Finding Alternatives for Western Imperialism in Higher Education: Unlocking “the door to a far larger view of the world than White America has ever known”
Graduate Winner, 2022 Graduate Student Committee Essay Contest:
London Williams, UCLA
“No longer is the black view accepted as one which is narrow compared to the White - or universal - but it is considered a view far richer and humane, pressing us beyond the constructions of the White, conquering, west, moving us out into the true universe…Blackness is perhaps a door to a far larger view of the world than White America has ever known.”
-Historian Vincent Harding in Ebony (1969, p.144)
Dismantling White hegemony within academia is not synonymous with decolonization. On the contrary, decolonization is a term that Tuck and Yang (2012) state “[r]ecenters Whiteness…resettles theory…extends innocence to the settler...[and] entertains a settler future” (p. 3). Decolonization and seeking restorative justice are two different tasks and must not be confused (Tuck and Yang, 2012). If we are to reconcile psychology in Higher Education (HE), we must first start the conversation by being mindful about the language we use. To that end, this paper suggests how to promote radical transformation in HE by: (1) understanding our history and its significance to our current reality, and (2) utilizing Black Feminist Thought (BFT) as a tool to challenge western dominance. I believe these suggestions go beyond apologies and pushes us towards action, healing, and transformation.
The current state of the American Psychological Association (APA) is a humbling reminder of the parasitic nature of White imperialism. The nefarious founding of our nation, which normalized the subjugation of Black and Brown people, has kept White hegemony alive, particularly within HE institutions. History illuminates the reason college campuses are innately Eurocentric, centering “universal applications'' of theories and practices (Biondi, 2012; Cohen & Kisker, 2010). The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, along with federal legislation, like The Higher Education Act of 1965, allowed for coalitions of Black and Brown students, faculty, and staff to access HE, challenge western norms, and fight to legitimize and humanize different ways of knowing from the perspectives of marginalized people (Bidondi, 2012; Holliday, 2009). However, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, less than 1% of college professors were Black (Biondi, 2012). According to Holliday (2009), it wasn’t until the 1970s that a “significant size” of Black students were admitted into doctorate psychology programs. Recent APA data has shown that less than 5% of today's psychologists are Black. The consistent dearth of representation in academia perpetuates the same challenges we faced over 60 years ago. Understanding our history can aid in developing a more critical awareness that we have not done nearly enough to make radical structural changes. I strongly encourage HE institutions to provide more safe spaces to deeply learn and understand our historical contexts. This will allow us to prioritize actionable change, such as recruiting and admitting more minoritized students and hiring more faculty of color in psychology.
In addition to history serving as a catalyst to ignite action, BFT can be a powerful tool for radical transformation in academia. Historically, BFT has been highly scrutinized and underutilized due to its counter-hegemonic nature, contrasting with the normalized “western way of knowing” (bell hooks, 1994). However, BFT allows us to analyze how Whiteness is centered and calls for the illumination of varying perspectives and experiences that are, too often, ignored. According to bell hooks (1994), BFT aims to address, acknowledge, and validate the struggles and pains of marginalized people. BFT allows us to engage in critical consciousness where we can then actively and genuinely practice empathy (bell hooks, 1994). Within the realm of psychology in HE, BFT can be particularly important for informing theory and practice. In one recent study, researchers utilized BFT as a theory and methodology to uncover best practices to address the mental health of Black women (Wade et. al., 2022). Researchers illustrated how BFT not only informs epistemology and methodology, but can also impact health promotion programming. According to Johnson (2012) it is critical for scholar-practitioners to utilize BFT, as it is a more holistic way to support the needs of populations of people who have historically been oppressed, marginalized, and silenced.
Bell hooks (1994) posits that transformation is a collective effort. We must work together to make change. While this may elicit fear and misunderstanding, Audre Lorde (2007) reminds us that what is important to us must be shared and vocalized. Whiteness continues to dominate HE not only due to lack of knowledge, but also due to fear of change. This fear and silence immobilizes movement. To achieve true healing and transformation, we cannot be afraid to embrace new and innovative approaches. The quest to decenter Whiteness and western cultural imperialism will remain an ongoing, uphill battle unless we alter our approach. If we are to reconcile psychology and other disciplines in HE, we must first change the language we use. We must look into our history and recognize the direct impact it has on our current reality and the way we think. We must challenge and critique the theories, frameworks, and methods that guide our research, and validate the lived experiences of marginalized communities and their ways of knowing. In order to “reconcile, repair, and renew” the APA, I suggest the incorporation of more history and Black feminism in HE spaces to counter White hegemonic norms. The changes we make within our institutions will have a monumental impact in what is published in the scholarly journals we seek our knowledge from.
As James Baldwin once said: “I cannot believe in what you say, because I see what you do.”
While apologies are appreciated, our focus is on real transformative action.
About the author: London Williams is a rising second-year PhD student in the UCLA Department of Education, focusing on Higher Education and Organizational Change. London serves as the Program Coordinator for the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success Program and is a Graduate Student Researcher for the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute. This Fall, London will serve as an instructor for a University Studies course to support minoritized students as they transition to college. London has previously received a BA in Psychology from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a MA in Applied Developmental Psychology from Claremont Graduate University, and a MA in Education from UCLA. London has a passion for working in higher education spaces to determine how to best serve and support historically excluded students, particularly those majoring in STEM. London is a mixed-methods researcher, but is excited about incorporating more qualitative inquiry, as well as, Black Feminism in STEM education research.
Audre Lorde (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.
Biondi, M. (2012). The Black revolution on campus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Cohen, A. M. & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Holliday, B. G. (2009). The history and visions of African American psychology: Multiple pathways to place, space, and authority. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(4): 317-337.
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
Johnson, J. M. (2012). Mattering, marginality, and Black feminism: Moving to empower Black women. The Vermont Connection, 33(1): 77-85. https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol33/iss1/10
Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1): 1 – 40.
Wade, J., Alexander, R., Giscombé, C. W., Keegan, D., Parker, S., Jackson, K., Gibbs, J., McElroy, A., Ferguson, J. V. (2022). Using Black feminist theory and methods to uncover best practices in health promotion programming. Qualitative Health Research, 32(3): 581-594. doi: 10.1177/10497323211061108.