I am a social worker from Zimbabwe who has lived in England for eight years. I face racism in the workplace. I want to share my feelings.
In 2011 I came to live in England. I qualified as a social worker five years earlier and had been practising in Harare. A lot of friends in England ask me if social work was very different in my homeland. I do not think it is so much. There was more corruption and a great deal less support from other services. However the issues were the same. Children and their parents needing help because they had fallen on hard times.
The solutions were also the same. To support the children and their parents or help find the children people who could look after them if trying to keep the family together did not work.
It did take me some time to get used to the benefits and legal systems in England. There is a lot more paperwork!
I came to live and work in England when a council started a project to recruit social workers from Zimbabwe. The council advertised in the
municipality I was based in and a representative visited to explain how they would support social workers to come and work in England.
The council were very supportive by helping me move, helping with visa and work permits and helping me to register with the social care council. The paperwork took a little longer than we anticipated. Always a lot of paperwork!
I moved to England with five other social workers. I knew one of them from work and another one from my university course. The three of us got a house together that the council helped find for us. My friend from university had family that lived in a close by borough and that was a real help to help us all settle in.
The first couple of weeks were all about training and of course the paperwork! In this time we visited lots of different people and buildings but did not do any work with families. There were lots of promises made about support and help and training and how welcome we were.
After those weeks the five of us were placed in the same duty assessment team. On my very first day in the office we were placed I was looking over files of new cases I was picking up. A service manager walked by with one of the team managers and I saw him looking towards the five of us from Zimbabwe. After looking at us he turned to the manager and said “It is like the United Nations in here now they have arrived”. I do not think he would have said that if we had been white.
My name is not uncommon in my homeland but it is uncommon in England. When I first started working in England I used my full name. However I now use a shortened version that is easier to pronounce. I do not want do do this. I have to do this.
In my first job I used my full name and it became an issue from the very beginning. I remember well the first time a service user told me that they did not want to work with me after they heard my accent and after I told them my name. “I want an English one instead” I was told after I called a parent to begin an initial assessment after a police child concern about domestic abuse.
My accent is not too strong. My English friends will often joke and say that I speak the Queens English better than they do! However it is clear that I am African and people pick that up over the phone. My name is a common Zimbabwean name also.
I have now lost count of the number of times that service users have taken an issue with my name or my accent.
“I do not understand that woman”
” She can not speak English”
” I do not know what that woman is saying to me”
“My children do not know what she is saying”
“Tell what is her name that I want an English person”
I hear these comments very often. Most of the time they will talk about me as being a ‘woman’ or ‘she’.
As well as the comments about my nationality and accent and name that come most days, there has been racist abuse. I have been called a “black c**t” a “black bitch” and a “black bastard” by service users.
I have had service users touch my hair without asking permission. I have had children tell me to “f**k off back home”. I have had monkey noises made when I leave a home after a statutory home visit.
Some of the time I report these issues. Some of the time I do not.
One time a manager asked me not to make a complaint to the police. She said it would be my word against their word and there would be more problems than it would be worth.
My black English friends are also racially abused. I want to say that it is not simply because I am African.
Racism is not simply a problem for me. It is not simply an English problem. It is not simply a problem for my African brothers and sisters. I know that racism in my homeland is often towards white people.
However I do worry that racism in social work against social workers is something that is not being addressed.
The councils I have worked in have been very good at investigating racism when it has been against service users and children who have not had cultural and identity needs met in assessments. However the same councils have been poor in investigating racism against social workers.
I think it is made very much worse because there is no African voice in social work.
I have worked in many teams where more than half of the social workers are black. However I have never had a black manager.
My black English colleagues have told me they have never had a black lecturer at university.
I never see black people talking about social work.
I have never seen a black person leading the British Association of Social Workers or being a spokesperson for one of the social work union groups.
There is no African voice in social work.
I did not face racism in Zimbabwe because my homeland is a country where I am not a minority. This can not happen in England where I am a minority.
I also did not face very much abuse from service users and children at all because it is a country where social workers have a lot more respect. This is something that I think can happen in England.
The culture in Zimbabwe is for social workers to be respected and for the qualifications they have to be respected. The culture is also for social workers to be respected for the help they are trying to give children. In England it really can feel like nobody will ever see the social worker as being helpful. It is seen more that the social worker is only there because they want to cause problems.
I feel that a change in culture to give the social worker more respect is a good place to start in stopping racism against social workers. I am called a “c**t” because there is a lack of respect for social workers. I am called a “bitch” because there is sexism against social workers because we are most of us women. This abuse would happen if I was white.
I feel also that our councils must do more to stop racist abuse of social workers. I sometimes will hear the excuse that service users are allowed to be abusive or make threats because they are angry or upset. I do not think that is so. I think there is no excuse for threatening a social worker.
I would like to see the British Association of Social Workers and the English government look into racism against social workers as well. I have not seen anybody writing about the issue or talking about it. That is why I wanted to write about my feelings.
I really like working in England and I am happy here. However I do work hard and do not go to work to be called a “black bastard” and a “black bitch”.
I go to work to help people. I feel I also need help to help people.
Every Sunday we feature an anonymous blog from a new ‘secret social worker’. Email me via firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got a story to share