Whiteness in the Psychological ImaginationJonathan Mathias Lassiter I Race & Ethnicity I Theory I September 17th, 2014
"My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served" (Morrison, 1992, p. 90).
"Well I know this, and anyone who's ever tried to live knows this. What you say about somebody else - anybody else - reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I'm not describing you when I talk about you, I'm describing me" (James Baldwin, 1963).
Imagine a person. How tall is this person? What is the gender? How does this person dress? How does this person speak? Now, imagine the skin color of this person. As you pictured this person, was it a white person? If it was, you are not alone. For many, person is synonymous with white person. However, too often little attention is given to this fact. White people just are. Their race and embodiment of whiteness is seldom analyzed or is done narrowly. Furthermore, the psychological implications of whiteness for white people remain largely unexamined. This lack of detailed and nuanced study about white people and whiteness uneases me. There is a dearth of discourse about white people as a racial subject and whiteness as a pathological system with psychological consequences for white people. This essay is an attempt to address that (dis)ease and move toward an understanding of white people and whiteness, as racial subjects and a pathological system, respectively, in the field of psychology and beyond.
I begin this essay with a discussion of definitions for terms that will be used throughout. I transition to an overview of the racial origins of psychotherapy and the subsequent erasure of those origins. The remainder of the essay will present a discussion of whiteness in the psychological imagination and its implications, first for people of color and then white people.
It is important to have a common understanding of the three critical terms that will be used repeatedly throughout this essay. These terms include psychological imagination, white people, and whiteness. Psychological imagination is used to describe the formulations and definitions of ideas and ideals that pertain to psychology-in the mainstream-as an academic discipline, and to psychological phenomena in general. This imagination influences people who work or study in that discipline as well as those who do not. The term white people refers to people who, regardless of national origin or cultural background, have white skin, consider themselves to be white and/or are treated by the majority of people in society as such, and personally benefit from resources and privileges associated with whiteness. This term is used in this essay to discuss the general populace of white people in America regardless of socioeconomic status. No disclaimer should be needed but to increase the likelihood that the points of my essay are understood and not clouded by defensiveness, this author knows that not all white people embrace and actively collude in whiteness. Furthermore, it should be understood that whiteness can be and is internalized by both white people and people of color. One does not have to have white skin to perpetuate whiteness. However, the perpetuation of whiteness is only beneficial to white people. People of color, no matter their collusion or protest, are still systematically and systemically oppressed by whiteness.
Whiteness is defined as
"a complex, hegemonic, and dynamic set of mainstream socioeconomic processes, and ways of thinking, feelings, behaving, and acting (cultural scripts) that function to obscure the power, privilege, and practices of the dominant social elite. Whiteness drives oppressive individual, group, and corporate practices that adversely impacts…the wider U.S. society and, indeed, societies worldwide. At the same time whiteness reproduces inequities, injustices, and inequalities within the…wider society" (Lea & Sims, 2008, pp.2-3).
It should be noted that whiteness is not monolithic or immutable. Its meaning is constantly shifting and being constructed through an array of discourses and practices in various arenas of society (Wray & Newitz, 1997). In this way, white people either directly or indirectly benefit from their positioning at the top of a hierarchy that preferences their ways of thinking, feelings, behaving, and acting above those of others. This positioning of whiteness is held consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously by both people of color and white people. It is enacted in both subtle and overt ways. Too often the white human being is the person who is really being considered when one is discussing or writing about the human being. Yet, the whiteness of the human being is obscured and painted as an every(wo)man.
Psychology, as many understand it, in the western world is grounded in whiteness. Plato's thoughts, in 387 BCE, on the brain and mental processes and René Decartes' ideas about dualism of mind and body in the 1600s are taught in most, if not all, History of Psychology courses to be some of the earliest foundational writings about psychological processes. Psychological science is thought to have its beginnings in Wilhelm Wundt's experimental laboratory in psychology at the University of Leipzig, Germany that opened in 1879. Furthermore, it is commonly taught that the origins of psychotherapy are found in Sigmund Freud's and his students' work beginning in 1886.
It should be noted that Freud, himself, was a Jewish person. His approach to conducting psychotherapy with his patients was aligned with many characteristics of Jewish culture. These characteristics included being exceedingly verbal, emotionally expressive, trusting of reputable strangers, and believing in the "expert opinion" of a professional (Langman, 1997). The Jewish traits were the underpinning assumptions of patients' behaviors in the psychotherapy room. Freud and other early members of the psychotherapy movement, such as Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, Otto Rank, and Hans Sachs taught their students to approach psychotherapy and their patients in this manner (Langman, 1997). In many ways, western psychotherapy in the early 20th century was a secularization of Jewish mysticism (Bakan, 1958).
However, the ethnic foundation of psychotherapy rooted in Jewish culture was eroded with the shift toward an empirical approach ushered in by white Americans John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner with their theories of behaviorism (Langman, 1997). Behaviorism focused on objective and measurable behaviors while rejecting the subjective domains of human experiences such as thoughts and emotions. This shift was a step toward the whitening of psychotherapy in that it centralized many characteristics of white culture including rugged individualism, competition, mastery, and control over nature, a unitary and static conception of time, and a separation of science and religion (Sue et al, 1998). This shift highlights the mutability of whiteness and its tendency to leech the essence from its counterparts. British colonists were once defined by their Christianity and Europeanness but their Christianity and Europeanness became subsumed by their whiteness in the Americas. In a similar way, Jewish cultural contributions to western psychology and psychotherapy were subsumed under the whiteness of American white people.
However, more obscured than the Jewish underpinnings of psychotherapy and psychology, is its earliest ethnic foundation. The African roots of psychology predate all others. In-depth scholarly research reveals that the origins of what is now called psychology can be found in the philosophical, scientific, and mystical practices of the Anunian and Kemetic civilizations dating back to 4,000 BCE (Bynum, 2012). In these traditions, psychology is considered as the study of the human spirit (Nobles, 1986). It is the study of how people understand and define their humanness within the context of a community (Piper-Mandy & Rowe, 2010). Anunian and Kemetic psychology preferences a view of the self as primarily a spiritual entity projected into the physical realm (McAllister, 2014). Meyers (1988) proclaimed that the African worldview is an optimal one in which encompasses viewing the spiritual, mental, soulful, and physical aspects of being as one; knowing one's self through symbolic imagery and rhythm; valuing interpersonal harmony and interconnectedness; embracing self-worth as an intrinsic value that derives from one's very being; and viewing life as a plane that is unlimited (Karenga, 1993; Meyers, 1998). Life is thought to be trifold operating on three planes that are before-life, earth-life, and after-life (Fu-Kiau, 1993, 2001 as cited by Piper-Mandy & Rowe, 2010). The human spirit is thought to move through "seven moments" which are "before, beginning, belonging, being, becoming, beholding, and beyond" (Piper-Mandy & Rowe, 2010, p. 14). As can be seen, the earliest conceptualizations of psychology were not limited to the physical realm bounded by empiricism with which white-washed psychology has become identified. It was more encompassing of the seen and unseen, the before, now, and beyond. This type of psychology is a more complete assessment of the human experience that acknowledges the knowable and unknowable. (See Piper-Mandy & Rowe, 2010 for more details.) It is rooted in Africa and predates any other thought on the study of humanness. However, whiteness has recast psychology in its imagination. From this perspective, the image of the purveyors and consumers of psychology are tacitly assumed to be white or, if not white, approached in their relation to whiteness. Psychology is limited by whiteness-informed ideals of quantification, denial of the spiritual, and biomedical preoccupation.
White People and Whiteness in the Psychological Imagination
Psychology, much like all fields of human inquiry, often defines white people and whiteness in relationship to what it is not. Guthrie (2004) points out that some of the earliest studies of racial differences related to psychological abilities attempted to define white people as separate, and as members of a "higher" form of human being than people of color. For example, a series of psychological studies from as early as 1881 and 1895, reportedly "proved" that people of color, namely Japanese, American indigenous, and African-American people, had quicker reaction times to sensory stimuli and thus were more "impulsive," while white people were more "reflective" (Guthrie, 2004). The interpretation of the results of such studies is interesting. These results were interpreted to imbue white people with a presumed desirable quality of reflectivity and people of color with a presumed undesirable quality of impulsivity. Other early studies conducted by white psychologists also found "evidence" of African-Americans' lack of ability for abstract thought but prowess in sensory and motor skills (Guthrie, 2004). This type of psychological imagining defines white people as mentally adept and physically underdeveloped; implicitly, and sometimes overtly, suggesting that white people's intellectual skill should be valued over the physical capacities of people of color. And thus, this intellectual value sets white people as the standard in the realm of intellectual functioning. These interpretations of research highlight that scientific findings can be used for the uplift and humanizing of people, or for their pathologizing and dehumanizing of them. Such interpretations by pioneering white scientists in the field of psychology point to an imagining of white people as superior and people of color as inferior.
One may protest that findings of early psychological studies are outdated and do not reflect mainstream contemporary psychology. I agree that such blatant racist interpretations of research findings are almost nonexistent in today's world. However, it has been replaced with a colorblind mentality that does not address these racist underpinnings and subconsciously positions white people as the default against which all others are measured. One does not have to look far to find evidence of this point. It is common practice for editors of peer-reviewed psychological journals to publish articles with titles such as "Millennials, narcissism, and social networking: What narcissists do on social networking sites and why," "Finding female fulfillment: Intersecting role-based and morality-based identities of motherhood, feminism, and generativity as predictors of women's self satisfaction and life satisfaction," and "Friendship between men across sexual orientation: The importance of (others) being intolerant" (Barrett, 2013; Bergman, Fearrington, Davenport, & Bergman, 2011; Rittenour & Colaner, 2012). The broad language in the titles (i.e. "millennials," "female," "women," "men") of these articles suggest that the authors of these studies have recruited and conducted research with a sample of diverse participants who represent a microcosm of the diverse human family. These articles' titles suggest that the findings of the studies are, with a margin of error of course, applicable to all men, women, and millennials. A glance at the Methods sections proves otherwise. Not the least offense, the samples are virtually racially homogenous. These studies included 6.8%, 8.8%, and .08% people of color. While any findings from these studies are an addition to the understanding of psychology, they should be clearly understood as an examination of psychological concepts among white people in America, not as universal concepts or even American concepts. No journal editors required that the authors change their titles to reflect the predominantly white culture of their participants. While some readers might not understand the significance of these titles and the titling practice in psychology, the absence of reference to white people is commonplace and this small sample of studies is unfortunately representative of the type of widespread branding of the psychology of white people as the psychology of people. This type of branding obscures the culture of white people and the interplay of whiteness with psychological phenomena. It makes it hard for one to understand the essence of whiteness because this type of branding erases whiteness and elevates the psychological experiences of white people to be those of the human race. Dyer (1997, p. 2) wrote "there is no more powerful position than that of being 'just' human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity…whites are people whereas other colours are something else." In this way, white people implicitly set themselves as the arbiters of humanity and maybe even the only true embodiment of it.
From this point of view, whiteness in the psychological imagination is conflated with humanness in the psychological imagination. Therefore, whiteness is superior and centered in the psychological imagination. It is often obscured yet powerful in its organization of the field of study in a way that revolves around itself and thus maintains its power. It positions itself as the pure, unbiased presentation of scientific phenomena that explains what it means to be human. This imagining of whiteness is erroneous and dangerous.
Whiteness and Its Implications for Psychology Students of Color
Students of color often experience the psychology field as an unwelcoming and dehumanizing space. Research indicates that psychology students of color report experiencing stereotyping, alienation and isolation, cultural bias, prejudice, and challenges to their academic qualifications and merit in their educational programs (Gonzalez, Marin, Figuerosa, Moreno, & Navia, 2002; Johnson-Bailey, 2004; Lewis, Ginsberg, Davies, & Smith, 2004; Vazquez et al., 2006; Williams, 2000; Williams et al., 2005). Psychology students of color do not see themselves or the communities they represent reflected in the image of psychology. Researchers (Maton et al., 2011) found that African Americans were 12.6 times more likely, and Asian American and Latina/o American each 5.1 times more likely to report stereotypical rather than fair and accurate representation compared to white students. In turn, Asian Americans were 49 times more likely, African Americans 23.7 times more likely, and Latina/o Americans 19.9 times more likely to report that their group was not represented at all than to report fair and accurate representation as compared to white students (Maton et al., 2011). Students of color are overwhelmingly presented a curriculum that paints whiteness as humanness. They are deprived of an image of humanity that includes them and are thus dehumanized in their educational process.
Experiences of dehumanization and disempowerment in a system of whiteness leaves students insecure in their academic abilities, unsure of their sense of belonging in academia, emotionally battered by racial insensitivity, and feeling impotent to address these issues. Thus, students engage in self-censorship, assimilation to whiteness-centered academic program norms, and abandonment of scholarly pursuits of interest and use to communities of color (Gildersleeve, Croom, & Vasquez, 2011). Whiteness in psychology often leaves students of color feeling isolated and treated unjustly.
My colleagues and I are intimate with the types of experiences that the empirical research on students of color elucidates. One day during my third year in graduate school, I had an African American female, let's call her "Natasha," start crying when I asked her how she was feeling. She told me, "I don't feel like I belong here. These students say some of the most offensive, racist shit and the professors agree with them. Then when I speak up and call them out, I'm told that I should respect everyone's opinion. It feels like they don't want me to succeed." Listening to Natasha, who was a first year student, I remembered my own experience of feeling racially assaulted in academic and clinical training settings. I felt her pain and the confusion that accompanied it. Boiling with empathy, I said "it's because they don't want you here." Natasha looked at me with an expression of astonishment. "Look around," I continued, "how many professors of color do you see here? Don't you know that when they created the first programs in psychology, you and I were not the students they had in mind? We were not meant to be here. But we are. And it is up to you to make sure that you stay here, against all odds. The world needs your brilliance. The world needs your intelligence and the perspective that only you can offer. So cry, get mad, but use that to push you forward, to the top." While, I admit that I might have been emotional when I responded to my friend, the overall message was one of resilience. Scholarly research on the history of psychology support my statement and illuminates the struggles of people of color who were the pioneers in graduate education in psychology (Guthrie, 2004). It has often been the case that in a system of whiteness students of color have had to generate their own power from within and use adversity to propel them forward. It is an uneasy and unjust position to be in but unfortunately, often, the reality. Resilience is the cornerstone of the foundation that students of color must build upon when facing whiteness in the psychological imagination.
Multicultural sensitivity and diversity are popular topics in psychology training programs. While the American Psychological Association and many APA-accredited schools and internship training programs tout diversity on paper, many students of color find there to be little in reality. I often heard at clinical training sites that "there are several different forms of diversity and too often people get hung up on race." This is a true statement, of course. However, the tone with which it was often spoken and the number of times that it was mentioned whenever someone mentioned diversity or race highlighted an unsettling thought for me. Was this comment an excuse to not discuss race? Was this comment their get-out-of-the-race-question-free-card? In my experience, discussions about race and ethnicity were rarely undertaken in any sustained or formal manner. At one site, there was only one formal discussion of race throughout the whole year. Particularly egregious about that discussion was that an African American psychologist who was unaffiliated with the organization was engaged to conduct it. This was troubling because one of the only two times a psychologist of color presented a didactic was when the topic involved race and ethnic diversity. That psychologist was recruited for this one time only event. An implicit message is that the only topic people of color are qualified to discuss is race. And as evidence of the lack of diversity in the organization, it had to reach beyond its walls to find a qualified speaker on the topic. Furthermore, race and ethnicity was boiled down to one presentation and not discussed in any formal manner during the rest of the year. In addition, the focus of that site's approach race and ethnicity was limited to African Americans. I am not opposed to people of color's unique and similar experiences as human beings being highlighted in the study of psychology. It should be a foundational component of psychology education. It is the manner in which the spotlight is shined on people of color that is troublesome. People of color are often discussed in psychology as if they are outside of society and in some cases, outside of the species. People of color are presumed to diverge from the default of whiteness and thus are the special cases. They are often examined and presented in a consumable manner to onlookers who, with scientific and objective perspectives, try to understand them. If people of color are the special cases, then who are the people to whom their exotification is being explained? Who does this type of racial and ethnic diversity training serve and whom does it not serve? Furthermore, white people and their race and ethnicities are rarely included in conversations about race and ethnicity. Their racial and ethnic heritages are erased by whiteness and they are placed outside of the paradigm into a separate and implicitly elevated position. Thus, reinforcing whiteness in the psychological imagination.
"Diversity is more than race" seemed to be code for "let's not talk about race." This silence around race often seemed to come up in case presentations. I have often found myself as one of the only psychological trainees of color in organizations that served predominately people of color. Many of my white peers often presented clients of color in similar ways: "she's so angry;" "he won't talk to me." However, many never questioned how their race might be influencing the client's behavior or their conceptualization of and approach to the client. Or if they did so, it was with a "yeah, but" dismissive quality. Many of my white counterparts have tried to wish away race. During one group supervision session one colleague commented that the only way to decrease racism and fully incorporate men of color into society was to stop treating them with "kid gloves." I was unsettled by this colleague's statement and either the sheer ignorance or blatant racism that it demonstrated. I could not help but respond. I commented that men of color most often experience the exact opposite of what she was suggesting and that in fact they are treated with iron fists. "Men of color," I said, "are often subjected to punishment for behaviors that their white counterparts are not and are punished harsher than their white counterparts when they do commit crimes." This colleague responded with an expression of discomfort that proved she had no real understanding of the experience of people of color and yet all she wanted was to "help" these young men who came from unfortunate circumstances. While I don't think this particular colleague had malevolent intentions, inequality and injustice often stem from the blind spots of well meaning people. Students of color in psychology programs often experience a barrage of microaggressions and blatant ignorance that assault their racial and ethnic identities and, sometimes, their humanity.
The Scholarly and Pedagogical Centering of Whiteness in Psychology
Researchers have found that the majority of participants in research studies are citizens of western, industrialized, rich, and democratic nations and most of them are highly educated (WEIRD; Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). Thus, the knowledge about the psychological experiences is incredibly first-world and neglects the experiences of the majority of people on earth who do not inhabit such WEIRD spaces. Even within these WEIRD spaces, whiteness further constricts psychological knowledge. As in a previous section of this essay, many of the titles of published research papers purport to describe universal psychological phenomena but in actuality only present a white-centered description of it, as most psychological study samples are predominately composed of white people.
Three recent critical reviews of the racial composition of participants of studies published in scholarly psychology journals provide statistical information about the centering of whiteness in psychological research. In 2005, researchers found that among all the studies published in the top three counseling psychology journals from 1990 to 1999, 57% of them reported the races or ethnicities of their samples (Delgado-Romero, Galvan, Maschino, & Rowland, 2005). This means that 43% of the studies failed to present data about race or ethnicity and implied that either 1) race and ethnicity is not important enough to report or 2) that the sample was homogenous in its whiteness. Furthermore, the authors of this study found that when race was reported, it was often in relation to whiteness. For example, many studies referred to their participants' race as "white" or "other." Again, this sets whiteness and white people as the default stand-in for humanity and people of color as deviations from the norm. Among studies that did report specific racial and ethnic characteristics, overall samples were composed of 78.2% white people, 5.8% Asian Americans, 6.7% African Americans, 6.6% Latino/as, 0.9% Indigenous people, and 0.1% multiracial people (Delgado-Romero et al., 2005). Compared to the overall population of the United States, whites and Asian Americans were overrepresented and African Americans, Latino/as, and Indigenous people were underrepresented in counseling psychology research. In an analysis of the races and ethnicities of participants in studies that were published in the top six American Psychological Association journals in 2007, authors found that 60-82% of them were white (Arnett, 2008). Furthermore, 7-60% of the studies published in these journals did not report the racial and ethnic composition of their samples (Arnett, 2008). An examination of the race and ethnicity reporting in four social science/psychology journals focused specifically on ethnic and racial minorities found much more inclusion of people of color. Specifically, of participants of studies published in these journals from 1990 to 2007, 38.7% identified as Latino/a, 22.5% identified as Black, 17.8% identified as white, 9.0% identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, 1.6% identified as Indigenous, 0.4% identified as multiracial/biracial; 8.3% were categorized as "nonrespondent" (i.e., the study did not provide information), and 1.7% were categorized as "other" (i.e., individuals did not identify as any of the listed classifications) (Shelton, Delgado-Romero, & Wells, 2009). It seems that people of color are only included in the psychological literature when the topic of study is race or ethnicity. These three critical reviews provide empirical evidence of the frequent exclusion of people of color from the psychological imagination.
When race and ethnicity are included in research studies, these constructs are usually approached in three distinct ways. These include the universalist, culture assimilation, and culture accommodation approaches (Leong & Serafica, 2001). The universalist approach ignores race and ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are deemed unimportant and not worthy of incorporating in the empirical process. Research studies that use this approach do not even ask participants about race or consider how it may interact with or influence the manifestation or expression of the psychological phenomena under study. The culture assimilation approach relegates people of color to the margins and they are conceptualized as deviations from whiteness and white people. Studies that use this approach are usually comparative in nature; they assess the difference of the racial and ethnic groups on various psychological phenomena with white people positioned as the reference group. People of color are assessed based on whether or not they significantly differ from white people. Conclusions from these types of studies often focus on how people of color can or should adjust to become more assimilated with whiteness to better match the performance of white people in the psychological domains under study. The culture accommodation approach more fully considers the influence of the race and ethnicity (and how race and ethnicity influences the sociological context of people) on the expression of psychological phenomena. Studies that utilize this approach move beyond ignoring and comparing people of color to white people. They seek to understand how race and ethnicity influences how people define, experience, and make sense of psychological phenomena in a culturally specific manner. Beyond culture accommodation approaches, many psychologists of color have developed culture-specific schools of psychological thought. The advent of Asian American Psychology, Latino/a Psychology, Black Psychology, and African-centered Psychology illustrate a move away from an assimilationist stance to an indigenous focus. Specifically, these fields of study center the humanity of people of color and examine all psychological phenomena from a perspective that is inextricably tied to one's cultural context.
The centering of whiteness is engrained in the academy and those seeking to de-center it often find it difficult. When scholars try to emancipate their scholarship from the confines of whiteness, they are often met with opposition from the gatekeepers of psychology (i.e. journal reviewers and editors, funding agencies, and colleagues). There is empirical evidence of academics of color facing barriers in their universities due to racial discrimination, both at the individual and structural levels. The devaluing of scholarship that does not privilege whiteness is a particularly troubling occurrence. A recent study found that it is hard for the research of scholars of color to be funded (Ginther et al., 2011). Ginther and her colleagues found that Asian Americans and Black applicants were less likely to receive investigator-initiated research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH; the largest governmental funder of scientific research in the United States) compared to their white counterparts. Even after statistically holding constant differences in the applicants' educational backgrounds, countries of origin, training, previous research awards, publication records, and employer characteristics, Black scholars were still found to be at a disadvantaged in receiving funding from the NIH. If this disadvantage is found at the national level at an institution that has a long history of creating programs to increase diversity (Ginther et al. 2011), the racial disparity in research funding at other organizations (e.g. local, institution-based, or private) is likely to be greater. When scholars of color are able to conduct their research, either with or without funding, they often find that it is not deemed as scholarly legitimate or scientifically rigorous (Harley, 2008; Kameny et al., 2014; Stanley, 2007; Turner, Gonzalez, & Wood, 2008). There are many times when scholars of color find themselves at odds with journal reviewers when they attempt to publish scholarship outside of whiteness. Stanley (2007) wrote about the clash between counter and master narratives in the academy. She explains:
"A master narrative is a script that specifies and controls how some social processes are carried out. Furthermore, there is a master narrative operating in academia that often defines and limits what is valued as scholarship and who is entitled to create scholarship. This is problematic, because the dominant group in academia writes most research and, more often than not, they are White men. Members of marginalized groups, such as women and people of color, have had little or no input into the shaping of this master narrative. Therefore, research on marginalized groups by members of marginalized groups that reveals experiences that counter master narratives is often compared against the White norm…" (Stanley, 2007, p. 14).
In contrast, counter narratives: "…act to deconstruct the master narratives, and they offer alternatives to the dominant discourse in educational research. They provide, for example, multiple and conflicting models of understanding social and cultural identities. They also challenge the dominant White and often predominantly male culture that is held to be normative and authoritative" (Stanley, 2007, p. 14). Researching and publishing the research of counter narratives that de-center whiteness and more fully embrace the diversity of humanity often requires assertiveness and perseverance. Presenting a non-pathological, non-comparative, and non-deficit representation of people of color in the scholarly literature is a revolutionary act.
One would think that in a field like psychology where so much lip service and written policy is focused on diversity this would not be the case. Research findings, which have been discussed throughout this essay, prove otherwise. Unfortunately, I have personally experienced the sting of gatekeepers who are invested in perpetuating master narratives. Recently a reviewer had this to say about a manuscript of mine that focused on an all Black sample of men who have sex with men (BMSM): "In this paper, the population of black gay men is treated almost as a universe unto itself…the author seems to make conclusions about how religious BMSM are without making explicit comparisons to white men who have sex with men or to other groups." These particular remarks from this reviewer are indicative of an investment in the centering of whiteness. When the reviewer comments that I treat the population of BMSM as "a universe unto itself," it implies that there is something inaccurate about or amiss with the notion that BMSM could possibly be of scholarly (maybe even human) value in and of themselves. He also suggested that I make a comparison between the Black men in my sample and white men and that no conclusions can be made about the religiosity of BMSM without such a comparison. His suggestion is indicative of the assimilationist approach that was explained by Leong & Serafica (2001). In other words, in his opinion, whiteness is the standard. Without whiteness to measure the experiences of people of color against, how can one know what is real? In his critique, this reviewer strips away the legitimacy, worth, and humanity of BMSM. In his imagination, BMSM cannot possibly exist in the absence of whiteness. The reviewer goes on to comment that the "…questions of how and why the relationship between religiosity and sexuality may be different among black men than among white men are indeed fascinating questions." I question, "fascinating to whom?" Too often, researchers of all races whose scholarship focuses on people of color are subjugated to journal reviewers' fascination with whiteness. Publishing and presenting research about people of color that is not pathology-focused or comparative, while not impossible, is challenging in mainstream scholarly outlets.
The Psychological Wage
Thus far the research reviewed in this essay has been persuasive in its accounting of the narrowing and repressive effects of whiteness for knowledge production and for the experiences of students and faculty of color in the field of psychology. However, it would be a mistake to believe that whiteness in the psychological imagination only has implications for people of color or only for people who work and study in the field of psychology. Taking the widespread influence of whiteness into account, the remainder of this essay seeks to explore two questions. These two questions are related to the quotes that opened this essay. The first quote is taken from Toni Morrison's groundbreaking work, Playing the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. In that book, she undertakes the task of trying to understand the people who have crafted the image of whiteness (and blackness) that she sees abound in American literature. In her view, whiteness in American literature is parasitical, nourishing itself on the imagined oppositeness of blackness. Whiteness is made superior by the supposed inferiority of blackness. It is made great by the degradation of its counterparts. Whiteness has the same function in the psychological imagination. It penetrates the psyches of all people, regardless of race and ethnicity, with white supremacy. White people-whether or not they internalize this cultural domination, actively engage in racism or racial microaggressions, or exploit people of color for economic prosperity-benefit from the image of whiteness in the psychological imagination. However, what does the other side of the coin look like. In other words: "What are the benefits and costs of whiteness in the psychological imagination for white people?"
Whiteness in the psychological imagination offers white people purpose, power, and protection. It offers purpose by making white people's mental health and lived experiences foundational. White people are constructed as prototypes whose psychological experiences are the starting point from which all other people's experiences begin to be understood and the desired endpoint, which all other people must reach to be considered healthy or human. This purpose intersects with the power bestowed upon them.
Whiteness in the psychological imagination imparts an authority to and a preferencing of white people's experiences. Even when the topic of study is pathology, white people's pathology is still held as the standard for what deviations from "normative" behavior should look like. Therefore, even white people's unhealthy behaviors are considered more desirable. No matter what they do, prosocial, asocial, or antisocial, it is still considered better. Therefore, there is no way for white people to ever be in any position but at the top of a constructed psychological hierarchy. Psychology has given white people power through its empirical support for the demonization, marginalization, and stigmatization of people of color. It is a shackle for people of color and a throne for white people.
Whiteness in the psychological imagination protects white people from grappling with how their embodiment of whiteness is cancerous. It does not require them to consider the lives of people of color and the deleterious effects of whiteness. Their survival is not dependent on such knowledge. The centering of white people's experiences allows white people to be blind to the experiences of people of color. They can remain oblivious to, ignore, forget about, erase or render historical-and thus, make irrelevant-the exploitation, domination, and disenfranchisement of people of color. This privilege of ignorance perpetuates their focus on themselves and the marginalization of others. White people have the option to advance in a world delusionally believing there are no consequences for their actions.
The belief that whiteness does not scar the person who embraces it is erroneous and perverted. The costs of the psychological imbuement to whiteness of purpose, power, and protection are a sense of heightened threat/defensiveness, emptiness, and loneliness/disconnection. People at the top of a hierarchy need others to be placed beneath them. Otherwise, their status at the top is meaningless. A surplus of exploited and disenfranchised people is a necessity for whiteness to have any benefit. It is the exploited and disenfranchised people who white people measure their whiteness against. It is these people through whom they can work out their own self-image and put to work for their own financial, psychological, and social benefit. However, this positioning is tenuous and always will be, as human nature is not meant to be exploitatively hierarchal. Imbedded in whiteness is a zero-sum mentality that believes that if one person or group possesses a thing or trait the other person or group cannot also share that possession or trait. Thus, there is a heightened sense of threat that the benefits of whiteness can be taken away at any time. Defensiveness develops to guard those benefits. This defensiveness is seen in the backlash against psychological research that attempts to move away from white-centered discourses and racial comparative research to an indigenous paradigm that preferences narratives of people of color. It is seen in the psychological genocide that is carried out by whiteness in its centering of definitions and policies-in media, educational institutions, financial markets, health services, and governmental agencies-that are diametrically opposite and detrimental to peoples' of color images and interests (Kambon, 1980). A constant sense of heightened threat and defensiveness-conscious, subconscious, or unconscious-keeps people at arms-length. People with such defensiveness find themselves living a life of paranoia and hypervigilance.
The sense of purpose that whiteness in the psychological imagination provides for white people is empty. It is inextricably tied to the meaning of their whiteness. However, the centrality of whiteness is a distorted mental machination. It is a superficial prize that inflates the ego with a fictitious substance. If a purpose and identity is built upon a distortion that sets it as opposite and superior to others, what happens when whiteness is discovered to be a fraud? Again Toni Morrison's words come to mind. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1993 she spoke about the hollowness of race and its racist use. She stated,
"But if the racist white person-I don't mean the person who is examining his consciousness and so on-doesn't understand that he or she is also a race, it's also constructed, it's also made, and it also has some sort of serviceability. But when you take it away, if I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out, and all you've got is your little self. And what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? You still like yourself?"
White people who embrace whiteness are completely dependent on it and they are seldom aware of their addiction and delusion, and if aware constantly suppressing and denying it. In its attempted cooptation of humanity, whiteness renders white people inhuman. It transforms white people into an ideal of perfection. This ideal is unrealistic and hollow.
Whiteness in the psychological imagination deprives white people of a concept of themselves as interdependent members of a human family with many diverse members. Critical psychological elements of whiteness such as competitiveness, power-dominance drive, assertiveness-aggression, and anxiety avoidance pit them against their human brethren (Kambon, 1992, 1998). These values foster loneliness/disconnection. This is because, often, whiteness erases itself from the psyche of white people and replaces it with a universalism that centers their experiences as the only legitimate experiences. Therefore all they see are reflections or iterations of themselves. When confronted with people of color, they view these folks as people to be ignored, appropriated, or eliminated (Lorde, 1984) and not as human beings with whom to commune as equals. Whiteness in the psychological imagination alleges that people can survive on their own with rugged individualism and materialism, separated from the spiritual and psychological collective.
The second question, to be addressed in this section, is inspired by James Baldwin's quote at the beginning of this essay. Baldwin's quote highlights the reflective nature of definitions. The qualities and worth that one confers to someone else is of direct proportion to the qualities and worth one confers to her/himself. If one marginalizes another's experience, in actuality she/he is forcing something of her/his own experience (own being) out of view and possibly out of consciousness. This is a detrimental thing because it creates fractional, unhealthy human beings that are narrowed and egotistic, cut off from themselves and others. It seems, to me, that this is only remedied when one values her/himself enough to recognize the humanity of another as just as inextricably tied to her/his own and just as significant. So my second question is, "How does one go about freeing her/himself from whiteness in the psychological imagination to live a more whole, integrated life?" While, I have posed this question, I will not answer it. Too often, people of color are as asked to provide the suggestions for how white people can begin to grapple with and overcome their whiteness. I refuse to do the work for people who are afflicted (willingly or otherwise) with whiteness. I will leave that work to them.
If white people knew who they were, they would not need to define themselves in relation to others. They would not feel a need to stifle the breath of others to suck in air. They would let go of their zero-sum mentality and realize that their survival is inextricably related to the survival of all of the colored peoples of the world. White people are a statistical minority. There is no way that they can survive through sheer whiteness alone. Whiteness is a delusion that has created a race of schizophrenics separated from themselves and others. But that is because so many white people do not recognize their inherent worth. Their ideas of supremacy are grounded in the machinations of their whiteness and separateness, not their humanness or connectedness. There is no need for this. If white people can let go of their whiteness, educate themselves-and not rely on or requests that others do so-commune without ulterior motives, they can begin to embody the fullness of humanity that is based in the reality of community and not the illusion of superiority and materialism. When white people can let go of whiteness, they will recognize themselves as human and not need to dehumanize others and co-opt people of color identities, land, and cultural creations to lionize themselves. White people are not dumb; they are not evil. Whiteness, however, is evil. It is an arrogant ignorance. It is a poison that must be rejected in the psychological imagination and in the minds of all people-those with white and melanized skin.
The centering of whiteness in psychology is not only a cancer to society but also a detriment to the field of study. It renders psychology fraudulent in its claims to understand the human psyche. As discussed before, the overwhelming body of psychological research marginalizes people of color who constitute the majority of the human species. Whiteness in the psychological imagination paints an erroneous picture of psychological phenomena, limits the psychological knowledge base, and stifles a more true understanding of the complex, multifaceted experience of the human.
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