Allycin Powell-Hicks, Ph.D.
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The sentiment hangs heavy in the air, a specter from the past. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient, activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s (Wiesel, 2020) words are unfortunately all too appropriate for our current existential nightmare. Serving as a call to action for all who consider themselves empathetic travelers through life. We, as an institution, need to choose a side.
Many in mental health consider themselves apolitical, feeling that the rough and tumble of political debate is outside their scope. Never has it been more appropriate for a group versed in human behavior to weigh in on issues of human behavior. This article will specifically address what Psychologists and Mental Health Experts can do in response to racism and prejudice against Black Americans. This clarification is essential, as our current political climate leads to significant levels of whataboutism preceded, for some, by deep feelings of shame and guilt. This is not a political debate. The time for dispassionate debate ends when threats to human life emerge. Psychology cannot afford to pretend this is politics as usual. As a community Psychology must choose a side.
One of the first steps in facilitating this change is addressing White guilt. Guilt often forces radical introspection, all in an attempt to create interpersonal balance. As humans engage in actions or thoughts which fall outside of personally held moral boundaries, guilt creeps in to create order. Guilt often drives us to repair breaches or infractions. But how does someone mend a breach they believe they have played no part in creating? There may be little value in apologizing for having European lineage, but as the former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and current sports analyst Emmanuel Acho stated in a recent interview, “guilt does not cause someone to change; love does.” Psychologists understand that guilt can be a huge motivator in the change process, but it can also lead to avoidance, indifference, and denial.
Pushing through the indifference that may emerge from guilt while tapping into love and empathy are at the center of Acho’s message. He then asks that people “do something with their privilege.” In psychology speak, this means engaging in prosocial behaviors, ameliorating feelings of guilt, and adding to society. Use White privilege to help change the lives of those that need help. Advocate for colleagues, find diverse mentees, speak up in meetings. Your voice matters.
Refocus Your Research
The world is not comprised entirely of European American college students, so studies shouldn’t be either. Research is a window into phenomena and the way we structure it can potentially obscure the view of our readers. When I was in junior high school, a classmate came to me with a burning question. “Ally, what race are you? I’m normal; what does that make you?” This is the same assumption underlying studies with mostly White participants. Since White is “normal,” everyone else is a deviation. Thus, setting up Whiteness as a baseline with which all others are to be compared.
Research about the study of race is emerging with poignant insights. Roberts, Bareket-Shavit, Dollins, Goldie, and Mortenson (2020) found that between the 1970s and the 2010s, only 5% of publications focused on ethnicity at all; in subareas, developmental psychology had 8%, social psychology 5%, and cognitive psychology fewer than 1%. There are some legitimate reasons why ethnically focused research gives scientists a pause. Implications harken back to the days of phrenology and Nazi science. The danger is unmistakable. However, the glaring lack of thoughtful data is also critical. Generalizing from research done on White subjects places all other ethnicities out of context, impacting outcomes, and interventions for patients worldwide. Some of these challenges can be alleviated if more members of the research team belonged to the groups being studied. Roberts et al. also found that of the studies analyzed, 63% had first authors that were White, 23% were people of color, and 14% were unidentifiable.
Roberts et al. presented several solutions to journal editors. They identified value in openly communicating a dedication to diversity, adding diverse team members within different levels of the publication process, incentivizing researchers to use diverse samples with awards and “badges,” writing annual reports highlighting their diversity, and forming diversity task forces.
Reshape Your Practice
Over the past 20 years, graduate programs across the country have built up courses on cultural competency. Students learn about Taijin Kyofusho, the social anxiety disorder bound to the Japanese culture. They learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences and how trauma impacts physical and mental health outcomes among African Americans. Even with all this education, African Americans are still more likely to be misdiagnosed based on cultural blindness and misunderstood during treatment.
“Compared with whites with the same symptoms, African Americans are more frequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and less frequently diagnosed with mood disorders” (American Psychiatric Association, 2017). They went on to highlight “Differences in how African Americans express symptoms of emotional distress” (American Psychiatric Association, 2017, p. 3). Even the notion that African Americans may express emotional distress “differently” assumes that the way White Americans express distress is the norm by which all others are to be compared.
If cultural competency courses are not creating the seismic changes expected, what is left? What can a mental health professional do? Some suggestions include
- Maintain curiosity. Clinicians only have small windows into which they are peer obscured by all manner of transference and countertransference. Remember this and stay curious.
- Discuss ethnic and cultural differences openly and early in treatment. Clients are most often relieved by these conversations rather than turned away by them.
- Engage in innovative treatments. Consider including members of the client’s community, pastors, Imams, and/or family members.
- Keep biases in check. If the phenomenological space of treatment was entered with preconceived notions, identify them, and dismantle ineffective beliefs.
- Get training on how to decolonize.
You may have wondered what that last point “Get training on how to decolonize” was about. One organization, The Blacker the Brain, co-founded by Thea Monyee, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California, is working to decolonize mental health (see https://marleyayo.com/unlearning). Monyee explains, “The Blacker the Brain is an ongoing interdisciplinary campaign” and its “purpose is to make mental health inclusive and expansive for Black bodies by teaching practitioners to unlearn harmful ideas, practices, and policies and empowering potential clients with language and full understanding of their rights in a joy centered framework for their healing within an oppressive society.”
Monyee highlights the necessity of her platform, “Mental health using Whiteness as a model has been exclusionary. We have seen people benefit on an individual basis but not a collective basis.” The Blacker the Brain holds a lecture series every 6-8 weeks for anyone willing to have these conversations.” We see it is an opportunity to use joy and to spread joy as a means of combating systems of oppression in all of their forms.”
Do not be afraid to choose sides. Psychologists tend toward natural pacifism and rest in a world of shades rather than dichotomies. This formlessness helps when sitting across from a client and while tapping into an empathetic connection. It does not help, however, when lines have been drawn. Today, psychology needs to take a stand and pick a side. When we sit in silence over an issue, we are, in fact, complicit.
Roberts, S.O., Bareket-Shavit, C., Dollins, F.A., Peter D. Goldie, P.D., & Elizabeth Mortenson, M. (2020). Racial Inequality in Psychological Research: Trends of the Past and Recommendations for the Future. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1–115. (Online First) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1745691620927709
American Psychiatric Association. (2017). Mental Health Disparities: African Americans. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/File Library/Psychiatrists/Cultural-Competence/Mental-Health-Disparities/Mental-Health-Facts-for-African-Americans.pdf
Wiesel, E. (2020). Acceptance Speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB.: http://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/>
(Editors’ Note. Allycin Powell-Hicks received the 2020 Early Career Professional Contribution to Media Psychology & Technology Award from the APA Society for Media Psychology & Technology.)