What’s race got to do with it?
Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 27 March, 2023
Child Q (2020)
A 15-year-old girl of Caribbean descent, Child Q, was strip-searched in school by police while on her menstrual cycle, having been wrongly suspected of being in possession of cannabis at her north London school. The responsible person was the headteacher and other teachers.
Ashford child (2023)
A 15-year-old girl of Caribbean descent was viciously attacked and assaulted outside her school by other girls from her school in what was described as a continuation of an in-school squabble. The headteacher was the responsible adult. Parents and passers-by were the onlookers.
What gets in the way of safeguarding Black children?
American activist Moya Bailey (2008) describes ‘misogynoir’ as the unique combination of misogyny and anti-Black racism experienced by Black women because of the interlinking oppression, of gender and race. This expands upon Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 Intersectionality model and how Black women face intersectional discrimination based on gender and race.
As noted by Jahnine Davis – a leading UK specialist in safeguarding Black children, adultification may lead to professionals’ turning a blind eye to their responsibility in safeguarding Black girls. This ‘blind eye’ has its roots in the perception that Black girls and women are characteristically strong and resilient, which can also impact on perceptions of coping mechanisms, impacting on how much support is provided in comparison to other children and young people.
Claudia Bernard and Anna Gupta, in their 2008 paper Black African Children and the Child Protection System, state that there is a challenge to professionals in assessing and decision-making when working with African families due to a model of cultural deficit, based on racism and eurocentrism. The police acted without any fear of the racist implications of what they were doing in the case of Child Q. Likewise, the failure of the teachers to act quickly during the attack on the 15-year-old beaten by the white girls outside her school arguably also shows an indifference to their inaction being seen as racist. In both cases there is little, or no attention being paid to “Safeguarding is everyone’s business”, a core message in the Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018) guidance.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was no such thing as formalised safeguarding. However, when we reflect, we have a clear sense that our schools’ walls were our protection. We have no recollection of police officers entering to chastise or police us. All fights were quickly dealt with by teachers and the fighters and pupil onlookers were dealt with promptly at school. At the time there was a general expectation by society that children were safe in school. Arguably, it might be because there was less scrutiny and therefore less exposure to the inner workings in schools. Currently, Black girls in school do not appear to be safeguarded, as in the case with the girls cited above and underlined this week by shocking statistics showing Black children are 11 times more likely to be put through the unacceptable practice of being strip-searched by the police than their white counterparts.
Perhaps, if schools are failing to protect Black children, it may lead to members of the public using social media to capture and expose such injustices as was the case with George Floyd, when a 17-year-old videoed, him being brutally murdered by police. This arguably was replicated in the case of the Surrey child, whose brutal attack was recorded, and led to MPs calling for an inquiry into the incident. Although with Child Q, media exposure was after the event, there were equivalent calls for protection of and justice for Black children. All these calls were for the eradication of institutional and structural racism that fails to safeguard.
We have equally, moved from a place of ignorance and living side-by-side with people of different cultures to a notion of cultural tolerance – the latter being an unhelpful term that means we don’t like the ‘other’ but we just put up with them.
This is at the expense of any real desire to get to know and understand members of groups we don’t belong to. Building on a previous study, Weekes (2021), emphasised that individuals needed to be supported, educated, and empowered to be consciously aware of their inherent personal and professional biases, so that they can be effective in executing their role and function.
What is needed is cultural humility – a desire to understand the ‘other’, through listening and sharing one with another - rather than cultural competence, which emphasises the acquiring of knowledge, by the ‘majority’ about the ‘other’.
Suggestions for improving practice
How can social workers work with schools and other agencies to challenge and hold each other accountable for ensuring that everyone is promoting and safeguarding African and Black Caribbean children?
It has become conventional to blame institutions for this. Why? Because it allows individuals to abdicate responsibility for their own actions, and instead project this responsibility onto intangible ‘entities’. But blaming institutions does not help. Institutions themselves consist of individuals.
According to most scholars, over a period of decades institutional racism and ‘unconscious bias’ are cited as factors that get in the way of safeguarding Black children. While there is undeniably some legitimacy in this argument, such responses do little to improve the situation.
In her recently published paper, Jo Trevenna, an educational leader, investigates the reluctance by schools in England to investigate the “intersectional discrimination” of Black pupils and the impact that this has on them. She argues that an intersectional approach could enable the formulation of more help for concerned pupils and warns about the dangers of treating all pupils as singular.
There is, of course, no overnight fix. But there are actions that can be taken as first steps in a long-term remedy. One of these actions, and probably the most effective, is to encourage and enable white people, from doctors, shop owners to police and teachers, to be aware of their biases towards Black African and Caribbean people in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. Institutional and systemic abuses, such as racial profiling and labelling, should become a thing of the past.
Another action is to encourage a working application of contextual safeguarding – namely to understand and respond to the experiences of young Black African and Caribbean people that the ‘significant harm’ to them goes beyond their families and impacts on the public/social context, which also needs safeguarding.