Reflections of a prospective Black Psychologist

Charity Kibathi on internal biases and systemic racism in psychology.

It’s safe to say that if the past few months have highlighted anything, it is the lack of understanding and awareness of the difficulties Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people face in our society today – and, the struggles they face within psychology.

I have struggled to articulate how the past months have impacted me. In writing this, I am reminded of the need for those who identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethic to speak out about the injustice they continue to face, while also recognising the emotional strain and trauma this may cause in those who do so.

As the field strives to become inclusionist, it is important to recognise that psychology is not its own entity, it is not separate from our society, and inequalities flow within the profession and discipline. I have always been aware of this, but more so within recent months.

Reflecting on the many BPS statements about systemic racism, there is no doubt that there is an ongoing narrative of insincerity and detachment. The focus seems to be on rationalising future intentions within the field, rather than focusing on the impact racism has had on BAME people and acknowledging how the systems in place have only perpetuated this.

While I agree that it is incredibly important to map out the projection of the discipline, we must also acknowledge the lack of representation and diversity in those who have the power and means to make meaningful change in the field. How does a system address racial injustice without fully understanding the experiences and impact of racism or consulting those who have lived it? 

I’ve always acknowledged my blackness and recognised that this, for one reason or another, would act as barrier within the field, but it became more apparent to me following the death of George Floyd. Managing the discomfort and feelings of helplessness that arose from watching the inhumane death of George Floyd, I was reminded of the parallels between this very public and unjust mistreatment of people of colour and that which still occurs in our society today and the systems within it.

Speaking with other BAME colleagues, there seemed to be a shared sense fear and uncertainty in the field, a pull from white peers for us to ‘educate’ others while also recognising that racism was not of our own doing and, therefore, not our responsibility to dismantle. There was a shared fear of speaking out about micro-aggressions in case you weren’t believed or worse, stereotyped and labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘hard to work with’. There was a shared understanding of what seems to be an internal bias, acknowledging that we all have one, but also recognising that ultimately we would be held back, overlooked, invalidated and dismissed due to the unconscious biases of those who disliked the colour of our skin.

While I recognised the weight and importance of the work that needs to be done, I felt a sense of pessimism about change occurring, given the time it’s taken psychology to progress and get this far. As a prospective Black Psychologist, I am in no doubt that navigating the field will be challenging, and is likely to have more of an emotional impact on me than my white peers, in what can often feel like an unwelcoming space. 

While I’m happy to hear that the BPS is committed to upholding the values of equality and diversity, I, like many others, unfortunately take little comfort in knowing this, and I recognise that there is still so much more work that needs to be done. I hope that the BAME experience reflected in society and within the media over the past few months has been eye opening and that this enlightenment leads to change in the future.

My hope is that even when the news stops reporting that ‘Black Lives Matter’, when posts of ‘Racial Inequality’ in the work place no longer flood our social media feeds and when ‘Inclusion and Diversity’ is no longer a topic on the meeting agenda, we continue to address the racial disparity of those within the field and within the patients who access our services. 

In what feels like a critical turning point, my hope is that current and future white psychologists hold on to this enlightenment. I hope that the acknowledgement of privilege and power continues, and that we continue to discuss internal biases and systemic racism in psychology. 

- By Charity Kibathi, Assistant Psychologist at Rotherham CAMHS, Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust

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