Anti-Oppressive Social Work: A Guide for Developing Cultural Competence


Siobhan E. Laird

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    I would like to thank my editors, Zoe Elliot-Fawcett and Anna Luker, for their total commitment to this project and their encouragement throughout its stages of working and reworking. I am also deeply grateful to the many practitioners in Sheffield who have willingly shared their experiences of working with people from ethnic minorities. Their discussions have helped to shape this book. Finally, I am entirely in the debt of Dorcas Boreland, my mother, who has given invaluable advice and support from the inception of this book.


    About This Book

    There are two experiences which have led me to write this book. The first was growing up in Northern Ireland, particularly during the 1970s. The conflict in that part of the United Kingdom cost the lives of over 3,500 people and injured around 45,000. Discrimination, predominantly against Catholics in the public and private sectors, was widespread. The sectarian divide was also articulated through separate provision for Protestant and Catholic children, most of whom attended different schools and, if brought into care, were looked after in different residential homes. It was in my native Northern Ireland that I qualified as a social worker and subsequently worked as a practitioner in Belfast.

    The second experience was my move in 1997 to West Africa where I was appointed Co-ordinator of Social Work at the University of Ghana. During my years in Ghana I became aware of the tensions between different ethnic communities. Some tribal groupings wielded more economic and political power than others. Occasionally, frictions flared into violent confrontation resulting in fatalities, the destruction of property, and families made destitute as they fled their villages to escape danger.

    These diverse experiences of violence and inequality have made me reflect on my own social-work training and the extent to which it prepared me to meet these challenges. I have found it woefully lacking. Since the 1980s there has been a strong emphasis within social-work training on anti-racist practice. That focus has been exclusively defined by discrimination against black service-users by white social workers. This concept of racism has failed to embrace the complexities of ethnicity and the cultural differences between people, which lie behind these catch-all terms of black and white.

    My own experiences convince me that to combat racism requires a more comprehensive understanding of discrimination than an exclusive focus on the black/white dichotomy. This book forms part of a small, though growing, number of texts which endeavour to improve anti-racist practice by introducing students and practitioners to the cultural backgrounds of ethnic communities living in the United Kingdom. I believe that cultural competence is a necessary and indispensable component of anti-racist practice.

    Structure of the Book

    Chapter One explores the nature of discrimination against people from ethnic minorities. Chapter Two explores the concepts of anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice and critically examines the meaning of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’. Chapter Three examines the concept of cultural competence and proposes a new framework for social-work practice with people from ethnic minorities. Chapters Four to Seven detail research conducted with the main minority groups in Britain, while Chapter Eight explores the cultural backgrounds of economic migrants and refugees living in the United Kingdom. The cultural values and lifestyles of each ethnic community are explored and consideration is given to how these differ from family to family, change over time and are often modified through contact with other communities in the United Kingdom.

    At the end of Chapters Four to Eight there is a worked scenario, which explores how a culturally competent practitioner might intervene with service-users and carers from minority communities. They examine how cultural knowledge deployed through an open-minded engagement with service-users and carers can achieve culturally appropriate services. These scenarios are also designed to demonstrate the interconnections between cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice. Each chapter concludes with a short list of further reading to broaden cultural knowledge and deepen critical thinking.

    The Conclusion sets out to reconcile cultural knowledge with the practitioner's own heritage and offers guidance on how to improve awareness of one's own cultural influences. This final section also details the major pitfalls practitioners need to avoid when addressing culture in social-work practice.

    The Use of the Terms Black and White

    It is my contention in this book that the use of black and white as all-inclusive terms for people disguises important aspects of ethnicity and cultural heritage. However, the first two chapters of this book do employ these catch-all terms. This is because a number of the research studies cited in Chapter One make distinctions between black and white groupings. I have also used the terms black and white in Chapter Two as I am critiquing their use in anti-racist theory. For the rest of the book these terms are not used and are replaced by references to people from different ethnic minorities.

    The Choice of Ethnic Minorities for This Book

    Much controversy has surrounded the categorisation of ethnicities. Different ways of conceptualising ethnic minorities produce different versions of their experiences. Up until the 1980s national statistics identified ethnic minorities using very broad catch-all terms, typically dividing them into ‘Asians’ and ‘West Indians’. Within these groupings there was no differentiation between those who immigrated to the United Kingdom and those born in the country. Nor were such statistics disaggregated for age or gender. Modood (1992) criticises this method of data collection and analysis because it creates a crude dichotomy between the circumstances of black and white citizens. This in turn disguises the divergent experiences of ethnic minority groups, which can be further subdivided on the basis of age, gender, language, religion, mixed parentage and ethnic self-identification.

    Surveys such as the landmark Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities in 1997, based around family origin, and the 2001 Census, based on self-identified ethnicity, chosen from a pre-specified list, have endeavoured to refine the process of categorisation. The methods used in these two instances are not above reproach. Recognising the unavoidable imperfections of classifying ethnic groups, this text devotes a chapter to each of the main ethnic communities appearing in the 2001 Census. It endeavours to counteract the homogenising tendency of categorisation in the 2001 Census by highlighting the cultural and religious diversity within each ethnic group. Attention is also given to the differing experiences of ethnicity and racism due to age, gender and disability. In addition, Chapter Eight focuses on white minorities from Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union alongside black minorities from the African continent.

    There is a fine line between drawing on background knowledge of a particular ethnic community to inform practice and making perfunctory stereotypical assumptions about the values of individual families and service-users. Chapters Four to Eight are organised around the main ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom. They are not definitive accounts of different minority groups and only provide information about some of the cultural influences which may have a bearing on the perspectives and needs of some service-users and carers. Taken altogether the chapters are designed to alert practitioners to the range of issues which can bear on the needs of service-users and carers from minority communities.

  • Conclusion: Developing Cultural Awareness

    Cultural Awareness

    Chapters Four to Eight of this book have focused on the importance of cultural knowledge. They have explored some of the areas of difference and similarity between members of various ethnic groups and between people within a given ethnic group. A number of key areas of variation have emerged and all of these will be explored by a culturally competent social worker as they assess and arrange services.

    Cultural knowledge is only one aspect of cultural competence. To be able to effectively collect information about the cultural background of other people a social worker needs to be aware of their own cultural heritage. For those practitioners who are members of the white-majority community it can be particularly difficult to recognise and respect the diversity of beliefs, values, attitudes and social norms which are part and parcel of the everyday lives of people from minority communities. Dominelli (1997) and Thompson (2006) have attributed this to a white supremacist ideology at the cultural level in British society which assumes the superiority of Anglo-centric norms and devalues those of black people. Undoubtedly this does influence the outlook of people belonging to the white-majority population.

    Equally, it is simply immensely difficult to reflect upon one's own cultural context if it is the dominant worldview. Such dominance naturalises one's own cultural heritage and acts as an obstacle to achieving objective distance. It is only by gaining cultural knowledge, that is learning to appreciate the variety of ways in which people with different heritages organise their lives, that practitioners from the white-majority community (or those from other backgrounds who have become very acculturated to Anglo-centric norms) can gain cultural awareness. This is because cultural knowledge is the accumulation of information about contrasting forms of living and offers practitioners a comparative analytical tool with which to examine the cultural influences upon their own lives. These influences are embedded in family relationships, lifestyle choices, beliefs and outlook. To get at the elements which make up their own cultural heritage, social workers need to ask themselves the following kinds of questions.

    Social Organisation
    • How is my family organised?
    • What are the important relationships in my family?
    • What are the expectations of different family members?
    • Who makes what kind of decisions in my family?
    • What is considered proper or improper behaviour?
    • Who is expected to take on caring responsibilities?
    • What sort of relationship does my family have with other people in the neighbourhood?
    Values and Beliefs
    • What are important values in my life?
    • What are important aspirations for members of my family?
    • Do I have spiritual beliefs and if so what are they?
    • How do my spiritual beliefs influence other aspects of my life?
    • What are the common health beliefs among members of my family and how do these influence my behaviour?
    • What sort of foods or beverages do I consume and why do I make these choices?
    • What sort of clothes do I choose to wear and why?
    • What choices do I make in relation to social and leisure activities and why?
    Coping Mechanisms
    • What coping strategies do I typically adopt and where did I learn these?
    • What social networks do I call upon for assistance?
    Confronting Prejudice

    Cultural awareness requires ongoing self-examination and reflection upon one's own heritage and the way in which it shapes perceptions and judgements about people from ethnic minorities. Cultural awareness is not about a passive absorption of cultural knowledge, such as that contained in this book. Nor is it about identifying the similarities or differences between one's own norms and those of others for the sake of it. Cultural awareness necessitates a painful recognition of the prejudices, presumptions and stereotypes one holds about people from other ethnic backgrounds. It means for example, asking yourself why you perhaps think that cohabitation of a heterosexual couple is superior to an arranged marriage or a visiting relationship by a male partner. In others words, the supremacy of Anglo-centric perspectives in British society and within the social-work profession itself have created a ranking of cultures whereby the dominant norms of the white-majority community are considered superior to those of others. It is this pre-programming that many social workers belonging to the white-majority community will have to grapple with.

    Challenging Stereotypes

    The cultural knowledge set out in this book uses research findings to challenge many of the dominant stereotypes about people from different ethnic groups. It also highlights a variety of values, beliefs and perspectives which are influential in the lives of people from the principal minority communities in the United Kingdom. At the same time, returning to Sue's (2001) Multidimensional Model of Cultural Competence (Chapter Three), it is important to remember that while ‘all individuals are, in some respects, like some other individuals’ they are also ‘in some respects like no other individual’. In other words, there is always a danger of misusing cultural knowledge to stereotype people from different ethnic groups and to assume that everyone from the same minority has the same values and outlook. Just consider for a moment the sheer range of family forms, religious beliefs, lifestyle choices and outlooks which exist among people of the majority-white population. An equally diverse range exists within minority communities. Cultural knowledge should be used to inform cultural encounter with the uniqueness of each individual and not as a substitute for it.

    The United Kingdom is a multicultural society and people are influenced not just by the values and perspectives which are handed down to them through their families, but also by their interactions with people from other ethnic communities at school, work and leisure. The mass media and the internet have also exposed people to many more sources of influence than has been true in the past. Many families are now themselves multicultural, as increasingly people inter-marry or cohabit from different ethnic backgrounds. Consequently, cultures are not pure monolithic structures which exert definable influences over people's values, beliefs and behaviours. Often influences are subtle, go unrecognised or exist as a composite of cultural and spiritual values drawn from a variety of sources. This multicultural context should inform cultural encounter.

    Avoiding Cultural Relativity

    Social workers are often caught in a dilemma when it comes to culture. On the one hand (as this book argues), they must understand, respect and accommodate the cultural and spiritual needs of service-users and their carers. On the other hand, practitioners must not adopt positions of cultural relativity which make no distinction between values or behaviours on the grounds that these are cultural expressions which automatically demand respect. Behaviours which are oppressive or abusive cannot be tolerated regardless of whether or not their perpetrators cite culture as a justification. Such practices include female genital mutilation, the marriage of under-age children and violence against women. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it should at least illustrate that there is a clear distinction to be made between practices which are simply different from those of the majority-white community and others which violate basic human rights, prejudice the safety of vulnerable people or are against the law.

    This is not to deny that there are grey areas where it may not be so clear-cut as to whether a particular practice is directly harmful. But in the past, misunderstanding, misinformation and racial prejudice on the part of professionals has meant that many alternative social practices were pathologised, when in fact they were just different from those common among the white majority. What matters is to bring to bear cultural awareness and cultural knowledge in an open-minded encounter and to make an objective and unprejudiced judgement about the effects of a particular practice. Conversely, social workers need to be alert to the fact that some perpetrators of abuse use culture and religion as a pretext for violent and self-serving actions. For example, there is evidence to suggest that a particular interpretation of Islam is being deployed by some men to justify violence against women whose conduct is alleged to be un-Islamic (Mama, 1989: 67; Shaw, 2000: 162; Archer, 2003: 80–1). These sorts of interpretations are only subscribed to by a small number of people among the 1.5 million Muslims living in Britain. So what counts as culture or religious observance, and who decides it, is subject to constant dispute and contestation.

    Cultural Competence

    The journey towards cultural competence is difficult and fraught with hazard. It also promises personal enrichment and self-discovery for those prepared to put in the effort. To anxious practitioners working with people from ethnic minorities who are simply trying to get it right, cultural competence offers a sound basis for good practice. For service-users and carers it holds out the possibility of culturally appropriate provision, which better meets their needs. Cultural competence is now one of the greatest challenges for the social work profession.


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