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Position paper
Training for racism-informed practice: Promoting the awareness of social work students to racism towards immigrants from Ethiopia in Israel

Yaakov Dagen, BSW, MA
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Executive summary 

Racism is a social problem that preoccupies many countries around the world. In recent years, it has gained increasing recognition in Israel as a problem that needs to be addressed both on the level of social policy and at the level of the practice of social services (Shenhav and Yona, 2008). Based on the report by Ministry of Justice (2016), groups that suffer most from racism in Israel are immigrants from Ethiopia and Israeli Arabs. Victims of racism, who suffer from physical and mental distress, turn to or are referred for assistance to social services. Therefore, in order to ensure the provision of proper services to these clients, the training of professionals in social services needs to address the issue of racism. The Code of Ethics of Social Work (The Association for the Advancement of Social Work in Israel, 2018) requires social workers to provide adequate assistance and to
fight for the rights of individuals and groups who suffer discrimination. In various countries (e.g., United States and United Kingdom), the problem of racism is seen as an essential challenge that is addressed in the training and practice of social work. In Israel however, social services seems to lack the awareness, and more so, knowledge
and tools necessary for the provision of adequate service to clients who are victims of racism. The aim of this position paper is to raise the awareness of social workers as well as other social professionals to racism towards Ethiopian immigrants and propose ways to train these professionals for racism-aware practice. 


This position paper is based on a thorough survey of literature and on testimonies of experienced social workers', members of the community of immigrants from Ethiopia who offer services to members of this community. Eight such social workers were interviewed in different areas of the country and in various services. They were asked
to recount incidents of racism that their clients had reported to them and to describe interventions that they have implemented with clients who suffered racism. Racist expressions that harmed Ethiopian immigrants were reported on the individual and on institutional levels, and were overt or covert. For example, on the organizational
level, respondents reported overrepresentation of Ethiopian immigrant pupils in special education schools or over-policing directed at these youths of Ethiopian origin. On the individual level, respondents reported insulting and degrading attitude towards them from employees in various public services.

Respondents reports on interventions that they have implemented, suggest preference for individual interventions: listening to clients' complaints and providing support or empowerment. More active interventions, such as advocacy or mediation, were rarely implemented. In their interventions, the respondents tended to rely on their personal
assets such as intuition or even personal contacts. They felt they were lacking the training and knowledge to implement community interventions for the good of their clients who suffered racism.


Worldwide racism, documented in professional literature, appears not to have sidestepped Israel. The respondents' testimonies indicate that racism against immigrants from Ethiopia as well as other minority communities is widespread in Israel. Clients of social services cope with racism in addition to other difficulties they experience and social workers need to address this issue. However, testimonies indicate practitioners lack the training and knowledge to raise to this challenge.

Consequently, the major recommendation of this position paper is that it is imperative to offer social workers a meaningful training for racism-informed practice. This training should best be offered already on the undergraduate level, as early professional socialization molds the professional orientation of social workers. Nevertheless, it can be offered at the graduate level too, as well as in on-job training or supervision.
Following are specific recommendation for the contents of training for racism-informed practice:

1. It is important to teach students and trainees to identify manifestations of racism. Social workers need to know how to identify incidents of racism and detect not only overt, but also covert racism. 

2. It is important to include in the training personal encounters with testimonies of Ethiopian immigrants who suffered racism. This can be done by presenting testimonies (guests in class or recorded testimonies) or by having the trainees themselves interview those who suffered racism. Such presentations,
accompanied by a discussion are a potent means for the development of empathy.

3. It is important to teach trainees about the negative psychological implication of racism. The encounter with the suffering that racism causes its victims raises awareness and empathy.

4. Training for racism-informed practice needs to include different models of intervention with victims of racism that are documented in the professional literature. Naturally, it is important to help trainees to evaluate the relevance of these approaches to the setting in which they work and if necessary, adapt them to specific demands.

5. In addition to getting to know models of intervention from the literature, trainees should be exposed to the interventions repertoire that is being implemented in the field. For that, they need to encounter testimonies of social workers who work with Ethiopian immigrants. It is especially important to train social
workers to be proficient in community interventions, such as advocacy, mediation, social activism etc. They need to appreciate the advantage of such interventions and their power to promote social change. In order to overcome resistances and fears, the training needs to include an implementation part, whereby students get the chance to
practice community interventions in projects, field placements etc. Individual and group supervision by senior professional competent in working with racism victims and in community interventions, are also an important socialization tools.

6. Racism-informed practice demands self-awareness and the identification of the practitioners' own biases. Based on the literature and the above presented testimonies, it appears that social workers themselves may hold, consciously or unconsciously rather racist views. An imperative part of the training is reflection and self-scrutiny of trainees as to their personal attitudes towards immigrants from Ethiopia and other minorities, the examination and dissolution of stereotypes and generalizations based on "racial" thinking.

7. Trainees who belong to ethnic communities that are the objects of racism, in this case Ethiopian immigrants, deserve special attention as they are in a very complicated position. They are typically motivated and committed to act against racism directed at their peers and agencies have high expectations of them to help clients from their community. At the same time, many of these social workers carry the burdens of their own personal experiences with racism. Some apply psychological defense mechanisms, repress these painful experiences and distance themselves from their ethnic roots. However, in order to be able to contain their clients
who have experienced racism and help them, these practitioners need to sort out their own experiences, work them through and define their identity and the boundaries of their loyalty to their community, the agency they work in and to the social work professional values. This complex process needs to start at early stages of training in individual or group supervision and to go on as an inseparable part of practice.

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