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Farrukh Akhtar,
Associate Professor, Department of Social Work and Social Care, Kingston University, UK

The courage to see and be seen: the emotional labour of decolonising social work curricula for Black educators in the UK

The Black Lives Matter movement has acted as a catalyst on many levels. This includes renewed pressure on academics to review, deconstruct and decolonise social work curricula in the United Kingdom (UK). This paper examines some of the complexities involved for Black educators, focusing specifically on the emotional labour involved in leading on decolonising social work curricula.

There is not currently a single, agreed term that can be used to describe the diverse range of experiences of people of colour. The term BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) has been rejected by many for implying an assumption of similarity without recognition of diversity (Dacosta et al, 2021; Ali, 2020). Black, with a capital B, can be used as a collective and political term to include those in the UK who have ‘suffered colonialism and enslavement in the past and continue to experience racism and diminished opportunities in today’s society’ (Unison, 2013). Not everyone’s experience is the same, but there is a need to acknowledge the value of a collective voice.

My experiences as an educator has led me to highlight specific terms and concepts. This is a tricky terrain, placing me at risk of making broad stereotypical assumptions. This is a risk in any discussion around decolonising the curriculum but one that needs to be taken to enable difficult discussions to begin and for the work to be done meaningfully.

De-colonising refers to ‘deconstructing and challenging the ideology of colonisation’ (Mathebane, et al, 2018), the process in which colonisers’ culture and values have been internalised. How this is done will vary according to the locality, the content of the curricula, the intersectionality of educators and the meaning the current curricula holds for them. Educators and students may have a rich history of parents and grandparents with origins in the British Commonwealth, and complex narratives imbibed with layers of meaning around this.

This paper focuses on the emotional labour of decolonising social work curricula for Black educators. Readers specifically interested in the experience of Black students are directed to Richardson, (2015) and Bunce at al, (2019) for a helpful discussion. The term ‘emotional labour’ (Hoshschild, 1983) refers to the process whereby emotions have to be suppressed, instead of being expressed naturally and authentically. Hoshchild referred to the commodification of emotions, in the marketized world of flight attendants, learning to suppress their own emotions to meet the needs of their customers. The same concept is used here to refer to the challenges that Black educators face in working alongside colleagues, to deconstruct and challenge a colonised social work curriculum within the structures of a colonised higher education framework. Emotional labour can lead to a sense of having to disassociate from an essential part of one’s being. As Hoshchild (1983) noted, it can be experienced as the loss of something vital and sacred.


Statistics show that Black educators currently make up only nine percent of professors in UK higher education (Advance HE, 2021) but are often likely to be placed in positions of leading work around decolonising curricula. This presents them with additional marginalization and possible isolation (Gunaratnam and Lewis, 2001, Doharty et al, 2021, Doku, 2019 and Bhopal and Pitkin, 2020).

At the heart of the work around decolonising the curriculum are concepts of 'sameness and difference' (Akhtar, 2013). This refers to the process whereby assumptions are made on the basis of assumed similarities or differences in social characteristics between people.

Observing physical differences can be a direct and obvious way doing this. It is easy for students to see the race, gender and age of lecturers and perhaps make assumptions about them, and their approachability. For example, white students arriving at a London university who may have lived in more rural environments, may not be used to mixing with a diverse range of people, and can take some time to relate to students and educators perceived as Black or holding minority status.

If people share social characteristics, there can be a tendency for assumptions to be made on the basis of those commonalities. For example, Black students warm towards Black academics and sometimes discuss very personal issues, family situations and circumstances of extreme poverty. This may be a connection of perceived similarity or commonality based on the colour of skin.

The search for assumed commonality may be rooted in the assumption that two people of colour have shared knowledge, values and understandings. The desire to connect may also be part of a process of working out if somebody is in or outside of one's group. Those who are seen as outside of one's group can be in danger of being 'othered', falling prey to unconscious stereotypes, biases and assumptions.

All educators learn how they can make themselves more or less approachable to students, and may also have a sense of the impact they have on those with different characteristics to their own. For academics self-awareness is key to acknowledging sameness and difference in the early stages of relationship building with students. The demonstration of being seen provides a language to articulate hard to name feelings. I usually do this by focusing on social work values and relationship-based practice as part of students’ induction. The message is clear: everyone is welcome.


The welcome begins the work and as it gets underway, educators need to be mindful of how intersectionality, and the concepts of sameness and difference (Akhtar, 2016) can show up in classroom discussions and written assignments. Diverse case materials in teaching and assessment are long overdue but essential to the understanding of complexities and emotional loads. Black educators cannot assume that Black students are incapable of racist assumptions as stereotypical and racist assumptions, rooted in religion, culture and ethnicity, can appear in assignments and exam answers.

Black academics may have to manage emotions which feel like a double betrayal because they have assumed that class discussions on the complexity of intersectionality has meant that students are anti-racist. Fook’s work (2000) on the development of social work identity is helpful here. She points out that students can be ‘self-centric’ and focussed on technical proficiency (getting the maximum marks possible from an assignment) rather than focused on having an attitude of open and curious inquiry.

As a profession focussed on social justice academics struggle with the readiness of some Black students to make racist assumptions to achieve technical proficiency. Teachers and assessors wonder at how much of themselves students feel they need to discard to do well academically. The question is what are the long-term consequences of compromise. (Dall’Alba and Barnacle’s (2015) explore this theme further in their discussion around ‘discordant professional practice’.

There is the constant question of how more space can be created within the curriculum to explore assumptions that underpin our judgements. Taylor and White (2000) refer to this as epistemic reflexivity. The concern for the ideal curricula which is decolonised should be part of a magic formula that gives Black students ‘permission’ to fully acknowledge and be themselves, and white students’ permission to name and ‘own’ experiences of ‘white fragility’ (Di Angelo, 2011).

The complexity of recognising, naming and transforming the ‘hidden curriculum’ and ‘hidden cultures’ (Fook, 2017) involves having the courage to have difficult discussions with colleagues. However well-intentioned others are, this work can feel intensely isolating for Black educators (Doku, 2019 and Doharty et al, 2021).

The key point is that the emotional impact of decolonising the curriculum is different for Black and white educators. At times, it may be that Black educators feel they have to bypass the part of them that feels desecrated or dishonoured to present a more rational self (Gunaratnam and Lewis, 2001). The emotional labour involved in doing this may lead to them feeling that there is no space for their authentic selves in the academy.


Having named the challenges, I remain quietly optimistic in the strong value base of social work as a profession and our global commitment towards equality. We continue our journey, cutting through further layers, ever nearer to the core of the issue.

I am grateful to the hard-won spaces in the academy where my colleagues and I have been able to express ourselves and been able to move to a place where such difficulties can begin to be seen and acknowledged. It is a place of vulnerability for all, but one in which I begin to see the glimmer of real change.


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