A Cover is Not the Book: Reviewing Prejudices in Social Work

No matter how we try, there are prejudices everywhere. Our minds immediately assume someone with glasses looks intelligent, tattoos imply a rebellious nature and millennials are ‘snowflakes’. While some have an inherent predisposition towards making assumptions and discriminating against demographics, this isn’t the case for everyone. For many, these prejudices are unconscious connections made in the mind, a consequence of societal pre-conceptions that are spread by historical stereotypes and the media. However, we were all taught as children, don’t judge a book by its cover. So, what happened to this ideal? Why is it that in social work we see so many prejudices about different groups in society? There are 3 key areas where practitioners will notice a level of prejudice from those external to the sector, which are important to be aware of. By understanding how the non-social work community perceive these groups of people, we can all work together to reframe the narrative and showcase the truth of our sector.

The Homeless

This is possibly the stereotype that will raise the most eyebrows with readers. There’s an assumption that everyone who is homeless is a substance addict, with potentially violent tendencies and should be approached with caution. Their personalities are put into the tidy box of “hobo”, a rough character who you’re not 100% safe around. We’re hesitant to give beggars some loose change because we always think they’ll spend it on alcohol or drugs instead of food or the chance to get shelter. There are countless prejudices in our heads about those who are rough sleeping. But is that entirely fair?

Now, it can’t be denied that many people who end up homeless do have an issue with addiction, which has usually contributed to their state and will prevent them finding a stable living situation. However, we should be careful not to tar everyone with the same brush, as lots of people end up sleeping rough due to a range of completely different circumstances and are actively trying to turn their lives around.

More importantly, these prejudices about the people on the streets have a much bigger impact. As The Guardian commented in 2015, they are “treated like illegally parked cars”. Our assumptions influence how we support the homeless, which in turn makes the cycle of homelessness much harder to break. No matter what circumstances have led to someone having to live on the streets, our compassion as a society should never be lost. And it feels like currently, we’re letting our ability to sympathise, care and support be undermined by these notions of what homeless people *might* be like.

Care Leavers

Care leavers have historically faced a struggle overcoming the “care” label, because it became associated with troubled people or a personal trauma. And while yes, some children enter care in tumultuous circumstances, there is no 1 blueprint for why a child will require care or how they will develop as they grow up. Care leavers are expected to fail, or at least not make very much of their lives, because they had an upbringing that differed from the norm. Why should it matter though? We all have individual and unique experiences, so why is one element so important about determining someone’s impression of you? Every human being is a complex mixture of their experiences, their passions, their ambitions and so much more. And growing up in care, or spending some time there during your life, is only one small piece of the puzzle.

By allowing these stereotypes and prejudices to continue, we’re creating an almost self-fulfilling prophecy. Society doesn’t expect much of care leavers, so they’re conditioned to think they can’t achieve much, which means they don’t. Thereby ‘proving’ the stereotype. We need to break the cycle, and this can be done so easily. Ensure growing up in care is only a part of the conversation if the child or young person wants it to be. Set standards across higher education and employment to protect care leavers from discrimination. Most importantly, shine a spotlight on the reality of all that care leavers can achieve. Every young person has the potential to change the world, so let’s show the world just what care leavers can contribute.

Social Workers Themselves

This one is no secret. We have all faced the prejudice that anyone in social work is a certain type of person. Think elbow patches on tweed jackets. Or some villainous creature like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Social workers are perceived as bland people who steal babies from the families in the middle of the night, when we know that our work is so much more complex. Social work is about understanding a situation, protecting the vulnerable and facilitating change where needed. If there was ever any job role that is driven by good intentions, it’s social work.

And yet, when you ask a stranger to think of a social worker, they picture the extreme caricature practitioner portrayed in TV shows or films. The alternative is sometimes just as difficult: they simply have nothing to say. So many people have only one of two assumptions about social workers – either society’s villains or completely overlooked. Good practice is developed with support from within the social work community, but those outside of our sector have a role to play too. If this negative prejudice against those in this profession could be torn down, it would make a social workers job easier and would allow us to showcase how beneficial social worker intervention can be.

A lot of our work in social work is based around knowledge, theories and facts; but has that left us susceptible to adult cynicism, scepticism and prejudice? Children are not born with prejudices, it’s something they are either taught or shown by society. Therefore, if this stereotyping is not a natural part of our DNA, it should surely be something we can ‘un-learn’. Let’s take a leaf out of the children’s handbook and view people for exactly who they are, and not for some preconceived. So, I leave you today with 1 final piece of advice from the recent Mary Poppins film, where super-nanny Mary herself (with the help of some dancing penguins) encouraged children that “the cover is not the book, so open it up and take a look!”. I think it’s about time we teach others to see past the cover in so many areas of social work and learn to see people for who they really are, what their experiences are and what they can offer a situation.

While you're here...

If you’re working with any level of prejudice within social work, whether it’s towards your service user or yourself, there are resources available which can help implement positive practices and structures for all involved. 

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