When the conquistadors came to the Americas, they were in search of wealth. They brought mass genocide, sickness, and they left countless communities in biological, psychological, political, social, and spiritual turmoil that has lasted for generations. With this destruction, colonialism began.
Maldonado-Torres (2007) argues that coloniality is the patterns of power that came out of colonialism, particularly around race . Coloniality looks different now, and we see it in overt and covert ways, particularly in how people within systems relate to each other.
Maldonado-Torres writes that it survives through “books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in self-image, in aspirations of self, and in many aspects of modern experience” . It also survives in psychology, mental health counseling, and social work programs.
In order to create true cultures of awareness, equity, and justice, our programs must separate from the overt and covert ways that coloniality endures. Decolonizing programs not only benefits the faculty and students who are a part of that system, but it will also have a significant impact on the people we serve. By creating a system that is continually striving to decolonize, we will stop re-colonizing our patients with interventions or theories that are colonial in nature.
Here are some ways programs can engage in decolonization.
Hire Faculty Who Continually Strive For Awareness
Faculty have to recognize and be aware of the innate power and privilege they hold, and its impact on how they present themselves to classrooms, supervision and in staff meetings. They achieve this by engaging in self work and group work in which they engage in authentic conversations around their biases and their history with power, privilege and oppression. Gaining awareness of their power and privilege is not a one-time event; it is a continual journey.
Additionally, faculty can decolonize their programs by being aware of how their power and privilege impact students, including student engagement in the program or activity at hand. Failing to be aware of this and name it could hinder the process of engagement. Students may feel disempowered from engaging in the conversation or activity out of fear of retribution or not being a good enough student, which can have a negative impact in the long term.
Psychology programs will be best served by faculty who are learners, welcome discourse, and are looking to grow; they need faculty who are willing to put in personal work and development. If faculty are not aware and don’t strive to continually gain more awareness, they won’t be able to implement action and systemic change.
Create a Culture That Embraces Difficult Dialogues
Current events are bound to affect how students present themselves in their coursework, to faculty, to students and their patients. Police brutality, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and the political climate affect how students interact with the world and with their program. Because of this, programs would benefit from providing spaces for students to have difficult dialogues and process events outside of the program. These spaces can also be used to process what happens inside a program, as it also affects performance.
These conversations are optimal when they can occur in an interpersonal, postcolonial way. This method leans into the process dimension as a way to address and understand the interaction of the identity markers of individuals and people in interpersonal contact .
Specifically, an interpersonal postcolonial lens focuses on dynamics of power, privilege and oppression in interactions . Focusing on the process dimension is an excellent way to decolonize difficult conversations because it leaves room for the student to have a voice, be seen, heard, and understood by the faculty and program. Utilizing this approach breaks down the colonial premise that only the needs and voices of those in power matter: it sets the stage for mutual understanding and respect .
It is important to note that not everyone will find it safe to speak in groups, particularly, students from marginalized communities. Therefore, it’s important to note that spaces, one on one, more relational and intimate spaces, in which difficult conversations are had, could help in hearing the voices of those students who hold marginalized identity markers.
Hernández and McDowell (2010) argue that taking power, privilege and oppression into account “unveils how structural oppression shapes interpersonal relationships” . Having these conversations will shed some light on how the system—program or internship—has mechanisms or procedures in place that might be perpetuating oppression between the relationships within the system.
While these conversations are difficult, they give each individual the greatest chance of being heard. By leaning into the discomfort of these conversations, programs can encourage and model bravery, authenticity, and vulnerability.
Work Toward a Culture of Non-Neutrality
Many programs and program leaders preach neutrality or objectivity on issues of discrimination or oppression of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality. However, neutrality is a fantasy, as it allows faculty and students to reject the inherent power and privilege they hold because of their position within a group or in the faculty-student relationship.
Neutrality also hinders a program’s ability to be empathic to their students’ experiences, particularly their students who hold diverse identity markers. When faculty model neutrality, it leads to students failing to recognize their power and privilege when sitting across a client.
Most importantly, modeling neutrality dehumanizes faculty and perpetuates the cycle of oppression, because the oppressor maintains emotional distance from the oppressed.
Programs can decolonialize by rejecting neutrality in favor of justice and anti-oppression mindsets.
Build a Culture of Accountability
During colonial times, colonizers were exempt from being held accountable for their actions. To this day, many leaders carry this mentality: they may appear untouchable and incapable of making mistakes.
Faculty are not excused from making mistakes; programs would benefit from faculty who are comfortable being held accountable by other faculty members or students.In the process of engaging in a graduate program, supervising students or teaching, faculty will make mistakes, say the wrong thing or saying it in a way that lands poorly. However, being accountable starts from the top, if the various directors in a program don’t model and welcome accountability, faculty and students won’t welcome it either.
How does a leader model accountability? A leader recognizes when they have made a mistake and owns it. They actively work, collaboratively, toward fixing the mistake they made, and welcoming voices, all voices, including marginalized voices, from students and faculty.
A leader who models accountability is a leader who sees growth in mistakes, and who sees mistakes as a learning opportunity for themselves and for everyone in the organization. Starting from the top begins to break down the idea established by the conquistadors: that people in power are untouchable and incapable of error.
Once accountability starts from the top and faculty begin to model it, students will know that they can hold faculty accountable, and if, for some reason, the students do not have the confidence or feel as though they cannot hold faculty accountable, faculty should hold themselves accountable.
When faculty acknowledge their mistakes and model humility, it teaches students to own up to their mistakes, as well. In doing so, faculty can create a culture where mistakes are welcome. This also lets students know they are human.
Develop a Postcolonial Curriculum
Programs can improve their curriculums by implementing a critical postcolonial lens and updating how they teach diversity. Hernández and McDowell (2010) argue that “a critical postcolonial lens differs from the multicultural perspective in its analysis of power, privilege and oppression, and their interconnectedness” . A critical postcolonial lens goes beyond understanding cultural frameworks and learning descriptive generalizations of working with diverse groups.
Instead, a postcolonial lens analyzes how power, privilege, and oppression contribute to the intersectionality that affects our mental health, physical health, and our communities . Programs would benefit from exploring these hierarchies and understanding their historical and current impact in their program, institution, the state they are in, and the country as a whole.
It is also essential to understand the history of racism and colonialism, particularly in the racist history of psychology, as well as in social work and parts of the counseling field. Understanding the racism in our field and embedded in our interventions will ultimately help our patients. To better understand this history, as well as post-colonial interventions, good resources include Psychoanalysis in the Barrio, My Grandmother’s Hands, and Race, Racism and Psychology: Towards a Reflective History.
Part of this curriculum may include students engaging in reflections and experiential exercises to face their own encounters with power, privilege, and oppression throughout their lives and in their program. For example, have students create a family genogram, but highlight how power, privilege and oppression has historically played a role in their families .
Using books that stimulate conversation and discourse can also help students do meaningful self-work. Some of these include White Fragility, How to Be an Anti-Racist, The Gifts of Imperfection, Braving the Wilderness, and Waking Up White.
Cultivating the Third Point of View
In time, students can learn to strive for what liberation psychology calls the “third point of view.” Gherovici and Christian (2019) describe the third point of view as one in which “the oppressed rejected the oppressor’s ideology and developed a more nuanced and realistic view of themselves and the oppressor” .
Instead of viewing the oppressor as the epitome of evil and injustice, we must learn that the problem is systemic in nature. By recognizing that the problem is with the system, we can become empowered to resist that system and effect change .
By being mindful of who they hire, by creating a postcolonial curriculum, and by including self-awareness exercises, accountability, non-neutrality, and difficult conversations, programs can set up their students and faculty for success and growth.
They will be creating clinicians who will be able to hold that “third point of view,” and they will develop clinicians who work toward decolonizing the systems they work in, as well as helping their patients.
 Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the coloniality of being. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09502380601162548
 Blasini-Méndez, M. (2019). Interpersonal postcolonial supervision: Facilitating conversations of countertransference. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 13(3), 233-237. doi:10.1037/tep0000239
 Hernández, P., & McDowell, T. (2010). Intersectionality, power, and relational safety in context: Key concepts in clinical supervision. Training and Education in Professional Psychology,4, 29–35. doi:10.1037/a0017064
 Gherovici, P., & Christian, C. (2019). Psychoanalysis in the barrios: Race, class, and the unconscious. Abingdon: Routledge.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Minneapolis, MN: Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. New York: Random House.
DiAngelo, R. J. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.
Irving, D. (2014). Waking up white: And finding myself in the story of race. Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New York: Random House Large Print.
Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press.
Richards, G. (2012). Race, racism and psychology: Towards a reflexive history. Abingdon: Routledge.
Interested in reading more articles about psychology and social justice? Check out Psychologists for Social Justice: Let’s Not Sit on the Sidelines
by Caitlin Sorenson, MA.
- Decolonizing Psychology Programs: A User’s Guide - November 18, 2020
This is so timely and practical, thank you