Diversity and Privilege:
A Perspective From Where I Sit
Morgan Murray, Ph.D.
At our NJPA fall conference on October 24, 2015, I attended the town hall meeting on diversity. It was a stimulating experience and one which was full of hope. We initially spoke in small groups, and then later listened as members reported back to the whole group. I found myself thinking about the importance of expanding membership within NJPA. What follows here are my thoughts on this topic and some reflections on my own personal evolution. I believe as an association it is important that NJPA can meet the professional needs of a more encompassing membership, and inspire a wider scope of scientific research. Through this process of promoting diversity we emphasize inclusiveness for those that have been systematically excluded over a long period of time through racism, segregation, and prejudice.
Critical to my own personal evolution on these issues was my coming to a deeper understanding of how certain groups are privileged relative to others within western society. I am a white male, born in New Jersey, raised as a Catholic, in an upper socioeconomic status home. Growing up I was not aware of the issue of privilege as I understand it today. It was not until I was working for a domestic violence agency (1989-1994) that I became more aware of privilege. What really opened my eyes to this was the work of the feminist writer Peggy McIntosh. In her seminal work (McIntosh, 1988) on male and white privilege, she discusses her resistance to seeing her own white privilege. She makes the point that “…whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.”
In my years as a batterer intervention counselor, these ideas became increasingly obvious, and a critical a part of my thinking. Most of the men in our program were court ordered to receive counseling after being convicted of domestic violence. The psychoeducational groups I conducted used a curriculum developed by Ellen Pence and Michael Paymar in Duluth, Minnesota (1993). At the time, and probably to this day, many referred to counseling for domestic abusers as “anger management.” Pence and Paymar’s approach, instead, took a strong stand against the idea that domestic abusers only needed anger management. They argued that reducing domestic violence to an individual, anger management issue allows batterers to avoid dealing with the underlying male privilege.
In other words, if a man keeps a sufficient lid on his anger and stops using physical violence, but still wants a position of power and privilege within the family, he may use threats of violence to get his way. The intimidation remains and things are essentially unchanged. Only addressing anger does not confront the motivation for power that is behind the intimidation. If the larger society still supports ingrained notions of male privilege, then expression like “the man is the king of his castle” can be used by individuals to justify their aggressive behaviors aimed at maintaining dominance in their families. Pence and Paymar (1993) advocated a coordinated intervention that involved the whole community including police, judges, probation, counseling programs, legal advocacy, and protective shelter. It required significant social change, not just individual change. The experience of working in this program taught me, not only how male privilege factored into men’s violence against women, but also how non-violent men participated in it.
By understanding the functional connection between inequalities based on gender, and those which are based on race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, or sexual orientation, I was able to see that each involves an imbalance of power in which a dominant group erects, maintains, or simply ignores barriers to the full participation of the other group. The dynamics of these power imbalances is such that holders of the privilege may enjoy the access to opportunities it affords, and simultaneously deny that privilege exists. They can also feel their privilege is justified based on a sense superiority. When the privilege is denied the inherent claim is that everything is equal, that discrimination is a thing of the past. With superiority, the underlying assertion is that the privilege has been earned. Just as women in abusive relationships get the message that those in power do not value them, other marginalized groups get the same message when opportunities are closed. To be excluded in this way is damaging to one’s self-perception.
Psychology has played a role in our understanding of the impact of discrimination. It was two African American psychologists, Kenneth Clark, PhD and Mamie Clark, PhD (1947) who provided a powerful demonstration of the development of Black racial identity and internalized racism through their classic experiment using the Dolls Test. This psychological study challenged the conscience of White Americans by revealing what happens on the inside of a child subjected to segregation in public education. Their findings played a critical role in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on May 17, 1954 in Brown v Board of Education to end the destructive policy of separate but equal that was established in Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. Segregation in public schools was found to be “inherently” unconstitutional. This was a historical milestone for racial justice in our country, but it also provides an example of how one area of our society can change, while much can remain unchanged. This was clear nine years later when then Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in defiance of the court order to allow the admission of Black students on June 11, 1963.
Change can be uneven. Much has changed, but the exclusion of people from access to opportunity and resources based on their identities continues, and so does its psychological impact. Kiri Davis was just 16 years old when she made her 2005 film documentary, A Girl Like Me. In it she repeated the Clarks’ Dolls Test in Harlem and her results were the same (video of her interviews with children can be viewed on YouTube). Fortunately, psychological research persists in its efforts to understand these issues. Social psychologist Claude Steele (2010), for instance, shows how the impact of excluding individuals is internalized. He reveals how “stereotype threat” undermines the academic performance of minorities, when otherwise competent and well prepared individuals fear confirming a stereotype associated with their group identity. He also shows how the impact of “stereotype threat” can be ameliorated through targeted cognitive prompts.
As psychologists our belief in our patients’ ability to change and our support of their change process is an optimistic endeavor. Similarly, our town hall meeting highlighted for me the optimism of our membership by taking a significant step in support of inclusiveness. And on a personal note, I realize that writing this article is part of my own change process.
Clark, K. B. & Clark, M. P. (1947). Racial identification and preference among Negro children. In E.L.Hartley (Ed), Readings in social psychology (pp. 169-178). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Davis, Kiri (2005) A Girl Like Me, documentary film: Reel Works Teen Filming
Pence, E. & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth model. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
McIntosh, Peggy (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Working Paper No. 189: Wellesley College.
Steel, Claude (2010). Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.