“I know she’s racist, but at least she’s still competent at her job.”
“Not you, you’re basically White.”
“You worry too much. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be the victim of a hate crime.”
“I know it’s not ‘PC’ to say, but she was a real dragon lady.”
These are just a few examples of sentiments I’ve heard expressed by colleagues within this field. All of whom are psychologists and forensic evaluators, like myself. And many of whom I still like and respect very much.
Hi there. I’m Vicki, and part of my identity is being a Korean American woman (read: East Asian appearance) and transracial adoptee (read: acculturated, and my parents are white). Over the past year I’ve felt increasingly angry, upset, and sometimes also scared, seeing the national rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of this pandemic. Not just because of the pain my community is experiencing as this violence continues, but because echoes of these problems also permeate my workplace and this field to which I’m committed. Through this opportunity of writing to you all, I want to express my hope that we might challenge one another to be more accountable and more actively committed in dismantling all forms of racism, bias, and discrimination in our lives.
In her piece for The Gavel in December 2020 on abolition and liberation in psychology, Apryl Alexander asked poignantly, “If psychologists are not comfortable discussing and confronting racism and racial inequity, how can we provide culturally competent or humble care?” Given the racial disparities both in our workforce as psychologists (i.e., predominantly white) and in the population of people who are justice-involved (i.e., predominantly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; BIPOC), I worry that our consideration of this question may be narrowed inadvertently to how a largely white group of people approach cultural competence in their direct line of work with BIPOC folx, without having a broader conversation that stresses introspection, discomfort, and change.
I’ve experienced generally well-meaning white colleagues use dehumanizing language, often without understanding the impact of their words, or choose silence over confrontation when such language is used. While workplaces create policy and provide trainings with the aim of fostering respect and understanding, these same environments often lack the infrastructure to address adequately the more nuanced issues related to racism, sexism, other personal biases, and the intersections of multiple aspects of identity. It is clear that some of the solution is indeed policy-based. However, part of our solution lies in each one of us contributing actively to a work culture that enables us to “call in” one another, and that also allows us to hold one another accountable.
One challenge to achieving a work environment that prioritizes mutual understanding and accountability is the experience many women have: through various pressures and ways in which we are socialized, we hesitate to assert ourselves and our perspectives. Women remain a growing majority of the professional field of psychology, yet internal (e.g., self-doubts and concerns with how we are perceived by others) and external (e.g., lack of seniority or other position of authority) barriers persist that impact our likelihood of speaking up to address problematic thinking and language when we encounter it. In spite of these pressures, I empower my female colleagues to push themselves to speak confidently about what they know is right.
Questioning our own perspectives and improving our communication with each other is just one of several ways we can work towards developing our multicultural competence. One way to start this path of growth lies in conversation and personal commitment. As a Korean American woman, I referred to a few of my own experiences as examples that I feel I can speak to more directly of a larger problem that includes Asian Americans among many historically marginalized groups. That being said, I am also identifying ways I need to do more, to speak up more often, and to be more supportive of my peers. Let’s all use the relationships we’ve built with our colleagues to challenge one another to do better– for our work, our communities, and ourselves.
Because confronting biases and discrimination is a multifaceted issue, there is no perfect recipe for how to address each individual situation that can take into account all relevant factors and nuances. For this reason, a prescriptive approach is less effective; however, I have some suggestions that I offer for your consideration.
- Listen: Sometimes people of marginalized groups may express themselves in a way that is not necessarily intended to educate, but to simply express frustration and hurt. Try not to respond defensively when we receive such reactions. Employ those empathy skills!
- Know yourself and your boundaries, and how to best hold yourself accountable: We each need to be aware of our own limitations, both in terms of knowing when we need to take a step back to preserve our own mental health, and of how we can reflect and grow in our understanding of one another. For instance, while I want to engage in these conversations there are some days I simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do so, particularly if it means being more vulnerable about my own experiences. I want to be able to communicate this in a way that doesn’t shut the door to future discussion. I also need to know when I might be placing unintentionally that same burden on others, when I am the one in the position of privilege.
- Recognize the situation: Did a peer just say or do something that made someone else uncomfortable? That reflected bias against a particular individual or group of people? Did you not think anything of a particular remark, but notice that a colleague has reacted to what was said? Paying attention to these cues is critical in identifying the problem at hand.
- Know your audience: The relationships we develop with our colleagues are foundational in tackling uncomfortable conversations about bias. Additionally, we should be aware of differences between us, for example, in terms of power and privilege, and how this can affect the dynamics of conversation.
- Know what you want to accomplish: For most of us, if we speak in error, then we prefer to be approached privately, and have a one-on-one conversation. In some cases, this may be the more persuasive approach, particularly if you are trying to convince someone to consider another perspective and acknowledge that their words caused harm. In other cases, however, it may be more productive to call out dehumanizing language in the moment, especially in cases where the individual espousing the harmful beliefs may be less amenable to critical feedback and your goal is to show solidarity with those who are more directly impacted by those beliefs.
- Don’t be a passive bystander: I know from experience that while it may be hurtful to hear something offensive said to me, it can be infinitely more painful to be surrounded by others who are less affected by those statements who choose to remain silent.
- Embrace change: What is considered acceptable today may change tomorrow; this includes what we know currently about cultural competence as psychological professionals, and how to bring this to our own workplaces. Making mistakes and growing from them is one of the messy and beautiful parts of being human. Keep open minds, hold ourselves and one another accountable, and let’s do our part to develop our field in a way that centers multiculturalism.
I appreciate, and am thankful for, the opportunity to share my thoughts about a subject on which I’ve been reflecting. Thank you, for reading and considering what I have to say.
Name: Virginia (Vicki) Klophaus, PhD
Location: Lakewood, Washington
Education: BA, psychology, Rutgers University; MA, psychology, University of North Dakota; PhD, clinical psychology, University of North Dakota
Current position(s)/affiliation(s): forensic evaluator, Office of Forensic Mental Health