If you’re not angry, or somewhat disturbed … it’s probably privilege.
By Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW
For the past month or more, we have been captivated by crowds around the globe marching in solidarity against inhumane police brutality — underscored and perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy — triggered (this time) by the tragic murder of George Floyd in the United States. With this a backdrop, I also recently noted significant themes and concerns of racism in several of the written reflection assignments from my Social Work students. To be clear the USA cannot claim exclusivity on this issue, which is also prevalent and noteworthy in Australia.
A royal commission investigating the incarceration of Aboriginal people and the circumstances of 99 deaths completed in 1991 made more than 300 recommendations — most of which were not implemented. Subsequent reviews of the findings of this commission have been criticised as being inadequate or misleading. Further analysis by The Guardian found that at least 432 indigenous Australians have died in custody since this inquiry (BBC News).
What happened to George Floyd (or Kumanjayi Walker, 19; Tanya Day, 55; David Dungay, 26; or TJ Hickey, 17) was not the result of a “bad apple”, but rather the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated people of colour differently (some would even say as the enemy) from the outset. Indigenous people comprise almost 30% of Australian inmates but less than 3% of the national population, according to the Australia Bureau of Statistics. This is approximately four times more than the proportion of African-Americans jailed in the US. No police officer has ever been held criminally responsible for an Aboriginal death in custody in Australia.
In the United States, slavery was the original sin and stain on the foundation of the country, followed by Jim Crow and segregation which were all systems of legalised and monetised white supremacy for which generations of black and brown people paid an immeasurable price (CNN). Like in Australia, verbal apologies have rung hollow for most, leading to a resurgence of the reparation discussion. Until white America is willing to collectively acknowledge its privilege, take responsibility for it past and the impact it has on the present, and commit to creating a future steeped in justice the list of names is unlikely to end any time soon.
The inequality of wealth, income, education, housing, access to health care, and geography all strongly suggest deeply entrenched systemic racism and social injustice. And while we should not condone violence, looting, or rioting, at some level such longstanding and pent up rage is understandable. However, in my view, the peaceful and persistent pursuit of social justice embodied and underscored in (Australian) Social Work practice affords a range of methodologies towards addressing these issues in a more productive and powerful process.
In November 2019, I wrote an essay highlighting similar themes of unequal treatment and discrimination — but as it relates to the Australian Social Work profession (Skidmore, 2019).
Australia is one of the few remaining countries that have yet to register or license the Social Work profession. While the AASW provides guidelines for professional standards of practice for the Social Work profession, they have effectively been rendered little more than a paper tiger, in that the enforcement of such practices has been deemed an “industrial matter”, with little indication of tangible or meaningful oversight in this regard. One only need to make perfunctory inquiries with the Health Services Union to see their dismal response in this regard. The only acknowledgement of the public health sector regarding the Social Work profession is a requirement for eligibility of AASW membership to be considered for employment. Despite AASW’s recent effort to role out micro-credentialing to highlight Social Work expertise there does not appear to be much traction in the public health sector’s recognition of this. There is no logical reference to suggest the recommendation or even encouragement that Senior Social Workers or Team Leaders possess or pursue such credentials to be considered for these positions. (In my view, this logically begs the question about the nature of Social Work leadership in such systems).
The accreditation of University Social Work programs continue to be plagued with inadequate and subpar supervision resources to appropriately meet the rising demand of (international) students seeking Social Work qualification — an issue that multiple University’s have struggled with for well more than a decade. (As a result, there is a fragile and reluctant agreement with AASW recommended guidelines in this regard). And too often I’ve witnessed Social Workers seek out alternate degrees to further enhance their professional development because a Master’s degree in Social Work holds little practical value in Australia. Despite the MSW being highly revered in other countries, Australian Social Workers for example pursue Master’s degree’s in Counselling, as regardless of the skill sets involved, most employers do not recognise or value these skill sets in the same manner if you hold a MSW degree in Australia.
In short, my experiences as a Clinical Social Worker (largely from the public health sector) have been pervasively disrespectful, insulting, discouraging, degrading, demeaning and demoralising. And I am not alone in this regard. I know of many Social Workers who report similar experiences. There is an alarming ignorance and disregard for what a Social Worker’s role is, but even more disturbing, there is little indication that anyone in the public health sector is interested or investing in learning about this either. This is also reflected in the general public’s warped and grossly unrealistic expectations of what a Social Worker’s job is. And while there is noteworthy efforts provided by AASW, such misconceptions persist, largely unchallenged.
So, this got me thinking — fantasising really. What if the AASW were to organise a community effort or campaign to protest and highlight the unequal treatment and discrimination of the Social Work profession in Australia? Because honestly, I think it will require something along this magnitude to confront the deep-seeded, entrenched, pervasive, structural and systemic political biases that result in the unequal treatment of the Social Work profession as a less-than, second-had profession in Australia. The persistent suppression of the profession (keeping a knee on the profession’s neck so to speak), in its efforts to perpetually see us solely in the role of Welfare workers; and refusing to respect us in the same light as other Allied Health professions is purely a political construct out of step with virtually every other country in the world.
In my view, until white people become more involved acknowledging and addressing these longstanding racial issues, it is unlikely to realise any significant or meaningful change. Some may think me foolish to consider the unequal treatment of Australian Social Workers on par with institutional racism and white supremacy ideology. Yet, if the Social Work profession remains unwilling to utilise or employ the same underlying principles for the advocacy of its own profession, what may be at stake ultimately is the further erosion of a profession aimed at promoting social justice.
- BBC News. Indigenous Deaths in Custody: Why Australians are seizing on US Protests. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-529000929.
- CNN. Why Ben & Jerry’s statement on white supremacy is extraordinary. https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/wgt-ben-and-jerrys-statement-on-white-supremacy- is-extraordinary/ar-BB14XS15?li=BBnbfcN.
- Skidmore, M. Professional Racism. https://turning-points.com.au/2019/10/30/professional-racism.