Surfacing “The Other” in a Hostile Climate | Teachers College Columbia University

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Surfacing “The Other” in a Hostile Climate

At TC’s Winter Roundtable, psychologists and educators assess intolerance in post-election America

“One of the things that’s going on in the current political climate is exemplified in Trump’s rallying cry, ‘Make American Great Again.’ For those of us who have counter narratives, what we hear in that message something quite different: Make America White Again. Make America a nation in which women knew their place; in which LGBTQ individuals were considered deviants and the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] labeled homosexuality a mental disorder.”

Derald Sue, Professor of Psychology & Education, was addressing an audience of students, teachers, psychologists, administrators, counselors, and helping professionals at TC’s 37th Winter Round Table, “From Ferguson to Flint: Multicultural Competencies for Community-Based Trauma,” held in late February. This year’s theme – how members of marginalized communities can combat the pernicious effects of systematic racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant bias – was chosen last June, in response to police shootings of black men and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan knowingly ignored by the local government.

“Communities like Flint, Ferguson, and Standing Rock are even more vulnerable now, due to the fact that we don’t have leadership In the White House or national stage who acknowledge racism, classism...It is more important to speak out on these issues and raising awareness within psychology and education about the need for these voices to be heard.”
— faculty member Gregory Payton, Department of Counseling & Clinical Psychology

But the conference – sponsored by TC’s Office of the Provost and the College’s Counseling Psychology Program – has assumed a renewed sense of urgency since the November election. “Communities like Flint, Ferguson, and Standing Rock are even more vulnerable now, due to the fact that we don’t have leadership In the White House or national stage who acknowledge racism, classism” and other forms of systemic oppression, said Gregory Payton of TC’s Department of Counseling & Clinical Psychology. “It is more important to speak out on these issues and raising awareness within psychology and education about the need for these voices to be heard.”

Underlying many of this year’s discussions and presentations was a consideration of the experiences of The Other, whether that meant a person of color, a woman, an LGBTQIA individual, or an immigrant. In the current political climate, members of these groups face being scapegoated, harassed, and further marginalized, Payton noted. “The experiences of The Other are important to understand for research, but also as a stronger call for social justice and working effectively with those marginalized communities," he said.

Few have been as marginalized as African-American women, argued Janet Helms, Augustus Long Professor at Boston College, in a moving keynote address. Helms, author of A Race Is a Nice Thing To Have, asked the capacity crowd in TC’s Cowin Conference Center to stand. She would read a list of names of victims of police shooting, and whenever audience members heard an unfamiliar name, they were to sit. With that, she slowly, painfully, began reciting names that have been branded into national conscious over the past couple years.

“Michael Brown.” No one moved.

“Eric Garner….Alton Sterling …. Freddie Gray.” The room remained standing

Then, without warning, Helms began to recite the names of police violence victims who were black and female.

“Tarisha Anderson.”  A dozen or so people sat down.

“Korryn Gaines.” More went down.

“Janet Wilson.” Scores more got took their seats.

By the time the last black woman’s name had been read, only a single audience member (a black woman herself) remained standing. “Society is not concerned about the violence against black girls and women, Helms said. The common attitude seemed to be that if a black woman had ignored police orders, “she deserved what she got.”  Most of the 13 African-American women fatally shot by police during the period that Helms cited were either unarmed, mentally ill, or carrying only a cell phone or screwdriver. Officers’ use of lethal force was often justified, she argued, because on some deep level the victims had managed to threaten white-male heterosexual privilege.

[The annual Janet E. Helms Award has been presented for the past 27 years at TC’s Winter Roundtable to recognize professional contributions of mentors and scholars in the fields of psychology and education. This year’s recipient was Marie Miville, Professor of Psychology & Education, and Chair of TC’s Department of Counseling & Clinical Psychology.]

Helms called for greater research into the intersectionality of race and gender as it applies to police shootings, and more intensive efforts to screen out law enforcement officers who might be predisposed to violence as a result of prejudice. She advised black women, “Don’t obey police orders: Because if you obey police orders, you’re likely to find yourself dead,” immediately adding, “Don’t not obey police orders: Because if you not obey, you’re likely to find yourself dead.” And she concluded on a note of defiance. “When people criticize [black women] for being too mighty, too aggressive, too assertive, or whatever they say about us, we need to ignore them. Because that’s we reinforce each other, that’s how we manage not to be invisible, even when the world makes us invisible.”

Fear of “The Other” is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout the country’s past, extending far beyond African Americans, argued Columbia Journalism School professor Jelani Cobb. Recent presidential orders to curtail immigration by Muslims and refugees echo successful attempts in the 19th and 20th centuries to limit the entry of Chinese and Jews from Eastern Europe, said Cobb, who is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. “We are seeing a vast increase in hostile language, the appeals to fear, the successful attempts to turn one person against another, playing upon the anxieties that are deep in American history.

“If we are ever to confront where we are and how we got here, we will have to confront the failure to educate our population and the success in mis-educating the population in many ways.”

Noting the recent proliferation of “fake news” that aims to reinforce existing prejudices and preconceptions, Cobb called for greater attention to teaching “media literacy.” “When we see information from Joe’s Blog and The New York Times, we should not hold those two things in equal weight.”

“The front line of this struggle will be fought by what we teach about ourselves and our young people about democracy,” Cobb told the audience. “We have failed to educate about what actual citizenship is and what are its implications. What are the implications and the requisites of democracy? More fundamentally, what allows us to recognize the humanity in each other? Until we learn those lessons, we will remain susceptible to these cycles again and again and again.” – Mark Frankel


TC’s Miville Honored with Janet E. Helms Award

Accepting the 27th annual Janet E. Helms Award for Mentoring and Scholarship, Marie Miville, TC Professor of Psychology & Education, recalled how her own mentors had helped her forge her identity and academic career as an out-lesbian Latina, and how she had struggled against internalizing damaging cultural stereotypes.

Her personal challenges were inextricably and permanently linked to her professional concerns and political convictions, she told the audience.

“For culturally competent mental-health professionals today, the word ‘resist’ is a positive critical step toward wellness, empowerment, social engagement and change,” Miville said. “For the millions protesting in the streets every day, every week, as well as their tweets and social media, they’re actually engaged in important psychological intervention. This is a key lesson I’ve learned for my many mentors in the field, starting with Janet Helms. Resistance is not futile. In fact, it might be crucial to your mental health, and that of your family and community as well.”


Published Monday, May 22, 2017