The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “ethnicity”

Scottish Independence, English identity and World reputations

UK GB diagram by CGP GreyShould Scotland vote to secure Independence from Great Britain and the United Kingdom in September 2014?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron thinks not. As reported by MSN news: In a speech at the Olympic Park in London, Mr Cameron will summon up the spirit of patriotism of the 2012 Games as he argues that the whole country will lose if Scotland votes to leave the UK ….. Independence would be bad for Scotland but would also leave the United Kingdom “deeply diminished” and would “rip the rug from under our own reputation” in the world, Mr Cameron will say … At a location carefully chosen to symbolise the successes of the whole United Kingdom working together as “Team GB”, Mr Cameron will say that the Olympic medals were won under the banner of a Union flag that was not only red and white but also blue. And he will say: “It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom.” … He will stress that the decision on independence is “squarely and solely for those in Scotland to make”, saying: “It is their choice, their vote”. But he will add: “My argument today is that though only four million people can vote in this referendum, all 63 million of us are profoundly affected. “There are 63 million of us who could wake up on September 19 in a different country, with a different future ahead of it.”

The British Government has been strangely silent on the subject of the Scottish Independence vote. I’m glad Mr Cameron is at last speaking out and I agree largely with the sentiments he is expressing here.

But what has Scottish independence got to do with social work you might wonder?

In particular, picking up on the last part of the quote, the identity of 63 million individuals may be affected overnight. In fact, it may be even more that figure, as others from places within the Commonwealth Realm, Crown Dependencies and the British Overseas Territories may also feel they have a legitimate opinion on the matter (see CGP Grey’s video graphic for more about the differences between the British Isles, Great Britain and the United Kingdom etc).

The English have long been poor at having their own identity, images of dancing Morris Men and maypoles not having quite the same lure as the deeply patriotic celebrations of the Irish and Scots, the English preferring instead to consider themselves ‘British’ first. But things are changing. Anyone interested in football and rugby at least will already have noticed some of these changes. The Union Jack, once the dominant flag at English football matches has been increasingly replaced by the flag of St George in recent years. And maybe that’s a good thing. (See below for a little more information and a link to the history of the Union Jack.)

I will be sad if Scotland votes for independence in September. As David Cameron states, it will affect the identity of 63 million people, although some may feel it more than others. For myself, with an English mother and a Welsh father, as a child growing up I always identified as British, and I was proud of my Celtic heritage. Over the years I became aware of anti English sentiments among some quarters in Wales, and being of ‘mixed heritage’ (part Welsh) doesn’t make me any more welcome. With the setting up of the Welsh Parliament, or National Assembly for Wales, I have found myself increasingly replying that I am English first, British second (and European third). My Celtic heritage is being denied. My identity is changing. It has felt like a loss.

Which brings me back to the relevance of social work. Our identities change throughout our lives: from child to teenager to young adult, middle aged and older adult; from single to in a relationship, partnership or married, to divorced or widowed; to become parents or not, or step-parents; moving through education, work and retirement. These are all identity changes that affect people from all cultures in some way or another, developing over time as we are aware of growing older, plan getting married or having children, move through being a pre-schooler to student to graduate to worker. Together they form a raft of changes, that make us a part of the society we live in, and they are happening also to the people around us. They are changes that are expected. Sometimes we face them with trepidation or excitement, such as the first day in a new school or at work, a wedding or the birth of a baby, others we barely notice with the passage of time, until suddenly we realise we are not as young or fit as we were.

We may know of people, including ourselves, who have changed their religious beliefs and identity. But, with the exception of a few people who emigrate and take on the citizenship and identity of another country, it’s not often we experience changes in our national, cultural or ethnic identity. British history is riddled with such changes, as we have ‘conquered’ and ‘granted independence’ to what seems like half the world in the last several hundred years (again covered in the video link below). But that is not so close to home as the Scottish Independence issue.

All the opportunities to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds, races or religions, to ourselves, all the training in understanding diversity, cannot give us the experience of what it feels like to struggle with your own ethnic identity. So, whether you consider yourself English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British or European, even regardless of whether you are white or BME, now is a great time to ask the question: how does it feel to have someone else in control of my racial and ethnic identity? Four million Scottish people have that call over 63 million people in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Maybe answering that question will add a chink of understanding and empathy to the subject of diversity.

As an aside, the quotes from David Cameron indicate a confusion in the terms GB and UK – “It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom.”

UK or GB who knows the difference?

Well one man does, thankfully. But perhaps not David Cameron. In trying to draw on solidarity from the Olympic Games, in his speech he will mix the terms: “It’s Team GB I want to talk about today – our United Kingdom.”

In his rapid-fire video graphic on YouTube CGP Grey explains the difference (apologies: all attempts to embed the video here failed, please follow the link to YouTube instead – the image at the top of this blog comes from this video).

The Union Jack

The “Union Jack” as it is commonly known.

The history of the Union Jack can be found on Wikipedia, however summarised it is the “Cross of Saint Andrew counterchanged with the Cross of Saint Patrick, over all the Cross of Saint George”, in other words, a composite of the flags of Scotland, England and Ireland. The origins of the flag date back to 1603, developing through various political changes into the version shown here that was adopted in 1801. As Wales was already part of England when the form of the flag began in 1603 the Welsh flag is not included. Discussions have begun in some quarters as to changing the Union Jack should Scotland vote for independence.

Other countries still sufficiently identify with their history linked to the United Kingdom to include the current Union Jack within their own flags: Australia, Hawaii, Niue, New Zealand, Tuvalu, Fiji, Cook Islands, Bermuda, British Columbia, British Indian Ocean Territory and various States within the US and provinces with Canada.

Privilege?

I was just four years old, too young to remember Nelson Mandela when he was first imprisoned in 1963.  I remember though the concerns reported in the news when he was released in February 1990: was he still a terrorist behind the words of peace and reconciliation, what would happen, would there be violence and if so who would cause it; and I remember too his wife Winnie Mandela making the British news reports, as the one who seemed to be leading the aggression.

But the fears were unfounded, after 27 years of imprisonment Nelson Mandela was a changed man, and he, Winnie Mandela and South Africa soon faded from front page news elsewhere in the world, and life went on as ‘normal’.  New news became old news and so on.

The first few years after his release were undoubtedly a steep learning curve in adapting to life in modern society.  Much had changed, not least technology.  But after four years of freedom Nelson Mandela became President.  His words of wisdom have since been repeated over and over.

It was strange then to find myself in South Africa when he died on 5th December 2013, just three days after I arrived here.  But it was a white South African pharmacist who commented that it was a privilege for me to be in South Africa when Nelson Mandela died that prompted me to write this blog.

Maybe it is a privilege to have been here on such an occasion.  I’m not sure.  Perhaps because of my nationality and politics it felt a greater privilege to be in Argentina when Margaret Thatcher died.

But I digress.  I am acutely aware of my race, my whiteness, in this country of South Africa.  Apartheid may officially be over but there’s still a disconcerting undercurrent, a legacy.

First, I have to understand that, unlike in England, ‘coloured’ is not a racist term.  In fact, to call a ‘coloured’ person ‘black’ is highly offensive.  I think I understand the difference but I’m certainly not going to try to explain it here.

I’m not used to the deferential mannerisms of, or being called ma’am by black people especially, but also coloured people.  Although deference is not reserved solely for whites it makes me uncomfortable.

Most (but not all) of the service jobs, shop assistants, cleaners, waiters, etc, are carried out by black/coloured people.

The whites don’t live in the townships.  Many more whites than black/coloured people drive cars.

White people strenuously avoid eye contact with strangers in the supermarket and if they mistakenly do catch your eye they quickly break eye contact and never ever smile back at you or acknowledge you with a nod even.  There are exceptions of course, but as far as I can tell they are people like me: the visitors, the holiday makes, the travellers, not the ‘locals’.  Black/coloured people seem at least a little more open.

As a traveller in this country I have been warned to be careful of being robbed, especially by blacks/coloureds, on the grounds that as a white person I will be seen as wealthy even though this is not my own perception of my situation (travelling long term on a very limited budget).

Of course I am wealthy by comparison, just as I was wealthy by comparison throughout much of Central and South America and Central Asia.  What I do know is that in my experience the vast majority of people are kind, generous, curious, interested and not out to cause harm to strangers in their midst.  And I would prefer to see people that way.

I’m White European.  My life has mostly been lived in the Northern Hemisphere.  Regardless of class or education I was born into a kind of privilege no-one can change.  I was born into a society from which it is next to impossible to truly understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice, no matter how much I consider it.  But so far my experience of South Africa makes me uncomfortable in my skin.

“Even though we are sad we have to make our own lives follow his work.” Lebong Ntswane, quoted in a South African newspaper following the death of Nelson Mandela.

Diversity Training

Thought provoking. Can we really appreciate what it is like:

Follow the links back to YouTube – there are more where these came from.

What do white people think of …. being white?

I was reminded of this question recently while reading The Emperor of Ocean Park by black author Stephen L Carter.

Carter’s main character, Tal, continuously uses the terms ‘the darker nation’ and ‘the paler nation’.  As a law professor Tal is a member of the black middle class, his recently deceased father a prominent and respected judge.  His upbringing was black middle class.  His wife is a prominent lawyer being considered for a judgeship.  The book suggests that although the university where Tal teaches is multi-cultural, black professors and black students are definitely in the minority.  At various times, particularly when faced with the arrogance of members of ‘the paler nation’, Tal experiences a ‘red mist’ of anger come over him.  As the reader of the story I perceived that the arrogance of ‘the paler nation’ is rarely overt prejudice, but rather something inbuilt, inbred and an unconscious feature of the characters of ‘the paler nation’.

Which is what brought me to the question: What do white people think of being white?  It’s one of the questions I sometimes use when undertaking Form F assessments with applicant foster carers.

There is a counterpart question:  What do black people think of being black?

I’m torn in what phraseology to use.  I like Carter’s terms darker and paler nations as they seem to better reflect the different nationalities and cultures of the world than the words ‘black’ and ‘white’.  I could as easily refer to ‘dominant cultures’ and ‘non-dominant cultures’.  In fact, the questions can be adapted to any particular culture, social class or disability.  So, if you will forgive me, I’m going to stick to just the terms, ‘black’ and ‘white’ for convenience.

But, before you read any further, ask yourself both these questions:  What do black people think of being black? And: What do white people think of being white?  It’s important, even for just a minute or two, and make a note of your answers to compare and follow up.

OK, I’m taking a chance on your answers here because now, for the purpose of illustration, I’m going to be making some generalisations.

Ask any black person the question, “What do black people think of being black?” and the chances are you will get a detailed response.  It may include issues relating to cultural heritage as well as knowledge or experience of racism, present and historical.  Answers will vary according to experiences of growing up, the cultural diversity of the societies they have lived in, experiences of prejudice, the experiences of family and friends, education and work among other things.  But the main thing is – there will be awareness.  Awareness of being black or mixed heritage.  Awareness of the issues facing, to use Carter’s term, ‘the darker nations’.

Ask any black person the question, “What do white people think of being white?” and the chances are you will get a similar response.  The issues may be different but there will be an assumption of awareness, an assumption that the white person knows they are white and possibly considers they are superior.

The response to asking a white person the question, “What does a black person think of being black?” is likely to be less consistent, mainly falling in one of three categories.  A few (hopefully a minority) will display outright prejudice, perhaps not even able to consider that a black person might be able to think let alone think about being black. Some may show an awareness of the difference in experience and opportunities, having a largely academic external understanding of the issues of prejudice and discrimination.  Others (I suspect a rather large proportion) will struggle with the question, unable to ‘put themselves in the others’ shoes’.

Asking a white person the question: “What does a white person think of being white?” will probably get a response that falls into one of two categories.  A few ‘white supremacists’ may well display an opinion of superiority.  These people exists, their views can be heard in the media from time to time.  But the majority of those asked are likely to be confused by the question.  The true answer is, “the majority of white people don’t ever think about what it means to be white, it never ever occurs to them.”  Of course there are exceptions, but I’m talking generalisations here.

I’ve thought about the question and I know the answer: Of course there are times when I think about it what it means to be white, writing this blog for example, in work and training situations, but generally, the unfortunate truth is, I don’t think about it; like most everyone else, it doesn’t occur to me to think about it.  Even as white social workers go, my multi-cultural work experience is probably average to good. I’ve worked extensively with foster carers from the Caribbean and African nations.  I’ve worked with asylum seekers from various different cultures.  I’ve worked with colleagues from different continents.  In a multi-cultural society my general awareness is reasonably good.  But as a white person I still have to admit that I find it difficult to think about what it means to be white.  It simply isn’t there.  It’s not something I grew up with.  That kind of thinking was never part of my education and culture (actually an assumed white supremacy in the form of British colonial history more a part of my childhood education).

Sometimes prejudice is very real, but even when it isn’t this thoughtlessness, ignorance and lack of awareness comes across as arrogance, elitism and supremacy.  It is the root of institutionalised racism such as rocked the British police in the late 20th Century, but which is still alive everywhere today.  It’s usually not intended to be malicious.  It’s lack of awareness.  But too often in our training and our discussions about anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice we focus on how to learn about the ‘other side’, to understand and respect different cultures, to behave differently, to promote overcoming oppression.  But how often do we look at ourselves and be honest about what we think and feel, or don’t think or feel, and why?

How do your answers compare to the generalisations made here?  Do you agree or do you think it’s way off the mark?  Comments welcome (although due to limited internet access any responses may take a little while).

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