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Outlanders: Hidden Narratives from Social Workers of Colour

Social work is rarely discussed in conversations about race and racism, so Wayne Reid and Siobhan Maclean put together Outlanders, a book that showcases the lived experiences of social workers of colour.

Black lives matter protest
James Eades (Unsplash)

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is on a global scale, with mass protests and affirmative action all around the world. It continues to shine a bright light on the deeply embedded racism and discrimination within our society, sparking conversations across communities and industries which looked at the issues, and at how anti-racism action should be implemented.

One sector that is rarely discussed in these conversations is social work, and it's for this reason that social workers Wayne Reid and Siobhan Maclean have put together a book that showcases the lived experiences of social workers of colour.

I spoke to Wayne about Outlanders and why it’s so important that the experiences of people of colour in social work are shared with the world.

For people who may not know much about the world of social work, what’s this anthology about and how did it come about?

The initial idea for this anthology came from my collaborator Siobhan. She shared her idea with me a couple of years ago about putting together a book to try and capture the experiences of people of colour who work in social work. There isn’t anything like it that exists and we felt there needed to be.

Due to busy schedules, the idea for the book sat idle for a while. And then we had the death of George Floyd last summer, which reignited the necessity for this anthology. We know that people of colour are silenced and marginalised in society, and that’s well documented. However, this marginalisation is also very much present in professional spaces too and there really isn’t much available showcasing the voices and experiences of social workers of colour.

Outlanders social work book cover

As co-editor, I had a vision for the book early on after reading The Good Immigrant a few years ago. I loved the style and format of it, and how it was sectioned into different forms of writing - poetry, stories, essays. You can just lose yourself in each one. I wanted our anthology to have a similar kind of vibe to it, but purely focused on social work. It’s just a rich collection of people's experiences.

I’ve read a few books on race and racism in the UK, but they tend to be quite general reads, and don’t always explore racism in specific industries and contexts.

There’s very little on the racism experienced by social workers. I think what there is, is a body of work from academics in social work. However, what I’ve found with academic work is that it’s sometimes detached from the realities of lived experience. In a fast-changing context like social work, it’s not always an accurate measure of the real-life impact on social workers of colour. Plus, academia can seem so far removed from the realities of everyday social work sometimes anyway. So what we wanted to do with this book is make it completely accessible, both to social workers and those outside of the institution as well.

Do you think COVID-19 has exacerbated racism and discrimination in social work?

I think it has, yes. My organisation, BASW [The British Association of Social Workers], has conducted surveys and discussion groups exploring social workers’ experiences during the pandemic, and we’ve had feedback from Black & Ethnic Minority social workers. For example, there were a few reports about personal protective equipment (PPE) being withheld from social workers of colour in the early stages of the pandemic, and workers being made to do home visits when their white colleagues were working from home.

There’s also been examples of increased racial abuse from service users, which I think may be linked to a false perception that people of colour are ‘super spreaders’ or we’re all carriers of the virus. COVID-19 has affected social workers of colour both inside the workplace and [in] their interactions with the public.

What does real and effective anti-racism action look like in social work?

Anti-racism, to me, involves the complete overhaul of the current system. It starts with an acknowledgement of institutional and structural racism and discrimination by those in power. And by those in power, I mean organisations like my own, which have led the way in terms of platforming and promoting anti-racism work in the last few months. However, it’s also organisations such as the regulators and inspectorates of social work, and of course the government as well.

All these powerful institutions play a significant role in social work and so will play a significant role in its overhaul. Acknowledgement of the problem may sound quite simple, but it's something that still hasn’t happened, and needs to. Then, from that acknowledgement, we can start looking at an action plan where these institutions individually and collectively take some accountability and responsibility in implementing real change.

Do you think there’s an appetite from decision makers and people in power for this now?

Yes and no. The work I’ve been doing over the past few months has been warmly received by many within social work, at various levels. There’s been a good response from people in my network, both offline and online. So yes, I would say there is an appetite, but that appetite stops at a certain level - and it stops at a more national and organisational level. The people within what I call “the social work elite” may give you a positive response to anti-racism work at an interpersonal level, but when it comes to organisational reform, it’s much more of a muted response.

For anti-racism action to be properly implemented, organisations need to be accountable and transparent. I think that’s when we can be confident we’re making good progress with anti-racism. But at the moment, I think most organisations are still struggling with stage one of this work, which is simply acknowledging the need for anti-racism action.

What do you think it would take for the people at the top to properly listen? The Black Lives Matter movement, and the conversations around race, have been around for years, but it feels as though we’re just having the same conversations over and over again.

Exactly. It’s almost surreal in many ways to find myself in this position, having had the same conversations that I’d heard from my parents and people from that generation. Societal events, such as the Trump presidency and Brexit, have reignited these issues, and it’s almost as if we’re having to have these basic conversations all over again, fighting the same battles our parents and grandparents did.

In terms of what it would take for people at the top to listen, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve tried to be strategic in my anti-racism work recently, as it started out quite impulsive and emotive to be honest, because of the death of George Floyd. But as I’ve progressed with it, I’ve tried to frame it in a way that people want to listen and engage with constructively.

What do you hope to achieve from this anthology? What do you want readers to take away from the book?

I’d like to think that anyone who reads Outlanders would feel like a better person afterwards. I’d like to think that by reading it, they would feel much more in touch with their authentic self and have a deeper empathy for people of colour. Also, I hope they just feel enriched as a person, whether they're a person of colour or a white person. I believe it’s a book that’s got something for everyone.

In terms of social work, I want this book to be seen as a cornerstone in years to come, a reference point in history, that we can use to measure and analyse how things were up to this point, and how they have proceeded since. This anthology has shone a spotlight on some very difficult areas of social work life, especially for people of colour. I’m delighted that Outlanders will platform these experiences and hopefully enable progress in the future. Mostly, I want Outlanders to inspire people and ignite a true and authentic anti-racism movement in the world of social work and beyond.

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