Few psychologists or psychology students would consider themselves blatantly racist. But as some students taking a Boston University (BU) course on social oppression are finding, racist biases aren't readily apparent. In fact, many people aren't even aware they have biases because their views are seamlessly woven into the fabric of society, braced by its social structures.

Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, has designed the course to enlighten doctoral students in BU's clinical psychology program about the intellectual underpinnings of discrimination. Students dig deep into themselves to understand how their actions and attitudes contribute to the unfair treatment of minorities.

Henderson hopes this will help them become more culturally competent psychology practitioners and researchers.

"It's crucial for psychologists to be aware of social and cultural context when counseling clients," says Daniel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. "People don't come to the table with the same background information. They make statements to each other and don't understand the source. In treating women of color, for instance, some therapists assume that all black people come from poor families and are raised in inner cities."

Sensitizing students

Daniel's course responds to psychology's growing need for education and training in cultural competence. While the nation's minority populations are growing rapidly, in many cases mental health treatment has failed these groups. Studies show that minorities terminate counseling at a rate of more than 50 percent after only one contact with the therapist. By contrast, fewer than 30 percent of white clients end their therapy after the first session. Daniel hopes to turn that trend around by making psychology students more sensitive to other cultures.

In the seminar, held once a week for three months, students examine the historical development and contemporary character of racism in psychology and study personal accounts of oppression from the perspective of the victim. They also look at how they may unconsciously take part in oppression and examine the role of their own backgrounds in shaping their views. According to Marcus Patterson, chair-elect of the American Association of Graduate Students, "denial of racism, particularly among whites, seems to be one of the central legacies of this country's tradition of racial prejudice and discrimination.

"Dr. Daniel's class," Patterson continues, "shows the pervasive, subtle and insidious nature of racism and social oppression. This understanding is the most important step toward achieving cultural competence and sensitivity to differences. Such a course is invaluable for future clinicians who plan to practice psychology in this society."

The seminar is comprised of 14 sessions, in which students discuss reading assignments (see "Further Reading," page 76) and see videotapes. The week that the class discussed multicultural counseling, for instance, Daniel showed a videotaped interview of Toni Morrison, in which the award-winning fiction writer talked about her experience growing up in a small Ohio town and the gift of storytelling she inherited from her parents--the topic sparked a lively discussion of history-taking in context.

When the class focused on studying the relationship between slave and master, students read portions of "My Bondage and My Freedom," by Frederick Douglass. But instead of examining the document from a literary/historical perspective as is typical, students read it from a developmental one, identifying critical incidents in Douglass's life during crucial developmental stages. Students also watched a video depicting subtle prejudices embedded in media portrayals of slaves as happy minstrels.

The seminar's requirements include two major writing projects. One involves writing a comprehensive racial psychohistory--due midway through the semester--to document the role that race has played in shaping the students' philosophy of living, personality, outlook on life, patterns of interaction and coping. The other project requires students to write a term paper on a type of oppression that they've either experienced directly or that they're interested in exploring, weaving into the paper what they've learned from their readings and analyzing the incident from a psychological perspective.

"I want them to relate the readings to oppression in general when writing the final paper," says Daniel, even though the course focuses on race. "I give them examples of oppression topics explored by former students, which include the stigma of mental illness in the family; sexual/physical abuse; domestic violence; substance abuse by parents and siblings; being a homosexual; being a family member of various religious groups. The topics are endless."

Talking about race

Laura Campbell, a second-year clinical psychology graduate student, liked the class structure because it created a forum for lively discussions about race and culture in a nonthreatening environment. One of her most enlightening discoveries came about during the class discussion on racism and racial identity development.

"I never really thought about what it meant to be white," says Campbell. "When [white] people think of racial issues, they define everyone else by their race except Caucasian people."

But now, she says, "I think more about how my race would affect the therapeutic interaction with a minority client. I think more about what some [minority] clients' natural reaction might be to me. Will this client wonder if I can understand where she is coming from in terms of her daily frustrations? It's okay to say, 'I'm not an expert on this. I need to hear other people's accounts and consult with someone else when my perspective is incomplete.'"

Kamala Greene, a 26-year-old fourth-year graduate student, was also surprised by Daniel's class. The course forced her to look at ways she, as a heterosexual woman, could be oppressive to gays and lesbians. "If you are of the ruling class, you are not aware that you are imposing what you are used to on other people, says the African-American student who is planning to do an internship at the Boston VA Medical Hospital next year. "I realized that it's oppressive for people who are gay or lesbians to see men and women kissing all the time and never see themselves represented."

What Greene found most helpful about the class was that "you didn't just sit and take notes like you do in most courses. People learned to feel comfortable sharing their experiences and yet it was an academic environment, not a therapy session." Especially useful, Greene said, were the "feedback notes," that Daniel required each student to write after class. In these informal drafts, students described their feelings, thoughts and views regarding the class discussion. The notes were submitted to Daniel at the beginning of the next class.

"Most people aren't comfortable saying what they feel at first," says Daniel. "That's why I ask them to write it down instead on a piece of paper and include any questions they may still have about the topic. At the next class, I can respond to the questions, which generates more discussion. That's how you get people to open up."

Daniel agrees that the class conversations can get emotionally charged "since people can get defensive when discussing race because, in part, they are unfamiliar with having constructive exchanges about race, with actually listening to people and seeking to understand why they hold particular beliefs, without using labels. They need to be in a setting where they can explore ideas without being silenced due to the fear of being seen as prejudiced or racist."

Such conversations, she says, shouldn't be avoided. "I want them [students] to be smart about emotionally charged issues," she says. "I want them to acknowledge that they have feelings about race, and talk about it so they can take it in, feel it and then be better able to manage their feelings. The emphasis in my class is on thinking as well as feeling."

Marcela Kogan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md.

Further Reading

  • Douglass, F. (1969). My Bondage and My Freedom. Dover Publishing.

  • Fine M., Powell, L. & Wong, L.C. (1999). Off White: Readings on Race, Power and Society. Routledge.

  • Frankenburg, R. (1993). White Women, Race Matters. University of Minnesota Press.

  • Sue, D.W. & Sue, S. (1999). Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice. Wiley.