Ethics for Psychologists: African American Families, Diversity and Ethics

By James E. Dobbins, Ph.D.
August 1, 2017 - Last updated: July 31, 2017

Female Patient Conversing With psychiatristThe National Council of Schools and Programs in Professional Psychology as well as the American Psychological Association have determined that professional psychologists should pursue life-long learning in regard to a defined set of professional competencies.

The aim of this discussion is to create a space for considering the close relationship of diversity and ethics in regard to serving African Americans. Among the compelling reasons to consider this topic are the relationships you might have with clients, research participants, peers or students or supervisors who happen to be African Americans.

Diversity competence requires us to be mindful of how our multiple identities create powerful social differences, which make the connotative impact of our engagement different from the denotative intent. In such cases we are well served to find the links among diversity and ethical principles, such as social responsibility, social justice, beneficence and non-malficence .

The “African American Experience” is a sociopolitical experience that cannot be extricated from the history of the modern and postmodern world views. Even in psychology, African Americans have been viewed and studied as a “problem” or a “dilemma.”

Postmodern scholars warn us against seeing African Americans as deficient or lacking capacity for self-determination. Several national health reports state that blacks may experience residual effects from social oppression that is still pervasive in the cultural responses to psychologists. They experience very higher levels of social and mental health disparity compared to majority members of the culture. They are also less likely to have health insurance. These barriers to treatment must be acknowledged by competent professionals in a palpable way.

Critically, African Americans may not easily form relationships because of a fear of “double stigma,” i.e., discrimination because of mental illness and racism.

Advancements for African Americans are often framed in the context of “parity with whites.” This is a false equivalent. If the concern is for at least proportional access to institutional power and resources, parity will not be a realistic possibility for blacks within the next 200 years.

These are unlikely goals and thus contemporary culturally competent psychologists are directed to focus on the awareness that diversity competency is an ethical issue that must be revealed in building an effective egalitarian professional style based on supervised self-reflection, compassionate trial and error in organizations that implement diversity top down with the goal of systemic change. Diversity scholars also prescribe a shift in affirmative therapies and theoretical inclusiveness.

The identity and role of the psychologist as a change agent is called into question in the face of issues such as race-related police violence, job disparities, disproportional arrests, the ravages of the school to prison pipeline, immigration biases and forms of professional bias that still manifest in our field, i.e., blaming the victim and over-pathologizing African Americans. The meaning of ethics and diversity competence must be debated within oneself, especially if we ask ourselves about the adequacy of our training regarding the integration of these two competencies.

A postmodern prescription for professionals is to be aware of the institutional, cultural and individual oppressions that continue to affect African American communities in deleterious ways. African American parents are pressed to socialize their children under the best of circumstances much less having to be resilient in the face of visible and invisible oppressive forces which have been framed as the realities of living in a race-based society.

Black family advocates propose the development of non-pathologizing research and practice protocols designed to stimulate emotional and cultural resilience in African American children and parents. Indeed, within Black Psychology literature significant progress has been made in the identification of risk factors and protective factors related to resilience. This requires psychologists to make a concerted effort to not only be well trained clinically, but to also be life-long learners and practitioners of diversity competence.

In pursuit of your own path toward ethical professional engagement with African American families, peers, students and associates the following repetitive steps are recommended:

*Pursue a basic understanding of the complexity of the multiple identity issues for African Americans as there is more variability within various racial groups than between racial groups.

*Use rapport building as an opportunity to validate the client, student or staff member’s identities, viewpoints and concerns as important. Also clarify how and why your perspectives are different.

*Establish rapport with an awareness of your own knowledge, skills and attitudinal strengths and limitations in diversity assessment, conceptualizations, interventions, evaluation, supervision and ethics.

*Develop your ethical and diversity skills via appreciating that intent is not the same as impact.

*We have a responsibility to examine our potential for microaggressions with African Americans .

*We have a responsibility to treat identity variables in a more realistic manner in our evidence-based interventions.

*Be intentional about making professional models inclusive with both clinical as well as diversity competencies as active ingredients of your professional identity and professional style.

References available from author

Share Button

James E. Dobbins, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology in Dayton, Ohio. He is currently director of the Resilient Young Ladies and Gentlemen Program, a service, training and research collaboration with the Dayton Urban League that provides youth and family development, mentoring and modeling, community involvement and professional training. His email address is:

Related Articles