I’m a psychologist. I’m a Black man. As a Black psychologist or a psychologist who is Black, I’m a threat to the status quo. Because psychology has been and continues to be a white-dominated field, my Blackness—for instance, my worldview and Black body—goes against the grain; my very existence as a Black psychologist is antithetical to the way in which white psychologists think, behave, and navigate the world and field of psychology.
I’m conscious of the way white psychologists view me and I accept it. If I fail to affirm or embrace this, I will, inevitably and tragically be confined, without any means of escape, to a Matrix-like paradox wherein my authentic self becomes perverted and replaced with an alternate reality—an agent, or simply, a manufactured construct designed to reduce my Blackness into something inconsequential or simulated: whiteness.
As a perceived threat to the status quo, then, naturally, I experience a range of negative emotions because my humanity is compromised; I am less than.
My white psychologist colleagues begin their day with hot coffee and egg white on toasted wheat. I begin my day with a breathing exercise, relaxation or diaphragmatic breathing—a meditation technique used to reduce inhospitable emotional states like anger, anxiety, frustration, and stress. I start the meditation in the shower. The warm water soothes my body and feels pleasant, and the coconut-scented shower gel is silky and smells nice. After three minutes spent acclimating my body to the water, I then close my eyes, making sure to inhale through my nose and exhale out my mouth. Each inhaled breath is slow and deliberate, and the equally deliberate exhale is gentle and easy. I perform this ritual for five minutes, and when finished, like a heroin addict, I immediately begin to anticipate my next fix.
As a psychologist, I’ve had many “Woosah” moments, due in part to difficult experiences with patients, but primarily because of strained personal interactions with white psychologists, many of whom, I’ve come to understand, perceive me as threatening.
“You write so well,” a white female psychologist once insisted when I interviewed with her for a job. “I haven’t seen a personal essay like this in a long time. It flows nicely and speaks to one’s commitment to the field.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Do you have a ghost writer? I would love to meet him.”
“No, I do not,” I responded, gently. “I wrote it myself.”
She proceeded to nod her head, acquiescing, sitting quietly and staring at me incredulously. Then she flashed a half smile as if to suggest, You slipped through the cracks, huh?, and I flashed one back as if to say, I most certainly did, and I’m bringing others with me.
The psychologist and I had an awkward interview due to her flawed and prejudged analysis of my writing skills; we engaged in forced and sloppy dialogue, and though annoyed, I maintained my corporate composure.
In an instant, she diminished my humanity to less than because she didn’t perceive me as equal. I felt angry, very angry, that I allowed this person to devalue my worth. She invalidated me and my skill set because she had the authority and advantage to do so, and by all accounts, that’s the unmistakable manifestation of institutionalized racism. I felt powerless, weak; I was helpless against her prejudice and intolerance.
In a twist of irony, the white psychologist undermined the writing prowess of women as she presumed the ghost writer’s gender—I would love to meet him—and at that very moment, I felt compassion for her because her presumption suggested that she, too, felt powerless, being a woman in a patriarchal society.
Because I exceeded her expectations, she experienced cognitive dissonance—a feeling of uneasiness and confusion resulting from a disagreement between what she believed to be truth (a ghost writer produced the essay [Black psychologists are not gifted writers]) and what is actual truth (I wrote the essay [I write well]).
I shared the encounter with other psychologists, Black and white, and found different reactions between the two groups: white psychologists interpreted the interviewer’s behavior as flattery, a “compliment” they never received in their own careers, and Black psychologists understood it as aggression, a demonstration of power. Perhaps white psychologists never received such “flattery” because they’re expected to write well, or more importantly, they’re given the benefit of the doubt (white privilege), while the reverse is true for Black psychologists.
That wasn’t the first time a white person representing a professional organization within the field diminished my humanity and made me feel as if I wasn’t good enough to be there. In 2006, I obtained a coveted postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. My job title for the fellowship was Senior Fellow, and while my clinical training was conducted at The Child Study and Treatment Center, located in Tacoma, it meant the world to me that, considering my upbringing in a public housing project and completion of a public school education—both in Brooklyn, NY—I nevertheless possessed the intelligence and skills to achieve a prestigious position at a reputable institution of higher learning. By all accounts, I had arrived—or so I thought.
The day came for me to pick up my university ID and credentials, and I went to Magnuson Health Sciences Building on the UW campus. I opened the glass door to the administration office and proudly walked to the front desk.
Without making eye contact, a white woman with cheap eyeglasses and shoulder-length brown hair greeted me.
“Hello,” she said, “May I help you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I’m here to pick up my ID.”
Her eyes fixed on the computer screen, she clicked the mouse multiple times, going through the long list of names.
“Dana, you said?”
“Yes. Dana Jackson.”
“No, I don’t see you on the list. What’s your title?”
“I’m a postdoctoral fellow.”
At this point, she finally looked at me, the chintzy, plastic frames slumped along the bridge of her nose—with a flummoxed gaze.
“Who hired you?” she asked.
I was stumped. Never had I been asked by a front desk assistant “Who hired you?” after securing a job. Immediately, I knew what this was and had a quick conversation with myself, in my head. Should I reply with, I’m hired by the university? No, that would’ve reinforced her devaluing my worth. Then I thought to be glib and respond with, who hired you, but, tempting though it was, I didn’t want to give her that power—the power to bring me out of character on a very important day for me.
“I don’t understand your question,” I told her.
“You’re a postdoctoral fellow, you said? Dana Jackson? Let me check again.” She returned to the computer screen, and roughly thirty to forty-five seconds later, unenthusiastically, “I see your name, but you’re not a Senior Fellow.”
I answered, “Well, why not?” doing my best to remain calm, to maintain my composure.
“Because YOU’RE NOT!” she replied abruptly, seeming angry now.
My heart began to palpitate, and I started to sweat under my taupe, ultra-suede sport jacket. (I had rewarded myself for obtaining the postdoc, in part, by purchasing the expensive blazer). This was clear, unmistaken bigotry, but I maintained my boardroom poise. I remained quiet, making sure not to appear like the angry Black man. The silence became frighteningly unpleasant, and in an instant, I felt unwelcome, like I didn’t belong there, not as a postdoctoral fellow and surely not as a Senior Fellow. The beautifully decorated office space appeared to shrink before my eyes. My gaze fixated on the receptionist’s pen as she tapped it against the desk.
Just then, warm sunlight crept through the window blinds and frolicked softly alongside my face. Just in time, I felt at ease.
She looked at me, then at the computer screen, then and at me again:
“What’s your social security number?” she asked. I gave it to her, and she matched my name to the number, followed by a maladroit expression.
“You are a Senior Fellow.”
She gave me my ID and credentials. I didn’t say thank you, and she didn’t apologize for assuming that I couldn’t possibly be a Senior Fellow. She didn’t appear contrite for responding angrily at me or regretful for her bigotry, and why would she? She had the authority and power to act exactly in the manner she did, without fear of reprisal.
The notion that white people—especially white Americans, with their subjective and self-appointed exceptionalism—are inherently and supremely better than nonwhite people, is an idea that corrupts innocence, fosters neurosis, and stunts emotional and intellectual growth. Whether god delivered the idea to man, or the idea developed in Europe out of necessity immediately following the Dark Ages, is immaterial. What matters is the fact that whiteness gave birth to two incorrigible juveniles—white superiority and white supremacy—and they, in turn, invariably produced offspring with equally irredeemable traits: institutional racism, eugenics, discrimination, bigotry, microaggression.
The collective effort to promote the values and attitudes of white people over those of nonwhite people, and the determination to maintain whiteness as the gold standard of beauty is, essentially, white supremacy. That effort, though challenged by the current racial reckoning in our country and universal pleas for righteousness and equality, maintains its veracity. We are witnessing an explosion of social activism in the streets of America, in towns and cities across Europe and Asia, by people of all racial backgrounds, demanding the humane treatment of Black Americans.
I would like to believe that the effort to uphold and promote whiteness is due in part to an unconscious drive (or wish) to maintain dominance over people of color. Unfortunately, evidence, past and present, shows that the maintenance of white supremacy, while at times implicit, is largely conscious, intentional, and calculated.
Nowhere is this more evident to me than in psychology textbooks, where most of the psychologists, theorists, and anyone that had any influence in the field are all white:
Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, Wilhelm Wundt, William James, John Watson, Kurt Lewin, G. Stanley Hall, B.F. Skinner, Herman Ebbinghaus, Hans Eysenck, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Fritz Perls, Melanie Klein, Raymond Cattel, Karl Pearson, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Henry Murray, Mary Ainsworth, Aaron Beck, Edward Thorndike, Martin Seligman, Charles Spearman, Anna Freud, Lewis Terman, Henry Goddard, John Bowlby, Gordon Allport, Robert Yerkes, Karen Horney, David Wechsler, Heinz Kohut, Harry Harlow, Alfred Bandura, Erich Fromm, Marsha Linehan, Carl Jung, Victor Frankl, Alfred Adler, Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Albert Ellis, Lawrence Kohlberg . . .
Why didn’t I learn about Francis Cecil Summer and Inez Beverly Prosser, the first African American man and woman (respectively) to receive their PhDs in psychology? Who wrote the psychology textbooks that failed to mention the influence of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the researchers whose doll studies contributed to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and, subsequently, to desegregation of American public schools and the ultimate demise of Jim Crow?
The textbooks I read in graduate school likewise failed to reference Dr. Florence Farley, the first African American clinically licensed psychologist in the state of Virginia, and the first African American woman to become mayor of a Virginia city (Petersburg). Farley was also the first African American female training officer at a Virginia army base, Fort Lee. Finally, Farley—or “Doc”, as I affectionately came to call her—was my professor and thesis advisor at Virginia State University.
The omission of prominent Black psychologists in academic textbooks serves to preserve the idea that Black people contribute nothing to the field, and therefore, fosters a reliance (or dependence) on the theories, viewpoints, and work of white psychologists. Ultimately, the thinking becomes skewed to the extent that the application and delivery of psychological services to ethnic minorities is whitewashed, benefitting the few and marginalizing the many.
I met Rayshawn (pseudonym), a thirty-three-year-old, African American man admitted to the hospital due to mood instability or suspected bipolar disorder, in November of 2018. At 6’4” and approximately 230–235 lbs., he was imposing, and his Black skin and erect braids clearly terrified white medical providers. He came to us from Rikers Island and had a criminal rap sheet longer than most patients in the hospital at the time.
The Director of Psychiatry—an experienced psychiatrist and middle-aged white man—personally came to the unit I worked on following Rayshawn’s admission.
“We believe this guy to be criminal,” he said, “and if we could show that in your psychological evaluation, we don’t have to keep him. We don’t have to provide treatment.”
At around the same time the next day, my immediate supervisor, the Director of Psychology—an experienced clinical psychologist and, once again, middle-aged white man—came to the unit and echoed what his colleague said to me:
“He has a criminal background; we really don’t have to treat him.”
Because of the criminalization of mentally ill people, they’re diverted, in considerable numbers, to jails and prisons rather than to psychiatric hospitals. This has been the case in New York City for many years. In numerous cases, however, the crimes are petty in nature, ranging from trespassing to loitering, and therefore, the charges are dismissed. Unfortunately, given the acuity and severity of the illness, they cannot be released from jail to the streets, and are therefore remanded to psychiatric hospitals for stabilization of psychiatric symptoms.
Rayshawn’s sexual assault charges were dismissed due to insufficient evidence; the court ruled in favor of his release from Rikers Island, but given the severity of his psychiatric symptoms, he required treatment. He was therefore transferred to a state psychiatric hospital where I provided clinical psychology services and assigned to my unit. Given the apparent urgency of his case, I combed his chart, page by page and line by line, inspecting every document and appropriate signature.
Despite the Directors of Psychiatry and Psychology pointing out Rayshawn’s pattern of “criminality,” and their refusal to provide treatment, Rayshawn’s chart told a very different story. I read through report after report that signaled tell-tale signs of bipolar disorder: expansive mood, grandiosity, irritability, impulsivity, increased energy, decreased need for sleep. In fact, prior to this hospital admission, a court-appointed psychologist evaluated Rayshawn and provided a provisional diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, Unspecified, and another court-appointed clinician, the supervising psychiatrist, supported the diagnosis. What’s more, I examined Rayshawn myself, and found his speech to be loud and rapid, and his presentation imbued with an inflated sense of self—all primary indications that he was experiencing a current manic episode.
I communicated the findings of my examination to the Director of Psychiatry, and he appeared indifferent. Instead, he asked me to administer the Psychopathy Checklist, a psychological test designed to assess for the presence of psychopathy. Rayshawn did in fact exhibit a pattern of antisocial behavior, and more likely than not, had antisocial personality disorder, with psychopathic traits. Still, evidence suggested that he was afflicted with bipolar disorder, and for that reason, not only did he deserve to be treated with dignity and respect as a patient in the hospital, but also afforded all the treatment resources and options the hospital was mandated by the state and federal government to provide. I reluctantly agreed to administer the test because I knew if the results were remarkable, Rayshawn would immediately be discharged from the hospital. Fortunately, he refused to participate in any psychological testing.
After that, I met with Rayshawn every day, sometimes twice daily, playing chess and providing brief psychotherapy sessions. I liked him, despite his loud talk and self-centeredness. He was funny and, at times, rude and verbally disrespectful to hospital staff—but never towards me. I spoke to him quite candidly in that I revealed that the hospital administrators didn’t diagnose bipolar disorder because that meant they would have to provide a more robust treatment regimen, which translated into more time in the hospital. They didn’t want him there longer than he needed to be, and as such, gave him a bogus diagnosis of Depressive Disorder, Unspecified, which required a less stringent treatment intervention with less time in the hospital. Rayshawn didn’t care. Like most patients in psychiatric hospitals, he wanted to be discharged as soon as possible. Sadly, he didn’t appear to understand the implications of the administrators’ behaviors or their adherence, in following them, to deeply institutionalized racism.
I told my immediate supervisor—the Director of Psychology—that I was not comfortable with the way in which Rayshawn’s case was handled by the Director of Psychiatry. “The fact that both of you highlighted his criminal behavior and downplayed his psychiatric condition, followed by withholding treatment for bipolar disorder, is discriminatory and likely unethical,” I explained.
Ignoring the systemic context of these remarks, he countered, “Dana, you want to be careful accusing your colleagues with discrimination and racial bias, especially if you’re looking to teach in the psychiatry residency program.”
I was surprised that he used my desire to teach in the psychiatry residency program as a carrot, dangling it in front of me. In so doing, he was essentially proving me right, suggesting that teaching psychiatry residents is more important than bringing light to racial and systemic bias, and that sacrificing my values and beliefs would open career doors.
But I wasn’t surprised that my supervisor wasn’t disturbed by the racism he and the Director of Psychiatry displayed. Their behavior was consistent with my experience of white psychologists, and white medical providers, in general. The moment their implicit bias or unconscious racism is pointed out, nearly every one of these individuals’ first response is to deny their actions: No, I didn’t say it like that, followed by a defense of their actions, that wasn’t my intention. Another common tactic is to disregard the charge of bigotry altogether.
As patrons of behavioral healthcare services, ethnic minorities, specifically people identifying themselves as Black, Black American, African American, or Afro-American, are not well-represented by the psychologists (and medical providers [psychiatrists]) that serve them. In fact, Black people are disturbingly underrepresented as psychologists across the United States, even in areas where there are sizable Black populations. The same holds true for businesses that deliver mental health services to Black Americans, primarily public establishments like psychiatric hospitals, courts, correctional settings, Veterans Affairs medical facilities, and public schools.
This means, when the courts order psychological evaluations of Black children, there is a very strong chance that white psychologists will conduct those evaluations. When a psychiatrist in the public hospital requests an assessment of intellectual functioning on a Black patient, likely, a white psychologist will perform the assessment. And when Black veterans request psychotherapy sessions with Black psychologists, it is almost inevitable that they’ll hear this response: we don’t have any on staff.
Over the years, white supervisors have told me they simply don’t receive applications from “qualified” Black candidates to fill entry-level or administrative positions. That’s blatantly false. White psychologists in positions of power, despite receiving equally qualified Black psychologists’ applications, overwhelmingly select other white psychologists to fulfill job vacancies. As long as this pattern continues, the field of psychology will remain a white-dominated discipline.
Cover Art by Seo Ryung Samantha Park