Each time I write a piece about anti-racist practice, I am reminded of the impact discrimination can have on people. My experiences of racism have led me to continue to illuminate the subtle ways in which racist behaviours and attitudes can break the human spirit and minimise efficiency and effectiveness. I recall an incident a few years ago when a white older male, walked into my office, pointed at my name on the door and laughed, asking ‘is that really your name’? When I said it was, he continued ‘it sounds like a piece of machinery’.
A useful way to end the year, in my view, is to provide an opportunity for reflection around sensitive yet crucial questions about discrimination and oppression and to enable readers to use the space to consider how they have promoted and encouraged anti-racist practice in 2017. How have you personally contributed to minimising this for your colleagues, students and service users?
Reflect on any missed opportunities to support and defend a colleague who may have experienced racism this year and consider why you may have declined to act or react.
This short paper presents a framework which I have called ‘dignity in practice learning’ and which was one of outcomes of my doctoral research, completed in 2015, into the practice learning experiences of black African students on social work programmes.
‘Dignity’ refers to a state of being worthy of honour and respect and in the area of social care the term has been used to include a range of attitudes and behaviours which value the uniqueness of every individual through communication, action and inaction. These behaviours are often empowering and supportive. Providing a dignified experience for black and minority ethnic (BME) social work students will invariably result in an anti-racist experience. For some people, this involves far more effort than others. It is fair to say that there are racist people in all walks of life and in many professions. Social work is no different despite its quest for social justice and equality. We also acknowledge that some behaviours and responses to students fall foul of the professions values. The principles discussed next should be considered as good practice for ALL students on social work placements, however they have been recommended by students of black African heritage as particularly useful in creating an anti-racist and inclusive practice learning environment.
10 principles to achieve an anti-racist practice learning environment
|1||Ensure fairness and openness when accepting or rejecting students who have been matched with you (PE) and/ or your organisation. Ensure you are able to justify your decision if asked. Experience indicates that names and other markers of cultural and ethnic difference can result in students being turned down for particular placements. HEIs, placement agencies and practice educators must ensure they are not complicit in discriminatory practices.|
|2||Arrange to meet your student in advance of the start of the placement. This is useful for a number of reasons. It allows you to gain some understanding of their motivation and commitment to their placement and the profession. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on any biases you may have had about this student and affords the student similar considerations in relation to you and the placement.|
|3||Consider the implications of your language. Maintain respectful curiosity. It is entirely possible to be curious about a student’s background and heritage without appearing racist or discriminatory. For example, BME students who may have difficulties with grammar, spelling etc often find this being attributed to ‘second’ or ‘additional’ language. However, I have found that when white British students have similar difficulties, PEs have referred to a learning difficulty and/or dyslexia. Might it be the case that some BME students have undiagnosed dyslexia and that some white British students have difficulties with grammar and spelling? Be aware of micro-aggressions.|
|4||Ensure transparency in allocation of work, particularly when there is more than one student on placement with you. BME students have stated that they have been made to feel ‘less able’ when, for example, they have been asked to shadow a qualified worker for weeks on end whilst their white peers appear to have progressed beyond shadowing. Such a situation can have a detrimental impact on BME students who may subsequently experience difficulty in meeting the entirety of the placement requirements without the need for an extended placement.|
|5||Be clear about your policies and procedures for making formal complaints. Ensure these are accessible to the student. Share your ‘Dignity in the Workplace’ or similar document with your student. Re-assure them that they will not be penalised or targeted for raising concerns but rather will be supported to ensure a fair outcome. BME students on placements do not wish to become objects of public gaze or scrutiny which we know can occur when they have shared their concerns about treatment on placement.|
|6||Re-engage with anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive and anti-racist social work practice principles as these may have developed further since you trained. The intersections of race and other markers of difference is an important consideration for contemporary anti-racist social work practice.|
|7||Understand the nature of exclusionary practices (conscious and unconscious) and recognise the impact on students from minority backgrounds. Doel (2010) and Gabriel (2017) propose the use of support groups and other networks to assist in minimising the isolation and exclusion that minority students may experience whilst undertaking placements or in the workplace more generally.|
|8||Be clear about roles, expectations and targets. Do not make these up on an adhoc basis as this can result in students feeling unfairly treated. Some BME students found that the ‘goal post’ was constantly moved in relation to their achievements and progress on placements, with practice educators requesting additional evidence of work without providing a rationale for these requests.|
|9||Start off on a positive note, thinking of success rather than failure for your student. I have argued elsewhere (Tedam, 2014) that students of black African origin appeared to be ‘fast tracked to failure’ as a result of negative stereotyping, pre-judging and racism. Use sensitive, empowering, encouraging and respectful language - SEER (Tedam, 2015).|
|10||Avoid colour-blind approaches. We cannot dismantle racism by believing it does not exist. Racism is in fact alive and thriving in many parts of our world and within our communities. In the area of social work placements, we need to acknowledge that we indeed ‘see’ colour and thus our BME students do not go ‘unnoticed’ but instead are acknowledged and regarded as partners in the practice learning experience.|
The list above is not conclusive, however it provides a useful starting point for reflecting on our roles in ensuring that practice learning sites are free from all forms of discrimination.
I have been particularly concerned about the different ways in which BME students have described their experiences of practice learning and how these experiences have damaged their hope in anti-discriminatory and anti-racist practice whilst reinforcing their fear of the dailyness of racism. For students of black African origin, the constant reminders about ‘thick’ or ‘difficult’ accents, ‘long’ ‘difficult to pronounce’ names only serve to reinforce otherness and contribute minimally to creating an inclusive practice learning environment.
The SHARE model (Maclean, Finch and Tedam 2018) provides opportunities to rid practice placements of all forms of discrimination and of racism. The model encourages us to ensure that we understand the people we are working with. It promotes respect for stakeholders, acknowledging that we would not be able ‘do’ social work without key players. If practice educators ‘see’ students as individuals and ‘hear’ what they say about themselves and their motivation to study and practice social work this might result in a helpful response or action on the part of placements and PE’s in terms of their future work with BME students.
Our individual and collective approaches to difference and diversity needs to be reviewed regularly and where possible, evaluate the impact of our strategies on the learning experiences of students we are working with. Our everyday interactions bring us into close contact with people from a range of backgrounds. It is helpful and beneficial when these interactions are sensitive, empowering and respectful as this can go a long way to provide a comfortable learning environment for students. Obviously, a toxic learning environment characterised by hostility, racism, discrimination, oppression and disrespect are unwelcome and have no place in a profession such as social work.
This paper has focused on the assumption that BME students are in the minority on social work placements in many parts of the UK. However it is acknowledged that white students and PEs can also experience racist behaviour from BME students and PEs and in this regard the strategies discussed remain valid.
I refer to my personal experience discussed at the start of this paper and challenge you to reflect on the following question:
How might YOU have supported me through my experience, if I were your student or colleague?
Doel, M. (2010) Social Work Placements: A Traveller’s Guide. London: Routledge
Gabriel, D. (2017) ‘Overcoming Objectification and dehumanisation in academia’. In Gabriel, D and Tate,S A. (eds) (2017) Inside the Ivory Tower. Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia. London. Trentham Books
Maclean, S., Finch,J. and Tedam, P (2018) Share: a new model for social work. Kirwin Maclean
Tedam, P. (2014) ‘When failing doesn’t matter: A narrative inquiry into the practice learning experiences of black African social work students in England’. International Journal of Higher Education, 3(1), 136–145
Tedam, P. (2015) ‘Enhancing the experiences of BME students on placement: Strategies for Practice Education’. Journal for Practice Teaching and Learning, 13(2-3), 130-145