The British Psychological Society as institutionally racist


I write this as a member of the British Psychological Society.

For more years that I care to remember, I have been on the brink of resigning from what I consider to be a racist society.  The only reason to remain as a member has been the belief that one can exert more influence as a member than by leaving.

This post was originally published on 30 June 2020 online on The Psychologist website:

How to explain the ‘deafening silence’ concerning #BlackLivesMatter within the British Psychological Society?

One possibility to consider is that, as a mirror to British culture itself, the British Psychological Society is institutionally racist.

Apparently, the majority of the non-BAME membership has been dumb-struck by #BlackLivesMatter; we do not know what to say or do. Wearing the blinkers of ‘colour-blindness’, we are unprepared and untrained to deal with the deeply embedded racist concepts and practices instilled by our training and textbooks of yesteryear. Yet we tacitly know the meaning and the harm of our silence, which is to make matters far, far worse, providing deeper offence and confirmation that as an organisation, we are systemically racist.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. (Martin Luther King).

Our complicity as ‘white’ people in passively accepting the status quo, offering political-correctness but lacking any authentic actions of solidarity with our BAME colleagues is nothing less than shameful. Unless and until the non-BAME membership of the Society fully and uncompromisingly implements a transformative anti-racist policy at all levels of practice, nothing will ever change. Tinkering around the edges with reports, committees and warm words from the President, however well-intentioned, will achieve nothing.

Racism is not ‘their’ problem, the problem for the other, it is our problem, a problem for all of us, for the Society as a whole.

Racism is cultural

Racism is as old as the Society itself. The problem is cultural. It goes back to the foundation of Empire and colonial power. In a review of racism and psychology, Richards (1997) discussed periodic resurgences of racialist/racist psychology projects, often developed by minority groups with formidable financial and political connections who ‘maintain a certain level of representation in the journals under the “academic freedom rubric”’ (1997, p. 262). Richards observed that, in contrast to sociology, professional psychological associations such as the BPS ‘have been chronically incapable of taking an unambiguous stand lest they be seen to be engaged in a witch hunt’ (1997, p. 262). As a result, the public image of psychology has been of a discipline in collusion with racism.

One example, the ‘race and IQ’ issue, with its scientific-racism origins and culturally biased methodologies, has been a central theme in psychology’s struggles with cultural differences and the empty concept of ‘race’. While its traditional theoretical and applied remit has been in the field of education, this school of thought periodically branches out into other areas. The topic of national differences in ‘intelligence’ and health suggests that development and health in poor nations appear to be its new target.

The Society must retract all of its racist publications

The racist underbelly of the Society is revealed by the appearance of essentialist, racist works in its peer-reviewed journals. As the statues of slavers fall, BPS publications by historically racist psychologists such as Charles Spearman and William McDougall should be retracted, as should any recent examples such as the publication by Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa (2006) an Associate Professor of Management at the London School of Economics proposing that the human brain: ‘has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment’ (2006, p. 625).

According to Kanazawa, people from poorer, less egalitarian countries (e.g. sub-Saharan African countries) have problems living in the modern world because they are less intelligent than people in richer, more egalitarian countries.

Screen Shot 2020-07-03 at 15.14.24.pngAccording to Kanazawa’s article published in 2006 in a BPS journal, Africans are less intelligent than whites

Given the complexity of contemporary society and the relative sophistication of the social sciences today compared to the 19th century, it is breathtakingly offensive that this simplistic racist view can be held, peer-reviewed, published and promoted by a supposedly reputable journal of the BPS, the British Journal of Health Psychology, in the 21st century (Marks, 2007).

I discuss another racist science article in a BPS journal here.

What kind of signal do such racist publications send out about the values and culture of the BPS?

Kanazawa’s (2006)  article, which is based on essentialist racist assumptions and a flawed methodology, does a disservice to science and psychology and should be retracted.

One question that needs to be answered is: why was this offensive article allowed to pass through peer review to appear in a BPS academic journal in the first place?  Similarly, why are psychologists such as Spearman that are known to have been racist/eugenicist celebrated by the Society in named awards and lectures? Why are BAME psychologists treated with such disrespect as was evident in the recent incident at a clinical psychology training conference including an actual hate crime (see: A culture of silence and denial by Dr Kimberly Sham Ku and Dr Abdullah Mia write, with a response from British Psychological Society Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa –

These are just a few of the many questions that require answers. Is the British Psychological Society up to the task?  I remain to be convinced, but – as they say – ‘hope springs eternal’.

Kanazawa, S. (2006). Mind the gap … in intelligence: Reexamining the relationship between inequality and health. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 623–642.

Marks, D. F. (2007). Literacy not intelligence moderates the relationships between economic development, income inequality, and health. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(2), 179-184.

Richards, G. (1997). ‘Race’, racism and psychology: Towards a reflexive history. London: Routledge.

Progress – somebody is listening at last

Two days later, from a talk at the BPS annual conference by Sarb Bajwa, the CEO of the BPS, the Psychologist tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2020-07-03 at 15.18.13

A member asked me yesterday about the lack of BAME speakers and delegates at the conference, and I was challenged by a member of my own team who asked me whether I thought that the BPS is an institutionally racist organisation.

My immediate reaction was to issue an emphatic denial of this, and to try to claim that the lack of diversity in the speakers is a function of the lack of diversity within the profession as a whole.

However, that raised a troubling question for me.

Surely, it is the role of the BPS to speak up on behalf of the profession? To just deny our own challenges with racism doesn’t move us forward.

I then took some time to reflect a little on my colleague’s question, and I want to share those reflections with you.

It is interesting that, as a profession, psychology is predominantly white and female. This is not reflected in leadership positions across the profession, which are disproportionately white and male. We do not talk about that enough.

But, when it comes to ethnicity, as an organisation, we haven’t talked enough, and we definitely haven’t done enough.

I recall meeting with some fantastic clinical psychology trainees in February this year. A black trainee had the courage to speak up and say that they would not attend a BPS event because they felt unwelcome.

That is not an organisation that I would want to be a part of.

I reflect now on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the BAME community. As an Asian, I can say that this does not surprise me in the slightest. What surprises me is that people are surprised.

I am also old enough to remember the Macpherson inquiry in 1999, which accused the police force of institutional racism.

The report described institutional racism as a “form of collective behaviour, a workplace culture supported by a structural status quo.”

That description makes me reflect on our own committees and working groups, our governance structures and everything within the BPS that seems to be built to aid the structural status quo.

I also reflect on the fact that many of our members are angry and frustrated. They feel that their voice is not heard and that they do not trust us.

So, what if my colleague was to ask me again? Are we institutionally racist? I think my answer would be that, if it feels like we are, then we probably are.

I think it is time to admit that we have been deaf to the pleas of our members and slow to address their concerns. We have ignored them and we have consistently failed to take action on this issue.

In order to move forward and be the truly representative organisation we want to be then I think we have to admit our mistakes.

I do want to thank our President David Murphy for his work in establishing the Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, and I look forward to working with the new chair, Nasreen Fazal-Short.

We will do everything in our power to make sure that the taskforce does not run in isolation, and it becomes an integral part of our day-to-day work.

Addressing our historic lack of action around race and equality will take time, but there are a number of things that we can do now:

  • Benchmark ourselves against other professional bodies [WHY NOT LEAD INSTEAD OF FOLLOW?]
  • Use The Psychologist to explore our own professional history and biases [I HAVE BEEN DOING THAT FOR 30 YEARS Racist science in British Psychological Society journals should be retracted AND IT DOESN’T LOOK GOOD, I CAN ASSURE YOU OF THAT] 
  • Commit to run a survey with clinical psychology trainees on BAME trainees’ experiences of racism [DELAY TACTICS – WE ALREADY HAVE THE COMMENTS FROM MULTIPLE TRAINEES – AND NOT ONLY IN CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY]
  • Embed and integrate issues around diversity and inclusion in all our day-to-day work by making this one of the central planks in our forthcoming strategy [ IMPLEMENT AN ANTI-RACIST POLICY AT ROOT AND BRANCH]

I am not saying that this can be fixed overnight. It can’t.

But, perhaps, the most important first step is admitting that we haven’t spoken up when we should have and we haven’t acted when we needed to. Especially when you, our members, told us that we needed to. For too long we have been on the wrong side of this issue.

If we really want to positively influence psychology, to encourage it to be the diverse profession that it needs to be, then we have to get our own house in order first.

Watch this space as I continue to monitor this issue.

Published by dfmarks


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