No more platitudes!

I started 15 years ago with the same vision and aspirations as my white colleagues of wanting to do the best for some of the most marginalised communities across the UK.

At that time there was the dynamism and the belief that social work and social care were changing; there was the growing number of senior black managers who had begun to develop a voice and the increasing numbers of black workers entering the workforce.

I look around me now and I’m still there, but I’m still alone and in fact I am lonelier because the voice of black managers and workers has become fainter. There are fewer people applying and fewer people in senior grades. What happened?

Black people got fed up of the continuous struggle – one that for many seemed to be a lonely struggle. How often can one put up with humour which is racist in intent? What am I supposed to think or do when someone comes up to me drunk and says, “You know you’re all right – but I don’t just like the rest of them”? Why is it that people comment when they see a group of black people sitting together, but yet fail to see that they don’t comment if it’s a group of white people? Could it be that there is one rule for you and one for us? These are small incidents but become extremely corrosive over a period of time.

Not all but most of our white colleagues only see us in terms of our colour and rarely acknowledge the skills that we have as practitioners. While recognising the group work that I have done, people never ask me to come and teach group work, but never fail to ask me to come and do the input on anti-racist practice.

Similarly, a colleague was called in to try and placate an angry black client; when she tried to advocate that the client had a legitimate issue, she was accused of taking sides and removed.

So we’re tired of being brought in when senior managers want to demonstrate their diversity strategy. And we’re tired of being shoved away when we ask difficult questions. There is a paradox. On the one hand I see black workers who are incredibly committed and motivated who as well as working full time will commit time to voluntary groups, Saturday schools and so on. On the other hand there is a disproportionate number of black staff who are disciplined. While clearly there are some who behave or work in ways which require such actions, the proportionality does suggest that something else is also happening. Are we only good enough to look after our own?

I look around now at the white students I qualified with and see where they are: some have decided to stay at a practice level while others have moved quickly up the management chain. The same story cannot be said for my black peers. Any attempt to progress through the ranks is all too often met with the “sorry, you lack the experience” story. And yet we know that in many competitions the black candidates are better qualified than their white peers.

So is it surprising that I turn around and see myself feeling lonelier? Is it any wonder that most of us no longer carry a chip but rather a mountain on our shoulders as we continue in our efforts to keep the issues alive as best we can?

What sustains us is the support of our peers; the support of white colleagues who recognise that we still need to work together to tackle the issues of racism both internally and externally; and a belief that social work can and should play a valuable role in supporting marginalised people and communities.

You may feel this is mere whinging, but then you’re failing to recognise the issues that lie behind the words.

So what can you do as a manager?

  • Be a leader. Actions, not platitudes, are needed.
  • What messages are coming from your director or head of organisation? There must be clear, tangible commitment from the top.
  • What messages have you given to your staff about racism and engaging with local black ethnic minority communities in identifying needs?
  • Have you engaged appropriately with your black staff in identifying what the organisation can do to improve its service? We know the biggest factor in improving access is the presence and support of black workers.

– Are you and your managers really open to listening and being challenged?

The task is not complex and neither are the solutions, but we’re still talking about the same things that we researched 30 years ago.

I recently had a request to encourage more young black males to come into social work. Would it be appropriate for me to support this? Do I do my black colleagues a disservice by bringing in more people who are likely to be set up to fail. Or do I say, “No”?

At a time when recruitment is the biggest issue, managers’ actions will determine my response.

Vijay Patel is an independent consultant in the voluntary sector.

The panel of contributors to managementality includes:

John Belcher, chief executive Anchor Trust; Kathryn Stone, director of Voice UK; Sheena Doyle, independent consultant; Des Kelly, social care consultant at Bupa Care Homes; Anthony Douglas, director of health and social care at Suffolk Council; Martin Willis, programme director Inlogov; Christine Doorly, regional director at the National Care Standards Commission; John Burton, independent consultant; Tony Hunter, executive director Liverpool Council; Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation.

Top tips

  • Policies, paper statements and slogans are only indicating intention – people need to see these alive and kicking.
  • As a manager you don’t have to shrug your shoulders and await instruction from above – take things into your own hands.
  • On person specifications for jobs don’t have the requirement to be committed to anti-racist and other non-discriminatory practice as the last item on the list – it should be integral through all personal requirements.

Rubbish tips

  • All you need to do to show your serious commitment is to have job advertisement straplines declaring that your organisation is “striving for equality” or “valuing diversity” and everyone will believe you.
  • Why have black worker support groups when you don’t have a white worker equivalent? That’s not very equal ops, is it?
  • Everyone in social care is anti-racist. Everyone knows that, so there’s no need to ram it down people’s throats – it goes with the territory.

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