Social work, race and ethnicity: ‘There is a lot of pain in the students’ stories’

A social work academic reflects on a week that features uncomfortable realities and a small triumph for positive values

'The popularity of the Selma screening is a small triumph for positive values' Photo: Elvert Barnes (Flickr)


Today a colleague and I are teaching social work students a session on race and ethnicity. We acknowledge how inadequate and nervous we feel about this session. We are both white. Around a third of the students we are teaching are black and we really want to hear their voices in the session. But will they feel safe enough to speak, and if so how can we help it to be a genuinely empowering experience for them?

The session begins by acknowledging these feelings and the emotion of the topic. Students slowly begin to share experiences. The stories are profoundly moving. One student recalls working in an advice agency and being told that the client wouldn’t see someone black and wanted a white worker.

Another student told of a recent story of how her young son in secondary school was asked by a teacher if he wanted to be a gangster? Understandably he responded with anger at this racist question and ended up being punished by the school. She described the difficulty of navigating challenging the racism of this teacher whilst all the time knowing that her and her son could be made yet more susceptible to labels and stigma.

We talk about how racism can be internalised and pose the question whether black people internalise beliefs about white dominance.

“It’s not that,” one young woman comments. “We know our worth. It’s that white people won’t give up their belief in their superiority. That’s the problem”.

At the end of the session I feel quite emotional. There is a lot of pain in these stories.


It has been a busy day at university and my heart sinks on the way home as I remember my partner and I are hosting a discussion group in the evening. I have to think of a topic quickly. I remember the discussions on racism and ethnicity yesterday and think that could make a good subject for discussion. The group are mainly people in their sixties and seventies. It’s not a culturally diverse area and the group is all white.

I quickly source some interesting audio snippets from a talk by a black academic. He talks about the invisibility of discussion on whiteness and how this gives it its influence. He says we cannot talk about whiteness without acknowledging issues of power in society.

These are a thinking group of people and I don’t expect it to be completely new to them, but I’m completely shocked by their response. There is such a level of denial of black people’s experience. When the speaker describes how often he is mistaken for the cleaner in the university where he lectures, someone says they doubt he is telling the truth.

“Did he give this talk before Barack Obama became president?” one person asks, as if this had made all the difference.

There are a few of us making attempts to challenge.

“We’re nice people, we’d never be racist,” a woman comments. I wonder how this person makes sense of history if she genuinely believes that ‘nice people’ never do awful things.

It’s been a stressful evening and I am genuinely surprised by how unprogressive this normally liberal and broad-minded group have been on the issue of race. It’s a reminder to me that, to some extent in the social work profession we are cocooned from some of the prevailing views in society. Whilst the younger generations are probably more enlightened, this evening is a stark reminder of how little interest and understanding there is of black people’s experience.


After a long week it’s time to relax. My partner and I go and see the civil rights film ‘Selma’ at the cinema. It’s a small cinema and just as we get to our seats they announce they are moving the screens. They were planning to show Selma in the smallest auditorium so they could show Fifty Shades of Grey on the big screen, yet against all odds more people have shown up for Selma and they are swapping the screens. It’s a small triumph for positive values. Maybe prevailing societal views aren’t as bad as I thought.

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One Response to Social work, race and ethnicity: ‘There is a lot of pain in the students’ stories’

  1. Immlynn Wright March 11, 2015 at 9:40 am #

    Am eager to hear how your session about racisim in social work went.

    Also may be i would be able to join in another time