Asking the hard questions on the nature of care in social work

June 1, 2017
Caleb Snider, Congress 2017 blogger

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences brings together leading thinkers, academics, researchers, policy-makers and innovators to explore some of the world’s most challenging issues. Congress celebrates the vitality and quality of Canadian research contributions, and helps train the next generation of Canadian ideas leadership. This year’s theme “The Next 150, on Indigenous Lands" celebrates the history, legacy and achievements of the peoples and territories that make us who we are, and anticipates the boundless opportunities of the future. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, this year’s Congress is being hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto from May 27-June 2. Follow this series of Big Picture at #congressh blogs.

Professor Christina Sharpe (Tufts University) opened the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) conference at Congress on Monday night by asking some very tough questions about the nature of social work as it relates to people of colour. Professor Sharpe spoke passionately about social work’s dark legacy as an extension of the anti-Black, White settler project of nation building and social work still being diagnostic, still a product of nineteenth century racialized values of social Darwinism, and still an extension of state-sponsored violence.

According to Professor Sharpe, the term “care” itself is deeply problematic. She linked it back to the name of a seventeenth century Dutch slaving ship and to acts of modern violence such as the removal of Black children from their homes and the force-feeding of hunger strikers carried out under the rubric of care by the state. She drew a direct line between the triaging of a young black girl injured in the 2010 Haitian earthquake, marked by US military personnel with the word “ship” on her forehead, and the division and placement of African slaves into ships bound for the Americas during the slave trade.

She spoke about the wake of trauma: unlike the wake of a boat, which is always lessened by a well-made ship, the wake of trauma is always maximal, always larger and far reaching than the trauma itself. For Professor Sharpe, we need to understand that since its inception, social work has been used to systematically violate Black people under the guise of helping them, whether consciously or unconsciously, and we need to remake social work and reformulate our idea of care to become an antidote for that violence.

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, delivered by Professor Christina Sharp (Tufts University), was hosted by the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE)