S1E4 Race and Power

For years there have been social issues related to racial inequalities. While this has happened all over the world (e.g., apartheid), the United States has suffered from this polarity during the pandemic. In this episode Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss the two pandemics in the world and start the conversation around the psychology of race, power and privilege.




Pete: We are going to open up today with a challenging conversation. We are going to talk about race and what it means in the psychological science of racial identity and I think you can kind of hear the somber tone. This is not like one of our fun topics that we often can talk about.

Nikki: Yeah, and I think it’s important to say that because; obviously we want listeners to enjoy what we’re saying. Really the reason we did this podcast is because we want people to have the opportunity to learn something and hopefully everyone is able to use the current climate as an opportunity to learn more about racism in our society, white privilege, white supremacy and Pete and I really wanted the opportunity to really talk about that here.

Pete: I think we were recording this a couple weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and we had done one episode, we were trying to practice what it means to have a podcast. I think we did a really good job with the content the first time we did this, and I think we’re trying to do it again, because we want to make sure that we’re capturing the main essence of what racism is, the impacts of prejudice, and so we want to give it this space because education is key and that’s what we’re doing here. You and I have done a lot of training with people about diversity inclusion, and I think these are really challenging things to talk about and mostly because people don’t talk about it.

Nikki: Even in psychology, Pete and I have been talking about this a lot, and we’ve talked about this before, prior to the murder of George Floyd, prior to the protest. Though it’s been extremely top of mind the systemic racism that exists in our own field, if you haven’t looked at our website, Pete and I are both white, and the American Psychological Association estimate about 80% of psychologists are white.

Pete: It’s high, and historically, a lot of the theory and research is based on white males. And then thank goodness for girl power, because now it’s a predominantly female field, but in terms of people of colour and diversity it’s so lacking.

Nikki: It’s so problematic, and so that of course impacts what we’re talking about too, so we can’t obviously discuss behavioural science without acknowledging the white supremacy that exists within that. Actually, this is something that I have been thinking a lot about, that I can’t remember if I was saying this to you Pete or not, but how eastern spiritual traditions have come to the west have also been really dominated by white voices.

Pete: They suffered racism and persecution as they first came in, some of the first easterners to come into the west. In the Zen Buddhist traditions, one of the traditions in becoming a teacher is you have to light a candle and you drip the wax unto the document that your teacher gives to you to demonstrate the instillation. And they do that because they had to do it in secrecy when they first came.

Nikki: I didn’t know that. Wow.

Pete: And again, Buddhism traditionally speaking is not even a religion. But here we are, white people with our privilege, we just went to religion, and because race is so hard to talk about.

Nikki: It’s so hard to talk about, and so let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about why it’s uncomfortable. Let’s talk about even how it’s uncomfortable for you and I to discuss this, here in a public forum too.

Pete: Well, I’ll say it’s more comfortable for me…

Nikki: That’s true, and can I say this, I don’t want to ‘dog’ my training because I went to Pepperdine for my study and I would say Pepperdine compared to most programmes I thought did a pretty good job. That was definitely something that was apart of my training, and my degree is in clinical psychology and clinical psychology has not done nearly a skilled job as counselling psychology, which is the degree that Pete has, and so Pete had intensive training in talking about race in ways that I did not have.

Pete: Yes, I mean I had to spend an entire year just talking about race as apart of my practicum clinical training. So we used a couple text books from Undoing Racism, Sean Wood C. with Racial Identity Development. And me as a white person with a very diverse cohort could only talk about race. If you were conceptualizing cases or if we were dealing with something we were struggling with a client, we would only be able to talk about the racial constructs that were present in the room. And so concept on some of these other, Janet Holme and others sort of worked around racial identity. However, I’m still a white man, and so I think I am a strong ally, and I feel like that’s really where my comfort comes in, and I work in sport with a lot of athletes of colour, and I really am so focused on empowering them to find their voice, because a lot of systemic racism exists in sports and certainly in academia.

Nikki: Absolutely.

Pete: So we were talking about privilege and power, so going back to the discomfort of race, the thing I often think about is when we had our first black president, no one talked about race when it was him against John McCain. When Barack Obama was running against Hilary, you talked about gender. It was like “the world’s not ready for a black or a female president”.

Nikki: That was permissible in the conversation for white people. Right? That that was something that felt comfortable or accessible to discuss.

Pete: Right. And then that led to the Obama effect, where people of colour then felt like “we got a black president, so racism has been cured”. And frankly I know on my lifetime while I am on this earth, I will never see the cure of racism. It’s just something that if we’re just starting to talk about it because another black man was murdered…

Nikki: Well that’s what’s so painful and of course again I’m saying that as a white person who hasn’t had to navigate oppressive systems my entire life. And I think that for a lot of white people right now, there is hopefully little bit more of a waking up and understanding how pervasive this is. Because I thought for myself a lot and I’ve talked about this with some other colleagues of mine, not all white but colleagues that are non-black colleagues, that people that I work with, like Pete and myself that we’ve prioritize at least in psychology, and then of course that filters out into our experiences as humans, that this is something meaningful to us that we try to think of things from a holistic multicultural lens that we want to be good allies. And that’s certainly something that for me is very important to me and aligns with my values. Yet, the thing that had never quite stuck for me and I’ve been hearing this echoing from not just colleagues, friends as well, they’re not psychologists; It never quite resonated with me that part of privilege is that I have the option to turn it off. And I think that’s the thing that hopefully, I’m cautiously optimistic that there’s something a little bit different there, and people noticing that. Do you agree with that?

Pete: Yes, I think Peggy McIntosh as a very famous, unpacking the knapsack. And I think in psychology most programmes now read that.

Nikki: Well, I don’t even know if we’re going to tell the story, but Pete and I had a very challenging conversation.

Pete: We had a very challenging conversation.

Nikki: Pete and I had an aligned perspective and had a challenging conversation with some colleagues of ours.

Pete: Colleagues that hadn’t done the work. You and I did a good job, it’s not like we were agree at them. One of the keys to these conversations is listening, because every time people have these conversations, and as you see riots, it hurts my soul when I see these pictures of the groups; of the Democrats and Republicans, the blacks, the whites, the white supremacist and the allies. Because it’s us versus them, and often times that conversation is trying to convince the other person. “There’s no such thing as systemic racist,” “Yes there is, this is why”. The goal, at least for colleagues and educated white folk is to listen, as allies.

Nikki: Yes, sure. I think part of that I agree 100%, though, another conversation I've been having with people recently with white people that I know, when they're saying I want to listen, and yet people are so angry, I get they're angry and when are we going to be able to talk about this. One thing that I've tried to emphasize and really practice myself is to acknowledge that the anger experienced by the black community is beyond justified, and my opinion is part of our job as if we want to be good effect white allies, is in the listening space, and is also make room for people to be angry. To let people have the space to express anger, because people are allowed to be angry.

Pete: There's the infusion of our Eastern practices is creating the space for that emotion. We're not getting rid of emotion, and I can't tell someone how to feel.

Nikki: Emotions serve a function from basic evolutionary perspective, emotions give us information, and so they're telling us something; what does anger do? anger caught like the action urge… to get into dorky, behavioural science here for a moment… is what the emotion is telling you to do, and anger tells us to fight back, because either ourselves or someone we love has been harmed, or is in danger of being harmed. I couldn't think of a better example, if you're a member of a community that's experienced 400 years of oppression, violence.

Pete: Even thinking about the Constitution, on one hand, the forefathers were super white, obviously colonized, that’s another word you’re hearing a lot, it’s colonization. In, there it says that black people are three fifths of a person, so if you don't think systemic racism exists, just read the Constitution.

Nikki: Yes. It's interesting, I went to a protest in my neighbourhood that was led by the black community there, and I live in a neighbourhood that has experienced gentrification, for the last five to ten years. In the protests, beforehand, there was a lot of speakers of people that have been in the neighbourhood for a long time. One of the things that one of the speakers had said that I thought was very excellent was that, in talking about the Constitution, how this country was formed, he said number one, “the founding fathers didn't think that we were going to be here”, in reference to black people, And Number two, he said, “it wasn't written for anybody, but rich, white, rich, white men”. I think the rich is also important, because it was for property owners, he said, not for women, not for anybody, and we don't teach that very well, in school, unfortunately.

Pete: Again, here we are with race where we talk about gender, we talk about class. If we go back to white privilege, this is my think, I don't use that term, if I'm doing diversity inclusion training, especially knowing my audience, because I think that's a very triggering word for some folks. Deconstructing that here is about the idea that me as a white person, I haven't had to look for things that look like me as role models. I haven't worried about a book with somebody that looked like me on the cover, and frankly, it's about access. I haven't had to worry about health care; I haven't had to worry about too much crime on the street.

Nikki: Basic safety.  

Pete: Basic safety, yeah. In terms of privilege, just being white, just being male. I went to a very privileged High School, and my grandmother paid for it, that was access, I had a grandmother who was able to pay for it. So even though I had multi-generational aspects of my family, that was part of my privilege that I had access to an education that set me up. In all of this, there are four CEOs of colour in fortune 500 companies.

Nikki: Yeah, something like that.

Pete: One of the gentlemen, I don't remember his name, but he's from Philadelphia, and he talked about how he got to where he got. This article I was reading, he was saying that he was part of an educational system of taking poor black folks from inner Philadelphia out to suburban Philadelphia to be educated, and that access is what led to him becoming a CEO, that's power and privilege. Even as a black person he represents and possesses some power and privilege at this point, so it's not just always about white and black. There are other aspects of access within it.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. Have you ever read Hillbilly Elegy?

Pete:  No.

Nikki: Great book. Vance, I think is his last name. I read that book A few years ago, and it came out right after I had read ‘Born A Crime’ by Trevor Noah, which are two excellent books I highly recommend.

Pete: He is adorable too.

Nikki: Yes, fabulous

Pete: Adorable and smart.

Nikki: What was very interesting about reading these two different memoirs, these different perspectives, Hillbilly Elegy is written by… I think he grew up in rural Ohio; I want to say he's white, grew up in a very conservative family. The similarities between their experiences, of course, Trevor Noah growing up in South Africa under apartheid, with the author of Hillbilly Elegy described systemic poverty. There were some similarities to their experiences, and I think the thing we want to keep coming back to here, in this conversation about race is that even a black CEO; he's still going to be at risk for being pulled over by the police.

Pete: Absolutely.

Nikki: I think what you're saying is really important that we want to recognize all of the intersectional factors.

Pete: It’s multifaceted.

Nikki: It’s multifaceted. Right now, where the conversation is being spotlighted very appropriately, beyond overdue, is just recognizing that race itself is such a powerful influence in our society, in ways that I think white people didn't really clue into.

Pete: They still haven’t, and even with Trevor Noah, I joke and say, he's beautiful, and funny and smart, but I spent some time in South Africa and with apartheid that was a real significant event that was like 50, 60 years ago, it wasn't that long ago. We know Nelson Mandela, and we’ve all just seen this in recent years, frankly. You still feel the racism there in a much more palpable way, in my opinion, in that you still have black servants today. As we talk about intersectionality, and the multifaceted nature of this, I think there's like 30 or 40 country languages.

Nikki: Oh, in South Africa?

Pete: Yeah, there is 30 or 40 national languages.

Nikki: I'm not sure. I do know that there's a lot.

Pete: That in and of itself creates this hierarchy of who speaks the better language. That's the other thing that I think is important, is that there's intergroup, racism that also creates this racial divide as well, people within groups are typically more… there's lots of research that shows skin tone within a group affects how people are respected within that same group.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. Where, for example, India, that's often a topic. It's interesting, as we're talking, a thought that's floating around in my mind right now is, that I can imagine some listeners, hearing our conversation today thinking, “isn't this supposed to be about psychology? It's getting kind of political.” I really want to make sure that I'm clear, and I'm going to speak for you gently here. I'm assuming you're aligned with this. Because I know you and I share a very similar worldview. Pete and I don't view this as political, but this is about humanity.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: I've been discussing that with a student, asking, how to address this in therapy because as a psychologist, all therapists actually were trained not to impose a worldview on someone, which is really important because we want to practice it from a non-judgmental place. I would say that racial justice, social justice, this is basic humanity; I can't view this with a political lens.

Pete: No, I think even today, knowing that the Confederate flag is being taken down, there's a lot of people coming out of the woodwork, like people of colour that have been in elected positions, who've had to walk into an elected office with the flag there. Yes, it's our history, and the political thing, if we get into ‘should statues be there’, we're not saying that. We're saying, ‘What's racial identity? What's white privilege? what's power? What's access?’

Nikki: And what are behaviours that we can do that are aligned with basic human values?’ To use the flag example, I'm Jewish, not religious. I think that some people with the flag didn’t recognize that, for a black person to be in the presence of the Confederate flag would be no different than me walking in somewhere with a Nazi flag hanging there.

Pete: That’s massacre.

Nikki: I think that's not been clear to a lot of people. Anyway I think that's just important to make sure we're saying that this is not a political podcast, and I want to make sure that people know that this is not about…

Pete: Honestly, you'll all be surprised when you hear what party I'm a part of. That's why this isn't political. I love that you just said that, and thank you for that. What are some behavioural takeaways? Maybe if we think about people wanting to listen to hear about what could they do, think of two or three things that people can do. as they leave after listening to this.

Nikki: I think that's great listening.

Pete: I'm going to suggest… well, I haven't thought about this. Do you have a suggestion?

Nikki: I do. I've got one right here. I've got one ready to go. I'm going to ask people, especially white listeners here, to make an intentional, mindful, conscious, willing choice to step into what's uncomfortable, and really make space to get curious about that, and do that for two reasons. One is, the growth happens when things are uncomfortable. And number two, it's going to give somebody a teeniest, tiniest taste of what it might be like or feel like to be black in this country; to be uncomfortable. I’m just trying to take that and say, ‘if I'm feeling uncomfortable like this, what might it be like to feel this way all the time?’

Pete: Yes, that's good. That's perspective taking, curiosity. I'm going to say ask open ended questions, and actually listen, but listen with open ears, and find listening with an open heart.
Nikki: Yes.

Pete: I think that if we can just take that as our takeaways, we have this conversation in place to potentially start to make some change. One of my colleagues, Nancy Boyd Franklin at Rutgers, she says that ‘hope is in the struggle’. That's a lesson that she had from her mom as a woman of colour, one of the first black psychologists in the US, and I'm going to say that I'm willing to share hope with our listeners, that these actions can make some change. Nikki, thank you so much for today, your insights are always so welcome.

Nikki: Vice versa, hope is in the struggle.

Pete: Hope is in the struggle.

Pete: This has been ‘When East Meets West’, I'm Dr. Pete Economou

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present Be brave.

Pete: This has been ‘When East Meets West’ all material is based on opinion and educational training of Dr. Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.