Achieving Excellence Through Diversity

The Huffington Post: Huffpost Black Voices

By Dr. Natalie Cort June 02, 2016

As a Black professor in a predominantly White academic institution, I am aware of a conflict, a battle of ideas, or perhaps more accurately cognitive dissonance among many of my White students. For those students, my Blackness cannot legitimately coexist with my brilliance, my accomplishments, my expertise, and my PhD. Many may reach for the comfort inherent in assuming that this is simply my perception, not a real truth. However, these are challenges shared with me by some of my courageous White students. Although I have been stunned into silence in those moments, I appreciate those students’ honesty about an unconscious conflict experienced by many White Americans faced with minority excellence. 

My students’ confusion stems in large part from the profound lack of faces of color in academia, in graduate psychology programs, and the larger mental health workforce, a topic that will be addressed at William James College’s (WJC) annual gala on May 5. Although racial/ethnic minorities represent 30% of the American population, approximately 90% of mental health professionals identify as non-Hispanic White. Furthermore, in 2013, only 5.3% of psychologists were Black and less than 5% of Black individuals enrolled in graduate psychology programs. This paucity means that ubiquitous implicit biases, resulting from America’s historical and contemporary racialized inequities, have few opportunities to be challenged and dismantled.  

The consequences of unexamined implicit biases are profound. President Bush’s 2002 New Freedom Commission on Mental Health stated “misunderstanding and misinterpreting behaviors [of racial/ethnic minorities] have led to tragic consequences, including inappropriately placing minorities in the criminal and juvenile justice system.” In other words, well-meaning mental health professionals contribute to what I have unoriginally labelled the “misdiagnosis to prison pipeline.” This process is demonstrated by research indicating that minority children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorders are significantly less likely to be accurately diagnosed, even when presenting with more severe symptoms and risk factors (Mandell, Ittenbach, Levy, & Pinto-Martin, 2007; Morgan et al. 2013). Untreated attentional and behavioral problems are often viewed as signs of conduct disorder (Mandell et al., 2007; Nguyen, Huang, Arganza, & Liao, 2007; Spencer & Watts, 1999), thereby increasing the likelihood of educators’ application of academic disciplinary actions (e.g., suspensions, expulsions). According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014), students of color are disproportionately subjected to such actions, which are robustly associated with entry into the juvenile justice system. 

Graduate psychology programs, which reflect the larger society, are largely characterized by ethnocentric monoculturalism. Consequently, perspectives about psychological health and pathology, primarily defined by White men, are limited. However, there is a growing recognition of the need to integrate equally valid multicultural perspectives. WJC’s Center for Multicultural and Global Mental Health and Black Mental Health Graduate Academy, a pipeline program to recruit Black psychology graduate students, address this need. America’s burgeoning and enriching multiculturalism, requires that graduate psychology programs, to remain relevant, vigorously foster students’ recognition of the excellence achieved through the celebration of and advocacy for diversity.

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