What is psychology’s role in social justice (and vice versa)?

- By Stacey Prince

The title of this article expresses questions that TJP’s leadership council has grappled with and that I’m sure will continue to be at the heart of our discourse for quite some time.  I recently attended the National Multicultural Conference and Summit, where I hoped to further challenge myself and deepen my thinking on these questions.  I am reporting back now with mixed results.  

The first Multicultural Summit met in 1999, and the conference has taken place every other year since then.  I was excited that it was in Seattle this year, both because it was easier for me to attend and to share the city I love with out of town friends.  Although an official American Psychological Association (APA) event, the Summit traditionally has both a different focus and a different feel.  Unlike an APA convention where one might find a few offerings on multicultural psychology, oppression, and social justice, the Summit is a conference where these topics are the explicit focus.  Also, it typically has more experiential and participatory components, versus the receptive, lecture style, heavy on the powerpoint offerings that are characteristic of APA.  Finally, the Summit has historically been a space where “difficult dialogues” on topics such as privilege and power within our profession, horizontal oppression between marginalized groups, and tensions between various aspects of our profession (research versus practice, for instance) are not only not avoided, but actually welcomed.  For all of the above reasons, I was relishing the opportunity to explore areas that are of great relevance both for me personally and to TJP.

Some of the workshops were superb, offering rich personal and professional relevance.  A panel entitled “Faith to move mountains: Women’s use of spirituality to combat oppression” discussed the role of faith, ceremony, prayer, and meditation in the lives of women of various cultural backgrounds, and made the connection between faith communities/practices and resistance to oppression.  The more psychology strives to define itself as a science, the less of a role there seems to be for faith and spirituality, but this workshop offered a welcome alternative perspective, including a discussion of how to tap into people's existing faith practices as a source of healing in psychotherapy.

Another workshop I deeply enjoyed and appreciated was “Difficult dialogues on mistrust: Pitfalls and strategies working with Black males”.  The presenters were Anne Chan, PhD, author of Inspire, empower, connect: Reaching across difference to make a real difference, Joe White, PhD, who has mentored over 100 doctoral students, and Ramar Henderson, MS, a graduate student who spoke about the benefits of a mentoring relationship.  It featured both research findings on effective cross-cultural relationships and personal reflections, and the discussion was filled with warmth, laughter and genuine sharing.  

Earlier in the day, I had the honor of presenting along with Joe White, on a panel organized by TJP members Agnes Kwong, PhD and Christy Hofsess, PhD who together own the business Interconnections Counseling and Consulting.  The panel focused on social justice oriented mentorship and building social justice community in Seattle.  I noticed how much our panel and the one by Chan, White and Henderson reflected common themes of effective cross-cultural relationships (whether mentoring, therapeutic, collegial, or friendship) including transparency, authenticity, ability to acknowledge power differentials and the impact of culture, and ability to stay present in conflict and repair ruptures.  

I also attended several workshops that were highly informative and useful, if not deeply experiential.  There was an excellent panel on transgender psychosocial, family, and health issues, and a half-day workshop on microaggressions presented by Derald Wing Sue, PhD.  One of the interesting concepts that Dr. Sue discussed was a definition of power as a group’s ability to define reality.  I thought about how true this is not only in terms of groups holding and benefitting from privilege by way of social membership, but also professionally.  For example, Western definitions of mental health, as specified for example in widely disseminated documents such as the DSM, have the power to define what is normal, abnormal, treatable, medically necessary, etc.  This is a dangerous power to hold especially if one does not feel that the document defining reality is accurately reflecting everyone's realities (versus just the realities of those in groups holding privilege).


A discourse running throughout the Summit was the role of science and research findings in multicultural psychology.  The theme of this particular Summit was “bridging psychological science and practice in the public interest,” and there was a lot of discussion about whether Science with a capitol “S” (i.e., the kind that gets published in professional journals) actually serves or harms marginalized groups, and whether the culture of science is actually at odds with the culture of multicultural psychology.

Despite all of these good experiences, I was still left wanting more.  Where were the difficult dialogues that we hear so much about from past Summits?  It seemed the most difficult dialogue that was happening at this conference was that between clinicians and researchers, an old conflict I've already heard way too much about.  I finally got what I was hoping for on the afternoon of the last day, when some friends organized an impromptu group meeting.  Calling it a “Flialogue” (that’s what you get when you mix a “flash mob” with a “dialogue,”) the group was advertised by word of mouth and was loosely organized around a discussion of privilege.  It was clear I wasn't the only one who was craving this kind of experience, as about 30 people showed up, including graduate students, professors, administrators, and private practitioners.  Despite not knowing one another and not really doing any group work around building trust or setting norms, the discussion went deep, fast.  For example, a white participant shared  shared candidly about her difficulty “getting” the lived experience of those in marginalized groups who have experienced oppression and loss.  Several graduate students talked about the simultaneous experience of gaining privilege as they attain their graduate education and degree, while losing touch with their culture and sometimes their family.  For example, one student of color described relatives teasing him whenever he goes home for a visit, saying “Oh, Dr. So and So is in the house now!,” both admiring and mocking his new status.

This discussion more than anything else at the Summit really stirred up a lot of thought and conflicting emotions for me.  For one thing, it got me thinking about the ongoing discussion we have had within TJP leadership regarding the elitism of psychology, and questioning whether reforming traditional graduate psychology training is really where we want to put our energies when this is an institution that continues to maintain or exacerbate the resource gap.  The discussion also stirred up lots of thoughts about the sacrifices inherent in interacting with the dominant culture when one holds membership in a marginalized group.  For example, a Black graduate student in the group described interacting with her friends of color with greater ease and different cadence than with Euro-American friends, and talked about how much she has to "leave at the door" when interacting with white students and professors in school.  This caused me to think about how much I leave at the door, as a Jew and as a lesbian, something that I rarely consider.  Having the wonderful opportunity to hang out all week with a dear friend who is both queer and Jewish and who stayed at my home for the duration of the conference, I recognized the "code shifting" that I myself do when moving from the easy and familiar waters of cultural sameness to the sometimes more treacherous waters of dominant (white, male, heterosexual) culture.  I also (not for the first time, unfortunately) was faced with my own internalized anti-Semitism when watching a Jewish colleague who was gesturing and verbalizing with enthusiasm (translating in my head: being too loud, interrupting too much, just being "too Jewish") but this time I was able to recognize this unpleasant thought as a usually unconscious but deeply held fear, based in historical trauma, that she would be ostracized or punished in some way for her culturally relevant expressiveness.

There is a famous Audre Lorde essay entitled, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” which some of you may be familiar with.  In it she challenges and attacks the underlying racism of feminism, arguing that feminists are aligned with white male dominated power structures and therefore are preventing rather than promoting real change.  I have heard local psychologist and feminist foremother Laura Brown state that maybe you can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools, but you can remodel it.  This comment always gets a laugh but it also raises an interesting question: although the tools that we have (which might include science, scientific research, and traditional graduate school training) might not be enough to overthrow existing oppressive power structures, can we at least hope to reform those structures enough so that they pave the way for real transformative change?  I don’t know the answer, and am very much on the fence with this question myself.  I also believe that this question was at the heart of the Summit, and perhaps was mirrored in the “feel” of the conference itself, which many described as more “flat,” less subversive, less challenging and somehow more "APA-ish" than in previous years.  Was this the result of mainstream psychology appropriating multiculturalism, which is now "in" instead of being considered "fringe" or "alternative"?  Or was it part of an acculturation process, a reflection of what individuals in marginalized groups have to leave at the door in order to participate in academia, where dominant groups still set the norms?  Are we just remodeling the master's house, or really dismantling it?

If you attended the Summit or just have thoughts about what I’ve said here, I hope you will write in with your thoughts and comments.