Memories of Racism, Memories of Grace – Among Professionals

In this post, my friend and colleague Dr. Hue-Sun Ahn (pronounced Hae-Sun) shares about an experience with racism in the professional world of clinical counselors and psychologists. I’m sure many readers will resonate with her story as racism is still systemic across most professional disciplines.

Dr. Ahn received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania (Go Penn! ;p). She currently works as a Licensed Psychologist at the Counseling and Psychological Services of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). Dr. Ahn also has a part-time private practice in Princeton, NJ. Prior to TCNJ, she worked at the counseling centers of Temple University and Princeton University.

Her article was originally published by the Pennsylvania Psychological Association in the October 2008 issue of their newsletter The Pennsylvania Psychologist. Dr. Ahn, thank you for allowing me to share this article on my blog. I know many professionals will find it helpful and encouraging. If you would like to contact her, you can email Dr. Hue-Sun Ahn at ahn@tcnj.edu.

Among Our Kin, With Our Kin: Tackling Issues of Race and Racism

Following my experiences at the America Psychological Association (APA) State Leadership Conference (SLC) as a diversity delegate this past spring, I spoke with several other psychologists to try to gain a better understanding and to debrief about an experience I had there as a person of color in a largely white organization. Out of the conversations came the idea for writing this article in order to share awareness, encourage self-reflection and open up dialogue among my colleagues. Because discussions about race are often emotionally charged and can cause us to shut down during dialogue, I was mindful of how I wanted to approach this topic. It actually took me months to get the first few words out on paper, though it frequently occupied my mind.

As a person of color, I feel that speaking up about issues of race is not only important professionally, but personally as well. The privilege to write about this experience carries with it a responsibility. Others often have similar experiences but are not given the opportunity to address them with a larger audience.
I found myself struggling with many feelings and thoughts, ranging between anger and disillusionment because it occurred in a setting that I least expected – among colleagues of leading psychologists. Moreover, I feared that my words might offend another or that they might not do justice to my experiences and others. Though some may read this article and dismiss it as an isolated incident, my hope is that the readers will understand that this is not an uncommon experience for many people of color on a daily basis.

When Dr. Andrea Delligatti called me earlier this year to invite me to attend the SLC as the diversity delegate, along with the leaders of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association, I felt honored but also nervous. Not having previously heard of the SLC, I did not know what to expect. However, I was reassured by other members of the Committee on Multiculturalism who had previously attended that it would be a great opportunity to learn about the role of leadership and advocacy in APA and in state and territorial psychological associations (STPA). Attending the SLC was definitely a great learning experience for me, though not in ways that I had expected.

The first day of the conference was scheduled solely for the president-elects and diversity delegates of the various STPAs. I was initially overwhelmed by all the acronyms and the names and titles of various leaders of APA’s Practice Directorate. I entered the room where the first session was scheduled to take place and, as I often do, I looked around to see how many participants look like me. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many other psychologists of color in the room. However, I also noted that there was only one president-elect who was of color.

The main focus of the conference was to prepare us to go to Capitol Hill on the final day to advocate for issues involving the practice of psychology. As diversity delegates, however, we found that the training did not incorporate any issues of diversity into the general advocacy system at the state and national levels; so our presence at the SLC felt like a token effort on the part of the leadership. In addition, many of us also experienced several incidents of racial micro-aggressions that left us feeling marginalized and disheartened.

On one occasion during the conference, I was called an Oriental by a president-elect of another large STPA. Although I know that for people of earlier generations this is not an uncommon label for a person of Asian descent, I did not expect to hear it from a trained psychologist. Given the now long
history of multicultural counseling and research in psychology, I assumed that most active clinicians would have come across readings or trainings indicating that this term is outdated and offensive. That the person who made this comment was a president-elect of an STPA only added to my dismay.

This same person also commented that it seemed to him that about half of the SLC attendees were people of color, when my estimate was about ten to twenty percent (about 50-60 among a total of over 500 attendees). I confronted this person’s observations by asking how many people of color he noticed at our table of about 20 people. There were only two – me and the diversity delegate from his STPA. I also pointed out to him that I had only noticed one person of color among the president-elects of all the STPAs. Putting the actual numbers aside, the covert message that I received, whether intended or not, was, there are too many of you here.

The above exchange led me to flashbacks of all my previous experiences of being marginalized as an Asian American in the U.S., from the first few months after I arrived in the U.S. at the age of 8 to my more recent experiences of micro-aggressions from my practitioner colleagues. The all-too- familiar comments from childhood of “Go back to your country, Chink!” rang in my ears. The feelings related to being the token person of color among a staff of mostly white colleagues returned. I also recalled confrontational comments from previous supervisors when I was told you’re being aggressive when I refused to be silenced or ignored in staff meetings.

Feeling disappointed that the workshops lacked any substantive information about practice and advocacy issues regarding diversity, I approached a member of the leadership with my concerns and wishes for change. He initially responded by saying, to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’ll ever change. He then suggested that I raise these issues by asking questions in the Q&A sections of each workshop and keynote talks. This was actually an empowering suggestion because I hadn’t yet taken advantage of the power of my own voice in any of the sessions.

I then did so in the subsequent two workshops that I attended on internship matters and membership recruitment. I raised questions about any breakdown of numbers of trainees by race and any assessments of whether their needs were the same or different from white trainees. I also asked for ideas in recruiting psychologists of color to STPAs. Again, I was disappointed that the presenters were not able to provide substantive information or suggestions, other than to comment that the issue still needed to be addressed.

Though the suggestion to raise the issue was helpful in empowering me, it was also disheartening and disempowering to hear a white male, in a position of leadership, to tell me, an Asian American female, that things are not likely to change and that it was my responsibility to make the changes. I suspect that this person did not understand or, at the least, underestimated, the impact of his statement in the context of our racial and gender power dynamic. I also suspect that he was unaware that I had just experienced yet another incident of micro-aggression in our conversation.

In speaking with other diversity delegates, I learned that they had had similar experiences during the conference. So we came together at a couple of ad hoc meetings to devise a formal group statement, including recommendations for the leadership structure and for future SLC planning, and we presented it to
the Committee of State Leaders (CSL). These state leaders promptly responded to our statements and recommendations by allowing the diversity delegate liaison to begin serving as a full voting member of the CSL. I am pleased to report that as a result of our efforts, the diversity delegate liaison will now also be a part of the Executive Committee of CSL and that the changes were supported and authorized by the Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice (CAPP).

To add another hopeful development, a member of the leadership offered to have a conference call to open dialogue about the ways the diversity delegates felt marginalized and disillusioned by their interactions with him. The dialogue was productive and healing for many. This was a true act of courage by the leadership and the members who spoke up.

As I reflect on the conference, and on this process in particular, I would like to believe that the changes were implemented out of genuine desire for positive change and social justice within the APA Practice Organization. I feel encouraged, somewhat re-empowered and cautiously optimistic. In writing this article, my hope is that it will raise the awareness of some, validate the experiences of others, and challenge all of us to continue in self-reflection and our work towards growth and social change. Whether or not you’re a psychologist of color or you can personally identify with the experiences I have shared, as a person of a profession that upholds social justice, I hope reading this article will provoke some thought in all of us about the larger structure of racism in the U.S. and its impact on our personal and professional work as psychologists.

If you are interested as to the intent behind the “Memories of Racism, Memories of Grace” series, please visit here to read the first entry. You may read the posts that follow chronologically after the initial entry as well for other recollections of racism and thoughts concerning the issue.

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