Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity


When I was in the first grade, one of my peers declared that he was to be my boyfriend. A few days later, he informed me that he could not be my boyfriend because I am Mexican. He shared that his mother had told him that it was a "bad thing" to be Mexican. This confused me, and I had many questions for my mother when I arrived home. I wanted to understand what had happened and what it might mean. My mother responded to my questions and account of events by, after becoming quite upset, declaring that, in no uncertain terms, anyone who made such claims, including my so-called "former boyfriend" or his mother, was simply wrong.

This was my first encounter with differential treatment and being defined as inferior, solely on the basis of my ethnicity. It was also perhaps the beginning of an emerging motivation to prove that the bigoted, false claims made by perpetrators of discrimination were unequivocally wrong. Early on, and even to this day, family and community have provided the solid, affirming support I've needed to approach such a daunting mission. We can imagine how the young man began to learn bias, and how I began to be affected. Examples abound of experiences I've had of being mistreated, excluded and marginalized as a result of bias, prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination. My ethnicity has not been the only basis of such injustice. My status as a member of a working class household, being female and experiencing temporary disabilities added "fuel to the fire" of claims that I was "less than."

On the other hand, it would be impossible to duly credit the extent to which the support I have been so fortunate to receive has made it possible to cultivate and nurture an ever-growing level of determination, one of the many rewards of which has been a solid resilience. I have been able to achieve a level of success that by any standards proves that the most deleterious of injustices and barriers rooted in an extremely flawed belief system can be overcome.  

To avoid any risk of promoting a “we victims, you perpetrators” mentality, I also share a story from a much different perspective, one in which I was the perpetrator. This event also occurred in grade school and involved someone I had befriended, a Latino peer with a visible disability. Needing support and friendship, he followed me around school until finally one day my other friends complained about his constant presence. Fearful of being ostracized by these peers, I publically humiliated him by telling him to go away, adding a shove to emphasize the point. To this day, I feel shame and sadness at the look of shock and hurt on his face as he fell backward to the ground. These simple yet very painful examples illustrate not only childhood dynamics of exclusion, but also the manner in which we can all be drawn into both perpetuating discrimination and avoiding action, and thus are all affected by the dynamics leading to the exclusion, maltreatment and marginalization of others.

Sharing events from my life such as these, which occurred at the age of 6 or 7, is relatively easy to do now. However, acknowledging that I have been both victim and perpetrator all my life, the latter most often unintentionally, is much more painful and difficult. I, like many others, strive diligently to prevent being in either role, or at least try to do what I can to mediate the effects of discrimination, and to either prevent or diminish the impact a perpetrator imposes. My belief is that the more we know and understand the complex dynamics of exclusion, while learning, documenting and informing others about the benefits of inclusion, the better we can accomplish these goals.

Virtually everyone has been treated unfairly at some point. But many in society experience marginalization simply by virtue of their racial, ethnic, (dis)ability, gender, class, age and/or sexual identity. The discrimination, stereotyping, and bias that lead to exclusion and marginalization exacts an enormous toll on individuals and groups, and ultimately on society. The ever-expanding diversity in this country is now a fact of life. Chances improve for thwarting exclusion and marginalization when the potential, capacity and talent of all members of society are fulfilled, and as many individuals as possible have a chance to be highly contributing members.

When I thought about potential presidential initiatives, I knew that much of the psychological research about discrimination and diversity has expanded significantly. I envisioned an integration of the cutting edge research in regard to these issues. What are the mechanisms, consequences, and principles of discrimination, stereotyping and bias? How do we teach others to be kind and compassionate, and to acknowledge differences without negative judgment? How do we inoculate people from the deleterious effects of exclusion and marginalization? How do we promote a society that celebrates inclusion, promotes genuine equality, and not only tolerates but celebrates and appreciates diversity?

The report, produced by members of the APA Presidential Task Force on Reducing and Preventing Discrimination Against and Enhancing Benefits of Inclusion of People Whose Social Identities Are Marginalized in U.S. Society, provides much of the relevant psychological science that has evolved in the past few years. I am very fortunate that James M. Jones, PhD agreed to serve as chair of this task force, and together he and I identified key researchers who were able and willing to devote time, energy, and effort to producing the report found here.

Task force members quickly realized that the report needed to focus on dual strategies:  to prevent discrimination, and to nurture and maximize the benefits of diversity. The structure of the report includes an introduction that provides the meaning of terms as they are used in this report. The report is structured by use of a series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), a very creative and clear way of presenting psychological research. Part One describes the mechanisms, consequences and principles of discrimination, including how people cope. Part Two describes the mechanisms of inclusion and beneficial diversity dynamics. Part Three describes the mechanisms and strategies for reducing exclusionary processes and promoting diversity by understanding inclusionary processes that can produce functionally beneficial settings, contexts, institutions and environments. Part Four provides recommendations (which are consistent with APA’s Strategic Plan, including its vision, mission and specific goals), and references are included in Part Five.

I am very appreciative of the task force members, stakeholders who reviewed the report, and APA staff members who toiled to produce and improve this valuable document and resource, and to you, the reader, for your willingness to take time to increase understanding about these important concepts that so affect peoples’ lives. You may even experience emotional transformation! Our hope is that the content of the report as well as the recommendations can be used as valuable and helpful resources for researchers, educators, practitioners (psychotherapists as well as workplace discrimination forensic practitioners), students and policymakers. I also hope that this contribution puts a “dent” in one of the grand challenges in society.

Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, ABPP
2011 President, American Psychological Association

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