In a keynote paper at the European Social Work Research conference in Leuven in 2019, Charlotte Williams (2020, p 1057) argued that the urgent need for ‘sustained scholarly analysis and knowledge building on issues of race/ethnicity in social work research is as compelling as ever given the intensification of global racial inequalities, issues associated with the “migrant crisis”, the spread of populist racialised political discourse and the ongoing downward pressure of neo-liberal imperatives’.
Responding to this challenge, we aim to furnish insights into how social work in Ireland engages with the Black African diaspora. The book is also rooted in five years (2015–20) of doctoral research exploring the interactional experiences of Black African and White social workers with Black African families (Marovatsanga, 2020).
Social Work with the Black African Diaspora examines social work education and its frequently culturally insular curriculum. Previous Irish research highlights inadequacies in working with specific categories of immigrants, such as asylum seekers, and in particular areas of practice, such as child protection (Dalikeni, 2013; see also Harrington, 2017; Okpokiri, 2020). Our book will go further in order to examine factors that could underpin inadequate social work across a range of practice domains. Furthermore, our focus on service providers is vital in that it gives voice to practitioners whose experience and daily interactions with Black African service users put them at the ‘front line’ of service delivery. If their assessment of the current situation is not considered, the ‘gaps’ they encounter in policies and practices are likely to continue to exist and this will seriously undermine the organisations within which they work.
In short, we hope to expand the ‘intellectual space’ within social work to make it more inclusive and vibrant. In this sense, our book is likely to be of interest to educators and students also located in the fields of sociology and social policy, and particularly segments of the these fields interested in far from unproblematic ideas circulating around ‘diversity’, ‘anti-oppressive’ and ‘anti-racist’ practices. Social Work with the Black African Diaspora also contains material that shares the concerns of a range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the public. In our national context, we also hope that this book might also inform the evolution of the Irish
Although focused on one European state, the book conveys vitally significant messages for global social work. This is because the themes we explore relate not only to Ireland, but also to the United Kingdom (UK) and elsewhere in Europe, North America and Australasia and, of course, Africa. (Our focus is on the Republic of Ireland and not Northern Ireland. For ease of reference, we will use ‘Ireland’ when we are discussing the jurisdiction in the south of the island). In what follows, we:
critically explore an intellectually challenging range of thinkers and conceptual paradigms mostly absent within the academic literature of social work;
contribute to the shaping of a more progressive social work that reaffirms the importance of anti-racism (Kleibl et al, 2019; Morley et al, 2020);
give a voice to practitioners (including rarely heard Black African social workers) and educators who are grappling with significant issues pertaining to theory and practice when working with the Black African diaspora (see also Gatwiri, 2020; Obasi, 2021; Reid and Maclean, 2021).
In critically interrogating these core themes, we pose three key questions:
As currently constituted, how does social work education and practice help or hinder the shaping of responses to Black African individuals, families and communities in Ireland? Relatedly, how do social work initiatives and interventions ‘play out’ in racialised encounters informed by neoliberal and dominant Eurocentric paradigms?
In these neoliberal times, why is the social work response to the Black African diaspora problematic?
More broadly, how can social work (as a body of knowledge and series of strategies of intervention) contribute to the creation of a more socially just world within, and beyond, the professional field?
Entirely at odds with the ‘accepted narrative of Ireland as a former “emigrant nursery” and of in-migration as a “new” phenomenon, Ireland has long been a country of both emigration and immigration’ (Lentin, 2007, p 612). As Ronit Lentin points out, alongside ‘Scots and English migrants’ there has always been an identifiable presence of ‘Huguenots, Italian, Chinese, German, Jews and others’ (Lentin, 2007, p 612). Despite common perceptions, Black people did not suddenly appear in Ireland during the final quarter of the 20th century. Hart’s (2002) archival work suggests that
The country has a population of approximately five million. According to the 2016 census, more than one in three of those of African ethnicity (38.6%) were born in the Republic (22,331 persons), as were 31.3% (2,126) of those with other Black backgrounds. Africans were born primarily in Nigeria (27.2%). Those situating themselves in an ‘any other Black background’ category were born in a range of countries including Brazil (17.4%), England and Wales (7.1%) and Mauritius (3.2%). There were 10,100 dual Irish nationals who identified themselves as ‘Black or Black Irish – African’, the largest group of which was Irish-Nigerian nationals (6,683 people) (Central Statistics Office, 2020).
Paul Gilroy (2019) avows that in most of the Global North, ‘Muslim has become fixed as a racial trope rather like Jew in the interwar years of the twentieth century’. This is probably the case, but religious identity and affiliation can be rendered optically undetectable. Islamophobia is not ‘necessarily triggered by skin colour, and is often sparked off by one or more (perceived) symbols of the Muslim faith’ (Cole, 2009, p 251). Australian-based research suggests that the more visibly different a social group is (phenotypically, and so on) from the dominant cultural group, the more likely it is likely to be discriminated against (Colic-Peisker and Tilbury, 2007). It may be that Black Africans – many of whom may also, of course, be followers in Islam (Crabtree et al, 2008) – are one of the groups most likely to be racially discriminated against in Ireland (Michael, 2016; see also Fanning, 2012; Child Care Law Reporting Project, 2015). For example, the Black African community in Ireland is ‘3–8 times more likely to be unemployed than their White counterparts’ (Joseph, 2021, p 24). Previous research undertaken within the field of social work in Ireland has been inclined to subsume Black Africans’ experiences under the reductive umbrella term ‘ethnic minorities’ (see also Christie, 2010).
The book’s agenda
We aspire to contribute to the field of research and practice by expanding the social work knowledge base to include hitherto marginalised perspectives. Thus, we aim to address a profound ‘silence’ in seemingly benign, liberal paradigms. Relatedly, Social Work with the Black African Diaspora is committed to projects intent on decolonising the university (Bhambra et al, 2018; see also Gray et al, 2013). Underpinning our perspective is a belief that many Black Africans located on the margins of social work profession (‘outsiders on the inside’) must have the opportunity to begin actively to participate in the creation of social work knowledge (see also Fanning and Michael, 2019).
Social Work with the Black African Diaspora is also situated alongside other contributions disrupting existing doxic academic knowledge in social work. It is widely accepted that Euro-American ethnocentric values are hegemonic within the profession’s knowledge base. In the world at large, this dominance has led to the propagation of specific western norms as cultural universals (Mirsepassi, 2000). As the Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000, p xiii) cautions, perceptions and paradigms drawn from particular cultural, intellectual and historical traditions are likely to lack ‘universal validity’, even if such validity is only implied. More emphatically, Iris Marion Young (1990, p 50) plainly describes the imposition of one’s norms on other cultures as ‘cultural oppression’. Globally, social work and social welfare systems have tended to impose White, western middle-class norms. Partly prompted by the population movements sparked by neoliberal globalism, the social and cultural ‘diversity’ constituting the worldwide social work practice context undermines the ‘myth of sameness’ underlying the social work tradition. This is a tradition rooted in the Universalist assumption that practice theories are broadly applicable to all persons because ‘deep down we are all the same’ (Pinderhughes, 1989, p 24).
As different countries have constructed and followed alternative routes to modernity, the academic literature on social work might – as some educators within the field acknowledge – try to become more alert to the diversity of the profession globally. It is vital that social work scholars, located in the West, refrain from cultural condescension and unthinkingly implying that theoretical models and ways of doing social work can be mechanistically transferred into emerging fields in countries such as those in the People’s Republic of China (see, for example, Hutchings and Taylor, 2007).
Relatedly, Bar-on (1999) argues that the exportation to Africa of a form of social work underpinned by western values essentially alien to African culture was akin to the work of missionaries who sought to remake the Africans in their own image. In contemporary social work education, practice and research, the mainstream Eurocentric worldview continues to dominate by excluding non-western onto-epistemologies. Consequently,
Williams and Graham (2016) argue that contemporary global migration trends have magnified the inadequacy and inappropriateness of mainstream responses within western welfare regimes to meet the existential rights-based needs of new service user groups (see also Gray et al, 2013; Boccagni, 2015; Danso, 2016). Migration performs the dual role of ‘problem solving’ and ‘problem generating’ at the individual and societal levels. In Ireland, for example, migration ‘solved’ capital’s labour shortage difficulties associated with the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom. At individual immigrant levels, it afforded opportunities for some individuals to better their lives. As for those seeking asylum and refuge (based on a variety of persecutions), sanctuary – albeit often of a precarious kind – was also available for some individuals and their families. Migration can be a problem-generating phenomenon, at the levels mentioned earlier, in situations where the arrival of immigrants is not preceded by well thought-out planning and by the implementation of adequate policies, procedures and the nurturing of infrastructure at organisational and institutional levels. Lorenz (1994) argues that in such a situation, large-scale inward migration can lead to new forms of exclusion, managing and sifting of populations (see also Christie, 2003; Joseph, 2017). Evidence of such a situation exists in Ireland, given the hasty setting up of the ‘direct provision’ (DP) system for asylum seekers awaiting adjudication, which was made via ministerial order rather than through a legislative process. Here the emphasis was on quickly assembling a ramshackle deterrent system with the aim, as with the old workhouse system initially set up under British rule, to ward off people seeking help. Introduced as a mere ‘pilot’ scheme, it was rhetorically intended to house applicants for six months, but many have languished in DP for several years (Dalikeni, 2021). During summer 2020, over 32,000 people signed a petition calling for the government to end DP (McDermott, 2020a). If one is classified as an ‘asylum seeker’, the DP system imposes where one can live and not live. The type of accommodation
The challenges for social work are now being played out in interventions, training and research pivoting on migration. All of this has profound implications for the identity of the profession, its ethical claims-making, positioning and future strategies. In this context, it is of deep concern that social work practice presently risks becoming annexed to the immigration policing machinery put in place across various states in the Global North (Humphries, 2004; Farmer, 2020).
Black Lives Matter and the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic
Reaching beyond Ireland, more contemporary events linked to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and ethnic minority people illuminate the importance of some of the ‘messages’ conveyed to social work in our book. Here, therefore, we will briefly refer to these two dimensions that are to the fore at the present conjuncture.
refusal to advise or act in cases of racist crime; failure to attend ongoing violent crimes; refusal to speak to perpetrators or relevant witnesses; hostile treatment of witnesses; failure to collect relevant evidence of crime and of bias element; failure to provide crime numbers to victims; diversion of victims; failure to provide information on status of case to victims, and most importantly, investigations of immigration status before investigation of racist crimes, and hostile interactions with ethnic minority people in public, including racial profiling, harassment and unwarranted searches. (Michael, 2021a, p 58)
Historically, Black bodies have always been targeted for particular types of punitive oversight and scrutiny (Browne, 2015; Benjamin, 2019). Such deeply racialised watchfulness on the part of the state is illustrated by the surveillance operations of the Metropolitan Police in London, which has systematically targeted Black males as potential criminals from an early age (Amnesty International, 2018; Liberty, 2019). In the US, the organisation Data for Black Lives (D4BL, 2020) expresses concern about how data collected relating to COVID-19 might, given embedded structural racism, become ‘weaponised’ against Black and other minority ethnic communities. D4BL demands, therefore, that COVID-19 data should not be used to ‘determine risk. It should not be used to surveil, criminalize, cage, and deny critical benefits’. Although relating to one country, these demands have global resonance for Black people (see also Pirtle, 2020).
Turning specifically to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Jubilee Debt Campaign (2020) reveals that 64 states spend more on external debt payments than they are able to devote to healthcare. Unsurprisingly, this drastically undermines the ability of countries (such as Gambia, Ghana, Zambia, Laos, Lebanon and Pakistan) to deal adequately with this public health emergency. This situation highlights how the colonial practices of the West continue to exploit parts of the Global South. In many parts of the Global North, the disproportionate numbers of fatalities in Black and minority ethnic communities are a significant issue (Gore, 2020; Munn, 2020). Public Health England (2020, p 4) found, in the early stages of the pandemic, that the ‘highest age standardised diagnosis rates of COVID-19 per 100,000 population were in people of Black ethnic groups (486 in females and 649 in males) and the lowest were in people of White ethnic groups (220 in females and 224 in males)’. This is partly attributable to class and capitalist labour market positioning that leaves Black and ethnic minority people more vulnerable. Comparable data is not presently available
More expansively, the disproportionately high number of Black and minority ethnic fatalities during the global pandemic is suggestive of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s (2007, p 28) definition of racism as the ‘state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’. Such an interpretation might also be associated with Mbembe’s (2003) Foucauldian-inflected conceptualisation of ‘necropolitics’ (see also Robertson and Travaglia, 2020). Unsurprisingly, as soon as concerns about the disproportionately high deaths and infection rates within Black and ethnic minority groups surfaced, many right-wing commentators attempted to ‘reframe’ the debate in order to dwell on ‘biological inheritance, lifestyle choices, and cultural differences that have no connection to discrimination’ (Farah, 2020).
Clearly, our interest in this topic is influenced by our positionality and ethical and political commitments. In this sense, it is important that we say a little about ourselves. We might also add that occasionally the authors fail to agree with each other on questions relating to class, ‘race’ and culture: Afrocentric theory, for example, furnishes a good example of this convivial lack of absolute alignment. Grounded in our joint commitment to combat racism, we view our differing opinions, if existing in creative and comradely tension, as beneficially adding to the vibrancy of our book. Our joint project has also been held together by our commitment to the aims and objectives of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN).
Washington was born and raised in what became, after a protracted war of national liberation, independent Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. The Shona people had inhabited the land since approximately 1100 AD. From the early 1920s, until the ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ (UDI) by the White settler administration in 1965, the territory was the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (1923–65). Prior to UDI, colonial administrators ‘relied on social workers who were seconded from Britain’ to help run the colony (Kaseke, 2011, p 121; see also Chigudu, 2021). Now residing in Ireland, Washington has also worked in North America and Europe as a Black African ‘ethnic
All of these factors propelled him to undertake more in-depth and robust investigation of the themes at the heart of Social Work with the Black African Diaspora. However, it is important to note Washington’s ambiguous positioning. Something of an ‘outsider’ in terms of the state’s categorisation and ‘common sense’ or popular perceptions, he is also an ‘insider’ because of his position within the ‘field’ as an accredited social worker (Fanning and Michael, 2019). More generally, his worldview is complex and bi-cultural in that he tries to interpret, express, understand and promote moral and social harmony (as in Ubuntuism, or what is sometime referred to as Hunhuism); yet, in many instances, he finds himself preoccupied with verification, rationalism, prediction and control as reified through what some might view as western scientific norms. Equally, he often tends to oscillate between collectivism and individualism simply in order to survive. That is to say, as most diasporic and continental Africans, he is attentive to the benefits of both collectivism and individualism while trying to shun their respective discontents and extremes. Despite all that, he still retains an enduring African cultural inheritance which is at the core of his habitus. Indeed, a strong African ‘pulse’ beats beneath his European attire: he feels that he cannot be other than a Black African man who spent his formative years in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Although he is now part of the African diaspora, many members of his extended family remain in ‘Zim’ and he occasionally returns there. He is also someone who has previously sat on ‘both sides’ of the social work office desk.
Paul, the second author, also identifies as male and is of the same generation as Washington. Like him, he is also an accredited social worker. He is ‘White Irish’, but has spent most of his life beyond Irish shores. One of his early books examined historical and contemporary patterns of discrimination directed at the Irish in Britain (Garrett, 2004). Paul has not been the victim of racism because of the colour of his skin, and he is deeply aware of his lack of knowledge of the lifeworld of Black African people. While an undergraduate student at the University of Sussex, he also recalls being
Denzin and Lincoln (1998) argue that there exist both ‘traditional’ researchers and ‘critical’ researchers, and we identify with the latter category. These writers suggest that ‘traditional’ researchers are likely to adopt a positivistic stance and will cling to the guardrail of neutrality in order to be ‘objective’. ‘Critical’ researchers – like ourselves – understand that there is no place or time outside of which we can objectively view and judge knowledge claims. Denzin and Lincoln maintain that all knowledge claims are imbued with the historical, theoretical and value predispositions of the researchers. More saliently, they further contend that ‘critical’ researchers tend to view research as potentially empowering individuals, or groups. That is to say, a research project can be a potentially transformative undertaking that should not be embarrassed by the ‘political’ label and should be unafraid to promote emancipatory consciousness. Such a stance assumes greater significance when there is a glaring injustice in a society, or in – what Bourdieu (2003 ) would term – a particular ‘field’ of society.
We also align ourselves with the perceptions of Bourdieu’s colleague Wacquant. According to the latter scholar, the ‘intellectual’ has as a ‘duty’, to re-inject the ‘fruit’ of ‘reflections and observations into the civic and public sphere’ (Wacqaunt, 2004, p 124). The ‘primary historical mission of critical thought’ is to constantly ‘question the obviousness and the very frames of civic debate so as to give ourselves a chance to think the world, rather than being thought by it, to take apart and understand its mechanisms, and thus to reappropriate it intellectually and materially’ (Wacquant, 2004, p 101, original emphasis). Questioning the seemingly ‘natural’ order of things can also be perceived as a gesture of solidarity with the marginalised, exploited or downtrodden because the ‘dominated classes have an interest in pushing back the limits of doxa’, while the ‘dominant classes have an interest in defending’ its integrity (Bourdieu, 2003, , p 169).
An alternative perspective, which we disassociate ourselves from, is solely and reductively focused on ‘methodological precision’ with an ‘ideal’ of the ‘professional’ as the ‘bearer of “technical competency”’ and ‘expert’, ‘neutral’ knowledge. Such figures refrain from entering into public debate and merely move within the insular world of peers and colleagues (Wacquant, 2009, p 124). The role of ‘academic’ is, according to Wacquant, ‘one-dimensional’ and apt to orientate ‘exclusively towards the microcosm of the university’ (Wacquant, 2009, p 124). He asserts that when you ‘remain cloistered in your university circles, you allow yourself to get caught up in the games and stakes
This is not a ‘how to’ guide and a book that is focused on improving ‘techniques’ in dealing with one particular diasporic community in Ireland. We are not entirely decrying such contributions to the academic literature of social work, but our aim is to produce a book that is far more expansive in its concerns. In Chapter 2, we will refer to some of the keywords, concepts and terminology that are found in the book. It is important to spend a little time articulating these aspects, because there are risks in failing to do so. Underpinning this chapter, therefore, is our critical engagement with the lexicon of ‘race’ and its associated conceptual vocabulary.
In Chapter 3, we turn our attention to the topical theme of decolonisation and the decolonisation of the various disciplines within universities. Our contention is that it is vital for social work, in Ireland and elsewhere, to be involved in the ‘conversation’ because these are not simply abstract debates. Some of the core issues also impact on, and shape, micro-level interactions when social work engages with users of services who form part of the Black African and other diasporas. As will soon become clear to readers, the perspective we aim to promote does not pivot on a foolish dismissal of European philosophy and social theory. Thus, the chapter refers to the insights of seminal figures such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. The US-based scholar Alexander G. Weheliye (2014, p 6) charges that the ideas of European intellectuals, such as Foucault, are ‘are frequently invoked’ with insufficient scrutiny of the
historical, philosophical, or political foundations upon which they are constructed, which bespeaks a broad tendency in which theoretical formulations by white European thinkers are granted a conceptual carte blanche, while those uttered from the purview of minority discourse that speak to the same questions are almost exclusively relegated to the jurisdiction of ethnographic locality.
We remain sensitive to this critique, but we also recognise that Gramsci, Bourdieu and – albeit with much greater hesitancy, Foucault (Garrett,
Chapter 4 deepens this exploration of writers and theorists mostly absent within the social work literature in Europe in that our prime – and, indeed, critical – focus is on Afrocentricity. Here, many readers will be introduced for the first time to the African-American author Marimba Ani and her book Yurugu. Howe (1998, p 248), a notable critic of Afrocentricity observes that her book is significant because it has ‘real strengths in comparison with all the other literature emerging from Afrocentrism’. It is, avows Howe (1998, p 283), ‘perhaps the most intellectually impressive single work yet to appear from U.S. Afrocentric circles’. We next examine the contributions of Molefi Kete Asante, probably still the ‘most influential, widely quoted Afrocentric writer’ (Howe, 1998, p 231). Both writers have had a direct impact within the field of social work and have shaped the perceptions of Jerome Schiele (in the US), Mekada Graham (in the UK and the US) and Dumisani Thabede (in Africa). All of these writers have argued, even if not wholly convincingly, that Afrocentric thinking and the specific interventions it might generate are beneficial for continental and diasporic Black African communities. Nonetheless, we perceive deep and fundamental problems with the strident reasoning of Asante and other Afrocentric thinkers. For example, as Makungu M. Akinyela (1995, p 31) maintained more than a quarter of a century ago, there is an abiding
refusal to deepen the critique of existing capitalist social structure and capitalism’s relationship to oppression and exploitation, Afrocentricity implicitly accepts the legitimacy of the politics of domination outside of the racial paradigm and fails to examine the relationship to racism of other forms of oppression such as sexism, heterosexism, and ecological destruction.
The chapter concludes by illuminating the significant contributions of the Beninese philosopher, Paul J. Hountondji. Very much opposed to the reductive identity politics of the Afrocentrists, his complex contributions
In Chapter 5 we begin to situate the book’s discussion more firmly in Ireland by focusing on a bundle of themes which provide a contextual layering for the empirical work highlighted in Chapter 6. Here, we discuss social work in Ireland and the dominance of the neoliberal capitalist regime of accumulation and the social order than it generates and perpetuates. Comprehending this dimension is, for us, fundamental because issues connected to ‘race’ and racism can never be detached from the political economy. In this chapter we also provide a brief overview of ‘multicultural’ Ireland, civil society and the Black African diaspora and the difficulties facing Black African social work students. We also briefly outline the relevant legal frameworks, guidance and protocols for social work practice and, in this context, focus particularly on children, child welfare and child protection. As readers will quickly detect, much of this chapter is very much ‘Ireland specific’ – and that is its purpose – but those located elsewhere can make the connections and make comparisons in terms of how some of the issues that we identify play out in their own national settings.
A number of contributions have begun to explore the perceptions of ‘service users’ in relation to ‘race’ and racism, but frequently those providing the actual services have been missing. In Chapter 6, therefore, we ‘hear’ what a number of them have to say. Hence, our focus is on the perceptions – always lucid and fascinating, but often surprising and controversial – of social work practitioners and educators in Ireland. Talking openly and with enormous candour, they outline their perceptions across four core themes relating to: social work education and theoretical perspectives; praxis; organisational structures within the capitalist racial state; and neoliberalism. In the final chapter we briefly look backwards at some of the main themes that emerged and we also refer to future possibilities.
We have chosen to include a series of ‘Reflection and talk boxes’ at the end of each chapter. The particular purpose of the boxes (which can be ignored if they are not to the liking of particular readers) is to assist students, and others, in critically reflecting (individually and in class/seminar and fieldwork/workplace discussions) on key themes and questions referred to in the chapter. These Reflection and talk boxes are not included, of course, to overly direct or limit discussion on any of the issues emerging in each chapter. Moreover, the topics raised in these boxes may need to be tailored in order to address concerns specific to your own country and field of activity.
Reflection and talk box 1
How do some of the issues raised in this initial chapter relate to where you are situated in terms of the job that you do and national setting in which you are located?
How should the BLM movement impact on social work theory and practices?
Across a number of states, what does the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic reveal about the social and economic location of Black and minority ethnic peoples?
‘Social work MUST be anti-racist’: how does this statement relate to changes that need to be made in your national setting? How does racism intersect with questions of class exploitation and patriarchy?