La-Toya Gaines, PsyD, LP recently gave the keynote address at the 2017 Psi Chi Induction Ceremony at MSP. Dr. Gaines was kind enough to share a copy of her speech for this blog post.
First, I’d like to say thank you for the invitation to speak tonight. I am honored and humbled by the invitation and the experience. Congratulations to tonight’s inductees as well.
Recently, I attended a symposium hosted by the Metro Detroit Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists. I was discussing my experience of this event with a current student. This student shared with me her experience of the closing speaker’s presentation.
This student was most intrigued by the speaker’s question: Am I a Black psychologist or a psychologist who happens to be Black? I, too, found myself to be intrigued by the question and wondered how the speaker went about answering it.
Ultimately, this question has lingered on in my thoughts and I have pondered how I might answer this question myself. My Blackness has always been a part of my identity; I can’t think of a time when it isn’t. I describe myself as a Black woman and a Black professor so it makes sense that I would also consider myself a Black psychologist, right?
On a daily basis I engage in what’s called “shifting.” In a nutshell, shifting involves the behavioral changes that some African American individuals engage in that is dependent upon the context he or she is in. This shifting occurs not just because of the relationships of those involved but it is directly related to race. I shift based on what I gauge to be acceptance of me, specifically my Blackness.
See, while I know that my Blackness is not synonymous with living in the ghetto, being in poverty, low income or uneducated, other’s don’t see it that way and they will equate my Blackness with these things and worse.
So how does this relate to my original question, Am I a Black Psychologist or am I a psychologist who happens to be Black?
When I encounter Black clients, there are several things that are clear right away. First, they intentionally sought out a Black psychologist. Second, they believe my treatment of them will be free of stereotypes about them. Third, there is a belief that I understand their fear of the medical profession in general.
By choosing a Black psychologist, my Black clients assume safety and mutual understanding. They assume a shared experience of racial bias and systemic oppression and they don’t have to explain the black experience to me.
There is a belief that my treatment of them, their families, and their children will take care to avoid misdiagnosis, medications haphazardly prescribed for behavior control, and labeling them as crazy. There is a belief that I already understand what that feels like.
I don’t take these feelings of trust and safety lightly nor do I believe they are blindly given. But it is in these moments when I know that I am a Black psychologist charged with the duty and responsibility to provide a service that these clients can trust and believe in.
To see them as worried mothers, fathers, husbands and wives; to see them as traumatized, vulnerable children and adolescents; to see them as people who have experienced enough stigma and who deserve the dignity of treatment free of bias and to recognize it is no accident that they chose a Black psychologist.
It’s important to recognize that as psychologists, our identities inform how clients see us and how we see them. The APA guidelines on multicultural standards of practice call on psychologists to challenge our own attitudes and beliefs that influence our perceptions of others who are different from us. Further, they impart upon us the urgent need for culturally sensitive treatment and interventions that are as diverse as the populations we serve.
So while it is important to excel as scholars, it is equally important for us to demonstrate excellence in cultural competency. Monica McGoldrick writes, “When people are secure in their own identity, they tend to act with greater flexibility and openness to those of other cultural backgrounds.”
And maybe this flexibility and openness will increase the likelihood that Black clients will feel safe seeking out a psychologist who isn’t Black.
 McGoldrick, M., Giordano, J., & Garcia-Preto, N. (2005). Overview: Ethnicity and family therapy. In M. McGoldrick, J. Giordano, N. Garcia-Preto (Eds.), Ethnicity and family therapy (3rd ed., pp. 1-40). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Dr. La-Toya Gaines is a Core Faculty member at MSP.