Social Work & Diversity
For this paper I have chosen to continue with my chosen topic given at the seminar, that is, ‘race’. My seminar discussion concluded with a case scenario for group discussion, I now intend to use the same case scenario, which is as follows:
I have recently been allocated a British black family of Afro Caribbean descent in which the younger son has been verbally and physically assaulted on a number of occasions by white offenders. In addition, I have been made aware that the other members of the family have been subjected to numerous acts of ‘racism’ by white individuals, and that the family therefore are very wary of working with me, how do I as a British white female social worker in practice embrace this and work across the ‘differences’ with this particular family?
This case scenario is my basis for reflective and critical analysis, which I shall demonstrate through discussion of the following issues: the potential issues of power imbalance involved as a white social worker working with black service users, the contrasting construction of what it is to be black British and white British. I shall then proceed by discussion of emotions potentially involved as a white social worker working across difference and conclude with the potential ways in which I as a white social worker can increase my chances of working and communicating with black clients.
Potential power issues involved whilst working as a white social worker working with these black service users.
Primarily by recognising that there are two potential power issues between this family and myself. The mere fact that this family has been referred to me as a social worker indicates that this family are in a vulnerable position, and as Adams (2003:162) notes ‘service users are usually people who are relatively powerless, in contrast to social workers who are relatively powerful’. As a social worker I hold a certain degree of power that can have an influence on this family whether it be positive or negative.
The power that I hold as a social worker I could use constructively as a useful tool for empowering this family in order to take steps to combat the imbalances that exist between us, and, if used appropriately can enhance their lives, whereas abuse of this power would reinforce the power imbalance and oppression. These power issues can be used to inform my practice and as Stein (1976) in Williams, F. (1989:172) suggests, ‘the relationship between races, social classes and between helping professionals and their clients are all variations of unequal power relations in society’.
In addition, as a white social worker working with this family I have to recognise and acknowledge that I am in a hegemonic subject position (because of the colour of my skin) and my own identity would be according to Williams (1996:70) one which places me in a privileged position, this would infer that the family and myself are not on an equal footing. This therefore creates a power imbalance between myself and the family on the basis of our skin differences and it is this privileged position within UK’s multicultural society that has contributed to this family’s discrimination and oppression.
How do I then address this imbalance of power, discrimination and oppression? By developing an understanding of the concept of ‘race’ and cultural differences and identities and oppression. Race and oppression cannot be fully understood without also understanding the notion of power and as Thompson distinguishes
“the social worker may not be sufficiently sensitive to issues
of power/ powerlessness and oppression as they relate to
clients in terms of their social location, gender, race, age
and so on”.
Thompson 2001: 139
Thompson (2003:49,80) further suggests the issue of diversity is very significant in terms of power relations and the distribution of life chances, therefore a sophisticated understanding of the manifestations of power and it’s significance within social work are crucial in order to challenge inequality, discrimination and oppression.
Contrasting Constructions Of What It Is To Be Black/White
Scientific concept of ‘race’, that is, race as being a product of biological variation. This concept implies that human diversity as a division between ‘races’ however, I would have to argue this as there is no evidence to sustain the theory of biological differences that make up ‘differently identified races’. Therefore this is not a valid concept, and, I would go further to say that there is only one race that is, the human race. However, there are phenotypical differences such as facial features, hair, colour etc, which attribute to the categorising of individuals or groups.
The word ‘race’ is usually placed within inverted commas, this is because it takes on another meaning, that is, it is used as a way of categorising individuals and population groups. It would be more appropriate to approach race as a social construct e.g. individuals who are ascribed to racial categories due to their ‘differences’ (colour, nationality, beliefs etc) which they understand and give meaning to. The UK is a multi cultural society in which individuals/ groups have their own differences in which they form their identity, however these individuals are ascribed to racial categories because of their ‘differences’ usually treated as part of a specific group e.g.
African, Caribbean, Indian, which, within a predominantly white population are deemed as of being of a lesser status and are therefore likely to be subjected to practices which systematically disadvantage, discriminate, marginalize and exclude them because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin, this is what we know as ‘racism’. Wetherall and Potter (1992) define racism in terms of lay and professional discourse:
“which has the effect of establishing, sustaining and
reinforcing oppressive power relations between the
majority and minority culture”
Wetherall, M. & Potter, J. (1992:70)
Many ‘black’ individuals/groups in Britain face either or both institutional and cultural ‘racism’.
Since the post war reconstruction of Britain institutional racism has been deeply embedded in institutions such as, housing, employment, education and also within the legal system. When immigrants from the former British empire and former colonies came to Britain to fill the gaps for job vacancies at the bottom of the ladder (unskilled and low paid) increasing the demand for housing, which naturally exacerbated the already shortage of housing accommodation. The social strains began to emerge and the problems were blamed on the immigrants (were they scapegoats?) the tide of white hostility increased finally resulting in the Notting Hill riots 1958, which has left deep rooted hostility among the ‘white’ British people towards those who are not white. Second and third generations born in UK still face similar situation, blacks applicants for housing are discriminated against,e.g inferior housing estates to the blacks. Less employment opportunities,promotion etc
An example of Institutional racism is that of Stephen Lawrence, black teenager stabbed in a racist assault in London. The McPherson report found overwhelming evidence of police incompetence’s in their handling of the inquiry but also of institutionalised racism within the metropolitan Police Force, I think McPherson’s definition sums up all the report by concluding:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate
and professional service to people because of their colour, culture,
or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes
and behaviours which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping
which disadvantage minority ethnic people”
MacPherson Report (1999 para 6.34)
Black people in Britain also face cultural racism, this is a set of beliefs and ideas, which provide people with a false and mistaken concept of a so-called ‘racial group’ hence reinforcing stereotypes. An individual may be regarded as ‘ignorant’ ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’ simply because of the colour of their skin. Cultural racism is rife in many areas of British life, in particular within the media. The media is very influential as it projects ideas and images, which reach ‘mass’ audiences. The fact that many ‘white’ people associate black men with crime may at large be because of the medias representation of black minorities.
The danger lies within the media by portraying images in a distorted fashion that may perhaps owe more to their stereotypes than to the reality of the minority group. According to Woodward (2000 chapters 3&4), labelling and stereotyping are cultural processes by which majority and dominant groups can define, demean and disempower minorities and subordinate groups.
We often see within the tabloids articles of ‘blacks’ being portrayed as criminals and members of organised criminal gangs. Up until the last few years the word ‘black’ was often used as a prefix if an offender was a member of an ethnic minority e.g. ‘black youth’ and the word ‘white youth’ was not used in the same way. Tabloids also portray ideas and images such as Britain being ‘swamped’ by blacks, white populations identity could feel threatened by such remarks and therefore reinforcing hostility. Blacks are also under-represented by the media, i.e. given roles that reinforce the stereotypical ideologies of the white British population.
Although I may identify with some aspects and similarities between myself and the family I am working with, it is important however that I recognise how our cultural identities informs our beliefs, values and attitudes. My own identity is invariably diverse than that of the service users, through socialisation with my family, friends, school etc. The process of socialisation within a predominantly white culture in which I share same beliefs, values and have a common history, is therefore diverse from that of this families. This shared identity within own culture informs beliefs and attitudes for example, the values that I hold are different from this families, my perceptions of marriage, children, chastisement etc have been influenced by white ‘norms’.
However identity, values and beliefs are not static they can change over time.
We define our identities by the way in which we see ourselves, or the sense of ‘self’ which we develop throughout our life. Therefore, identity is not static, it is variable, our identity reflects the culture in which we live in, O’Sullivan (2004 lecture notes). When I lived abroad for many years I integrated within a different culture in which they held certain values and beliefs and had different attitudes to that of my own. I personally enjoyed this experience of living within this diverse culture which gave me an awareness of difference, some aspects of which I was later to adopt. For example when I acquired a degree of understanding of their religion, my religious beliefs changed and I converted religion.
If one were to ask my children which culture they identify themselves with, they would find this rather problematic as they have acquired aspects from both cultures, their sense of belonging is equal within both cultures. My children have been subjected to racist remarks in the UK because of the colour of their skin, and although these remarks are hurtful for them, it has however made my children aware of others perceptions and attitudes towards ‘race’ . My children perceive these attitudes of others as people who are narrow minded and ignorant, I would have to agree as it is their lack of knowledge that is the base of their ignorance, as Trevethick (2000) adequately states:
“to understand another person, and their world of meaning, we need to start by acknowledging our ignorance of that person and their social world”
Having been informed of some of this families experiences of racism and oppression I must be aware of the various potential emotions involved whilst communicating and working with the family, these may present themselves for me as a practitioner, for example, I may experience anxiety that the family consider me (due to my white skin colour) as part of their problem, frightened that they regard me as being racist, fear that I may unintentionally be insensitive to their cultural needs therefore exacerbate existing oppression by reinforcing racism etc.
The family themselves will also be experiencing various emotions for example anger, distrust, powerlessness etc. The emotions that we experience can impact on our communication, how I work through and manage my emotions in practice will be the crux of effective communication, that will also affect decision making and in turn determines whether the work I do with this family succeeds or fails, according to Trevethick (2000)
“communication in social work is essential and that we
have to know ourselves for effective communication to
Trevethick (2000: 3)
Narayan (1999) offers interesting ideas about how our emotions and beliefs can impact on how we work together across differences. She uses the notion of insider (member of oppressed group) and outsider (non member). In this instance as a white social worker I would be the outsider and the service users insiders (as they are the members of the oppressed group). Insiders have epistemic privilege, first hand experience and critical knowledge of their experiences and of the causes of their oppression and how it affects their lives. Therefore their emotions play an important part in this knowledge, insiders emotional responses to oppression enriches their knowledge of that oppression.
As a practitioner I may feel anger at the people who have subjected this family to racism, however the family are likely to feel more emotions than myself, such as anger, shame, powerlessness etc. As a practitioner I may fail to have a full understanding of the effects of the oppression and the emotional costs on them.
Furthermore, as a practitioner I could unintentionally cause hurt and distress to the family due to my inability as an outsider to fully understand and respect the families emotional responses therefore violating their sense of self identity, respect and self worth. This is likely to result in a breach in dialogue and limit effective communication. It is imperative as a practitioner, other than addressing the families emotions and the implications I would have to be critically aware of my own emotions and the implications within practice, Gudykunst (1998) makes the point that;
” Practitioners should have the ability to be critically self
aware, tolerate ambiguity, manage anxiety, empathise
and adopt communication, skills necessary whilst
working with emotions and communication across
By adopting these skills I can embrace the differences in diverse backgrounds and identities, by learning to understand and respect these differences which will enhance my understanding of myself and others, this will in turn be enriching socially, professionally and personally for me.
Potential Ways Social Workers Can Increase Their Chances of Working with and Communicating with Service Users
Primarily by obtaining a sophisticated understanding of difference and diversity, and, adopting anti-oppressive practice. This can be achieved in many ways. As previously discussed the importance of effective communication between social worker and service user whilst working across difference and how this can be achieved has been highlighted.
By analysing the differences that exist between ourselves and the service users, as they are experts of their own situations, much can be learnt from them. ‘The social worker cannot always have a complete understanding of the situation, especially the way that the client feels, but that is not to say the social worker cannot develop an appreciation of the clients position’ Bates et al, (1997:12). This combined with reflexitivity and self awareness of one’s own culture, values and beliefs shall provide a heightened awareness and understanding of self and others whilst working across difference. The focus on the self is essential however it should not be reflected in practice. Preston Shoot (1996) states practitioners should:
“engage in continued unlearning and learning, an active consideration of the personal values brought to every interaction… understand assumptions made… reflect on how others construct their world… develop partnership skills… engage as change agents”.
Preston Shoot (1996:38,39)
The service users differences should be given more thought in order for practice to be flexible and shaped to suit the demands of the individual client. Practice with a sophisticated understanding of this cannot be criticised for being abstract.
To develop a finer understanding of the clients position within society, (after considerable thought has be given to your own) there are a number of general issues available, which will assist the process of learning from the client, and provide a useful indicator of the way in which we can work across difference. The clients’ perceptions on their issues will create a more holistic situation, furthermore, factors to consider as found in Thompson (2000): social difference, social factors, social disadvantages/inequalities and socio-political influences will allow a basic understanding of the differences in social location to develop into a sophisticated professional understanding.
In addition, the basic value of honesty is an important requirement whilst working across difference. If we are honest with ourselves that we have pre-defined views, which we recognise as stemming from our own upbringing and social background then we can begin to understand why our clients may have very different views. By admitting that we have such views, and combining this with reflective practice, ensuring we do not allow our pre conceived judgements to influence our work with service users it is elementary to understanding our diversity and differences whilst working across them. Everybody makes judgements and adds values to attitudes and thoughts. For practitioners, the notion of ‘value free’ social work is a (potentially dangerous) myth. (Thompson, N, 2000: 23).
Another fundamental point to be highlighted is the danger of assumption. Our personal backgrounds and ideologies may have conditioned us to think in certain ways but in order to deal with issues of difference and identity, or more specifically, when working across difference, we must be aware of any deeply ingrained, preconceived assumptions we take with us. Therefore, informed knowledge of where your values, beliefs and identity originate, and what role they take in your practice is, I believe, hugely important.
A heightened awareness of your own power, and that of the service users, will reduce any possibilities of ill-informed practice. Competence of understanding the issues of difference, in terms of a person’s lifestyle, needs, values and beliefs must be enfolded within a substantial knowledge of differing power relations between the social worker and service-user, an informed knowledge of a particular ‘client group’ is essential but has to be used with caution as to not patronise the service user and further highlight any power imbalance in order to be anti-racist and discriminatory.
The CCETSW’S anti racist policy paper requires social work trainees to ensure ‘… that students are prepared for ethnically sensitive practice and to combat racism’ cited in Messer and Jones (1999:193) furthermore, the CCETSW (1998:7) approach to emancipatory practice within the ‘value requirements’ identifies the need to practice in a manner that does not ‘stigmatise or disadvantage either individual, groups or communities’ cited in Thompson (2000:124). Adopting an emancipatory approach within practice which is geared towards counteracting the issues of discrimination and oppression shall facilitate our chances of working with and communicating with service users.
In conclusion, it can be argued that the corrosive nature of racism, acts as a catalyst blighting the lives of ethnic minority groups. As practitioners it is important to recognise and understand the diverse needs and rights of ethnic minority groups. By developing a sophisticated understanding of difference and diversity and of the discrimination and oppression that these minority groups encounter we can begin to challenge social inequality and oppression. We can promote anti-discriminatory practice by adopting anti oppressive practice, application of skills learnt, through our knowledge and experience along with a critically reflective approach and an understanding of how we as individuals are socially constructed, shall enable us to become effective practitioners and contribute towards a fairer and more equal society.
This sums up the need for a greater understanding of difference and diversity, whilst conveying the relevance of communication whilst working across difference in practice.