Liam Neeson, ethnicity, and oppression

Liam Neeson is in the press today (Tuesday 5th February 2019).
You may have seen that he has told a reporter that during a difficult time in his life he had walked the streets for a week with a knife hoping, he says, to take his anger out on any black man who approached him. The fuel to this fire was the rape of someone close to him by a man who was black.

What do you make of this?
Personally, I think it’s a very honest and brave statement to make. People seem to be talking about the fact that this is racist. Well, yes, indeed! It’s wrong to attach the acts of one member of any ‘group’, be that colour, religion, sexuality….. to all members of that ‘group’. But we all run the risk of falling fowl to prejudicial ideas when our backs are against the wall and we, or our ‘own’, are threatened.

Evolutionary biologists argue that the human animal is built to discriminate to ensure the survival of its own family unit and group over that of those considered outsiders. The ‘other’ in our midst. Giphart and Van Vught (in their book ‘Mismatch’) state that “in present times traces of our tribal brain can still be found in men especially, who continue to be tribalistic.” They go on to state that men are much more motivated to protect their ‘group’.

Barack Obama in his book The Audacity of Hope says “Old Habits die hard, and there is always a fear on the part of many minorities that unless racial discrimination, past and present, stays on the front burner, white America will be let of the hook and hard fought gains may be reversed….. during difficult economic times it is possible that the imperatives of racial equality  get shunted aside”. Here he acknowledges that these ideas are entrenched in some way. Do I need to point to some of the views of the latest American President?

So, is discrimination then an inherent ‘quality’ of being human…. Do we move towards people who are the same as us, whatever ‘same’ means, and exclude people who exhibit difference, whatever that means!

This idea of everybody being equal and there not being some sort of ‘natural order’ to things – man stronger than woman, whiteness better than blackness, able-bodied valuable and disabled not valuable – is actually a relatively new idea. You only have to go back to 1960’s America to find segregation based on colour, or 1990’s South Africa to see the same. It wasn’t until 1928 that women were given the right to vote. These, in the history of humanity, are very recent events. Look at the division’s based on religion we see today, and I’d argue that the Brexit vote, in the mainstream population, is founded on ideas of ‘closing the borders’ to keep the ‘others’ out.

I’m sure, as social workers, or student social workers, you feel you wouldn’t have such views, but I’d suggest we need to mindful of the potential for bias leading to discrimination and oppression if indeed evolutionists are right and we are predisposed to such bias. For me, as someone brought up in a very white Britain I live in the North East of England – not renowned for it’s mix of cultures and ethnicities – there may be a drip drip effect of racism, an undercurrent if you like, that does have an impact on my view of those of different cultures. Consciously it doesn’t, I can assure you, but maybe I need to be aware that for most of my life I may have been fed stereotypical views of people of a different colour, or sexuality, or gender, to name a few.

Let’s link this to social work practice.
If there is an inherent ‘quality’ to discrimination then we need to mindful that such things can influence our own views of others. We need to look at what we understand of the world and ask ourselves how that view is shaped. But, more than this, when we are working with individuals we are also working with people whose views of themselves have been shaped by the same forces. People are susceptible to stereotypes of others and also to being influenced by stereotypical ideas of themselves.

Discrimination is a multi faceted and complex phenomenon. It is there at the interplay between individuals but also between organisations and people, and between different organisations. As someone working in one of those organisations we may take on board the discrimination established by that organisation. Just as an example…. It’s not unusual to find the ceiling on care packages (which really shouldn’t exist) for older people to be significantly lower than those for other service user groups. What does that tell us about the value of older people in society and the readiness, based on finances, to propose a care home? Is that not discrimination?

Thompsons ‘PCS model’ explains that discrimination and oppression operate at a Personal level in individual thoughts and attitudes leading to prejudice and an inflexibility of mind. This is embedded in and influenced by Culture where a consensus about what is right and ‘normal’ is established. And for me, most worryingly for social work, this is woven into the fabric of society at a Structural level in organisations, laws, and the ideologies of those with power.

So, how do we practice in an anti-oppressive way?

Clifford (in Adams et al “Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates” 2nd edition 2002, pg. 229) offers the following principles:

We have to work with and understand social differences not as a negative but simply as a state of how it is. Social difference often leads to disparities of power between dominant and dominated groups within the major divisions we’ve just seen but it’s more complicated than these large groupings. What about the region of the country you’re from, what about your personal experience of mental health, what about what it’s like being a single parent? All of these can constitute difference but may not be as obvious as the other things.

The personal and political need to be linked. Personal stories need to be viewed within the context of family, peer groups, organisations and communities – for example the problems of ageing aren’t just about how you as an individual view yourself but are seated within ideologies of old age, policies, practices, ideas about retirement, and health systems

Power operates at personal and structural levels and is dependent on many factors. As a social worker you may have the power of the law, or the power afforded to your status but the service user maintains the power to say no in the majority of circumstances. We should be upholding the service users right to use this power but we may act in a way that disempowers. I feel the most significant area of power the social worker has is that of information and how much they share about options. Case law around the Mental Capacity Act shows us that sometimes we only present one option where multiple options may exist.

The individual life experiences of you as the practitioner and of the service user must be placed in the context of prevailing ideas, social facts and cultural differences. The impact of someone’s situation needs to be seated in the reality of the moment it is happening in. For example, the government’s ideology of the importance of the family may impact negatively on the position of a single parent or the political view regarding benefits and the necessity of work may leave some disabled people in poverty. You need to understand this in order to understand the oppression someone may be facing while having an awareness of how your own values lead you to consider social difference and the use of power in your involvement with service users.

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