The Whitewashing of Psychology

We all have been exposed and influenced to the whitewashing of psychology, whether we’re a part of the professional academic discourse or not. Psychology theories and practices often times inform political policies to educational interventions that impact everyone in their daily lives. Here at Muhlenberg, psychology students learn about these theories and methods but we also are aware of the current field’s limitations. A significant flaw in the field is lack or representation of people of color in research as well as a lack of multicultural backgrounds involved in the development of theories. Psychology both in literature as well as the structure of the academic discipline has been centered around whiteness and maintained through the master narrative. This point is explained in a paper written by Dr. Jonathan Lassiter, a professor and clinician who focuses on Afrocentric and multicultural psychology in relation to health disparities between people of color and white people. His essay, Whiteness in the Psychological Imagination, explains whiteness as a hegemonic set of mainstream socioeconomic processes that can be characterized as feelings, behaviors, and cultural norms operating to obscure power and to foster privilege for the dominant social elite. In other words, many aspects of our lives – from society to education to economic status – is based in white norms and structured around the white dominant culture. This oppresses people of color while providing power and privilege to anyone of the dominant culture. Master narratives act as cultural, normative scripts that specify how to control and carry out those social processes. The master narrative is what the dominant culture sets out as the standard norm and any perspective that challenges the norm is known as the counter narrative and is considered inadequate and is torn down.

Many of the psychology theories that have been developed and used today is assumed to be universally applicable throughout the world. However, most peer reviewed research has only been conducted throughout western industrialized countries like the United States. In these countries a particular guideline requirement for qualification of a statistically significant study is anything that occurs less than 5% of the time. This research is then generalized to larger populations, however the U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population and yet it is accepted. That these theories and practices represent 95% of the world without being tested. This is an example of the white washing of psychology. Most of the research conducted in psychology has only been tested against the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations which are small percentages of the diverse world. This research largely underrepresents people of color while claiming these approaches are universal for all. These flaws in research further adhere to the field of psychology to whiteness, while ignoring people of multicultural backgrounds.

Psychology continues to be whitewashed through the embodiment of the master narrative in the editorial peer review process.  This is seen through mainstream research where the methods of research, choice of topic, and patterns of authorship is seen as compatible with publication guidelines are also the research that adheres to the white dominant paradigm. According to Dr. Lassiter, this can be seen when examining psychology journals in the late 1990s where 43% of the studies failed to present data about race or ethnicity. In fact many of these studies referred to their non-white participants as “Other.” This once again whitewashes psychology by failing to include people of color into the research while maintaining white people as the default dominant culture. 

These acts of white washing psychology further oppress people of color within the field as well as the larger population. It is important that psychology begins to focus on multicultural backgrounds in both the participants involved in research and choice of study. Colleges and universities are beginning to reevaluate the structure of curriculum in an attempt to include material from authors with multicultural identities. As well as have courses that are centered in marginalized identities history and culture instead of examining material through the lens of white history and culture. As more students and faculty push to immerse multicultural perspectives in the foundations of scholarship and research, I wonder how the demand for multicultural representation in academic fields such as psychology will begin to shift the focus in the choice of studies that are funded and subsequently published? Will we begin to see data that support theories that can actually be applicable to the rest of the world? Who (people and their roles) can facilitate this shift?