Racism in clinical science and academia today and ways to enact change

by Yehsong Kim, University of Southern California

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Headshot photo of a smiling Yehsong Kim wearing a light top with caramel-colored sweater

There is a social movement afoot to root out anti-Black racism in our society. Racism — the belief that someone is less than because of the color of their skin and the subsequent oppression, exclusion, limitation, or discrimination of non-dominant racial groups that occurs — has been a part of the history of America since its colonization. Our country was built on the colonization of Indigenous people, using Black people as property, and laws and policies that only offer full citizenship to those deemed “White”. With such a de-humanizing history, it can only be assumed that our present reality has racism, particularly against Black Americans, baked into our institutions.

The aim of this article is two-fold. First, I want to critically examine how academia and we as clinical psychologists perpetuate racism within our field and our institutions. Second, I want to provide a starting point to consider how to make real, structural changes to make our institutions more equitable so people of all backgrounds can prosper. Because structural change requires people in power to make decisions, as students, our job may be to demand these changes from faculty and administrators. A united front as students can add power to these demands. A note: Rooting out racism means we need to all be doing personal, relational, and structural work. However, I believe there are many more guides to doing personal and relational work online and so chose to focus this article on more structural changes.

To my first aim, here are some ways that racism may be at work in our institutions and work today:

  • Materials for our classes, therapy, and research are written from mostly White perspectives.
  • The people in power in our institutions (e.g., faculty, supervisors) are primarily White and are speaking and teaching from their White perspectives (Bichsel et al., 2019).
  • The majority of the data in our field are collected from White participants and assumed to be the norm or the “psychology of humans” (Cundiff, 2012; Mak et al., 2007).
  • Primarily White researchers have chosen what research questions are asked, how they’re asked, what research gets funded, and what papers get published.
  • Criteria for interviews and acceptance into our programs do not take into account the structural and interpersonal racism Black applicants have faced since birth (e.g., underfunded schools in their district, discrimination from teachers) that then go on to disqualify them from the “race-blind” application process.
  • The few faculty of color serve on more “diversity” committees than their White peers and subsequently don’t have as much time to devote to research or applying for funding (Settles et al., 2019).
  • Patients of color are over-pathologized while their pain is also not taken as seriously (Chapman et al., 2013; Schwartz & Blankenship, 2014).
  • People of color often have higher barriers to accessing high-quality mental health care (Broman, 2012), whether they live far from good care (Dinwiddie et al., 2013), are priced out, or are wary of discrimination and exploitation in health care.

To my second aim, here are some ways to use our power and privilege to create lasting, structural changes within our own institutions:

  • On a committee for funding or an editor of a paper? Intentionally invest in projects by academics of color. Fund projects that examine and work on combating racism and anti-Blackness. Recruit people of color into these positions of power that you are holding.
  • Interested in discrimination and racism research? We often study victims of interpersonal discrimination and its impact on their mental and physical health. While this is important work, we should also be studying institutionalized racism to truly address its negative health impacts. This means researching public policy, policing, housing discrimination, and much more, and not relegating the study of larger systemic problems to other academic fields.
  • Doing interventions research? Create interventions focused on reducing racism and bias within individuals using what we know about evidence-based therapeutic practices.
  • Are you a clinician or a director of clinical training? Find ways to use your institution’s resources (e.g., money, clinical manpower) to make mental health care more accessible to people of color. Hire supervisors of color.
  • On a hiring committee? Be intentional about where you are recruiting from, how you are reaching potential applicants, what criteria you are looking at as merit, who you let through to interviews, and who you ultimately hire. This also applies for recruiting graduate students.
  • In a research lab? Recruit research assistants of color, our future scientists. Invest in them by teaching them about the science, yes, but also the institution of academia, which can be a black box to those unfamiliar to it. Also, pay them for their labor if you can. Look to university funds for research assistants so students of color don’t have to choose between working a summer job and doing research.
  • Teaching a course? Have material directly addressing racism within the field and facilitate discussions on combating racism since it affects our work. Pull from non-psychology readings if you need to. Other fields, such as sociology and ethnic studies, are further ahead in understanding and tackling racism.

Recognizing how racism is operating in our spaces and thinking through ways to create lasting, structural change are critical to undoing the harm imposed on people of color by our institutions and work. However, it ultimately requires action, and the responsibility of that action lies with all of us. You may still feel uncertain about the specifics of how to act on these structural changes. Online resources have exploded in recent months as well as an interest in working to root out racism. So let’s band together, commit to the work, educate ourselves, and make changes to move our institutions and field to a more equitable place for all.

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References

Bichsel, J., McChesney, J., & Schmidt, A. (2019). Focus on psychology faculty: salaries, pay equity, minority representation, and the growth of non-tenure-track faculty. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Retrieved from https://www.cupahr.org/wp-content/uploads/CUPA-HR-Brief-Focus-on-Faculty-Psychology.pdf.

Broman, C. L. (2012). Race differences in the receipt of mental health services among young adults. Psychological Services, 9, 38–48. DOI: 10.1037/a0027089

Chapman, E. N., Kaatz, A., & Carnes, M. (2013). Physicians and implicit bias: How doctors may unwittingly perpetuate health care disparities. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 28, 1504–1510. DOI: 10.1007/s11606–013–2441–1

Cundiff, J. L. (2012). Is mainstream psychological research “womanless” and “raceless”? An updated analysis. Sex Roles, 67, 158–173. DOI: 10.1007/s11199–012–0141–7

Dinwiddie, G. Y., Gaskin, D. J., Chan, K. S., Norrington, J., & McCleary, R. (2013). Residential segregation, geographic proximity and type of services used: Evidence for racial/ethnic disparities in mental health. Social Science & Medicine, 80, 67–75. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.11.024

Mak, W. W., Law, R. W., Alvidrez, J., & Pérez-Stable, E. J. (2007). Gender and ethnic diversity in NIMH-funded clinical trials: Review of a decade of published research. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 34, 497–503. DOI: 10.1007/s10488–007–0133-z

Schwartz, R. C., & Blankenship, D. M. (2014). Racial disparities in psychotic disorder diagnosis: A review of empirical literature. World Journal of Psychiatry, 4, 133–140. DOI: 10.5498/wjp.v4.i4.133

Settles, I. H., Buchanan, N. T., & Dotson, K. (2019). Scrutinized but not recognized:(In) visibility and hypervisibility experiences of faculty of color. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 113, 62–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2018.06.003

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SSCP Diversity Committee
Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology

The SSCP Diversity Committee was established in 2014 to promote a more diverse clinical science.