Psychology’s whiteness

So people of colour aren’t really represented in psychology. Psychology tends to be done by and on White Westerners (see below & Henrich et al., 2010Arnett , 2008).

Henrich image.png

This follows a general trend in academia where the majority of research is published in the West (see Pawlik & Rosezweig, 2000).

Publication globally Pawlik & Rosenzweig 2000.png

Three problems with psychology’s Whiteness

1. First, psychology’s White bias has allowed psychology to focus on issues more relevant to White, Westerners. So for example, one group of psychologists, body image researchers, will criticize the fashion industry for its too-thin models but not that the models are nearly always White  or that the clothes the models are selling are made by people of colour in sweatshops.

2. Second, psychology has sought to subdue Black people’s rational responses to racism as irrational. Drapetomania is the classic example, a mental disorder that Black slaves were proposed to have should they try to run away. Similarly Dysaesthesia aethiopica was a mental disorder proposed to cause laziness in slaves. Predictably and depressingly the ‘cures’ for both were not actual mental health support but harsh treatment including whipping. Another example is the diagnosis of schizophrenia and forced incarceration in asylums of Black civil rights activists. As Jonathan Metzl ‘s analysis shows of 800 patient records incarcerated at Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane during the 1960s. Metzl found that psychiatrists would describe Black men and women as “paranoid against [their] doctors and the police” and would often, despite heartbreaking protests, be incarcerated for life.

Martin Luther King Jr. commented upon this problem specifically when he addressed the American Psychological Association in 1967. In his speech he famously said:

There is a word in modern psychology which is now probably more familiar than any other word in psychology. It is the word: maladjusted…[But] there are some things in our social system that I’m proud to be maladjusted to…I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of lynch mobs; I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and discrimination; I never intend to become adjusted to the tragic inequalities of the economic system which will take necessity from the masses to give luxury to the classes….The salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.

3. The third problem with this bias is psychology’s explicit racism. Psychology has a long history of designing and conducting research on intelligence in order to show that Black people were dumber than White people. Indeed, as recently as 1990, the Psychologist (the official magazine of the British Psychological Society) published work by Phillippe Rushton who claimed that Black people or ‘Negroids’ were less intelligent, less mentally stable and more aggressive than White people or ‘Caucasoids’.


The few Black people doing psychology have been overlooked

The few Black psychologists who have made it into psychology have often been overlooked (especially in lists where we rank psychologists e.g., by the BPS or 40 studies that changed psychology).  Though it isn’t difficult to find trailblazing Black psychologists, as undergraduate psychology student (without the pay or resources academics have) has managed to easily enough. Barry Wallace Jr., now at North Carolina University, wrote this blog almost a year ago: 10 African and African American psychologists .

Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s incredible doll experiment (1939) deserves special mention here. In their study (1939, remember) they showed the effects of education segregation on Black kids’ self esteem. The data was the first to be used in a US Supreme Court and helped end segregation through the Brown vs Board of Education (1954) case. The study is depicted in the film Seperate But Equal. How this wasn’t listed as one of the 40 studies that changed psychology is beyond me?

Black psychology today

Holliday (2009) does a brilliant job at giving context to the history of Black psychology in the journal of Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. In particular documenting the the formation of the first section of psychology for Black people: the Association of Black Psychologists founded in 1968 (pg. 319):. 

Members of the Association have pledged themselves to the realization that they are Black people first and psychologists second…. The membership assumes primary responsibility for engaging in critical thinking about the relationships between Black people and the society in which they live . . . we are pledged to effect change in those areas in which the American Psychological Association has been insensitive, ineffectual, and insincere.

The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPSi) continues to work today (as their president points out: “Although we are 47 years removed from the founding of the ABPsi, we are seeing many of the same conditions that were present in 1968“. and journals dedicated to Black psychology also exist too (e.g., the Journal of Black Psychology )

In the UK specifically, according to the latest survey by the British Psychological Society in 2015, only 181 (1.8%) of its members are Black (in contrast the last census found that 3.3% of the UK population are Black). Psychologists are also celebrated despite having contributed to scientific racism (Hans Eysenck’s centenary), and there almostly definitely hasn’t been one Black president of the BPS so far. In addition, there isn’t a Black or people of colour psychology section today in the BPS. This should be put in context of the celebration of many colonolialists in academia (see #RhodesMustFall) and a curriculum that continues to be dominated by White authors and White ideas (see Why Is My Curriculum White).

We’ve got the brilliant Psychology’s Feminist Voices blog which showcases female psychologists and many women of colour. But none for Black psychology nor psychologists working in the Global South specifically.

White psychologists – we need to do more.


4 thoughts on “Psychology’s whiteness

  1. Pingback: Gender Disparities in British Psychology | POWS Blog

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