Activism and psychology: A few thoughts

Like other citizens of the world psychologists are confronted with injustices. Many more of us are pledging to act on the world to change it for the better through the prism of activism. As a profession we have become much more vocal and visible when it comes to socio-political issues. Many of us are initiating political conversations, seeking exchanges with politicians, organising, publicly protesting and even demonstrating around social justice. Speaking out has become a recurrent theme both within social media and within formal professional conferences and engagements. I have welcomed these developments. I have supported colleagues who have put their head ‘above the parapets’ and I have myself probably been more vocal than most of my peers on issues of equality. I am now wondering whether, the time may be right to pause and to start to question ourselves and to perhaps even to re-evaluate.

The importance of activism

Using indignation and anger as catalysts for change has been what many of us have been doing for centuries, even when it could/has cost us our life. Political activism has been central to the survival and resistance of marginalised groups throughout the world. It gave birth to women rights, the emancipation of colonised nations, and the extension of civil liberties to oppressed minorities, LGBT and disability rights amongst many others. It is fair say, campaigning and organising have made the world a better a place. Now that the myth and harm of scientific neutrality have been thoroughly exposed, it may be befitting for psychologists to follow in these historical footsteps and emulate marginalised groups’ relationship with the world. Indeed, whether we intend it or not, we are bringing this historical context into the room when we address social justice. Clearly, there are many benefits to be drawn from activism which may help increase the influence of the profession.

Being more engaged politically may raise our profile. It may increase our profession’s relevance. It may help us to share psychological knowledge with larger numbers of people. It may even help us reach many of those who would not traditionally access our services. It may demystify our subject matter and thus make it more accessible. Indeed many psychologists have argued we have an ethical duty to tackle the causes of emotional distress invariably, this would include helping to reduce social inequalities, injustices and addressing policies and practices which damage psychological well-being. I would agree with these propositions. I can’t imagine any peer or colleague seriously taking exception here. How we go about achieving the above and defining the processes to follow may be more contentious questions.

My personal experience of activism

In honesty I have been conflicted by some of the campaigns and organising that I have seen. I have witnessed groups of privileged people speak on behalf of the marginalised and do so with very little awareness that they were reproducing social hierarchies and marginalisation. Becoming more vocal about oppression and injustice, embracing activism and taking discontentment to the streets does not suddenly make us immune to biases, prejudices and blind spots. It does not mean we develop sudden acute levels of self-reflection when it comes to our own privileges. I’d argue there are good chances,in fact, activism might allow us to perpetuate the very inequalities and injustices we’re protesting against as equality rhetorics can easily fool us and others into believing we’ve shed any oppressive skin we might have.  It is not part of psychologists’ training to be skilled up to become facilitative and anti-oppressive ‘allies’. Let’s remind ourselves that as a profession, for example, we are still to address issues of culture competence. How do these issues affect our activism? Do we need to think about this?

As a multiply minoritised person, there has been a certain degree of confidence from self-proclaimed allies and activists taking up social justice causes that has been painful to stomach. Many have campaigned while seeming to have little to no understanding as to the limitations, dynamics and structural difficulties of their ‘benevolent’ intervention(s). It is mind boggling to me that the scholarly and political contributions of marginalised thinkers and activists to social justice and political action ‘s bodies of knowledge remain invisible in the profession. This invisibility is problematic. And it is racialised. It is problematic and racialised because historically disenfranchised groups including Black women and other Black theorists who have been key contributors; have faced marginalisation and ridicule and worse, for embodying the very values and worldview psychology now appears to seek to embrace.

Interrogating activism

Any drawing from the legacy of minoritised lived experience and its resulting scholarship which is going to increase power and influence for psychology is arguably presently, going to raise ethical questions because power and influence are not equitably distributed along racial axes and others within the profession and, because by and large, people of colour and marginalised groups stand to benefit the least from any growth and development in psychology. The most important social justice work has always been done by the communities directly affected by the injustices they were fighting against: those who have been the hardest hit by poverty, those who have systematically endured state violence and those who have had to carry the burden of race discrimination, for example. This work has always been transformative. It has been transformative without the intervention of privileged allies and activists.

Does the above mean psychologists and other professionals should steer clear of activism?  Not necessarily.  I personally think anyone committed to equality, social justice and liberation should be given a chance.  People with skin, class, gender and other systemic privileges can of course pursue social justice activism.  However, being politically engaged on issues that one is privileged not to be directly affected by, may require different configurations thus, I am asking whether those of us who aspire to be ‘activist-practitioners’ need to pause to interrogate current processes and become better aware of the discourses and narratives they may propagate. I am asking whether we are sufficiently attuned to the systemic violence we may be enacting. There are multiples ways of being an activist or an ally, building the capacity of the groups, individuals and communities whose needs and experiences we may want to represent is one of them.  Seeking and recognising the skills and knowledge they have to offer is another.  I am asking that we consider committing more time to supporting those who have been doing the work that many of us have suddenly developed a taste for.  This support may not need to be visible.  Various evidence based models and conceptual frameworks for such participatory and anti-oppressive action exist.  They have been written by scholars we continue to exclude from our curriculums.  That so many, before us, have campaigned with little limelight, support or recognition whilst contending with serious structural backlash and violence is testimony to ‘our’ privilege. It is also, in my opinion, a call to reflect and self-evaluate.

The ally test (short version)

I have devised this very brief ‘test’. There is no scientific claim behind it. I am hoping it may be useful as a starting point to allies and activists in the profession to reflect upon their personal motivation, privilege and the processes of their activism.

  1. Do you call yourself an ally?
  2. Is this title self-ascribed?
  3. Are you socially privileged amongst most of the key identity domains (race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, cisgender)
  4. Have you led any social justice/equality campaign?
  5. Were you put in this leadership position by privileged individuals or groups?
  6. Is your activism/campaigning accountable to privileged individuals or groups?
  7. Have you personally benefitted from or received recognition for your activism?
  8. Have you personally promoted your activism?
  9. Have most of the people who have promoted/recognised your activism been privileged?
  10. Do you find the possibility that you may NOT actually be an ally ridicule or offensive?

If you answer positively to most questions above, I seriously doubt you can continue to call yourself an ally without doing some serious reflecting (and changing the current configurations of your activism).


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