Cultivating an Equitable and Anti-Racist Workplace

2020 was filled with unprecedented events in all facets of life, and, as many have noted across the globe, the year became a landmark for the call to action against racism.

From the incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on a black bird watcher, to the murder of George Floyd by police officers, and when the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her home were not indicted for their involvement in her murder, it is clear that racism is still very prevalent and pervasive. It reaches far and wide, including at home and in the workplace, where power dynamics and structural racism can be multiplied. 

Through his talk, “Social Work’s Role in Black Lives Matter,” Wayne Reid discussed racism’s reach into social workers’ professional lives. In the workplace, there are certain barriers that people of color face that white people do not. To address these barriers and inequities, equality, diversity, and inclusion advisory groups are often created. Too often, the burden of creating these groups and addressing racism in the workplace falls solely on people of color, when it is a fight that requires everyone’s involvement, especially those in positions of power. This is part of the push for people to go beyond being non-racist and to become anti-racist– actively fighting against racism and advocating for changes against racist policies and practices. It is an active, ongoing process, not only in one’s personal life but in professional environments as well.

Creating an Anti-Racist Workplace

Wayne works for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which currently has a goal to create a universal anti-racist framework that is applicable to all aspects of the social work field. This includes creating an anti-racist workplace, and Wayne and the BASW have an idea for how that would look. As Wayne described, an anti-racist workplace would have a very specific anti-racist mission statement, making sure to interview people of color, to integrate an anti-racism mentality into policies and procedures, to provide adequate anti-racism training to all staff, and to conduct annual pay reviews for employees of color to ensure they are being paid fairly relative to their white colleagues. With these steps, workplaces would have to take active steps to ensure they were discussing race within the workplace and enforcing anti-racist policies.

On top of these ideas for an anti-racist workplace, including mandatory professional development courses aimed at educating people on how to be anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, and anti-oppressive would be beneficial. There are already experts in the world of anti-racism who have done the groundwork, and their expertise can be utilized to help implement anti-racist practices within workplaces. For example, Stanford University has created an “Anti-Racism Toolkit” for managers to better equip themselves to address racism in the workplace and move towards a more inclusive environment, and the W.K Kellogg Foundation has created a Racial Equity Resource Guide full of training methods and workshops to provide structure for anti-racist professional development.

Leadership Inequality

Wayne also discussed the importance of leadership programs for people of color within their workplaces. In the US, black people only make up 3.2% of senior leadership roles, and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Employers need to sufficiently invest in leadership training programs and provide the resources to ensure the success of people of color within them. Leadership programs for people of color would help address the lack of people of color in leadership positions within the social work field and beyond. For social work specifically, in conjunction with these leadership programs, employers should create programs allowing social workers of color to mentor senior staff members as well, providing insight for them regarding the challenges people of color face in the workplace. That said, while the benefits of this type of program are important, boundary setting and confidentiality are just as vital and would need to be well thought out prior to implementation.

Addressing Education

In order to assist in diversifying leadership, higher education must also be addressed. Despite the increase in people of color attending college, there is still a large imbalance in representation compared to the general US population.

For the social work field, it is important to address the accessibility of social work education programs. Because they are often expensive and have numerous requirements for entry, entry into the field is inaccessible for many. They also need to include a more deliberately anti-racist curriculum, which can be guided by people of color through their lived experiences, as well as experts in the field. The field of social work has long been dominated by white women, and that imbalance has impacted the curriculum that we use today.

Moving Forward

As long as people continue to ignore racism and the effects it continues to have, nothing will change. Wayne and the BASW’s work to integrate anti-racist education and policies into the workplace and social work schools is crucial to the future of social work and the progress of anti-racist work. Social work needs to play a large role in the changing of policies and practices to ensure that the future is more equitable for all.

Getting It Wrong, Making It Right: A Call to White Helping Professionals

Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and in 2020, few passages ring truer. According to the National Association of Social Workers, the profession is meant to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people.” We want to help clients and organizations identify tools for survival, healing, and growth, but what we say we’re about and what we’re actually doing don’t always line up. The SWHelper-run Anti-Racism Virtual Summit on September 16 and 17 in 2020 offered a space for social workers and other helping professions to reflect on and rebuild our toolboxes. Speakers Crystal Hayes and Dr. Jennifer Jewell used their workshop, Dismantling White Supremacy in Social Work, to explore the field’s racist history and to offer steps that providers can take to transform our work. (You can learn more about this year’s Anti-Racism Virtual Summit here, taking place October 26th and the 27th.)

In last year’s event, Hayes, MSW, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Jewell, Ph.D., the Director of Social Work at Salisbury University, depicted a steep uphill battle from complicity to transformation, initiated by progressive leaders but in need of more support. Hayes, a Black feminist reproductive justice advocate, opened the workshop with a powerful reflection on colonialism and the cultural genocide of Indigenous and First Nations people, whose sacred land we occupy. In truth, many of our struggles (colonialism, police brutality, and the climate crisis, to name a few) share the same root problem: white supremacy. Critical race theorist Frances Lee Ansley characterized white supremacy as the systematic hoarding of power and resources by White people paired with widespread views of Whites as dominant and non-Whites as subordinate. This is the foundation on which the social work profession was built and the fire from which many “helping” tools were forged. 

Deep-Roots

Hayes’ call for an intersectional, decolonized approach to social work requires us to take off our rose-colored glasses and take a hard look at our origin story. Jane Addams, often lauded as the mother of social work and a leader for suffrage (a movement imbued with racism), was no saint. Addams, the 1931 recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and a celebrated figure even today, was also an example of segregation, paternalism, and gatekeeping in action. It is not enough to quickly admit these flaws and move on; we need to sit with the full weight of the damage inflicted, to understand how deep our racist roots reach. There is no quick fix for the discomfort we feel, but we can learn and grow from it. Less than 100 years later, the field is still dominated by White women, beneficiaries of white supremacy just as Addams was.

From segregated settlement houses to the sanctioned kidnapping of Indigenous children and disparate rates of removal of Black children from their families, to eugenics and the forced sterilization of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, our field has been using tools of oppression, not liberation. All signs point back to white supremacy: these disparities happen in settings where social workers hold power and control decision-making. We see ourselves as progressive saviors, but we have also done deep harm, not just healing. These legacies are not a relic of our past, either. They have lived on through redlining, internment camps, prisons, and the ICE detention centers where women today still endure needless hysterectomies under the supervision of doctors who were spoon-fed covert racism in their training. Health and economic outcomes from COVID-19 show plainly that racism still touches all the spaces where social workers practice. 

Evolving the Social Work Profession

The “ah-ha” moment of Hayes’ and Jewell’s presentation emerged when Jewell gets at the difference between non-racist and anti-racist. Ibram Kendi teaches that anti-racism is a verb, and non-racism does not exist at all. As Jewell put it, “kind does not equal anti-racist.” Kindness and decency are not liberation tools, but anti-racism – actively working to take down oppressive systems – is. Social work did not begin as an anti-oppression movement, but it can become one. Research consistently shows that the whole profession needs an overhaul. Not sure where to start? Here are a few places to focus your attention:

  1. Education access and integrity. We can look upstream to the racialized K-12 opportunity gaps and school to prison pipeline that create barriers for future change-makers. Academic institutions must make schooling affordable; pursuing an MSW requires wealth or strong credit, but wealth is directly connected to race because of white supremacy, perpetuating the cycle. Student unions can demand anti-oppression commitments from field placement sites and protest the exploitative norm of unpaid internships
  2. Policy reform. Social workers need to be explicitly anti-racist and reflect on how our identities and biases help or hinder our effectiveness in clinical and macro roles alike. There is a time and place for us to surrender our privilege as much as there is a time to leverage it for change and reform in law enforcement, child welfare, and the many other settings where we operate. 
  3. Decentering whiteness. In schools, we can decolonize curricula to showcase the contributions of BIPOC providers in social work theory, research, and practice. In our agencies, we should prioritize the recruitment, retention, and promotion of people from the communities directly impacted by racial oppression. We can look to community-led revolutions like Black settlement houses, the Black Panther Party, and BLM for best practices on equity and healing. 
  4. Accompliceship and accountability. Being accomplices against white supremacy means reconsidering how we share the air – are we whitesplaining oppression to BIPOC clients and colleagues but staying silent when oppression occurs, expecting them to call it out? Racism going under our radar is not an excuse – it is a symptom of the problem. Most of all, when we get it wrong (as we all do), we must be accountable and commit to doing better.

Like most revolutions, the charge is being led by young people: doctoral and graduate students in the field, community organizers, and clients who experienced harm at the hands of oppressive systems. Not only White social workers but all White “helping” professionals have an ethical responsibility to unpack our toolboxes and to get rid of what’s broken. After all, liberation work is about impact, not intent. Some people would call a hammer a tool, and others would call it a weapon; who holds it and how they swing it is what makes the difference.

Recognizing Ableism’s Link to Racism

These days, many social workers are pretty clear that anti-racism is something they need to consistently work on in their practice, but when it comes to ableism, well, that’s something else altogether. Let’s start with a quick definition of ableism to build our disability competence a bit. Disability activists Talila Lewis and Dustin Gibson frame ableism as “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity.” But seriously, ableism, you may say…what has that got to do with racism? Why are we even talking about this?

It turns out, ableism and racism are related, and quite strongly. In fact, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi himself, host of the podcast Be antiracist and author of the book How to be an antiracist, says “It is pretty apparent to me that one cannot be anti-racist while still being ableist…I think for many people who are indeed striving to be anti-racist they may not realize the ways in which they’re still being prevented from moving along on this journey due to their unacknowledged or unrecognized ableism, or the ways in which they’re in denial.”

Social Work, Race, & Disability

As we begin to break this down, as a disabled woman, I’d like for our profession to own that social work often forgets to realize the disability community in diversity considerations. And with this, is a failure to see ableism, despite the fact that we, the disability community, comprise 26 percent of the U.S. population – that’s 1 in 4 Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. And if you consider the racial and ethnic diversity within the disability community (and vice versa if we are being intersectional) then we need to be considering how ableism and racism interact and intersect.

Let’s just start with the basic demographics. A recent study on disability, race and ethnicity tells us that 1 in 4 members of the Black and African American communities have a disability, while 1 in 6 members of the Hispanic/Latinx communities do. In the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, it is 3 in 10, and among Asian and Pacific Islander communities, it is 1 in 10 and 1 in 6, respectively.

When we start to look at social issues connected to these types of data points, we find out bits of information such as the fact that people of color with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment than do their White counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then there are the realities that many school social workers have seen in classrooms nationwide for decades, with disproportionate numbers of students of color being sent into special education. And in the post George Floyd era, we are also more aware of the connection between racism and ableism due to the fact that 50 percent of people killed during encounters with police in a two year period were people of color with disabilities, as the Ruderman Family Foundation documented in their landmark report.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Then we have the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color. We know that initial research suggests that about one third of people who had the virus will develop what is called “long COVID” which will now be classified as a disability. According to disability justice activist Rebecca Cokely, that means that we will be adding an estimated ten million people to the disability community who will be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This law provides workplace and other protections for disabled people – although the implementation and enforcement of this law is far from perfect, and thus the cycle of ableism and racism starts again given the overrepresentation of people of color in this population.

These are just a few current-day snippets that tell us we need to be paying attention to both ableism, racism and the ways in which these two forms of oppression are related to one another. Ableism and racism exist in a symbiotic relationship, with each acting as the tool of the other. Being aware of the intersection between racism and ableism is part of how social workers can begin to disrupt this reality in their practice and in their larger communities. So, what can you do to be more aware of racism and ableism in your social work practice? You can start by paying attention to the disability side of the equation that often gets forgotten! Here are some activities for you to consider as you engage in this vital social justice work:

  1. Start by exploring your able-bodied privilege. Read the following prompts on able-bodied privilege from the Autistic Hoya blog, written by Autistic disability justice activist and lawyer Lydia X. Z. Brown. Which items were most salient to you? You may consider the list items from a personal and/or a professional perspective, focusing on how you may or may not experience these issues yourself or how you may have encountered these issues as a social worker. How do race and ethnicity factor into able-bodied privilege?
  2. Continue by building your personal disability awareness. What values and/or ideas do you hold that may unconsciously perpetuate ableism? Where did you pick up these values? How does this play out with your disabled clients of color? Take time to think these questions out, and be mindful of them as you move forward.
  3. Just as it is super important to acknowledge our potential for racism as people raised in a racist society, so too is it important to acknowledge the ways we may have engaged in the use of ableist language or expression of ableist attitudes. How have you or your agency/organization/company unconsciously or consciously used ableist language, or expressed ableist attitudes? How do race and ethnicity factor in here? How can you change things moving forward?

This article has demonstrated the connections between disability and race, but social work has often failed to see disability. How can you look at the causes you are already involved in through a disability framework that is also attentive to race and ethnicity? How can you lift up the disability perspective and promote disability empowerment while being anti-racist?

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