There are times psychology has been conscripted for evil ends, just as there are prominent psychologists who have been particularly racist or homophobic. These problems are important to mark—however, the following list is concerned, instead, with qualities embedded into the very core of Western psychology that run at odds with justice, equity, and the dignity of all people.

Everyone will draw their own conclusions from psychology’s complicity in racism and other forms of oppression; below are a number of themes I’ve traced through psychology’s history. These statements do not mean that psychology is evil, or that it does not have a unique role to play in achieving racial justice, but rather that there are foundational issues to reckon with before justice is possible.

Psychology is normative.

Linked to psychology’s purpose as a prescriptive, healing field is its tendency to pathologize those who deviate from a norm determined by dominant power structures. The normative orientation of psychology has historically led to “therapeutic” abuse of LGBTQ+ people, the construal of neurodivergent people as less intelligent and capable, and practices of exclusion that target those who are fat, Queer, disabled, and/or of color.

Psychology is individualistic.

Based on cultural norms of primarily white, Western, capitalist countries, psychology views individuals as separable from their social environments. Prizing self-actualization over community well-being and rarely considering collectivist orientations outside of comparison to the Western individualist “norm,” psychology both neglects structural factors and alienates groups for whom community is central.

Psychology is intricately linked to elitist institutions.

Because psychology is based largely in Western universities—institutions designed for the white and wealthy—it is not surprising that the field caters to and is dominated by members of privileged groups. This dynamic encompasses the methodological issue of homogenous participant pools, which means empirical findings of psychology are far from universal.

Psychology was created by and for white people.

Though psychologists of color have contributed tremendously to the field, its canon is stubbornly white and male. Taking the perspective that all researchers are informed and limited by their social position, these canonical psychologists are products of their respective cultures and do not speak for all human experience. The presumption that their work is both neutral and universal is in fact grounded in white supremacy.

Psychology is part of an imperial project.

Oppressive regimes such as the British Empire have historically used psychology to categorize and control colonial subjects. More conceptually, psychological research that imposes a white, Western perspective on the entire world reinforces ongoing legacies of imperialism.

Discussion Questions

  • In what ways has psychology pathologized human variation in the past? What does the field pathologize in the present?
  • Who and what is considered “normal” in psychology?
  • When psychology compares individuals or cultures, who or what is the default to which others are compared? 
  • Is racism aberrant to, or central to the field?
  • Who holds the power in psychology (in the department, in institutions, on a global level)?
  • How is psychology linked to legacies of imperialism and colonialism?
  • How is psychological and psychiatric treatment linked to incarceration? How has that connection disproportionately harmed Black people?
  • How are both the problems within psychology and their solutions intersectional?
  • What unique strengths can psychology bring to the fight for a more just world? What anti-racist, anti-colonial leaders in the field are already leading this charge?

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