Working to dismantle racism in social work

On Friday, I along with several other social workers and social work students attended the Rally Against Racism in Auckland. This rally was called in response to the racist speaking tour of white supremacists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. These speakers have engaged in an international tour designed to incite racism and hatred (Smith, 2018). As social workers we felt that it was important to speak up personally, and as social workers, against this kind of explicit racism. Those of us who have the privilege of being able to speak out without losing our jobs (such as academics) need to be particularly willing to engage in overt action to challenge racism. Another recent example of this kind of overt action against racism is seen in the action of Swedish social work student Elin Ersson who recently refused to sit down on an aeroplane, temporarily preventing the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker (Crouch, 2018).

As social workers we believe that we need to be putting our ethics into practice. We need to be speaking out clearly, challenging racist discourses and practices. Within our workplaces we need to critically look at whose opinions are privileged and who has power to make decisions. At this level we can contribute to change within our workplaces, and hopefully contribute to broader changes in society. If we are serious though in our opposition to racism then we need to go further than individual action. We need ask harder questions about our own complicity in systems which are structurally racist.

Social work has a dark history when it comes to racism. Since its inception social work has been used to enforce white supremacy. Social workers have been responsible for the removal of indigenous children and the incarceration of indigenous adults. Our profession has been woefully slow to speak up on these issues (if we have at all). This history, and our participation in systems which are unquestionably racist (such as the “child protection” and prison system) raise uncomfortable and troubling questions about the social work profession.

The racism that social workers are responsible for is oftentimes systemic and institutionalised. It is built into the policies and laws which we are expected to enforce An example of this (which Humphries explores) is the way in which immigration policy in the UK discriminates against asylum seekers, treating them as second class citizens. Other examples include how social workers are expected to provide information to counter-terrorist police; unquestioningly supporting the UK governments “anti-radicalisation” agenda which focuses explicitly on young Muslims (Stanley, 2015). Closer to home, New Zealand’s child protection system has consistently portrayed Māori children as at risk, and in need of rescuing; meanwhile ignoring the impact of state violence on Māori and the harm caused by removing children from their whānau (Hyslop, 2017).

In these, and many other ways, racism permeates the organisations which social workers are part of, and the laws and policies which determine how they function. When the systems in which social worker are operating are racist by design, then no individual acts, regardless of how heroic they are, will ever be sufficient (Humphries, 2004). When it is the institution which is racist then the most we can do in our individual practice is mitigate the worst impacts of these systems (Cox & Augustine, 2017). Individual attempts to practice in an ethical or anti-racist manner simply cannot counteract institutions which are fundamentally oppressive.

If the profession as a whole, and we as members of it, are serious in our opposition to racism them we need to begin to dismantle institutions which are racist by design. In Aotearoa this means dismantling the prison and child protections systems. Instead of attempting to apply a bi-cultural façade to these institutions, we need to be demanding systems which are created by and for Māori.

This brings me back to the role of the individual social worker. Our profession demands that we be active on social policy, and that we speak out when we are aware of injustice. When it comes to racism, especially the systemic racism of the systems which we sit within, our profession is failing in its ethical duties. As individuals we need to be far more willing to confront those who have power, and to speak uncomfortable truths about the systems which we work within. Fortunately we don’t have to start from scratch – we can support the amazing work of groups like People Against Prisons Aotearoa who are already doing this kind of work.

Longer term, the profession needs to remain focused on bringing about institutional and political change. We need to be working consistently to transfer power out of the hands of social workers, and away from the state, to Māori and those who we work with.


Cox, E. O., & Augustine, J. (2017). The U.S. criminal justice system: A role for radical social work. Journal of Progressive Human Services, , 1-28. 10.1080/10428232.2017.1399035

Crouch, D. (2018, -07-26T09:13:19.000Z). Swedish student’s plane protest stops afghan man’s deportation ‘to hell’. The Guardian Retrieved from

Humphries, B. (2004). An unacceptable role for social work: Implementing immigration policy. The British Journal of Social Work, 34(1), 93-107. 10.1093/bjsw/bch007

Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800-1817. 10.1093/bjsw/bcx088

Smith, D. (2018). Far-right canadian duo’s vile rampage against aboriginal culture at sydney event. Retrieved from

Stanley, T. (2015). Working with radicalisation risk – A redistribution of orwellian pre-crime. Retrieved from


5 replies on “Working to dismantle racism in social work”

This is a systemic and an individual issue. Pākehā Social workers, I find, are too afraid (and often actually dishonest with themselves) to confront the fact that they are complicit in and benefit from institutional racism. If you cannot confront, and tackle the inner racist, then you cannot hope to tackle institutional racism. The actions need to take place at a micro and macro level. Pākehā social workers need to commit to a life of checking themselves, of seeing their privilege, of working to dismantle it. It’s all very well saying “that’s racist” without acknowledging your own part in it.

I think that’s part of what frustrates me the most, the lack of willingness to reflect on how the self plays a part in racism – because that lack is often an impediment to those same individuals taking bigger action. It also allows people to say “but it’s not me”

But, I know you know all of this John 🙂

It’s not only pakeha social workers that are afraid to speak up-it’s most S/W that won’t or don’t and all S/W in Oranga Tamariki,which is really really frustrsting.
There is this unwillingness by OT and may I say many Maori institutes to address or reflect on racism and all the power and perseved privileges and the bullying that takes place every day in these places.I see and experience this on a regular basis and it makes me very frustrated-as long as we have the largest group of S/W in this country working in a system that is overflowing in oppression and unable to look in the mirror ,then I struggle to see how this profession can move forward collectively- there’ a long ways to go yet.

Ngā mihi nunui e hoa. Amazing piece. As a profession we need to rigorously oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, as a group. Individual workers have very little impact on institutions and social and economic structures. With the global rise of extreme right wing fascist power this is going to be something we’re going to have to become absolutely clear on how we oppose it, how we will not comply – as a group – with abusive practices. And that should be starting now.

“Our profession has been woefully slow to speak up on these issues (if we have at all).” Actually the truth of it is, that the above fail to recognise that there ARE social workers who have been actively speaking out for years against genocide and the brown pipe-lining of our tamariki in Aotearoa. Myself for one, brother Daryl Brougham (recently passed), Eugene Ryder, Kim Murphy Stewart, who use their lived expertise as well as long serving social work experience to speak out against white supremacy and corrupt social work practices. Those of us who have been advocating for a Royal Commission into State Care Abuse and this work continues. I am not keen on people’s lived-expertise, work, advocacy, activism (written or in person), being left out of the equation.

I absolutely agree Paora and I’m sorry for not drawing attention to the vital work which is currently being done by yourself and others. I should also have explicitly pointed out and recognised the work that Maori social workers have been working to challenge institutional racism in Aotearoa – work which has gone on since the profession began here. You’re completely right that the profession hasn’t been silent – but the voices which are speaking up haven’t been listened to.

Thanks for the feedback – and I’m sorry for not pro-actively stating this – I should have and I’ll make sure I do in future. Thanks also for your ongoing willingness to speak truth to power and to draw attention to the racist treatment Māori tamariki.

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