Conversations about race in social work

5th October 2020
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Over the past months, we’ve been reflecting on how Frontline as an organisation can do more to confront all forms of racism head-on. We know that almost a third of the children who social workers support identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, but the social work profession currently doesn’t reflect this diversity. Improving diversity on all our programmes and ensuring that our programme content promotes diversity, inclusion and anti-racist practice is a crucial part of changing this.

Frontline programme participant, Sandeep, shares her own experiences of race, before and after she joined the programme. She highlights the importance of anti-racist practice and having the confidence to address race and racism within social work.

Before starting the Frontline programme, I would say I had largely been blind to my race. I grew up in a very white, working class area and very much felt part of this environment, despite being from one of the only Indian families. I felt Sikh by faith and white British in terms of the way I spoke, dressed and behaved. At university there was a very multicultural group of people around me and while there was an understanding of our difference, this was completely accepted and respected.

Looking back, I probably had experienced microaggressions throughout this time, but wasn’t really aware of it happening. I joined the Frontline programme in 2018 and during the summer institute I gained a much deeper understanding and awareness of them. From that point on I really noticed people acting differently towards me because of my race where I hadn’t before.

It became apparent that some families I was working with saw me as a brown professional; when you come into someone’s life in a position of power, they notice any differences, including racial differences, immediately. I had to consider my race in situations where I never had before.

With this realisation, I sought the support of my Frontline practice tutor and local authority manager. We had conversations about how to challenge racist behaviour appropriately, but also appropriately. On one occasion a professional I was working with made a racist sweeping statement. I challenged them, but was ignored. Rather than be demoralised, I brought this up with the other Frontline programme participants in my reflexive group. We discussed how I could challenge problematic behaviour more effectively in the future. Drawing on the other participants’ experiences and perspectives made me much better prepared. When I later found myself in a similar situation, I followed the steps we had discussed and was much more successful in handling the situation.

I found these reflective conversations and taking a deeper look at the issue really invigorating, so much so that I decided to write my master’s dissertation on having meaningful conversations about race. I now feel much more confident having meaningful conversations about race with families and am able to understand how a family’s lived experiences impact their views on race and religion. For example, I am currently working with a family of South Asian decent and the mother has shared that our conversations around race have made her feel more understood and able to share her experiences with me. This trust and openness allows me to provide better support to the family.

Listening to others is so important both in social work and when tackling racism. We don’t need to have all the answers ourselves, but by listening to and learning from each other we can gain the confidence to challenge behaviour and beliefs. This will be clunky at the beginning, but you will gradually gain a vocabulary and language that allows you to talk openly and effectively about race with others.

No matter your own race or religion, as social workers we need to feel confident discussing these topics with any family we work with. Without tackling racism, we won’t be able to support or bring about the best outcomes for disadvantaged children. To be truly anti-racist in our work, however, we also have to feel comfortable challenging anyone, including friends and colleagues, when they make a racist comment or display racist behaviour.

How to challenge a racist comment or behaviour:

Ask for clarity: sometimes when you ask someone to explain a comment further, they reveal they didn’t mean what you understood them to mean.

Take the time to have reflexive conversations about race: it’s important to have reflexive conversations where you can share your experiences and others can offer their insights and support. Sharing knowledge and a variety of perspectives is essential, as everyone’s experience of race is different. 

Be curious: regardless of your own race and experiences, you can gain a cultural understanding of and sensitivity towards any person, but only if you ask questions and learn what race means for that particular person. Acknowledge any difference in background and ask to know more about their experiences and beliefs, so you avoid making assumptions.