Social workers need race training, not hysteria

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Tuesday 10 August 1993 23:02

ACOUPLE of years ago I was asked to speak to social-work students at the London School of Economics and Political Science about race and culture in Britain. At the end, a number of students, black, white and Asian, expressed their frustration at not having these issues incorporated into their course, especially as most of them expected to work in mixed metropolitan areas. Robert Pinker, professor of that department, who vociferously criticised the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) last week for pushing these very subjects on to the curriculum, might have educated himself by speaking to his own students first.

Melanie Phillips in the Observer and Bryan Appleyard in the Independent also attacked CCETSW, and seem similarly dismissive of people who contradict their absolute view - that there is no such thing as institutional racism and that those who say there is are totalitarian monsters, running amok, reducing nice white people to tears and threatening civilisation as they know it.

In the past four days I have spoken to 38 individuals, from London, the Midlands, Scotland, the North and East Anglia, who all feel strongly that anti-discriminatory practice needs to be an essential part of social-work training. I failed to find a single scythe-carrying Stalinist among them. Instead, I found reflective, professional people such as Beth Humphries, head of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, John Triseliotis of Edinburgh University and Dr Sashi Sashidharan, psychiatrist and former member of the Medical Research Council. Also among the group were social workers and ethnic minority clients. All of them were enraged at the gale of abuse against changes that were long overdue. As Dr Humphries put it: 'There is such a pretence that all perspectives get looked at when it is obvious that certain views dominate and that central facts are simply ignored or distorted.'

One such distortion is that institutional racism does not exist. Not only does the law specifically recognise the phenomenon, but there is incontrovertible evidence to show that such racism is endemic in our society. Besides the work of the Commission for Racial Equality and groups such as the Society of Black Lawyers, research by other respected organisations such as the Policy Studies Institute, Nacro, Mind and the British Agencies for Fostering and Adoption, confirms this. This does not mean that every white professional is a raving racist, but that the criteria, judgements and practices of organisations in general discriminate against ethnic minorities, in much the same way as they do against women.

In social work, where professionals operate at the interface between vulnerable individuals and the state, discrimination can have a devastating effect. The disproportionate numbers of black children in care and over-representation of ethnic minorities in prisons and mental establishments make training crucial to ensure that it is not racism which is putting them into these institutions - and to provide appropriate facilities once they are there. It also fits in with the Government's emphasis on client-led services. A 1993 Department of Health discussion paper on mentally-disordered offenders says: 'There should be explicit consideration of race and culture in the training of those who work with such offenders.'

CCETSW did not therefore pluck its ideas from the corridors of hell; the council is simply putting existing recommendations into action. Paper 30, the target of the attacks, offers guidelines on how trainees can provide a more equitable and sensitive service to their clients. It also, importantly, places these issues within the core curriculum, arguing that effective social work

in a multifarious society must be actively anti- discriminatory. The aim is to broaden social- work training by bringing in different perspectives and challenging traditional theories and practices. This makes thoroughly good sense, especially since the world has changed so dramatically from pre-war Britain when one set of values dominated in a more homogenous society.

By having a sophisticated understanding of racism, social workers can intervene in sensitive areas with more confidence. Sara, a white social worker, found this part of her training invaluable, for example, when dealing with a young, black, lone mother. 'I first talked to her about how it must feel to be black on an estate which was nearly all white. It was like a key opening a door and the rapport we then had made it much easier to negotiate a very difficult situation.'

This is not to deny that there are problems with some aspects of this training. And there can be no doubt that there are people carrying things to extremes - like those who dogmatically insist on black adoptive families even for mixed-race children who have one white parent. But why are these initiatives defined and judged only by the most egregious examples? And why is such hysteria being whipped up against something that is essential if we are ever to evolve into a truly just and egalitarian society?

In part it must be because it is fashionable to attribute problems to individual failure rather than social and political forces. Also, people still cling to the myth of British tolerance. But most seriously, this is a backlash against any attempt to tackle inequality. The attacks follow a pattern: derision on the one hand and cataclysmic warnings on the other; and the versatile 'PC' label, which guarantees a response of fear and loathing. Anyone who pushes for equality, or criticises the male Anglo-Saxon world, is declared 'PC' and thereby discredited and silenced. McCarthyism to counteract imagined totalitarianism. Where have we seen that before?

The author writes and broadcasts on race and culture.

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