It’s a simple reality that the large majority of social workers are White women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet, these workers are serving mostly communities of color.
Of course, whether a social worker is Black or White, brown or yellow shouldn’t matter, as long as he or she is committed to doing the job competently and fairly.
But as we saw during the uprisings of 2020 and prior, race does matter. Race matters because systemic racism exists. Racial injustice exists. Racial inequalities exist.
Race matters because it’s important for young children especially to be able to see themselves in the people who are their guardians, teachers, mentors, social workers, foster parents and presidents.
As we mark another Black History Month, it’s important to remember that representation across race, gender, income, physical ability and life experiences is vital for fostering human rights and respect for all.
For children in the child welfare system, racial representation is also about supporting cultural identity. Strong cultural identity has been shown to improve social well-being, mental health resilience and coping skills, among other benefits.
In short, racial representation can help ease the trauma of the child in foster care.
The thorny issue of race in the child welfare system
For decades, transracial adoption has fueled a fierce and emotional debate. There are many academics, social workers and parents on both sides of the issue.
This we know: There are far too many Black children in foster care. And not nearly enough Black foster families to care for them. There are very few Asian foster families as well. Hispanic children face similar struggles to find foster parents who share their cultural identity.
The key question becomes: Is it better to allow a supportive White family to foster or adopt a Black child, or make that child linger in the system until a Black family can be found?
However you answer this question, the reality is most racially ethnic children are adopted by White parents due to the sheer numbers of White families who make themselves available to foster or adopt.
For many adoptees, the answer is not clear cut either. In fact, the question can be gut-wrenching.
“When I was adopted by affluent White folks from the Greater Boston suburbs, everyone saw what I gained—two houses and two sisters born from two White Catholic parents—but not what I lost,” wrote one adoptee in this personal essay. “Adoption erased my Korean family, language, and culture, while granting my adopters a badge of honor for saving a poor child from a war-torn country. It’s impossible to know whether things in Korea would have been worse.”
Her story is not uncommon. What these kinds of experiences highlight again and again is the need for greater racial representation and cultural competence across the entire child welfare system, from social workers to guardians to the person answering the phone at the front desk.
What we all can do to foster healthier kids
First, take a hard look at the diversity of your staff. Chances are, your organization isn’t as diverse as the community you’re serving. This isn’t meant to scold. We can all do better, but first, it takes awareness.
Secondly, recognize that there are many ways, large and small, you can help support racial and cultural identity while working with or fostering a youth. Ask about their cultural traditions or heritage. If they don’t know, help them learn by researching it online or at the library. Connect them with the foods, music, literature, pastimes, holidays and history of their culture.
Be empathetic. Understand that children in foster care can endure years of instability, changing family environments and unfamiliar faces — not to mention the possibility of abuse and neglect. Putting them in proximity to people who are racially or culturally similar can help in ways you may never imagine.
Appreciate and respect everyone’s differences. This is easy to say, but harder to practice in reality because we all carry the prejudices of the mainstream culture and our own upbringing. It starts with opening our eyes and hearts.