Anti-Racism in Psychology

Anti-Racism in Psychology

Authors: Caleb Spiro, MA and Marcus Rodriguez, PhD

Why Now?

Since the dual COVID and racism pandemic, the concept of antiracism has sparked a national conversation — what does it mean to be anti-racist? It may seem intimidating, and you may not know where to start. We want to address this issue and make a few key points.

What is antiracism?

All of us have all been born into a system that has taught us to think of certain groups in stereotyped ways, with ingrained biases into ways of knowing, behaving, and speaking towards those who are different from us. If one thing is true, no one is completely free from bias, which is why it is crucial for us to recognize our biases so we can then begin to work on them. Just like the process of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in embracing anti-racist practices, thoughts and behaviors are malleable, ideologies can be unlearned, change is an on-going process, and every day is an opportunity to learn more skills.

In the words of Ibram Kendi: “I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions, and I define an antiracist idea as any idea that says the racial groups are equal. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races. To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do” (Kendi, 2019).

The Need for Liberation Psychology

‘Liberation Psychology’ is the promotion of social justice action through the integration of indigenous cultural healing and emancipatory approaches into mainstream psychotherapy (1) which has been long neglected by standard practice care. Working to address systemic injustices in therapy is crucial, as many clients come into therapy with trauma from current and long-withstanding racism and discrimination. Hence, therapy should not only be a space to address mental illness, but understand mental health within the context of daily experiences.

For all clients, this means having a safe space to unpack and heal from experiences of trauma, including racial trauma. Additionally, liberation psychology aims to empower clients to find wisdom through spirituality, religion, culture, creativity, and a social-political consciousness to recover cultural memory and sources of strength. Liberation Psychology is not a new field, but one that we must embrace when becoming more culturally competent.

The Need for Cultural Competency and Humility

‘Cultural competence’ can be defined as the capacity of practitioners and health services to respond appropriately and effectively to patients’ cultural backgrounds, identities and concerns. Cultural competency is not something to be achieved, but rather an on-going state of feedback from the community to scholars and clinicians and vise versa. Cultural competence is a necessary foundation for cultural humility, which involves self-reflection and self-critique to develop awareness of ways in which institutionalized power and our experiences have shaped our knowledge, beliefs, and biases. Cultural humility leads us to not only be more open to understand our client’s worldviews, but also to work to challenge power imbalances and develop client-aligned partnerships in care.

The Need for Dialectical Thinking About Racism (and Anti-racism)

With cultural humility, we can let go of the false dichotomy of either being a good person or racist. Racism is best defined as a behavior, not a character flaw, which allows for a growth mindset in terms of our antiracist work. We don’t have to pretend to be free of racism (and racist behaviors) to be anti-racist. For example, in one moment, we may engage in accidental racist behavior and in another moment engage in anti-racist behavior. Hence, it is possible to have pure intentions that lead to harmful consequences. As anti-racist providers, we center impact and harm over the intent or our own emotional reactions. Antiracism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” — Angela Y. Davis

Anti-Racist Agreements in Culturally-Competent Care

Dr. Faria Kamal and her colleagues at Columbia University developed an agreement that clinicians can apply to their work. These kinds of agreements can be central in aligning our antiracist values with our actions as a program.

Antiracist and Antibias Agreement:

We agree to continuously assess our competencies in antiracism, intersectionality, and justice. We will make every reasonable effort to increase our competencies including but not limited to: engaging in consultative discussion, non-defensively receiving feedback from others about racist and biased behavior, completing self-reflective exercises about race and intersectional beliefs, increasing race-specific knowledge through educational activities, completing homework assigned by consultation team members in order to foster growth in specific antiracist and antibias competencies, and making repairs to team members and/or patients when therapist racist and biased behavior is identified. We also commit to clearly naming invalidation, racism, bias, and prejudice using our ‘observe’ and ‘describe’ [mindfulness] skills within our team meetings and during our groups.

The Need for Ongoing Education

Cultural competency and antiracism have not historically been explicitly trained in graduate school. Although there has been a recent shift, as a field, we are sorely lacking. If you are interested in learning more about how to significantly elevate your practice of cultural competency and antiracism, at YFI we offer trainings for clinicians interested in furthering their care in these areas.

These trainings will help you a) identify types of microaggressions that occur in therapy, along with specific interventions for each (sub)type, b) classify common roles and problematic reactions of clinicians, and how to more effectively respond when these reactions emerge, and c) outline best practices following incidents of racism, including an anti-racist repair protocol.

If you are interested in learning more about how to unpack privilege, power, and everything else that comes with becoming more culturally competent, the Youth and Family Institute offers Responsive Care Training (3) to clinicians interested in increasing the quality and cultural competency of their care

Here are some further readings that you can also check out:

  1. Comas-Díaz, L. (2020). Liberation psychotherapy. In L. Comas-Díaz & E. Torres Rivera (Eds.), Liberation psychology: Theory, method, practice, and social justice (pp. 169–185). American Psychological Association.
  1. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Print), 33(2–3), 61–83.

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