Anti-racism: action speaks louder than words

A new book on an anti-racism campaign in social work has wider lessons for employers everywhere.

People holding each other's wrist


Last year’s response to the killing of George Floyd sparked many statements from employers about their repudiation of racism, but statements on their own don’t change anything. Action is required, not just at an institutional level, but also at an individual one.

A new book, The Anti-racist Social Worker*, tells the story of the SWAction21 campaign of anti-racist activism staged by a small group of social workers. It reflects the work of campaign members and social care practitioners at different stages of their careers, from student social workers and an academic, Zoe Thomas, who has devised a model for emotional reparation, including peer support groups and reverse mentoring schemes, to the chief social worker for England. Although it is about social work, the actions it describes are relevant to all sectors.

I have to declare a vested interest since the book is dedicated to my daughter Anisha, who would very much have been proud to be associated with it.

Its editors, Tanya Moore and Glory Simango, came together through a Mentoring for Inclusion pilot. Moore is Principal Social Worker in Hertfordshire Adult Care Services and a Doctoral Supervisor at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Simango is a social worker in Adult Care Services in Hertfordshire. In the first chapter, they speak about the pilot and Moore mentions the need to ensure that such projects have a clear benefit for both parties.

The two describe the SWAction21 campaign in March and why anti-racism has to be seen as a verb rather than a noun given inactivity signals an acceptance of the status quo. Moore outlines a list of actions for the campaign, ranging from making a personal pledge for an action towards combatting racism, ensuring anti-racism is part of continuing professional development programmes and social work course curricula, creating a day of Group Action and spreading the word through social and traditional media.  The book is another part of these outcomes and provides important examples of different strategies that might work in a range of different settings as well as personal stories and an emphasis on the importance of speaking out. 

The chapters of the book, which each end with questions and reflections for the reader, deal with everything from how to be an authentic ally [“talking about racism IS uncomfortable and this is exactly how it should feel”] and tackling racism in communities of practice to challenging anti-semitism and anti-Roma and traveller views as well as an anti-racism campaign in occupational health [which led to blogs and films on anti-racism], a pledge for more diverse interview panels and the embedding of diversity and inclusion into strategic plans.

One contributor, Jo Williams, talks about how to construct critical conversations about race in supervisions. She says: “It has been evidence that many lack confidence in talking about racism and by actively inviting participants to practise this, we hope it develops their capacity for critical consciousness and a sense of confidence and efficacy to work against racist oppression in social work.”

Another chapter by Jen Hooper and Akwasi Sefa-Boakye talks about how an adult disability team explored racism together through examining members’ own beliefs and behaviours and supporting each other to move forwards in a positive way. The team was divided into a White and a BAME group to create safe spaces and help people to reflect on their experiences and they then came together, overseen by a facilitator.

The chapter notes: “The White group often found that they jumped to the conclusion that they were being ‘accused’ of something when, in reality, they simply had no comprehension of the nuance of the issues. For the BAME group, the frustration of having to explain and be patient and gracious about misunderstanding was something for which they had to steel themselves. Gaining understanding meant we could find ways to avoid mistakes and become better allies.”

There is an emphasis on challenging statements rather than individuals and challenging safely.

Another chapter deals by Mark Harvey, Nimal Jude and Zohal Shafiq with the creation of a Workforce Race Equality Standard [WRES] in social care to monitor the experiences of White and BAME employees. This was rolled out across 18 sites and it showed how the experience of sharing examples of racism after George Floyd’s murder had caused pain to BAME staff. It was vital to show that the WRES was not just about conversation and sharing, but would lead to concrete action plans.

Throughout the book the focus is on action. The authors state: “To be anti-racist demands personal and professional responsibility for action. We hope the stories [in this book] will encourage colleagues across social care and allied health professions to see their own potential to make change.”

Nice racism

The Anti-Racist Social Worker is one of a number of books on combatting racism released this year. They include Nice Racism [Allen Lane] by Robin DiAngelo, veteran anti-racist campaigner and author of White Fragility. The book’s main aim is to address many white people’s denial of racism and its impact and to highlight the insidious ways that racism manifests itself. DiAngelo says: “ We will not organise to enact systemic change to a system we do not acknowledge.”

That failure to acknowledge takes many forms, for instance, a focus on individualism which denies the significance of racism and the advantages of being white or declarations that race doesn’t matter when it only doesn’t matter if you are not affected by it. DiAngelo writes: “I have found that if there is any way out of owning our inevitable participation in systemic racism, white people will take that way out.”

She speaks of the need for both personal and structural transformation and says the two are linked. She says that for too long white people have seen racism as not their problem and “have off-loaded the work of anti-racism onto BIPOC [black, indigenous and other people of colour] people and exempted ourselves from the conversation”, often exhausting those BIPOC people forced to “hold white folks’ hands through their own exploration of what whiteness means in a white supremacist system”.

That is particularly the case in the workplace where DiAngelo highlights actions such as talking over and silencing BIPOC people in meetings, leaving them out of information loops, ignoring or taking the credit for their ideas, inequities in promotions, assigning Black people to train white people who are then promoted above them, punishing BIPOC people who challenge racism and off-loading all diversity work to BIPOC people.

Other ways she identifies include changing the channel to another form of oppression whenever race comes up and insisting diversity teams address every other possible form of oppression, “resulting in racism not getting addressed in depth or at all”. She writes: “Members [of DEI committees and the like] are tasked with getting all forms of oppression on the table in a way that is sure to push racism off the table or at least make it difficult to address in any depth”.  DiAngelo highlights other typical approaches to diversity, for instance, continually asking BIPOC people to be in photos to make the organisation seem more diverse.  

The book is not meant just to make white people feel guilty, says DiAngelo, because guilt which does not motivate action is useless and “can excuse and protect complicity”. She ends with a list of actions that individuals and organisations can take to counter racism. They include making sure that anti-racism gets on the table and stays on the table in the workplace, developing accountability partners of colour who challenge white individuals on issues of race and rewarding those BIPOC people who take part in diversity work for their expertise and also for the personal impact of doing that work.

The book ends with a plea for action rather than simple declarations of not being racist. DiAngelo writes: “I seek a state in which being ‘not racist’ in a racist society is what actually makes me uncomfortable. Anti-racist action is the answer to ‘What do I do?’ Niceness won’t cover it.”

*The Anti-Racist Social Worker is edited by Tanya Moore and Glory Simango and published by Critical Publishing.

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