Black Lives Matter: Dismantling white supremacy in social work

International Federation of Social Workers President Silvana Martinez and Rory Truell, IFSW Secretary-General, write that “the brutal killing of George Floyd represents the need for another worldwide social rights movement that demands the realization of all people’s rights and dignity through the establishment of systems that [is] based on the principles of inclusion, equality and social development.”

This journey has to begin with a critical reflection and examination of social work practice. 

At our conference and AGM in 2019, our keynote speaker, Deborah Levans, spoke frankly about white supremacy in social work practice, and offered that white supremacy is when whiteness is normalized and seen as aspirational. She offered examples of how the architecture of racism in the social work profession is embedded in practice, research and education. One of the core questions asked by Levans was, “Why do we not talk about intergenerational effects of slavery on white people?” Part of practising from an anti-oppressive lens is continually asking ourselves how this has impacted our own perspective and bias, and how we can address the resulting behaviours. 

When we look at systems where social workers are operating — health, social services, education and justice — we can see that much more work needs to be done. In their book Race and well-being: The lives, hopes and activism of African Canadians, Akua Benjamin, David Este, Carl James, Bethan Lloyd, Wanda Thomas Bernard and Tana Turner provide clear evidence that racism is a huge determinant of people of African descent’s overall well-being. We can see the effects racism has had on physical and mental health through increased rates of anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure as compared with individuals of European descent. 

Despite the evidence of the effect that racism has on the health of African Nova Scotians, our current mental health systems are thoroughly embedded in the medical model. There is a clear absence of a social determinant of health approach with an over-reliance on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. In their article Defining normal: Constructions of race and gender in the DSM-IV Casebook, Cermele, Daniels and Anderson illustrate the social construction of notions of mental illness are done through dominant definitions of what is normal, and there is evidence of stereotypical notions of race within the DSM. There is also a huge gap in the availability and accessibility of African Nova Scotian clinicians. In his article Mental illness and African Nova Scotian communities, Raymond Sheppard notes that African Nova Scotians have limited access to mental health treatment, and receive substantially less than non-African Nova Scotians. He argues that mental health professionals in Nova Scotia lack culturally appropriate training and observes that there are fewer than 10 African Nova Scotian mental health counsellors, counting himself. 

Child protection continues to see an over-representation of African Nova Scotian children in care. The CASW report Understanding Social Work And Child Welfare: Canadian Survey And Interviews With Child Welfare Experts shows that social workers have major concerns with the over the representation of visible minorities such as Black Canadian families. This over-representation is caused by what Robert Wright named in the NSCSW panel conversation on child protection as the child protection system’s Eurocentric definitions of what a family is, and what parenting is, and discrimination that occurs against black families for not living up to that Eurocentric model.

And of course, there is the justice system and the state-sanctioned violence African Nova Scotians have been the victims of. Over the past year Nova Scotians have been involved in a public discourse that painted a clear picture of how anti-Black racism has led to abuses of state power against the African Nova Scotian community. From the report by Dr. Wortley on street checks, to the Restorative Inquiry into the Home for Colored Children, the impact of white supremacy in the criminal justice system is profound.

The College is not immune to prevalence of white supremacy. Our Code of Ethics, Standards of Practice and regulatory programs stem from Eurocentric notions of professionalism, boundaries and understanding of community. Harjeet Kaur Badwall writes in Can I Be a Good Social Worker? Racialized Workers Narrate Their Experiences with Racism in Every Day Practice that even the concept of good practice stems from the Eurocentric world view.  

That necessary “worldwide social rights movement that demands the realization of all people’s rights and dignity” must start from within. It will require a commitment to examining and dismantling all oppressive structures that we are a part of. It is a journey that will include stumbles and falls, but it is that commitment that must be at the forefront of our actions. 

From my own place of practice, I am committed to working as an ally with African Nova Scotians, and people of colour. This involves listening more and speaking less, and learning from the lived experiences of African Nova Scotians and people of colour. It involves continuing to educate myself, and recognizing that it is not the job of marginalized groups to educate non-marginalized people on to tell me where I need to change, that is my work to do. There is so much content out there, and finding and engaging it is a core part of my journey. So is speaking out against racism and not just letting family and friends convey racist messages without stopping and unpacking that language with them. Donating to community organizations and supporting local businesses owned by African Nova Scotians and people of colour. My journey involves owning up to my mistakes; as a leader in social work, I have made mistakes that perpetuate white supremacy through unchecked micro-aggressions. I will likely make more; I will never understand the experience of people of colour, and it’s important to remember that. When I have, I have apologised and shared my learning, which I remain committed to. 

At the NSCSW our commitment to anti-racist work will continue and grow. We are committed to ensuring that the College reflects the diverse voices of Nova Scotians by working to ensure representation on the College’s committees and staffing. We are also committed and are in the process of examining the pedagogy of social work by working with our national partners to update the Canadian Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, with the commitment of embedding the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission within them. Once this review is completed, we are committed to updating the Nova Scotia Standards of Practice which are at the root of how we regulate the profession, in order to ensure that they are reflective of Afrocentric and Indigenous views. Through our communications tools, we will continue to share the stories and successes of the important and distinct contributions of social workers from diverse backgrounds. We will continue to organize and offer specific social work education on anti-racism. 

Finally, we are committed to the fight for social justice and equality. Through our advocacy efforts, we are focused on dismantling neo-liberalism, fighting for a more equitably redistributing wealth, and rebuilding the social safety net.

Many of our members are already leading the urgent and vital work of identifying and dismantling white supremacy in our praxis, our institutions, and our communities. I urge all of you to join them in this task. I also invite concerned members to comment on this blog post, to contact me or your elected Council representatives to discuss how the College —and our social work community— needs to embrace these changes, or to join College committees and participate directly.

Alec Stratford
NSCSW Registrar/Executive Director

One thought on “Black Lives Matter: Dismantling white supremacy in social work

  1. I like the reference to learning and being aware of and admitting our shortcomings. And Going and learning from the people who know: admit shortcomings, look for a teacher, learn.
    Democratising knowledge and promoting a process to that seems important to me.

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