As this year’s Black History Month draws to a close, I once again find myself reflecting on the importance of representation. I am paying close attention to what is being ‘presented’ of the everyday lives of children and families from Black and other racially minoritised groups. I am a Black woman of African Caribbean descent. I am a working class, first generation Jamaican. I am also a working-class Briton. My mother was a Windrush pioneer – a nurse with the dream that her children would get a good education and make something of their lives. Times were not easy for my mother. Her children experienced periods of separation from her. Kin stepped in to clothe, feed, care and love us as circumstances meant that sometimes she needed to live in different places in order to stay alive, but we knew she always loved us.
Kin stepping in, informally, was a very common experience back then and still is, because even if formal support is available, there is often little to no trust in social services, the social welfare system or the police. My siblings, my mother and I experienced both threats and actual physical and emotional harm. Our hurt was visible to the naked eye or the empathetic soul in the public spaces we were in, at both work and school. However, where and how we lived was invisible. When the system eventually got involved in our lives it harmed us more than helped us, and it was being with our kin that gave us the opportunity to recover.
Raising other people’s children is part of the Caribbean descendent family’s wider cultural history, as it often is with other racially minoritised families. But I can only speak to my lived experience here. Community, also referred to as kin or village, is wider than just blood connections. This ‘group’ response is shaped by the resistance to, and resilience built from the cruel practices of slavery and plantation life which separated families in the Caribbean and the colonial and post-colonial legacies of the Empire. It was also shaped by the African indigenous ways of life before the mass trafficking of our bodies across the middle passage of the Atlantic Slave trade. For my mother’s generation, the shocking experience of maternal rejection by the mother country of Great Britain, ‘the empire family’, was traumatic. The pioneers expected love from their hard labour of sweet sugar, the collections for the merchant seamen fighting against Hitler, and the flag waving on the monarch’s birthday. But instead, they experienced the bitterness of systemic racism in all aspects of daily social life, including within the health and welfare services – services which were often built on the commitment and labour of racially minoritised people to begin with.
Can I look back and truly say that things have changed a great deal? Although there is a big difference between the illegal and unlawful discrimination I experienced growing up and the types of systemic racism I see today, there remains stark evidence of welfare and health inequalities, and continued racial disparities in how services are used or delivered. This includes the shocking number of children in care from Black and Minoritised ethnic communities and families, and the harrowing picture of infant mortality rates of Black babies as well as Black mothers in maternity care. This tells us that although we are witnessing increasingly diverse representation within positions of power in business, education and politics, this is not yet representative of a significant change in the wellbeing outcome metrics for many Black and other racially minoritised families. The presence of harm – and by this I mean the everyday practice of systemic racist and other intersectional harm, such as gender and class bias, to Black and racially minoritised families and communities by the actions, inactions, cognitions (conscious or otherwise) and behaviours of the dominant group – is still very much alive. To overcome this, we need allyship between the lived and learned experience across the ethnicity divides, and I am hopeful for signs of change in that relational and transformative space.
My own individual journey has markers of that representative ‘good news story’. I have been a social worker for many years, and in that time, I was awarded an MBE for my social work with families, 90% of whom were white. My mother passed away in 2021 but she was able to meet the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles lll. I work at a senior level for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and I now sit as an advisor to the Royal foundation Centre for early childhood and have the privilege of serving as a trustee for Kinship. But I cannot sit comfortably while the progress towards equity is still not in reach. Kinship’s research into raising other people’s children, led by the Rees Centre and supported by KPMG, will for the first time explore the experience of kinship care and support for kinship families from Black and other racially minoritised communities. Its methodology of lived and learned professionals co-producing this research is how we will build insight into and understanding of kinship carers’ needs and how we can effectively support families who do not fit into the existing service design frameworks. This will then be used as a springboard to catalyse wider system reform for all kinship families.
In a year’s time I look forward to realistic intent and concrete plans for transformation.