The Academic Lag and the Power of Social Media as a Tool of Social Justice

This new civil rights movement would not have been possible without social media.  I have no doubts about that.  The difference between this civil rights movement and the one that happened in the 60’s is that people all around the country, and the world, can now talk to one another about their struggles.  Any member of any underprivileged group can tell you how important that is; to be surrounded by people who are different from you, disagree with you, and invalidate every one of your struggles is not a pleasant existence.  Social media has helped the underprivileged connect with one another and support one another in a way that did not exist before.  It has helped us self-care in ways that would not have been possible a decade ago.  It has enabled us to stand in solidarity with one another and realize that yes, something is indeed fucked up about this country.  It enabled a revolution.

In the previous civil rights movement, activists from different parts of the country did not have an easy means of communicating with one another.  Information and its flow was severely restricted in those days.  People relied on the news and the radio to stay informed.  This is an especially problematic means of attaining information for oppressed groups.  Major news networks are only interested in telling one narrative: the rich white male narrative.  This bias is evident in everything they both report on and do not report on.  The stories of the oppressed become suppressed.  Major news networks depend on ratings for their livelihood; this means that they are aiming to appeal to the widest audience possible.  The erasure of underprivileged stories is inevitable in these types of power structures.  Thank heaven for social media.

Academia has failed to adapt to this new paradigm of civil rights activism.  Both the dissemination and procurement of knowledge in academia is largely done through peer-reviewed journals and conferences.  This paradigm is woefully outdated and cannot keep up with the frenzied dissemination of knowledge and information of social media.  First, journals only publish a handful of issues a year; somewhere around a dozen seems to be the mode.  Secondly, each issue only contains a limited number of journal articles.  Thirdly, academic writing is structured in such a way that many many pages of extremely dry and stale writing is needed to, in reality, say very little.  Academic writing is also meant to be “objective.”  Emotions are removed as they are unscientific and prone to bias.  I would argue that no substantive knowledge can really be gained about the suffering of underprivileged groups in this manner.  By removing the true nature of the emotions they might feel from journal articles, we are taking away the true nature of their voice and settling for a heavily filtered version of it that is more palatable to privileged eyes.

If academics rely on journal articles as their sole source of knowledge about social justice, they are in fact not taking in that much information; despite how desperately they might want to say otherwise, the fact remains that they are relatively uninformed.  Academics need to utilize social media to listen directly to those from underprivileged groups firsthand, to give them a real voice.  We need to partner with social media activists once the research is done so that they can spread our findings to the masses.  If the masses are completely unaware of our social justice research, what really is the point of doing it in the first place?  The bottom line is that we need to begin to work together; being that us academics are the ones in positions of privilege and power, the brunt of responsibility falls upon us to do so.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know several activists without formal degrees in social justice.  People outside the academic realm.  I can say with 100% confidence that they know much more and are more in touch with the issues than most academics.  There is a big difference between these people and so many academics.  Activists who are heavy users of social media, they are reading about and discussing the issues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Activism is their life.  It’s not a job nor a career to them; it is every fabric of their being; it is most of what they read about and most of what they care about.  What they read is emotional and written with passion, not the stale writing so common in peer-reviewed journal articles.  They read about human suffering in a manner that no journal article could ever hope to convey.  It was people like this that organized this civil rights revolution; they were the catalysts, not us academics.  They had their finger on the pulse; they knew how others were feeling; and most importantly, they know that now is the time.

To the likely dismay of many in my field, I can say that most of what I have learned about oppression and social justice did not come from the classroom.  I learned it from the internet.  I listened to the stories people were telling over and over again until their narratives were the ones that existed in my subconscious, not the ones from White male America.  This is what psychologists and potential allies need to be doing.  All too often, I hear from allies that they feel overwhelmed and do not know how to become educated on the issues or even where to start.  The answer is incredibly simple: find the right people to follow on social media.

Allies oftentimes feel awkward about asking the underprivileged people in their social circles to teach them to be better allies, and rightfully so.  Your underprivileged friends did not sign up to be your multicultural instructor.  They owe you absolutely nothing.  In fact, you’ve probably contributed to some of their suffering unknowingly; if anything, you owe them something.  Potential allies, do your underprivileged friends a favor and find people who are willing to talk on social media about the issues you want to learn more about. These social media activists are always looking for a bigger audience so you’d be in fact helping them.  Keep in mind though, they are the ones who are really doing you the favor. They are the ones who have accepted the social backlash inherent in openly discussing social justice; they are the ones who have put their mental health on the line; they are the ones who at times even put their personal safety on the line.  They do all of this because they feel that their message is that important; they feel that they have a social responsibility to inform others.  They utilize their platforms to spread their message because they realize that others in their community may not have a platform at all. By listening to them, you’ll know how to be a better ally to your underprivileged friend and individuals from their community.  You’ll benefit too; you’ll become a better psychologist, a better leader, a better teacher, a better doctor, a better police officer…etc.  Most of all though, you’ll become a better person.

The voices of the underprivileged have been suppressed for all of human history, but now they finally have a platform to reach the masses and let others know exactly how they have suffered and continue to suffer.  If you want to be a good ally, sit down, shut up, and listen.

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The Deafening Silence of the American Psychological Association

Silence is all I hear, and it is beginning to become more than I can bear.

Real social justice is about speaking up because you feel it in your bones. I know how I feel about the American Psychological Association (APA) right now, and I know that someone needs to say something.  Too many peoples’ lives are at stake to not say anything.  I care too damn much to just sit idly by and give my tacit approval to the field of psychology when I feel it is doing harm.

I will open by saying this, despite the APA’s clear explicit stance on being interested in the betterment of the underprivileged, it is no stranger to being on the wrong side of social justice.  At last year’s APA convention in Toronto, news of APA’s complicity in the Bush regime’s torturing of Muslims rocked the beliefs of many in our professional organization.  The cardinal principle of psychology, “Do No Harm,” had been clearly violated by our organization.  This atrocity did not happen in the pre-civil rights era, not in the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, nor 2000’s;  the report came out last year.  I hope this information gives readers some context for what I am about to say next about the APA.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone following current events that we are in the midst of a critical period in our country’s history.  We are in the middle of a new civil rights movement, make no mistake about it.  Minorities, especially Black Americans are fed up with the current status quo that harms them in so many ways.  The country is divided however as White America also simultaneously sees their influence and say in this country slipping for the first time in our nation’s history, and their backlash has become very real.  #AllLivesMatter was created to suppress the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Trump became a presidential nominee, and so much more.  Protests broke out immediately once we learned of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Peoples’ anger over the continued injustice of being a non-white male in this country has reached a tipping point.

The APA, like most large organizations, has decided to remain “neutral” by not endorsing either side of the conflict.  This is completely and utterly unacceptable when Black lives are on the line and the APA in my eyes, however, is far more culpable than the average organization.  The APA actively preaches its social justice inclinations.  We pride ourselves on being on the leading edge of research when it comes to problems of living, of humanity.  Yet now, when a humanitarian crisis has reached a boiling point, when protests and riots are occurring across the country, the APA is completely and utterly silent.  No statement has been made.  There is no activity on APA’s twitter feed regarding the crisis that everyone outside the world of psychology is living and breathing. For an organization that prides itself on advocating for those in need and using our power and privilege to advance the betterment of others, our current silence is absolutely unacceptable.  It is possible that APA may have issued a minor statement somewhere that I have may have missed given that it is such a large organization.  If I missed it though, I guarantee others did too.  Times like these do not call for small statements; they call for big ones.  APA should have made a statement that everyone should have heard by now; it should have been on the news, in the papers…everywhere.  The public should be thinking “woah, psychologists support BLM and believe it that strongly?” Facebook hung a BlackLivesMatter banner outside their corporate office for Pete’s sake.  What has APA, the organization devoted to “advancing psychological science to promote health, education, and human welfare,” done though?  I honestly can’t tell you.  There is no such thing as neutrality in times like these.  APA’s silence on the current BlackLivesMatter movement states very clearly that we think BlackLivesDon’t Matter.

The elitism we psychologists have towards current social movements disgusts me.  We feel that because we are doing the research in our Historically White Colleges and Universities, we are the most well-informed on the current issues.  This elitism leads  psychologists to, by and large, segregate themselves within their own privileged communities.  We may research the multicultural issues, but we publish our findings in journals that are only read by people within our profession.  Most potentially “useful” social justice research never makes it to the public, where it is needed, where the real battles are being waged. This leads me to wonder, why exactly are we researching multicultural issues in the first place and what exactly makes us the “experts?”

To be fair, I have zero doubt that the current social movement will be discussed at APA and the many smaller conferences this summer.  The conversations are happening, but psychologists are only having them within their own privileged circles.  Few are on the ground with the people who have the least amount of privilege, the ones who are most affected by the injustices of living in this country as a non-white male.  Our blindness to our own privilege is a deficit in every aspect of our being as psychologists.  It is impossible to understand and research a social movement if you are not actually a part of it.  If we research social movements from our privileged academic circles, it is highly likely that we will have no impact at all, and if we do, it’ll likely do more harm than good.  Furthermore, by the time APA finally convenes at its yearly convention in early August, critical moments in the social movement will likely have already passed – moments that the APA, using its considerable influence and power in America, could have done something.  We cannot sit idly by and do nothing.  Times like these demand action now.  Lives may very well be lost because of APA’s unthinkable apathy in this critical time.

The APA has not only turned its back on the disadvantaged public though, it has also turned its back on its racial minority members through its inexcusable current silence. Believe it or not, the APA was once much more an organization of privileged individuals than it is now.

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 4.43.12 PMAs you can see, psychology has been making a massive attempt to make its workforce more diverse in the past decade – to a moderate degree of success I might add. Unfortunately, psychology has made the exact same mistake other organizations have made when attempting to implement affirmative action policies.  APA, Universities, corporations, and all other entities who attempt to make their bodies more diverse almost always fail to provide their new minority members with the supports they need.

  • APA doesn’t seem to realize that many of their new Black members might be severely impacted by the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
  • APA doesn’t realize that the brothers and sisters of their Black members may literally be dying in the streets.
  • Most importantly, the APA doesn’t realize that their Black members may be the next Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.

This is absolutely inexcusable.  Minority individuals in primarily White institutions already have it rough enough as it is.   For an organization supposedly committed to advocacy and social justice to turn its back on its Black members right now though… I don’t know and will never know what that feels like because I am not Black.  All I know is that thinking about the pain and betrayal they must be feeling right now brings tears to my eyes.

Last but not least, I want to talk about a topic privileged psychologists love to discuss: the chronic underutilization of mental health services by racial and ethnic minorities.  The reasons given seem to be as numerous as the number of people who give them.  They range from lack of awareness, to stigma, to cultural differences, to language differences, to lack of resources, and more.  What psychologists who do this research largely fail to realize is that they are trying to get minorities to conform to a traditionally white form of healing. Minorities rightfully distrust White culture and no amount of psychoeducation will undo that.

I want to leave you with this question:

Why should Black Americans trust the field of psychology when the APA is completely silent during this critical time in Black history?