What Can Be Learned From Failures in Racial Justice? A Call for Social Work to Risk Failing Better
Updated: Jun 11
“Try again, fail again, fail better.” For years I was silent. When I began to speak up in my workplace I was treated as if I was the problem. Then I enrolled in a PhD program, studied racism denial, and published my thesis Navigating the Silences: Social Worker Discourses Around Race.
What can social work learn from this quote by Irish novelist and playwright, Samuel Beckett? In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media made it possible to capture the nexus of four horrid and all-too-common occurrences, bringing them to national attention. The tenacity and sacrifices of protestors have been something to marvel. I owe a debt of gratitude to the millions of people here in the U.S. and around the world who have forgone personal health and safety risks to make their voices heard. Visible gains from these sacrifices extend not only to the future of my grandchildren, but to the future of our profession and country. It is not lost on me however, that since I am already more than halfway through life, the system of racial dominance is here for my remaining years and will continue in some form for many lifetimes to come.
My passion for justice, equity, and dignity for all rooted in social work’s rich mission drew me to the profession nearly 20 years ago. While far from perfect, I am committed to routine reflection on my own values and practices. My professional values and practices oblige a similar critique for the profession that I am not only committed to but one that I have both loved and hated, finally growing into a different understanding and expression of love.
Returning to the wise words of Samuel Beckett, I briefly explore three areas that can offer opportunities for us to “fail better.” First, social work reflects the larger social context.
Social Work is a Microcosm of the Larger Social Context
While on a recent Zoom call with a group of predominantly White members of the helping professions (including social workers), I was left astonished by the comments of a White professor. Highlighting his perspective about ongoing racial events, he stated that “this murder feels different." These words took my breath away. As one who critically examines discourse, my curiosity was piqued, and I held on to this comment for the next two hours. While this murder has in fact generated a response different than others, consider the baseness embedded in the observation. Several hours later, Black feminist scholar and cultural critic Dr. Brittany Cooper offered an interpretation. She made clear that until now, there have not been enough Black men that have been killed by the police to move White America to speak up. What this means to me, among other things, is that the murder of Black and Brown bodies by the police has been acceptable to a large number of White Americans until now. White voices joining the pained and dismissed cries of Black and Brown bodies has led to a tipping point.
This truth tells me that we have colossally underestimated our commitment to the delusion that one race is inherently more valuable than others. Police brutality has been and remains a major problem that demands immediate action, yet it is not the only problem undergirded by the false notion that perpetuates the routine betrayal of dignity and humanity. Treason to our humanity plagues all of us yet its varied impacts are distributed differently. A look back in history can offer a perspective by which the social work profession can be seen more clearly.
Put Our Own House in Order
A quick look at our history offers perspective as to how we continue to return to where we are now. Three formal calls to action to address racism that have occurred since 1982 are ripe with lessons and opportunities for change. The 1982 convening of Color in a White Society was the first national conference on minority issues in social work. A book under the same title was published in 1984 and is a compilation of selected papers from the conference. The title of the conference and book offers a foreshadowing of who belonged to this society and who was relegated to the Other. The papers speak to many of the issues we face now. The preface was written by then NASW executive director, Mark Battle emphasized the long-standing issues of “color-related problems” and challenged social work to find ways to “put our own house in order” (v).
Topics of the ten papers presented in this book included an ethnic competence model for social work education, preparing child welfare workers for ethnic-sensitive practice, working with undocumented Mexicans, and Black infant mortality. Authors Gary & Leashore (1984) identified implications for social work in the chapter titled Black Men in White America. While authors recognized the need to prevent the institutionalization of Black men, they also made clear that
“before social workers can do so, they must strive to eliminate individual and institutional racism. They can eliminate individual racism by examining their attitudes and beliefs about their behavior toward black people in general and black men in particular. Agencies, organizations, and professionals can work to end institutional racism by identifying and eliminating racist attitudes, practices, and policies that impinge on their ability to render effective services to black men” (p. 123).
A second conference to address racism was held in 2005. The Social Work Congress was convened by the National Association of Social Workers, the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Deans and Directors, and other sponsoring organizations. In 2007, “Institutional Racism & the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action” was published by the NASW. The primary purpose of the document was to “offer a vision for how the social work profession can address structural racism, in terms of both limiting its negative influence and creating conditions for effectuating realistic, achievable positive outcomes” (p. 3). The 2005 report offered a view different than the 1984 Gary & Leashore perspective. Part of the charge was “not whether individual social workers are engaging in biased or racist practices. The assumption is that people enter the profession with good intentions and the desire to help” (p. 3).
In 2014, perhaps one of the most direct calls to action in the profession was made by The Social Work Policy Institute, a think tank that examines issues related to the work of social workers. Fueling attention to racism and police brutality at that time were the highly publicized murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. SWPI published a report titled Achieving Racial Equity: Calling the Social Work Profession to Action. The report was an outcome of a 2013 symposium attended by “leading national race equity experts; key social work stakeholders from all facets of the social work profession . . . [as well as] funders, and community organizers who are committed to undoing racism and achieving racial equity” (p. 2). The inaugural statement was an indictment of the absence of professional organizations that address structural racism – including social work:
"As of 2013, there is not a single profession in the United States (U.S.) that requires its professionals to demonstrate an understanding of structural racism, nor has a single profession or association established an official base of competencies to address race and racism" (SWPI, 2014, p. 1).
The 2015 mass slaughter of nine African American congregants in a Charleston, South Carolina church by a white supremacist occurred not long after the report was published. That major social issues identified in 1984 remain the same priorities of 2020 is instructive yet rich with opportunities to "fail better." This should not diminish work that has made a positive difference in the lives of individuals and communities, rather offers us a place from which we can take an honest and painful systemic view of the current reality.
Where Are We Talking Explicitly About Racism and Whiteness in Our Profession?
Generally, racism in social work has been observed through its disproportional impact on racialized, non-White clients, and how specific needs can be met by care agencies. This focus on the impact of racism leaves whiteness to silently preserve and (re)produce its hegemonic posture. Additionally, the actual meaning of words is diluted by practices of conflation. There is a frequent practice within social work to position the term race next to ethnicity which is then linked near the concept of culture (Soydan, 2011). Race is not a benign concept, rather one that is “rooted in relations of domination” (DiAngelo, 2004, p. 164).
Like many of us, I am a member of a number of professional social media forums. Reading and listening to various social worker responses to the now very public issues of police brutality has been informative. Many social workers who identify as White are struggling with how to talk about racism. Some want to know how to take antiracist action, some are seeking books and activities, and some are interested in learning about their whiteness. Some social workgroups are inviting trainers and facilitators to support antiracism work. One White identified woman who discussed her experience with internal exploration in a social work forum said “I hesitated sharing this to the social work groups” and went on to say “these are the types of hesitation and silence that contribute to racism as a whole…I hope this starts the uncomfortable conversations that we need to have in order to heal and make change.” A comment by an NASW chapter stated that "We must acknowledge that the #socialwork profession is nearly 70% white. This means that not only do we as a profession function in a system of white supremacy, we also, largely and collectively, benefit from white privilege." A question from another social worker asked, “How do you have a dialogue about race and racism without causing white fragility or in spite of it?” These comments speak to our struggle to address racism head-on. Insufficient education around racism was a frequent topic in my research and many social workers moving into workplaces were unprepared to discuss matters of race with their colleagues.
Are We Willing to Fail Better?
We are called to a great and challenging work, and accepting this call means mistakes will be inevitable. While there are many, four initial questions to consider may be:
1) What are the historical forces and barriers within our profession that have kept us from living into our commitment to racial justice?
2) How is racial dominance operating in social work institutions, workplaces, and our interactions with each other?
3) How can responses to these questions be used to reimagine racial justice in social work?
4) What other questions can be explored so that we might fail better?
We as a profession and a country have been at similar junctures and are simultaneously ‘still here.’ Our history can be a generous gift and an inestimable teacher. There will be unimaginable challenges and transformational possibilities if we have the collective courage and stamina to embrace what it has to tell us. Let us work together to fail better.
Cherie Bridges Patrick is a licensed clinical social worker with a PhD in leadership and change. Her consulting, training and coaching expertise centers on how racialized dominance manifests in every-day workplace interactions, practices, and policies. While often occurring without intent, practices damage relationships, erode dignity, impact functioning, and impede racial justice efforts. Her clinical practice offers a supportive, liberating environment that promotes healing, self-exploration, and growth. Dr. Bridges Patrick’s thesis interrogates patterns of subtle racism and whiteness found in everyday professional social worker conversations. Link to her consulting practice.
Link to Navigating the Silences: Social Worker Discourses.
National Association of Social Workers. (2007). Institutional racism & the social work profession: A call to action. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=SWK1aR53FAk%3D&portalid=0
Social Work Policy Institute. (2014). Achieving racial equity: Calling the social work profession to action. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. http://www.socialworkpolicy.org/news-events/report-on-achieving-racial-equity.html
White, B. W. (Ed.). (1984). Color in a white society: Selected papers from the NASW Conference, Los Angeles, California, June 1982. Los Angeles, CA: National Association of Social Workers.