Cultural Awareness for Anti-racist Action at Work

13/09/2023 - Cultural Awareness for Anti-racist Action at Work

Calum Gallacher is an Assistant General Secretary for the Social Workers Union

In June, I delivered a presentation at an event co-hosted by the Leading to Change Programme, the Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW) and the Chief Social Work Office to the Scottish Government. This event was part of the first iteration of the Leading to Change Programme’s Diversity Events Series.

I wondered from the onset if I was the right person to deliver a presentation on racism, highly conscious of my white status – albeit being less privileged and from working-class origins. I then read something by former social worker, now professor of sociology Robin DiAngelo: who argues whiteness is a social construct perpetuating racist harm. 

We are socialised to be ignorant, oblivious, apathetic and silent about our white privilege. Racism is a white problem and people of colour bare the harm.  It is white people who need to take ownership to discuss current discrimination, acknowledge and accept the historic but residual impact of colonialism, irrespective of how uncomfortable this is.  We do not need to belong to extremist white supremacy groups to support systemic racism. We only need to be quietly complicit.

For those of you who have not read the SASW report Racism in Scottish Social Work I urge you to do so but forewarn this will elicit shock, disbelief and strong emotions.

Reading minority ethnic people’s testimonies, I found it incomprehensible that these situations had occurred this century.  I am ashamed to admit they are current. I acknowledge the ignorance of my disbelief, that any minority ethnic social worker encounters such discrimination. 

White supremacy has been inbuilt to society over centuries, as an ideology, it forms the basis of conscious and unconscious thought and bias demonstrated by stereotypical race-based beliefs and behaviours (Hall, 2022).* 

Benjamin Zephaniah is emphatic of how deeply embedded racism is in everyday language in his poem White Comedy. Ralph Ellison spotlights this in his inspirational and humbling novel The Invisible Man, an allegory depicting the symbolism of racism in daily life expressions, as a Black man forced to be socially and racially invisible by assimilation in the sacrifice of identity. Recently an array of public service figures have spoken openly on institutional racism being widespread, and the need for public acknowledgement to enable collective stance and action in pursuance of equality – enshrining anti-racism in services.

Despite the SASW report focus being on social work in Scotland it accurately frames the impact of education and workplace based racism social workers are encountering UK wide. Social Workers Union (SWU) Trade Union Officials from our Advice & Representation Team will attest to this. They frequently escalate concerns within SWU, from the discrimination and distress they observe while supporting people to challenge race discrimination in the workplace. 

When members cannot access justice via employer’s procedures or employment tribunal routes there can be an immeasurable sense of loss, hopelessness, despair, and anger. The burden of proof is a burden that weighs on victims until events can evidenced. Despite the protections imbued within the Equalities Act evidencing racism can be a near impossible task because of the invisibility of form.  Our maintenance of white western ideology subjugates most human difference (not only race) as inferiority. 

Microaggressions can be both overt and covert, at work and in personal life.  Constant exposure causes elevated stress levels and adversely affects physical and mental health.

Just a few examples of microaggressions:

  • criticism of accent speaking English and using this as a measurement of competence and intelligence,
  • commenting a person speaks good English or needs to learn to speak more clearly (without accent);
  • commenting on how different a person’s hair or clothing is and trying to touch it;
  • telling someone their name is too difficult to pronounce, shortening it so as to not have to bother to learn it;
  • asking where are you really from, where do your family come from. 

Such remarks may be innocent in intention. However, they are culturally insensitive, cause wounding and alienation.

So, what can we commit to do about racism in social work?

Anti-discriminatory practice is enshrined in social work education. It guides values and ethics. It forms the baseline by which we challenge social injustice and economic inequality. Is it sufficiently anti-racist? 

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) recognition and action is growing as a new strength-based movement. The SWU’s EDI group statement considers multiple forms of marginalisation:

The SWU EDI Group mission is to support strategies and action for equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within the social work profession and the trade union movement. Promoting a culture of inclusion based on the principles of dignity and respect is a key part of this mission. As a trade union we will consider international perspectives; intersectionality; experiences including but not limited to race and identity, age, gender, disability, poverty, austerity; and wider socio-political influences that inform us as a union. We will support the union to continue to develop partnerships with marginalised communities, identify exclusion factors and obstacles, and engage in active allyship.

Find out more about the Social Workers Union (SWU) here.

*Hall, R.E., ‘Social Work’s Feminist Facade: Descriptive Manifestations of White Supremacy’, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 52, no. 2, 2022, pp. 1055-1069

Reflective Challenge: Is the momentum and expansiveness of inclusion via EDI enough to make an anti-racist stance in social work? 

We’d like to thank Calum for writing this guest blog which is part of the Leading to Change Diversity Blog Series. We want to highlight and promote the voices and experiences of diverse leaders at all levels including those working at frontline / grassroots levels. We aim to celebrate diverse leaders who can act as role models for other aspiring, diverse leaders.

Calum Gallacher

Assistant General Secretary for the Social Workers Union

Calum has worked in health and social care for 24 years and been a QSW since 2008. He trained in Manchester. Calum was inspired to become a Social Worker because of negative experiences of child protection work, working in a voluntary agency, with children with learning disabilities. Calum is a dedicated safeguarder of persons who are disadvantaged and more likely to experience complex difficulties because of health condition or environmental issues attributed to socio-economic status. He has a strong identity as a Social Worker and is dedicated to the principles of empowerment, equality and social justice in practice with people, upholding human rights, wants and desires.
Currently he works as assistant general secretary for The Social Workers Union and is invested in collaborating to improve the working conditions for social workers, other public service staff and communities. Prior to this he was a social work team Leader in a small generic team (adults and children) in a remote and rural Scottish region. He has experienced professional burnout and recovered through professional coaching via Klip Global.

All information regarding our contributors was correct at the time of publishing.

Record your learning
5 mins
What is this for?

Click this button to record your learning in the Leading to Change app. If you have a profile in the Leading to Change app you now have the ability to record any learning showing this button. If you do not have a profile you can register with a TURAS account or create one for free.

5 minutes and 00 seconds till you can record this learning activity

We have estimated that this resource will take 5 minutes to complete. Once the timer below is complete you will be able to select ‘Record your learning’.

Leading to Change logo
Explore your potential with the Leading to Change app
Wellbeing Hub logo
Visit the National Wellbeing Hub for resources on how to stay well
Skip to content