Skin and hair can be integral to a young black person’s sense of self. Yet in the UK, black children and young people face discrimination about their bodies. It’s not just schools sending black children home because their hair is deemed contrary to uniform codes. The importance of hair and skin to black children is also overlooked in social work.
Social workers play an important part in the lives of many children and young people. They need to be able to establish respectful and meaningful relationships with the children and young people they work with, relationships that can help support healthy, safe and fulfilled childhood experiences. This role requires a deep understanding of children’s identity. However, for black children, this is lacking.
My PhD research investigates how significant skin colour and hair texture are to young black people, and examines how social work in the UK understands this.
I spoke to young black people and to social work academics, students and practitioners. The young people raised the significance of hair and skin colour to their life experiences, their relationship with themselves and others and their relationships with society and its institutions. It was clear from the social work academics, students and practitioners I interviewed, however, that these experiences and needs are being ignored.
The social work academics, students and practitioners I spoke to recognised that there are specific things a social worker needs to know about these areas of a black person’s life. However, this is lacking or neglected across social work. The view among all my respondents was that teaching on this topic is tokenistic and dependent upon the ability of individual lecturers to prioritise and provide it.
Engaging with and understanding the importance of skin and hair to black children and young people might mean talking about the relationship between ethnic identity, hair and skin. It might be talking about protective hairstyles for black hair, hair type and hair hygiene, combs, oils and creams. It will definitely include a meaningful engagement with privilege and marginalisation in relation to the racialised body.
Both practitioners and BA and MA students felt that social work education, policy and practice is not informed about caring for children and young people who are black, and that the “informal, down to earth, day-to-day knowledge” that is required is seriously lacking.
One social worker talked about how great it would be if a young black person going to a foster placement or children’s residential placement without belongings had a social worker and carer with “working knowledge” of how to care for their skin and hair.
Social workers and carers should know what a black child or young person might require: the creams, oils and combs they might need for their first night away from home. It should be embedded within practice rather than a great exception.
Another practitioner told me that for some social workers, entering into any sort of discussion about the skin, hair and ethnic identity of a black child or young person would “blow their minds”, suggesting it would be “too advanced” for some social workers to “take on board”.
This is a reflection on the ability of social work to navigate and prioritise issues directly relating to the basic care of children and young people who are black, as well as the promotion and valuing of their identity as black people.
Understanding racism and white supremacy
The impact white fear and discomfort has on discussions of racism and ethnicity needs to be confronted when addressing these questions.
The current situation is that racism and issues about ethnicity can be ignored in social work, perhaps in an attempt to protect the fragility of practitioners and trainers or prevent exposing privilege. This prioritises the protection of white feelings over the needs of black children and young people.
“It’s almost like they’re afraid to talk about it, in case they offend,” one social work student said. This fear was echoed by the social work academics I spoke to, who expressed that they “wouldn’t feel comfortable” or they wouldn’t know how far to “venture into this”.
Social work practice, university teaching and pre and post-qualifying training needs to directly engage with these matters. A more nuanced understanding about the lived experiences of young people who are black and how their bodies are treated and cared for is required.
Zoe Thomas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.