On Friday, I along with several other social workers and social work students attended the Rally Against Racism in Auckland. This rally was called in response to the racist speaking tour of white supremacists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. These speakers have engaged in an international tour designed to incite racism and hatred (Smith, 2018). As social workers we felt that it was important to speak up personally, and as social workers, against this kind of explicit racism. Those of us who have the privilege of being able to speak out without losing our jobs (such as academics) need to be particularly willing to engage in overt action to challenge racism. Another recent example of this kind of overt action against racism is seen in the action of Swedish social work student Elin Ersson who recently refused to sit down on an aeroplane, temporarily preventing the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker (Crouch, 2018).
As social workers we believe that we need to be putting our ethics into practice. We need to be speaking out clearly, challenging racist discourses and practices. Within our workplaces we need to critically look at whose opinions are privileged and who has power to make decisions. At this level we can contribute to change within our workplaces, and hopefully contribute to broader changes in society. If we are serious though in our opposition to racism then we need to go further than individual action. We need ask harder questions about our own complicity in systems which are structurally racist.
Social work has a dark history when it comes to racism. Since its inception social work has been used to enforce white supremacy. Social workers have been responsible for the removal of indigenous children and the incarceration of indigenous adults. Our profession has been woefully slow to speak up on these issues (if we have at all). This history, and our participation in systems which are unquestionably racist (such as the “child protection” and prison system) raise uncomfortable and troubling questions about the social work profession.
The racism that social workers are responsible for is oftentimes systemic and institutionalised. It is built into the policies and laws which we are expected to enforce An example of this (which Humphries explores) is the way in which immigration policy in the UK discriminates against asylum seekers, treating them as second class citizens. Other examples include how social workers are expected to provide information to counter-terrorist police; unquestioningly supporting the UK governments “anti-radicalisation” agenda which focuses explicitly on young Muslims (Stanley, 2015). Closer to home, New Zealand’s child protection system has consistently portrayed Māori children as at risk, and in need of rescuing; meanwhile ignoring the impact of state violence on Māori and the harm caused by removing children from their whānau (Hyslop, 2017).
In these, and many other ways, racism permeates the organisations which social workers are part of, and the laws and policies which determine how they function. When the systems in which social worker are operating are racist by design, then no individual acts, regardless of how heroic they are, will ever be sufficient (Humphries, 2004). When it is the institution which is racist then the most we can do in our individual practice is mitigate the worst impacts of these systems (Cox & Augustine, 2017). Individual attempts to practice in an ethical or anti-racist manner simply cannot counteract institutions which are fundamentally oppressive.
If the profession as a whole, and we as members of it, are serious in our opposition to racism them we need to begin to dismantle institutions which are racist by design. In Aotearoa this means dismantling the prison and child protections systems. Instead of attempting to apply a bi-cultural façade to these institutions, we need to be demanding systems which are created by and for Māori.
This brings me back to the role of the individual social worker. Our profession demands that we be active on social policy, and that we speak out when we are aware of injustice. When it comes to racism, especially the systemic racism of the systems which we sit within, our profession is failing in its ethical duties. As individuals we need to be far more willing to confront those who have power, and to speak uncomfortable truths about the systems which we work within. Fortunately we don’t have to start from scratch – we can support the amazing work of groups like People Against Prisons Aotearoa who are already doing this kind of work.
Longer term, the profession needs to remain focused on bringing about institutional and political change. We need to be working consistently to transfer power out of the hands of social workers, and away from the state, to Māori and those who we work with.
Cox, E. O., & Augustine, J. (2017). The U.S. criminal justice system: A role for radical social work. Journal of Progressive Human Services, , 1-28. 10.1080/10428232.2017.1399035
Crouch, D. (2018, -07-26T09:13:19.000Z). Swedish student’s plane protest stops afghan man’s deportation ‘to hell’. The Guardian Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/25/swedish-student-plane-protest-stops-mans-deportation-afghanistan
Humphries, B. (2004). An unacceptable role for social work: Implementing immigration policy. The British Journal of Social Work, 34(1), 93-107. 10.1093/bjsw/bch007
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800-1817. 10.1093/bjsw/bcx088
Smith, D. (2018). Far-right canadian duo’s vile rampage against aboriginal culture at sydney event. Retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/07/30/far-right-canadian-duos-vile-rampage-against-aboriginal-culture-sydney-event
Stanley, T. (2015). Working with radicalisation risk – A redistribution of orwellian pre-crime. Retrieved from https://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2015/08/working-with-radicalisation-risk-a-redistribution-of-orwellian-pre-crime/