How psychology reproduces racism
In psychology, challenging racism is no simple task; in fact, racism is deeply embedded in much of what we know and do.
‘Doing good’ with Psychology?
Since the racist murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, in the summer of 2020, and the global anti-racist action that followed, many organisations and institutions – including the British Psychological Society (BPS) – asserted their mission to challenge racism.
Through its focus on individuals, mainstream psychology often fails to consider the social, political, and cultural contexts that shape people’s lives and our interpretations of them, and much of our psychological knowledge is based on white experiences that are invariably presented as ‘race-neutral’. To this end, psychology may reproduce the foundation of racism itself, including through biases in widely relied upon definitions, measures, and interpretations of human behaviour.
From obesity to intelligence: How white psychology gets it wrong
In making sense of human behaviour and functioning, psychologists create measurements to define the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’. As with the bulk of our psychological knowledge in general (Bhatia, 2017), these measurements are created and defined by white European and North American psychologists, who draw on predominantly white samples in deciphering where the range of ‘normal’ lies on any given scale.
Inevitably, these measurements correspond to the worldviews of those who created them (Burr & Dick, 2017). Two examples of this are Body Mass Index (BMI) and Intelligence Quotient (IQ); though widely used in psychology, education, and beyond and seen as an ‘objective’ measures of health and intelligence, neither of these measures are free from the influence of bias.
BMI, life insurance and obscure impacts
BMI, for example, was originally derived from a simple, non-clinical observation that weight tended to increase with the square of height. This was used to chart the death rates of Metropolitan Life Insurance policyholders in the early 1900s. With the lowest rates of mortality being among those in their 20s, the MetLife director concluded that the healthiest weight-to-height ratio was the average of MetLife policyholders in this age group (Guthman, 2013).
In addition, MetLife systematically discriminated against people of colour, arguing that they present ‘insurance problems’ (Heen, 2009). To this end, the BMI utilises the language of science to normalise a biased white ideal. BMI is a widely relied upon measure within psychology in research and in practice, including in education policy (e.g., the NCMP; Gillborn et al., 2020), in order to highlight those who are ‘at risk’ of ill-health; but while it positions Black and South Asian people as at an inherently higher risk of ill-health, and individualises responsibility for this, the impact of institutional racism on health and healthcare is obscured.
IQ, objectivity and racism
In terms of IQ and intelligence testing, Francis Galton, Charles Spearman, and Lewis Terman – three of the most influential intelligence theorists – were advocates of eugenics. Our understanding and measurement of intelligence today has been shaped by these men’s theories, and these theories and measurements cannot be separated from the racism of those who defined them.
Although IQ is increasingly critiqued as a subjective and biased measure of intelligence, the assumption that IQ is objective persists. IQ testing is widely relied upon within both educational and psychological research and practice, and intelligence remains a core part of undergraduate psychology courses accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS). Given less emphasis in the BPS’s accreditation criteria is the need to be critical about these theories, what ideas they are built upon, and how they uphold racial inequality.
Reproducing racism in psychology
Psychometric testing created by white researchers tends to construct ‘normality’ in line with white experiences, positioning those who deviate from these definitions as ‘abnormal’. In still relying upon these measures in research and practice, and failing to adequately critique them as a part of psychology training and curricula, psychology treats them as objective. In doing so, psychology legitimises racist arguments about intelligence and health without regard for the contexts that shape our knowledge and understanding of where these averages lie in the first place.
Such a belief in innate race differences leads to systematic differences in treatment in schools and in healthcare, and obscures opportunities to challenge continuing racism within psychology, education, and healthcare. Therefore, in relying on these measures, psychology reproduces racism.
Deconstructing white psychology
If psychology is seriously committed to anti-racism and other forms of critical anti-oppressive practice, we have to start by looking in the mirror and engaging in what will be a messy and difficult examination of our own biases in knowledge and understanding.
We need to question the white knowledge that we continually take for granted and rely on in our teaching and practice. It’s vital for us to understand how our psychological knowledge has been shaped by white and Western understandings that inherently privilege white people, and challenge these biases in our own knowledge and practice.
Bhatia, S. (2017). Decolonising psychology: Globalisation, social justice, and Indian youth identities. Oxford University Press.
Burr, V., & Dick, P. (2017). Social constructionism. In B. Gough (Ed.), The Palgrave handbook of critical social psychology (pp. 59-80). Palgrave Macmillan.
Gillborn, S., Rickett, B., Muskett, T., & Woolhouse, M. (2020). Apocalyptic public health: Exploring discourses of fatness in childhood ‘obesity’ policy. Journal of Education Policy, 35(1), 3-22.
Guthman, J. (2013). Fatuous measures: The artifactual construction of the obesity epidemic. Critical Public Health, 23(3), 263-273.
Heen, M. L. (2009). Ending Jim Crow life insurance rates. Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy, 4(2), 360-299.