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  • Author or Editor: Philomena Harrison x
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This article is a reflective account of my involvement in a series of talks entitled ‘Sitting with discomfort’. The series was created by Moriam Grillo, an art psychotherapist and lecturer, in response to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The audience were largely ‘Black’ therapists. In my contributions, I explored the title of the series (Sitting with discomfort) followed by two sessions on ‘Being and becoming a witness’ and ‘Resistance and healing’. All the sessions were interactive and gave the audience opportunities to reflect on and respond to the focus of each talk. This article attempts to draw out the impact of racist experiences and discuses some ways forward for individuals, communities and professionals.

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The glory of the created world is its astonishing multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of wisdom telling us something we need to know. That is what I mean by the dignity of difference. (Sacks, 2003: 20–21; emphasis in original)

As the make-up of populations across the globe, and, in particular, in the UK, has become more diverse, value-based and contested notions of ‘race’, racism, identity, ethnicity and culture need to continue to be critically interrogated and challenged. The experiences of difference, individually and for communities, informs our understanding and response to the complex power relationships that exist within society, which position particular communities, groups and individuals as superior in relation to others. In order to develop any appropriate or effective response to these situations, practitioners need to create effective frameworks for these changing times and contexts, engaged as they are on a daily basis in decisions that will have an impact on the quality and future life chances for a wide range of social care and social work service users. It is therefore crucial for social work practitioners to grasp how their practice decisions and actions are informed by an understanding and appreciation of the nature of social oppressions that structure the situations, not just of the lives of service users, but also of themselves as professionals. We propose that professional engagement in social work practice should be informed by a set of anti-oppressive ethical principles that address issues of social diversity and inequality in a world where there is clearly continuing discrimination and oppression of black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals and groups on a local, national and global scale.

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This chapter addresses the development of anti-racist practice, cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice and its meaning for social work practice and education. It examines the shift from the use in practice of the approaches of anti-racism through to that of cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice. It explores what might have been lost along the route from anti-racism to cultural competence and makes the case for the capacity for anti-oppressive practice to produce inclusive and challenging practice. Using the case of the tragic death Stephen Lawrence as central to demonstrating the damaging effects of racism at the personal, organisational and political levels in the chapter reasserts the dynamic nature of anti-oppressive practice. It shows how the use of the principles in this approach can shift the discourse from dichotomous ways of thinking to providing ways of addressing the complex interconnections and intersections which social difference brings to the lives of individuals and communities. It argues that anti-oppressive practice reaches beyond any approach which focuses only on one aspect of difference.

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