How ideological capture is hurting clinical psychology
It is clear that America’s political polarization has eroded our ability to navigate complex issues. My own field of clinical psychology has failed to evade this problem, and now finds itself deeply steeped in a troubling narrative. The American Psychological Association (APA) recently published a special report on the topic of racism that states, “Pursuing anti-racism in psychology requires a critical examination of how the discipline structures opportunity in ways that uphold White supremacy.”
The APA has been pressured to admit its “racist core” and apologize for missing the “lived experiences of people of color” throughout its long history. Part of the remedy for these supposed decades of racism, the APA says, is for psychologists with white skin to approach their “colleagues of color” with unquestioning support, affirmations, and displays of solidarity. In the same report, Mitch Prinstein, the APA’s Chief Science Officer, stated that “science is the pursuit of truth, and until we can embark on scientific practices that are not dominated by White supremacy, we’re only going to be getting part of the truth.” Precisely which white supremacist scientific practices are to be banished was not specified.
As a psychologist, I could not point to another profession that is more sensitive to issues of diversity and cultural competence. It begins early during the course of one’s education. All accredited programs in clinical psychology have detailed regulations for diversity education and training which continue to be updated and revised to reflect changes in the sociopolitical environment. The APA itself has for decades dedicated divisions comprised of psychologists working specifically on issues related to men and masculinity, women, and the study of culture, ethnicity, and race. There are also readily available and approved professional practice guidelines for multicultural practice that tend to issues of human diversity in all of its forms. The ethical principles and code of conduct for psychologists also spells out the need to be “aware of and respect cultural, individual, and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status.” Once we become licensed healthcare providers, professional development programs and continuing education requirements further encourage clinicians to maintain their awareness of cultural issues.
A reasonably informed person might look at all this and wonder: where is the racist white supremacy and systemic ignorance?
However, despite decades of effort highlighting the importance of diversity, we are now being urged by leaders in our field to repudiate ideals of equal opportunity and equal treatment in its name. A recently published Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion framework reads more like a political document designed to appease an angry mob than something that would promote respect for all people regardless of their backgrounds. It begins with criticizing psychology for “perpetuating U.S. colonialism” and “systemically discounting” the efforts of “BIPOC scientists.” It goes on to list several guiding principles that make grand claims about how “human rights, racial justice, and social change are never achieved, must continually be sought after” only to reveal “new areas of inequity and exclusion” that will “need to be addressed.”
On the surface, the sentiment that psychologists should listen to and support people of different backgrounds is unobjectionable. Society would clearly be better with less racism and unfair discrimination. It is also true that racism remains a phenomenon to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, when focusing on fighting the invisible evils of white supremacy by pinning racial groups against one another for unending grievances, we ironically find more racist ideas that end up fueling our tribal instincts even further.
We are now told that we must deny our multifaceted nature as individuals and instead embrace the immutable characteristics bestowed upon us by group identity. All differences in any outcome of interest can only be understood through the explanation of racist bias and discrimination. A recent spotlight article on the psychology of American racism goes to extraordinary lengths to redefine the concept of racism as a “system of advantage” that only works in one direction (perpetuated by whites against non-whites). It is not that we all have an innate predisposition to favor members of our own group over others, or that we prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, but that there is a particular problem with a particular group of people and it is in urgent need of remediation.
The message we are given is that to understand the complexity of the world, we must first put on our ideological goggles and view one another as avatars of our racial groups. Even recent explanations of trends in demographic shifts regarding newcomers to the field, for example, are interpreted through the pre-determined and professionally sanctioned filter of racial oppression. Despite the fact that psychology is becoming more diverse, the field itself, we are told, has a prominent diversity problem. While it is a worthwhile effort to attract and encourage more minorities to pursue careers in psychology, it would require an objective analysis of differences in interest and opportunity across all variables, which may or may not neatly be accounted for by simplistic theories about oppressive groups dominating disenfranchised groups to produce unequal outcomes.
The directive that we must deconstruct white supremacist influences too often ends up deconstructing what was once sacred within the mental health profession: the sanctity of the individual. While treating people entirely based on the color of their skin is problematic anywhere, it is particularly dangerous in clinical psychology. Clinical psychologists are obligated to work with people from different cultures, races, religious traditions, and political beliefs. For us, the individuality of the person is essential. We believe in the agency of our patients even when they themselves do not. We recognize that a loss of confidence in one’s ability to impact their own life is a symptom of psychological dysfunction as well as a contributing factor to poor mental health.
By focusing on the power and uniqueness of the individual, we help others realize that they have the resources within them to overcome their circumstances. The APA’s official guidance on the topic of race is corroding this bedrock of mental health. In addition to urging psychologists to treat their non-white colleagues with near-condescending support, we are being told that “considerations of social justice are inherent to an understanding of race and ethnicity” in clinical psychology. And this is happening without any apparent awareness of how injecting politics into the urgent task of tending to a growing mental health crisis may be detrimental. It also happens to be at odds with the ethical principle of justice outlined in our code of conduct, which states that “fairness and justice entitle[s] all persons to access to and benefit from the contributions of psychology and to equal quality in the processes, procedures, and services conducted by psychologists.”
Social scientists spend much of their career understanding the limitations of any single perspective. The nature of inequality and injustice in our country is among the most difficult social phenomena to fully understand. However, using an intersectional power analysis to address every statistical disparity will always lead to the conclusion that group identity is the only characteristic that matters—or exists. This conclusions-first analysis may leave the actual causes of inequality invisible to us, by coercing the problem-solvers of the world to subscribe to a single school of thought. At a time when innovation and creativity may be most needed, we are discouraged from critical thinking and alternative explanations.
While the consequences of this ideological capture may seem less dramatic in psychology than other areas that have recently come to light, it has already begun to undermine our core ethos of providing hope, healing, and personal freedom to people who are suffering. How might such strongly held convictions delivered in a top-down fashion drive the assumptions of a provider sitting across from an individual? The pursuit of knowledge within the profession should embrace a scientific process without becoming distracted by an agenda to dismantle the alleged effects of “white supremacist” influence. Clinical psychologists should stand against the APA’s embrace of a single, unempirical framework and recognize the importance of incorporating a wide variety of perspectives to best serve their patients.
It is difficult to fully know why institutions that once protected and aided the discovery of important human phenomena have become beholden to political posturing, but it is worth admonishing them that they do so at their own peril—with great cost to the public they once set out to serve, and in direct violation of their ethical principles.
In psychotherapy, the deepest source of human empathy comes through the recognition that there is a shared and common experience that transcends our unique differences and binds us as a species. By helping our patients’ accurately identify their internal experiences, we help them feel less isolated and broken. We help them come to the realization that we all feel pain and suffer unnecessarily, and that we all have the capacity for love and to feel moved by emotion. It is only by recognizing this common humanity that we can begin to take actions that promote our flourishing. Self-compassion often begins with developing compassion for others who may be different from us in important ways. Let us return to an era of promoting real acceptance, and not confuse it with fashionable denunciations of our most cherished ideals. Let us have the courage to look toward a better and more united future.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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