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Dr. Joseph L. White: The Father of Black Psychology

Dr. Joseph L. White was a psychologist, social activist and professor who helped to pioneer the field of Black psychology to counter what he saw as rampant racism and ignorance in the profession. Dr. White was born in 1932 in Lincoln, Nebraska and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was a part of the first integrated class at his high school and after graduating in 1950 he decided to move west to California with the goal of becoming a waiter. Due to the outlook for a career as a young black man rarely extended beyond service at that time. It wasn’t until Joseph moved in with his aunt that his passion for psychology grew and she convinced him to enroll in college.

He began his college career at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) and earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology. After graduating however he was not immediately accepted into his graduate programs of choice, so he decided to join the military and served two years in the army. During his two years of service, San Francisco State was developing a Master's program and agreed to admit him to the program. After his service ended he earned his masters and was accepted into Michigan State University’s doctorate program becoming the only African American in the program at the time. During his time at Michigan state he faced prejudice being forced to retake classes he took at San Francisco State, however he continued on, graduating in 1961 as one of the first African Americans with a PhD in clinical psychology.

In 1962 Dr. White accepted a faculty position at California State University Long Beach. During his transition into the area, Dr. White struggled to find housing for rent due to housing discrimination, for himself and his family. In a 1994 interview with The Times Dr. White recounts that experience stating “Even though I spent almost 18 months in the South as a soldier, I didn’t know how deep racism was in America till I got that PhD. I had been trained all my life to believe in the performance aspect. I thought if you had enough [academic] tickets, that was all you had to do.”

While on the faculty at Cal. State Dr. White maintained a very active role in the community as a clinical practitioner of psychology, a writer, and eventually also taking on a role as a faculty member of San Francisco State University. Education reform was also a great interest of Dr. White while at California State. He was instrumental in establishing the California Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a program that provides supportive pathways such as financial aid, tutoring, counseling and other resources to help thousands of low-income and educationally disadvantaged students. Eventually The program expanded to all college campuses within the state and has aided well over 250,000 students in their goal of attending college, many being the first in their families to do so. Around the same time of establishing the EOP Dr. White helped create the Black Studies department at San Francisco State University in 1968. That same year he and a group of black psychologists formed the Association of Black Psychologists confronting the American Psychological Association about its lack of racial diversity. At the time fewer than 1% of the association’s more than 10,000 members were black.

Two years later Dr. White rose to prominence with the publication of Toward a Black Psychology, in Ebony magazine. In the article, Dr. White argues that psychology developed by white psychologists had little applicability to Black lives. White psychologists, he wrote, were prone to unfairly labeling African Americans as deviant or diseased. His writing is widely considered to have contributed to the creation of ethnic studies programs and what’s known as cross-cultural psychology. This article is the reason he earned the moniker “Father of Black Psychology”. Dr. White went on to author and co-author various books on the subject of psychology and the importance of cultural competency in the field. He never stopped being a teacher because of his passion to spread his knowledge first hand to the younger generations. His work and contributions earned him various awards over his lifetime such as the 1994 Citation of Achievement in Psychology and Community Service from President Clinton and the April 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Psychological Association. Dr. White left a lasting legacy for the countless lives he has impacted and his contributions to the field of psychology. We often discuss the importance of representation when ensuring effective mental health care in the Black community. The realization of unique needs for different communities is important to understand and we thank Dr. White for taking big strides in facilitating that representation.

By Kevin J.

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