscious thought and bias demonstrated by stereotypical race based beliefs and behaviours (Hall, 2022). Benjamin Zephaniah is emphatic of how deeply embedded racism is in everyday language in his poem “White Comedy”.

Ralph Ellison spotlights this in his inspirational and humbling novel The Invisible Man: an allegory depicting the symbolism of racism in daily life expressions, as a Black man forced to be socially and racially invisible by assimilation and sacrifice of identity. An array of public service figures has spoken openly on institutional racism being widespread, the need for public acknowledgement of this to then enable a collective stance and action in pursuance of equality – anti-racist services.

Despite the SASW report focus being on social work in Scotland it accurately frames the impact of workplace racism social workers are encountering UK wide.

SWU Trade Union Officials from our Advice & Representation team will attest to this, they frequently escalate concerns within SWU, from the discrimination and distress they observe while supporting people to challenge race discrimination in the workplace. When members cannot access justice via employer’s procedures or employment tribunal routes there can be an immeasurable sense of loss, hopelessness, despair, and anger.

The burden of proof is a burden that weighs on victims until events can evidenced. Despite the protections imbued within the Equalities Act this can be a near impossible task because of the invisibility of racism. Our maintenance of white western ideology subjugates most human difference (not only race) as inferiority.

Microaggressions can be both overt and covert, at work and in personal life. Constant exposure causes elevated stress levels and adversely affects physical health and mental health. Just a few examples of microaggressions: criticism of accent speaking English, using this as a measurement of competence and intelligence, commenting a person speaks good English or needs to learn to speak more clearly (without accent); commenting on how different a person’s hair or clothing is, trying to touch it; telling someone their name is too difficult to pronounce, shortening it so as to not have to bother to learn it; asking where are you really from, where do your family come from. Such remarks may be innocent in intention however they are culturally insensitive, cause wounding and alienation.

So, what can we commit to do about racism in social work?

Anti-discriminatory practice is enshrined in social work education. It guides values and ethics; it forms the baseline by which we challenge social injustice and economic inequality. Is it sufficiently anti-racist? EDI recognition and action is growing as a new strengths-based movement in the form of EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion). The SWU’s EDI group statement considers multiple forms of marginalisation:

The SWU EDI Group mission is to support strategies and action for equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within the social work profession and the trade union movement. Promoting a culture of inclusion based on the principles of dignity and respect is a key part of this mission. As a trade union we will consider international perspectives; intersectionality; experiences including but not limited to race and identity, age, gender, disability, poverty, austerity; and wider socio-political influences that inform us as a union. We will support the union to continue to develop partnerships with marginalised communities, identify exclusion factors and obstacles, and engage in active allyship.

Is the momentum and expansiveness of inclusion via EDI enough to make an anti-racist stance in social work?

A photo of SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher speaking at a podium

Calum Gallacher

SWU Assistant General Secretary

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You may also be interested in reading the SWU blog “Dog whistles at large – racism“.