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Making the Safe Space Safe

Derald Wing Sue has made generations of therapists and social scientists aware of the need to address issues of race, gender and sexual orientation

Derald Wing Sue has made generations of therapists and social scientists aware of the need
to address issues of race, gender and sexual orientation 


IT’S THE MORNING AFTER COLUMBUS DAY, AND THE topic in Derald Wing Sue’s weekly Counseling Psychology seminar is what it means to be white.

“Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?” Sue asks by way of introduction. “There’s a hidden communication. The celebration of Columbus elevates the status and prestige of the white European male,” while portraying indigenous people as the “discovered.” In reality, he reminds the class, it was Columbus who was lost.

For the next 90 minutes, Sue, Professor of Psychology and Education, leads his dozen or so doctoral students in a discussion that ranges from the feeling of helplessness that can accompany one’s first realization of the enduring pervasiveness of racial signals in our society to how to move beyond defensive reactions and into productive conversations. One student ruefully recalls her enthusiasm in organizing high school celebrations of Christmas, Easter and other holidays from which some of her fellow students might have felt alienated.

If it sounds as though Sue has an agenda, it’s because he does: to prepare his students—a multiethnic group themselves—to work as therapists in diverse environments, in a nation that, within the next few decades, will become majority nonwhite. “Your ability to work effectively with clients is only as good as your understanding of these realities,” he tells the class.

For the past several decades, Sue has been a leader in the fight to move identity and difference—race, gender, sexual orientation—to the center of counseling psychology and to spotlight the impact these issues can have on the mental well-being of people who stand outside the mainstream.

Sue is certainly motivated by his own experience: Growing up Chinese American in a mostly white area of Portland, Oregon, he experienced the crude injuries of schoolyard taunts. He trained at the University of Oregon when there were few graduate students of color. “There was not even a discussion or terms that dealt with multiculturalism or diversity,” he said in a recent interview in his office. “As a person of color going to school, I always felt that sense of alienation and invalidation.”

He credits his awakening to the Black Power movement and the 1969 Third World strikes at the University of California, Berkeley, that pushed for ethnic studies curricula. In 1972 Sue cofounded and served as the first President of the Asian American Psychological Association—a radical upstart at the time.

Over time, Sue, who taught and practiced on the West Coast for many years before coming to TC, became one of the nation’s most influential scholars in counseling psychology. His textbook Counseling the Culturally Diverse, first written in the 1980s, is in its sixth edition. He served on President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race.

But it’s only recently that Sue’s work has leapt into the mainstream. His 2010 book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, has earned him television and radio appearances (and prestigious awards) for its discussion of microaggressions—the often unintended or unconsciously inflicted slights that members of minority groups experience constantly at the hands of the dominant group.

“Racism has morphed and gone underground,” he says. So, to some degree, have sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice. But microaggressions are rife: the woman who clutches her purse when riding in an elevator with a black man; the teacher who praises a nonwhite student’s English; the man who talks about “woman’s intuition.”

Microaggressions may be unintended, but they take a heavy toll over time on their victims (and also, Sue argues, on their perpetrators, who alienate their colleagues), particularly in workplaces, schools—and counseling and therapy.

While not the first to identify microaggressions or to coin the term, Sue saw more keenly than most how easily the subject got swatted away. “The language of microaggressions wasn’t developed,” he says. “Most people in the public pooh-poohed it, like: ‘Hey, I get putdowns all the time, and I’m a white man.’”

With a team of advanced students, he set out to show not just that microaggressions were real, but that they could be observed and categorized in ways that reveal the specific kinds of harm they cause. “We developed a taxonomy of microaggressions,” he says. The team published it in the journal American Psychologist, and watched the reactions stream in.

“There were two camps,” Sue says. “People of color really related to it. They began to say, ‘It provides me with a language to explain my experiential reality.’ It validated what they were going through.

“A lot of white psychologists, however, said, ‘You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.’ They said that these are things everyone goes through, that we were portraying people of color as weak.”

In response, Sue’s book shows how microaggressions occur across race and how they jeopardize interactions in education, health care and employment.

Sue edited another recent book, Microaggressions and Marginality, featuring contributions from a number of his former students. That book takes on selected topics—for instance, how black students experience microaggressions in predominantly white colleges and whether microaggressions also occur across class lines.

Thus far most work on microaggressions has been qualitative, relying on focus groups and interviews. It is possible, by videotaping a workplace or classroom, to observe microaggressions and measure their frequency, Sue says, but this method has obvious logistical and ethical limitations.

Now, Sue’s colleagues, including his former TC student Kevin Nadal, who teaches at CUNY’s John Jay College, are developing scales that will make quantitative studies possible. The scales could help assess how well different interventions work. For instance, do people experience fewer microaggressions in a workplace after a new personnel policy or training program has been put in place?

Sue’s work has hit a nerve beyond academics. There’s a frequently updated blog, unconnected to Sue but that cites him, where people around the world post stories of microaggressions they’ve experienced or witnessed.

For his part, Sue hopes the students he helps train come away with a few core insights:

“First, that awareness of their own worldview, as racial-cultural beings, becomes very important,” he says. “Second, that they become increasingly aware of the worldviews of people who differ from them. The third component is an ability to develop culturally appropriate intervention, education, managerial styles.”

For Kim Baranowski, a doctoral student in counseling psychology who plans to do community-based work along the United States–Mexico border, receiving this sort of training is imperative.

“It’s not an add-on,” Baranowski says. “There is potential for our field to be culturally destructive. Dr. Sue really serves as a model, in terms of being self-critical, to own our role and our responsibility for our clients and our communities.”

Sue doesn’t think of himself as a radical, though he knows many see him that way. In the doctoral seminar he shows an angry email he received from someone who called him “a complete bigot and idiot.” In California he and his family experienced police harassment after leading organizing efforts in their town. “The forces that confront us are powerful,” he says.

Nadal, his student turned colleague, says Sue’s fearlessness makes him an even more inspiring mentor.
“I’ve been able to model after him how to deal with naysayers,” Nadal says. “In order to get the message across and have these very important issues brought to the forefront, there have to be some people who take these risks.”   

Published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011