Psychology and Race in Racialized Societies
Summary and Keywords
Within racialized societies, the meaning of race is an important topic of psychological study. As Helms and colleagues has been pointed out, however, race has no consensual theoretical or scientific meaning in psychology, although the term race is frequently used in psychological theory, research, and practice as if it has obvious meaning. A recent cultural historical analysis of race scholarship concluded that race as a label has developed over time, leading to the treatment of race as a “thing.” Such ideological use of race as a thing has been discredited. Nevertheless, socially destructive ideological concepts of race have been embedded in racialized societies to varying degrees through social, economic, and political institutions and their practices.
In the history of the field of psychology, race has had various theoretical conceptualizations (i.e., definitions). Most of these theoretical conceptualizations can be linked to larger scientific and societal movements within racialized societies. Relatedly, psychologists have adopted various epistemological and methodological approaches to studying race, although positivist empiricism has dominated. The complexities of the theoretical conceptualization and methodological approaches in the field of psychology for studying race have led to multiple analyses of how to address “psychology’s problems with race.” Multiple features of a racialized society provide the broader context for the study race within the field of psychology.
Contextual Considerations in Conceptualizing Psychology and Race in Racialized Societies
The discipline of psychology emerged and differentiated itself from others in the era coincident with the high tide of the effort to forge a systematic approach to studying human beings (see Eze, 1997; Richards, 1998; Winston & Winston, 2012). That effort propelled psychology to seek to be a science with methods analogous to other sciences. A positivistic approach emphasizing classification, quantification, replicability of experiments, and uniformities was therefore foundational for the discipline. As a consequence, the legacy of historically prior racially hierarchical thinking about human beings, particularly during the 18th-century European Enlightenment was absorbed and conventionalized as “scientific thinking” about race (see Winston & Winston, 2012). Therefore, it is not surprising that a purported “scientific” way of thinking about race incorporated prescientific attitudes and beliefs. European explorers, adventurers, conquerors, and traders described their observations of the differences in the physical appearance (e.g., skin color, hair texture, facial features), customs, and religious expressions of indigenous people in various parts of the world. Those differences came to be interpreted as more than somatic variations. The early scientific classifications of human beings as “races” included three groups: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid (see Richards, 1998). One of the most significant outcomes of the legacy of racial classification of human beings based on somatic and cultural variations was the idea of group abilities; that is, certain “races” had particular “temperaments,” psychological or intellectual characteristics and natural endowments that vary by “race” (see Richards, 1998; Winston & Winston, 2012).
As Eberhart (2005) explained, scientists’ ideas in the 19th century about group abilities led to a practice in which they “examined physical differences among racial groups in a direct effort to document Black inferiority and thus justify gross racial inequities. Such earlier approaches are quite significant, as they were inextricably bound to the development of neuroscience as a field (Finger, 1994) and consequently produced dramatic changes in how 19th-century Americans came to reason about race” (p. 186). Historically, the linkage of physical and cultural differences in behavior became the foundation from which scholars’ theoretical conceptualizations and methodological approaches to studying race in psychology have evolved across time.
Many early leaders in the organizational and intellectual movements in the field of psychology were engaged in what historians have designated “scientific racism” (e.g., Paul Broca [1824–1880], Count Arthur de Gobineau [1816–1882], Louis Agassiz [1807–1873], and Samuel Morton [1799–1851]) at the same time (see Bean, 1906; Fairchild, 1991; Gould, 1996; Nott & Gliddon, 1854; Teo, 2011). Teo (2011), for example, in his article “Empirical Race Psychology and the Hermeneutics of Epistemological Violence,” described some of these ideas and their connection to the field of psychology. Teo (2011) noted:
Francis Galton (1822–1991), a pioneer in the field of psychology, argued that Europeans were by nature more intelligent than ‘primitive races’; Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931), one of the founders of social psychology, argued for understanding races as physiologically and psychologically distinct entities that possess separate race souls; Paul Broca (1824–1880), one of the founders of neuropsychology [and] the first President of the American Psychological Association, used a variety of scientific studies to prove his preconceived idea that “non-European races were inferior”; G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924) [a founder of the field of psychology] argued that ‘lower races’ were in a state of adolescence. (p. 238)
Before moving forward with more specific theories and methodological approaches to the study of race in psychology and racialized societies, it is important to define related terms, some of them often misunderstood, used interchangeably, or interpreted loosely by scholars involved in psychological theorizing and research. Because these terms are implicated foundationally in many of the theoretical concepts and methodological approaches used to study race, it is useful to cite leading examples. Jones (1997) conceptualized the terms prejudice, racism, and stereotype in the following way: Prejudice is a positive or negative attitude, judgment, or feeling about a person that is generalized from attitudes or beliefs held about the group to which the person belongs. Racism builds on the negative attitude of prejudice, but includes three other important criteria: First, the basis of group characteristics is assumed to be biological and, therefore, essentially unchangeable. Second, racism has, as a necessary premise, the superiority of one’s own race. Third, racism rationalizes institutional and cultural practices that socially empower the hierarchical domination of one racial group over another. Therefore, although racism shares certain aspects with prejudice, it takes on a decidedly broader and more complex meaning and significance in shaping the lives of individuals and communities when it is linked to various forms of power and influence. Racism assumes three main forms: individual, institutional, and cultural. A stereotype is a positive or negative set of beliefs held by an individual about the characteristics of a group of people (see Dovidio, Evans, & Tyler, 1986; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1998). Because the stereotype is a priori, it is not concerned with accuracy, or the degree to which the stereotyped group members possess the alleged traits, or the extent to which the set of attributed beliefs is shared by others.Williams, Neighbors, and Jackson (2003) conceptualized racial discrimination as the behavioral component of racism that occurs when dominant group members’ behaviors result in differential and negative effects on subordinate group members. Understood in this way, the effect of racialized thinking on the prejudiced or racist individual is a fundamental distortion of perceived reality, similar to the distortions caused by ocular astigmatism in human vision.
Racialized societies are another dimension of the broader context in which race is studied. Winston and Winston (2012) explained that a racialized society develops over time and does not simply emerge from sudden or transitory contact between different racial groups through conquest or immigration. They further argued that “in a racialized society, different groups that have been socially identified as ‘races’ are limited in social and economic roles” (pp. 566–570). Societies in which race is used as a socially differentiating marker are identified therefore as racialized (see Winston & Winston, 2012). Winston and Winston (2012) also made the following distinction:
The concept of a racialized society does not apply to all multiracial societies. In the ancient African and Mediterranean worlds (e.g., in the Egyptian, the Greek or the Roman Empires), Africans, West Asians, and Europeans were significant demographic components of those societies, making them multiracial. But there was not systematic or strict determination of social and economic roles by what would be later called race. (p. 567)
It is important to note contextually that in what follows only the theoretical conceptualizations and methodological approaches that scholars in psychology have specifically identified with terms like racial and race (e.g., racial identity, racial trauma, etc.) are discussed. This means that theory, methods, and research on concepts like ethnicity and culture are not included explicitly, with the exception of presenting the critiques of the use of these terms interchangeably with race, or their common use as a verbal “as distinct from conceptual” alternative to race.
Theoretical Conceptualizations of Race in the History of Psychology
Biological and Genetically Based Theoretical Conceptualizations of Race: Are Humans Distinct “Races” Biologically and Genetically?
The biological and genetically based theoretical conceptualization of race emerged in the field of psychology as a way to describe and explain human variation and population differences (see Richards, 1998; Winston & Winston, 2012). More specifically, some psychologists (like other scientists of their time) explained human population differences in phenomena like intelligence as consequences of immutable, biologically based differences between “racial groups” (see Hernstein & Murray, 1994; Jensen, 1969; Reed & Jensen, 1993; Rushton, 1994, 1995).
In so doing, they propounded arguments that the environment and socioeconomic status did not account for racial group differences in ability and other measurable variations in humans. A vigorous debate ensued among psychologists about the validity of biological and genetic theoretical conceptualizations of race used by some psychologists in the field (see Hilliard, 1984; Rushton, 1995; Shields & Bhatia, 2009; Smedley & Smedley, 2005; Whitfield & McClearn, 2005). Within science generally, and psychology in particular, the idea of biologically distinctive races has definitively been discredited. For example, the recent sequencing of the human genome has shown that all humans are approximately 99.9% the same genetically (see Collins, Green, Guttmacher, & Guyer, 2003).
Race as a Psychosocial Construct: If the Concept of Race Has No Scientific Validity, Should Psychologists Continue To Use the Concept?
Despite psychology’s abandonment of the idea of biologically distinctive races, the concept of race continues to be a significant part of psychological inquiry within the field of psychology (see Jones, 1991a). Conceptualizing race as a psychosocial versus a biological or genetically based concept became widespread in the field of psychology during the 1980s and 1990s. This change can be linked to a number of movements and scholars’ efforts. Among the pioneer psychologists whose research findings in the 1930s and 1940s contributed to the field’s abandonment of the theory of superior and inferior races, particularly with respect to intelligence, was Otto Klineberg (1899–1992), chairman of the Columbia University Department of Psychology and President of the International Union of Psychological Science from to 1960 to 1963 (see Holtzman & Russell, 1992). The civil rights movement and the rise of Black consciousness that took place in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s also shaped psychologists’ theorizing about race during that historical period (see Boykin, Franklin, & Yates, 1979; Cross, 1971) and extended beyond to inform theorizing about race through the 1980s and 1990s (see Fairchild, 1991; Helms, 1994). The basic idea of a psychosocial theoretical conceptualization of race is that it is a social construction, because groups that are recognized by the US government and others are subject to a sociopolitical hierarchy in American society (see American Psychological Association [APA], 2003; Helms, 1994). Also, psychologists have argued that the concept of race has psychological significance due to racism, racial discrimination, prejudice, cultural differences, and phenotypic variation among people classified by custom or law as different “racial groups” (see Akbar, 1984; Azibo, 1983; Baldwin, 1981; Bayton, 1946; Bayton & Smedley, 1978; Boykin, 1986; Boykin et al., 1979; Cress-Welsing, 1991; Cross, 1991; Franklin, 1999; Gordon, 1971; Harrell, 1979, 1999; Harris, 2017; Jones, 1972, 1991b, 1997, 2003; Lewis, 2004; Nobles, 1991; Sumner & Clark, 1945; Winston, 2012; Winston & Winston, 2012).
A relevant consideration when evaluating the contending views in the conceptual debate is that the definitions on both sides of the argument should not be confused with the lived reality of individuals who are affected by their actual lived experience of race as practiced in the society. Discriminatory, racist practices by social institutions, businesses, mass media, and so forth make race an active reality regardless of its definitions or the ways that scientists analyze it. This is the paradox of an ideational construct that becomes not only a reality but also, in certain circumstances, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Stereotyped ideas of “racial” behavior have in fact historically become actualized in the lives of the victims of long-debunked myths of operationalized superstitions.
Racial Identity: What Is the Subjective Meaning of Racial Group Membership?
Racial identity is a variable, multilayered, psychological, and social mechanism that evolves from race consciousness in multiracial and racialized societies. It is derivative of an individual’s lived experiences that are reactions to the individual’s racial group membership. Developmentally, such experiences generate ideas and values in the individual and the group that become part of the individual’s personal identity which, for individuals who are marginalized within racialized societies, is often in tension with the society’s view of that identity (see Cross, 1991; Sellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, & Chavous, 1998; Spencer, 1984). The two most prominent theoretical conceptualizations of racial identity used in most psychological research are grounded in personal (Erikson, 1968) and social identity theories (Stryker & Serpe, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, 2004).
Cross (1971), for example, conceptualized racial identity as a developmental process by which individuals traverse a series of stages in their understanding of what it means to be a member of their racial group. Sellers and his colleagues (Sellers, Chavous, & Cook, 1998; Sellers, Rowley, Chavous, Shelton, & Smith, 1997; Sellers et al., 1998) have adapted personal and social identity theories to conceptualize racial identity as the multidimensional meaning and significance of race within lives. In their scholarship they have found evidence to support their conceptualization of the multidimensional nature of racial identity through examining both relatively developmentally stable properties of racial identity (e.g., racial centrality, racial regard, racial ideology) and investigating more context-specific dynamics of racial identity (e.g., racial salience).
One issue among the debates about racial identity and interpretation of findings has been whether it is associated with well-being (see Banks & Kohn-Wood, 2007; Cross, 1991; Hoggard, Byrd, & Sellers, 2012; Seaton, Neblett, Upton, Hammond, & Sellers, 2011; Sellers, Copeland-Linder, Martin, & Lewis, 2006; Rowley, Sellers, Chavous, & Smith, 1998). Research has also examined the relationship between racial identity and racial discrimination (see Neblett, Shelton, & Sellers, 2004; Seaton et al., 2011; Sellers et al., 2006; Shelton & Sellers, 2003; Smalls, White, Chavous, & Sellers, 2007), racial socialization (Neblett, Smalls, Ford, Nguyen, & Sellers, 2009), achievement (see Chavous, Rivas-Drake, Smalls, Griffin, & Cogburn, 2008; Jagars, Rivas-Drake, & Williams, 2019), spirituality (Mattis, 2004), and phenotypic characteristics like skin color, hair texture, and facial features (see Brown, 2004; Brown, Ward, Lightbourn, & Jackson, 1999; Lewis, 1999; Maddox & Grey, 2002; Maxwell, Abrams, Brevard, & Belgrave, 2014; Mbilishaka, Clemons, Hudlin, Warner, & Jones, 2020; Wilson, Mbilishaka, & Lewis, 2018).
Racial Socialization: How Do Children Learn About Their Racial Group Membership?
Racial socialization is a process involving the verbal and nonverbal racial communication between families and youth about racialized experiences (Anderson & Stevenson, 2019; Lesane-Brown, 2006). This conceptualization of racial socialization takes into account psychology’s general ideas about child-rearing and the role of parents and other family members in teaching children how to cope with challenges inherent in school, peer, neighborhood, and other ecologies of child development (see Boykin & Toms, 1985; Hughes, Witherspoon, Rivas-Drake, & West-Bey, 2009; Stevenson, 2003). One of the most prominent findings in psychological studies is that racial socialization is a protective factor against the effects of racial discrimination (see Anderson, McKenny, & Stevenson, 2018; Barbarian, Tolan, Gaylord-Harden, & Murray, 2019; Hill & Madhere, 1996; Hughes, Johnson, Smith, Rodriguez, Stevenson, & Spicer, 2006; Scott-Jones, 1983; White-Johnson, Ford, & Sellers, 2010) and has mental health benefits (see Neblett, Philip, Cogburn, & Sellers, 2006; Reynolds & Gonzales-Backen, 2017). It also has been found to relate to racial identity (see Hughes et al., 2009; Stevenson & Arrington, 2009; White-Johnson et al., 2010).
Racial Trauma: What Is the Impact of “Race-Based Stress”?
Within the field of psychology, scholars have developed a variety of conceptual approaches to study the impact of race-based stress. For example, in a special issue of the American Psychologist, Comas-Díaz, Hall, and Neville (2019) conceptualized racial trauma as a form of race-based stress and explained that racial trauma “refers to People of Color and Indigenous individuals’ (POCI) reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination ” (p. 1). They explained that racial trauma, though similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is unique because it involves “ongoing individual and collective injuries due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress” (p. 1). In this special issue of the journal, scholars introduced new conceptual models of racial trauma that are specific to different groups of people within the POCI designation (see Anderson & Stevenson, 2019; Awad, Kia-Keating, & Amer, 2019; Chavez-Dueñas, Adames, Perez-Chavez, & Salas, 2019; Gone, Hartmann, Pomerville, Wendt, Klem, & Burrage, 2019; Hartmann, Wendt, Burrage, Pomerville, & Gone, 2019; Nagata, Kim, & Wu, 2019).
Carter (2007) integrated research on racism, discrimination, stress, and trauma to conceptualize how to understand, recognize, and assess race-based traumatic stress and to aid in counseling and psychological assessment, research, and training. He explained that race-based traumatic experiences can occur in the form of witnessing harm to other people of color due to real or perceived racism, threats of harm and injury, or humiliating and shaming events. Research has demonstrated an association between racial trauma and adjustment (see Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2006; Skewes & Blume, 2019). There have also been recent advances in the development of racial trauma treatment models for promoting understanding of the link between racial trauma and healing (see Anderson & Stevenson, 2019; Awad et al., 2019; Chavez-Dueñas et al., 2019) and substance abuse (see Skewes & Blume, 2019).
Racial Microaggressions: What About Everyday Race-Based Slights?
Racial microaggressions are “the everyday slights, insults, putdowns, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people of color experience in daily interactions even with generally well-intentioned White Americans who might be unaware that they have engaged in racially demeaning ways toward target groups” (Sue et al., 2019, p. 129). Recent scholarship has examined the association of racial microaggressions with assimilation (see Liu et al., 2019) and intervention strategies (see Sue et al., 2019). Research has demonstrated that racial microaggressions, along with other forms of racialized behaviors (e.g., racism, discrimination), create a hostile and personally undermining climate within educational, workplace (see Blake-Beard, Murrell, & Thomas, 2007; James, 2000; Roberts, Cha, & Kim, 2014), and healthcare settings (see Clark, Spanierman, Reed, Sobel, & Cabana, 2011; DeCuir-Gunby & Gunby, 2016; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yasso, 2000; Sue, 2010; Sue, Lin, & Rivera, 2009).
Methodological Approaches to Studying Race in the History of Psychology
The methodological approaches adopted by psychologists to study race within the field of psychology have varied conceptually. What follows is a description of a few dominant methodological trends and critiques for the psychological study of race.
Race as an Independent Variable with Experimental Design and Survey Designs
One contemporary methodological approach to studying race is self-reports of racial group membership. Scholars often employ participants’ self-report of racial group membership as an independent variable in their survey and experimental research designs. Within these designs, scholars often use race as an explanatory factor for intergroup differences in psychological phenomena (Betancourt & López, 1993). In the studies, the research instruments are designed to collect self-report data in response to questions that ask study participants to indicate their race by selecting one or more racial groups. Since the 1990s, among the most popular approaches to study race as an independent variable is stereotype-threat experimental research (see Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Murphy & Taylor, 2012; Taylor & Walton, 2011). In their review of stereotype-threat research in the Annual Review of Psychology, Spencer, Logel, and Davies (2016) summarized the conceptual and empirical approach to stereotype-threat research on race in the following way:
According to theorizing by Claude Steele and his colleagues, the targets of the threat may be largely unaware of the source of the threat (Steele, 1997; Steele, Aronson, & Spencer, 2002). They posit that stereotype threat arises from any situational cue indicating that an individual is at risk of being judged in light of a negative stereotype about one of his or her social identities. Such cues may trigger stereotype threat by simply reminding the individual of culturally held stereotypes. Given the prevalence of stereotype threat in traditional testing situations, researchers most often manipulate stereotype threat in the lab by reducing it for some of the participants. For example, to demonstrate stereotype-threat effects on performance, Steele & Aronson (1995) reduced threat by instructing participants that a test was not diagnostic of intellectual ability. Black participants who read these instructions scored equally to White students, controlling for SAT scores. However, Black participants who read instructions that the test was diagnostic of intellectual ability underperformed. (pp. 417–418)
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Techniques for Studying Racial Bias
Innovation in neuroimaging technology available to study the brain has led to use of fMRI techniques to study race. The neuroimaging studies focus on studying race in terms of evaluative processing and processing of faces. In studies on evaluative processing, psychologists examine the relative contributions of socially autonomic (i.e., unconscious or unintentional) and controlled (i.e., conscious or deliberate) processing to racial bias. Eberhardt (2005) explained that the goal of the studies is to determine the extent to which racial bias can be unconsciously triggered versus deliberately controlled. The studies have led to the development of direct measures of bias.
In neuroscience studies on individuals’ processing of human faces, psychologists examine the regions of the brain associated with initial categorization of images of faces of people who are Black or White. In these studies, researchers also seek to understand if the perceived race of a face is associated with different types of neural activity during the early stages of perception (see Cunningham et al., 2004; Eberhardt, 2005; Gauthier, Skudlarski, Gore, & Anderson, 2000; Golby, Gabrieli, Chiao, & Eberhardt, 2001; Hart et al., 2000; Phelps et al., 2000; Richeson et al., 2003; Wheeler & Fiske, 2005).
These contemporary neuroscience studies that employ imaging stand in contrast to the protoneuroscience of the 19th century in which scientists took measurements of the skull sizes (assumed to reflect brain sizes) of groups that were then classified as either Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Scholars postulated that the different skull and brain sizes dictated differences in brain functioning, particularly intelligence (see Gould, 1996; Nott & Gliddon, 1854). The contemporary studies of neuroscience using imaging are informed by theoretical and empirical research in social, cognitive, and developmental psychological research on racial bias (see Barden, Maddux, Petty, & Brewer, 2004; Burgess, van Ryn, Dovidio, & Somnath, 2007; Ito et al., 2015; Maddox & Perry, 2018; Thiem, Neel, Simpson, & Todd, 2019).
Racial Identity—Observational, Experimental, and Survey Research Designs
In the United States during the 1960s, a popular psychological approach to studying racial identity was to explore stages of racial identity through observation, content analyses, and experimental methods. Prior to this period, racial identity was studied using observation and experimental designs. These studies were thought of at the time as studies of racial identity (e.g., Clark & Clark, 1939; Horowitz, 1939; Lal, 2002). Ultimately, however, they were reinterpreted by other psychologists as actually examining racial preference instead (see Cross, 1991). This was significant because some of the studies were used as evidence of the inequality of racially segregated education in litigation before the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (Kluger, 1976). Later, as survey research grew in the field of psychology, scholars developed new survey research designs, along with scales of racial identity that had sound psychometric properties (see Sellers et al., 1997).
Ethics and Professional Organizations
In addition to the theoretical and methodological approaches to studying race, psychologists investigated organizational, ethical, and practice issues related to race. Among Black psychologists, the establishment of the Journal of Black Psychology and the Association of Black Psychologists (founded 1968; see Hicks & Ridley, 1979; White, 1970; Williams, 1974) led to a trend in the 1970s and after, of creating a more diverse and inclusive empirical research and knowledge-transfer basis for practice than was represented in many journals and professional organizations (e.g., APA) at the time. A like-minded, smaller group of Asian American and Latinx scholars organized regional and national conferences to engage in similar organizational and intellectual strategies and research that were more aligned with a cultural integrity and strengths-based approach to the study of collective experiences of groups in the numerical minority in the field, as well as in larger American society. For example, Leong and Okazaki (2009) provided an account of events that led to the development of the Asian American Psychological Association. Padilla and Olmedo (2009) described the founding of the Association of Psychologists por la Raza in 1969 and the founding of the National Hispanic Psychological Association in 1980. When the need to organize in psychology emerged, it was similar to the efforts in other fields of academics to establish their place as fully integrated intellectuals in their discipline (see Winston, 1971).
Across time, these organized groups have led the field’s criticisms of the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct because of the underdevelopment and problematic ways in which APA had defined the concept of race (see Yee, Fairchild, Weizmann, & Wyatt, 1993). The ethical principles extend to both the practice of research and clinical professional practice of psychologists. Similarly, there have been efforts to adopt specific training guidelines that incorporate multicultural competence among future psychologists in areas that include, but are not limited to, understanding how to conceptualize race (see APA, 2003).
Common Critiques of the Use of Race in Psychology
Since the 1990s, there have been several central debates about the use of race in psychology. For example, because race lacks precise meaning, there has been a debate about the use of race as an explanatory construct in psychological theory, research, and practice (see Helms, Jernigan, & Mascher, 2005; Phinney, 1996a, 1996b; Phinney & Kohatsu, 1997; Yee et al., 1993). There has also been a debate about the use of the concept of race interchangeably with ethnicity, nationality, and culture (see Bentancourt & Lopez, 1993; Helms & Talleyrand, 1997). Relatedly, psychologists have debated if the meaning of race can be appropriately studied without consideration of its intersections with gender (see Cole, 2009; Johnson, Freeman, & Pauker, 2012; Ireland et al., 2018; Scarr, 1998; Schug, Alt, & Klauer, 2015; Thiem et al., 2019; Thomas, Dovidio, & West, 2014; Plant, Goplen, & Kuntsman, 2011).
As highlighted previously, many scholars have criticized the use of the concept of race in psychology because genomic research has demonstrated that humans are genetically 99.9% the same, and thus there is no such thing as biological race (see Bonham, Warshauer-Baker, & Collins, 2005; Collins et al., 2003; Whitfield & McClearn, 2005). Despite that science, of course, the social and psychological reality of race and its careful study remain research imperatives. In fact, a clear sense of the nature and range of discussion among psychologists about the conceptual, methodological, and practical dynamics of race in psychology can be gleaned from looking at the titles psychologists have crafted for articles about race that have been published in the American Psychologist over several decades (see Table 1).
Table 1. Sample Seminal Articles Published in American Psychologist
The Negro psychologist in America.
Wispe, L., Awkard, J., Hoffman, M., Ash, P., Hicks, L. H., & Porter, J.
Black studies in psychology.
Hicks, L. H., & Ridley, S. E.
Explaining race differences in IQ: The logic, the methodology, and the evidence.
The study of culture, ethnicity, and race in American psychology.
Betancourt, H., & López, S. R.
Addressing psychology’s problems with race.
Yee, A. H., Fairchild, H. H., Weizmann, F., & Wyatt, G. E.
The science and politics of race-norming.
Gottfredson, L. S.
Race differences in brain size.
Why not drop race as a term?
Dole, A. A.
Why psychologists should study race.
Construct validity, censorship, and the genetics of race.
Rushton, J. P.
A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance.
Steele, C. M.
Race–ethnicity and measured intelligence: Educational implications.
Suzuki, L. A., & Valencia, R. R.
Race is not ethnicity.
Helms, J. E., & Talleyrand, R. M.
Are Americans becoming more or less alike? Trends in race, class, and ability differences in intelligence.
Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J.
Race and gender as psychological variables: Social and ethical issues.
Intelligence, race, and genetics.
Sternberg, R. J., Grigorenko, E. L., & Kidd, K. K.
Genes, race, and psychology in the genome era: An introduction.
Anderson, N. B., & Nickerson, K. J.
Race and ethnicity in the genome era: The complexity of the constructs.
Bonham, V. L., Warshauer-Baker, E., & Collins, F. S.
The meaning of race in psychology and how to change it: A methodological perspective.
Helms, J. E., Jernigan, M., & Mascher, J.
Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race.
Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D.
Genes, environment, and race: Quantitative genetic approaches.
Whitfield, K. E., & McClearn, G.
Eberhardt, J. L.
Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M.
Race and jury selection: Psychological perspectives on the peremptory challenge debate.
Sommers, S. R., & Norton, M. I.
Pride, prejudice, and ambivalence: Toward a unified theory of race and ethnicity.
Markus, H. R.
Darwin on race, gender, and culture.
Shields, S. A., & Bhatia, S.
Are memberships in race, ethnicity, and gender categories merely surface characteristics?
Eagly, A. H., & Chin, J. L.
Color-blind racial ideology: Theory, training, and measurement implications in psychology.
Neville, H. A., Awad, G. H., Brooks, J. E., Flores, M. P., & Bluemel, J.
Race talk: The psychology of racial dialogues.
Sue, D. W.
Psychological and biological responses to race-based social stress as pathways to disparities in educational outcomes.
Levy, D. J., Heissel, J. A., Richeson, J. A., & Adam, E. K.
Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue.
Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A.
RECASTing racial stress and trauma: Theorizing the healing potential of racial socialization in families.
Anderson, R. E., & Stevenson, H. C.
In terms of methodology, academic inquiry has ensued about how to theorize and measure race concepts in ways that better capture the complexity of their meaning. In one example, Winston and Winston (2012) argued for a cultural psychology of race that considers the cultural and historical dimensions of living in a racialized society as well as human personality when trying to understand the psychological significance of the meaning of race within lives. They employed the integration of two classes of well-established theories in the field of psychology: narrative theories of personality (see McAdams, 2001; Singer, 2005) and psychological significance of race theories (see Banks, 1976; Boyd-Franklin, 2006; Boykin, 1977, 1986; Cross, 1971, 1991; Franklin, 1971, 1999; Guthrie, 1998/2004; Harrell, 1979, 1999; Hayes, 1991; Jackson et al., 2004; Jones, 1991b, 2003; Lewis, 2004; Mbilishaka, 2018; Nobles, 1986, 1991; Parham, 1989; Rice, 2008; Steele, 1997; Winston et al., 2004; Winston, 2012. As a result of this integration, Winston and colleagues (see Winston, 2012; Winston & Winston, 2012; Winston et al., 2004) developed the theory of race self-complexity, which describes how the meaning of race is processed narratively as a routine dynamic of personality development for individuals living within a racialized society. A second example is the article by Helms et al. (2005), which provided a methodological critique of the meaning of race in psychology and proposed that racial categories should be replaced as explanatory constructs in psychological research and theory. A third example is the mixed views among psychologists and their colleagues in the interdisciplinary field of psychology about the design and interpretation of studies that seek to advance understanding about health (physical and psychological) and translate these findings to reduce health disparities across racial groups (see Barnes et al., 2008; Harrell, Hall, & Taliaferro, 2003; Hill & Madhere, 1996; Kang et al., 2019; Lanier, Sommers, Fletcher, Sutton, & Roberts, 2017; LaVeist, Thorpe, Pierre, Mance, & Williams, 2014; Mwendwa et al., 2013; Utsey & Ponterotto, 1996; Whitfield & McClearn, 2005; Whitfield, Weidner, Clark, & Anderson, 2002; Williams, 2018).
Finally, scholars have argued that the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological frameworks commonly used to study differences between racial groups make interpretation from studies inherently problematic (see Akbar, 1979; Banks, 1976; Boykin, 1977; Campbell et al., 1996; Fanon, 1952; Franklin, 1971; Jones, 1991a; Teo, 2011). Teo (2011), for example, explained that psychology’s acceptance of empirical mainstream methods that adhere to a positivist epistemology have served as a foundation for these ideas to flourish in the field of psychology. More specifically, he concluded that “the acceptance of naïve empiricism assumes the power of so-called facts without asking how the facts are constituted and interpreted” (p. 240). Teo (2011) also argued that the positivist philosophy of knowledge, in conjunction with methodological empiricism, stimulates researchers to make interpretations of data within the discussion section of empirical articles that are
a form of action, and if concrete interpretations have negative consequences for groups—even though alternative, equally plausible interpretations of the data are available—then a form of violence has been committed. Because the interpretations are presented as knowledge, or because they emerge from science, they represent epistemological violence. (p. 247)
The history of the use and study of the concept of race in racialized societies has been contentious in the history of psychology. In part, this stems from the fact that, from the time that the field of psychology separated more than a century ago from philosophy and was established as an independent scholarly discipline, racial ideology across the Americas and Europe was anchored in a hegemonic classification of humans, based on what would later be exposed by scholars as false assumptions and limited reasoning. Conceptual residue of this foundation for the psychological study of race understandably lingered as components of the training of successive generations of psychologists. The study of race in psychology has steadily expanded to include broader theoretical and methodological approaches to research questions about individuals and groups. The future of the field of psychology will be enriched by continuing to expand the development of theories and methodologies that reflect the changing social realities of modern society. As always, there will be a need for well-reasoned approaches that are aligned with the complexities of human behavior, cognition, and the emotions of individuals living in racialized societies.
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