Racial identity, self-esteem among psychologist’s focuses

By New England Psychologist Staff
March 31st, 2024
Aaronson Y Chew, Ph.D., MSCP
Aaronson Y Chew, Ph.D., MSCP

It has been generally accepted, within psychology and in the broader world, that increasing diverse representation in schools, the workforce, and within the practice itself will lead to a more equitable society. Encouraging the inclusion of a greater variety of people would support greater understanding, improve opportunity, remove biases, and help to reduce divisiveness.

But what if we look at the issue from a different angle, starting with the individual rather than from a system-wide point of view, especially because things like quotas and DEI training have both helped and created greater rifts?

Acknowledging that the system needs those guidelines to bring a greater variety of voices to the table, Aaronson Y Chew, Ph.D., MSCP, has examined diversity differently after 20 years working in the field.

Chew is an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and founder of Growth Proof LLC psychological services, where he provides clinical care and motivational interviewing and diversity training for professionals.

He believes diversity should be about more than checking off a list. In a conversation with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson-Souter, Chew spoke about approaching the issue from a micro level, where helping the individual become more self-aware and fostering curiosity about intrapersonal differences supports the work done on a system-wide level. It helps to buffer some of the pushback from those feeling like they are being forced to change.

Along with several awards for your work in diversity, in 2019, you completed a teaching fellowship at the Harvard Macy Program for Educators in Medical Professions, developing a motivational interviewing training curriculum. In your practice, do you provide that and diversity training for medical and mental health professionals?

I’m an educator at heart. A lot of the training is about uncovering our unconscious biases and how unconscious biases influence our decision making. In the medical literature, there is a lot of research that shows that practitioners’ unconscious biases determine outcomes.

I can use some of this data on a cognitive level and engage experientially with them, to see how our minds do heuristics and little tricks that lead us to having biases. Having biases is very human and necessary to survive. But where it gets tricky is this is where we end up boxing people into labels, stereotypes. “All these people are like X, so they are like this.”

How have the efforts to promote diversity within the field of psychology and the world at large changed over the years?

Racial diversity really changed the way we look at psychology. The history of psychology is steeped in oppression, racism, and patriarchy. It wasn’t too long ago that IQ testing was used to show how Black Americans were genetically inferior to whites due to their lower test scores.

The idea of racial diversity brought a new perspective of looking from within a group to understand the unique experiences and processes that come from sharing a specific group identity. So, it is about understanding what is going on inside the group as opposed to having an ivory tower, outside-in perspective.

This really changed the way the profession sees people of varying backgrounds?

Yes, this shift was important. It’s also important to note that in the human race, there is more within-group variability than between-group variability. There are more similarities between groups, between whites and Blacks, say, than there are amongst individuals within the same group.

But it is a bit of a paradox because psychological training is about categorizing the experiences of a group of people, creating boxes, and themes. This can lead to creating stereotypes and placing templates on individuals and how we expect them to operate.

What are your thoughts about the fact there is not enough diversity within the field to work with the various populations who may want someone with a shared background?

I agree that we need to get more individuals to serve their populations that they represent. But I might argue that there is already diversity in the people who are doing the work. It is just that it may not be the “diversity” that we have been looking for.

Even though someone looks the same as another, there is still diversity, since there is more within group variability than between group variability. It’s about having these conversations, having diversity dialogues within the training, within the workforce, even if everyone “looks the same” or everyone assesses that they are from the same group. We all have different perspectives, different experiences, and can learn from one another.

I’m looking at diversity as a process and not as an end goal or destination. If we only look at the end goal of saying, oh, we must get 50 percent women here, you might hit an “observable goal” but is that going to bring more diversity perspective, more diversity in integration, more diversity conversations? Probably not.

But couldn’t someone take this point and argue, “well, sure our board is made up of 100 percent white, middle-aged, cis men, but we’re all very different from each other?”

So, yes, we do need more observable diversity in the workforce. I think that is important. And the reason for that is, by adding more individuals from diverse backgrounds, it will create a richer network of practitioners to learn from, train, and consult with one another.

At the same time, with that all-white board, this is an opportunity to start engaging in the process of diversity. For these men to start seeing the diversity amongst themselves and start becoming open to it, can you imagine what other diversity they might be open to

How do the various modalities in the therapy you provide, including somatic and polyvagal therapy, coincide with your work in diversity?

Well, If you do not look at diversity as a separate thing, then diversity is everything and everything is diversity, right? Essentially, if I am to embody the process of diversity, I am curious about someone’s experience regardless of how they look.

So much is about using the micro to inform the macro and the most micro is about how we are with ourselves. If you can’t be curious about yourself and your own experience, how can you bring curiosity to someone else in your life or how can you bring that to a group or how can you bring that to a society?

Where society is having a difficult time is that we are so focused on outcomes. We’re not trusting the process to bring about what we’re hoping for it to bring. And we are sometimes putting in token diversity.

There has been increased polarization over the past 10 years, especially within the U.S. political space and, I would say within our society as a whole. We are becoming more divided and DEI initiatives may be adding more fuel to that polarization because it is seen as forced diversity. Yet, these are people who may be open to learning about different experiences.

I think it’s important to teach DEI initiatives but in a manner that is consistent with the mission of DEI, by inviting them to engage in a relationship with someone around what it means to have a unique perspective and what it means to be different.

Why is this work important?

There are so many things at stake. We have global warming, we’re fighting amongst ourselves, we have wars. And in all of this, the greatest form of advocacy is to get right with yourself. Because if you are right with yourself, you can be right with other people. And then the chain reaction of that, think about the political space, within our homes, within our family lives. I believe this is the only way that we are going to get out of the conundrum we’re in. It is going to take a big shift.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered By MemberPress WooCommerce Plus Integration