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Psychology’s colorful characters
Four members are honored for the trails they blazed on behalf of minority psychologists.
By TORI DeANGELIS
April 2001, Vol 32, No. 4
Print version: page 32
Culture and ethnicity may never receive the place they deserve in academe. But for four senior male psychologists of color, they’re worth fighting for.
In varying ways, Arthur L. McDonald, PhD, K. Patrick Okura, Amado M. Padilla, PhD, and Joseph L. White, PhD, all experienced the hard knocks of racism as they worked to become mental health professionals. And each–sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately–came to view ethnic concerns as central to his work.
“People of color know that our worth is derived from the collective relationship we have with all people, that we are people of emotions, intuitions and spirituality,” said Derald Wing Sue, PhD, the conference representative from Div. 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues), who introduced the four men at the January multicultural summit.
“Your work and lives remind us that a psychology that fails to recognize this aspect of the human condition is a discipline that is spiritually and emotionally bankrupt,” he said.
With humor, passion and a dose of earthy language, the four renowned mental health professionals discussed their journeys in a special presentation honoring them at the National Multicultural Summit II.
They also shared how they’d like to see psychology and society progress.
‘Do just a little bit better’
For Arthur L. McDonald, an early incident with racism fueled a passionto succeed despite the odds: The city fathers of Martin, S.D., were treating him and fellow members of hishigh school football team to a victory dinner. The event was celebratingan impressive record–four straight years of wins and only one loss. Among those at the dinner were five all-state selections, including himself, who had all earned college scholarships. Four of the five were Native Americans.
“We were listening to all of these accolades about us,” McDonald recalls, “when one of the city fathers, who happened to be the mayor, said, ‘So and so are all Indian, and it will show. They will not make it through college and through their football scholarship.'”
In fact, none did–at least not right away.
“It wasn’t because we were Indian and it wasn’t because we were football players,” McDonald said. “It was because of the stereotype that because we were Indian and from the reservation, we wouldn’t make it.”
Eventually, the group proved the mayor wrong. One became a state senator, another the owner of a major cattle ranch, and a third did well in the trucking business.
As for McDonald, a psychology professor at several universities, he quipped, “I’m still looking for my first honest job.”
Meanwhile, he offers this advice: Take your anger and use it “to create the drive and push to be the best you can be and do just a little bit better. Don’t do it just to ‘show them,’ but to show yourself. Counteracting negative stereotypes is so very important to later peace of mind.”
A career well-lived
After experiencing racism throughout college, K. Patrick Okura had just received his master’s degree in psychology when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
He was immediately interned in San Anita, Calif., along with 19,000 other Japanese-Americans. “I was about to start my career, and I ended up working in the horse stables,” the 89-year-old Okura said.
While the experience could have left him embittered, something happened that changed his life. A man his wife worked for at the camp heard he was a mental health professional and introduced him to Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town, the renowned home for orphaned boys. Flanagan needed a mental health expert to test the 400 youngsters living there. The experience helped cement a life’s value for Okura.
“It’s not how smart you are or how knowledgeable you are–you have to depend on other people to help you,” Okura said. “In that way you’re able to succeed.”
His work with the youngsters at Boy’s Town turned out to be immensely gratifying.
“I felt like this is what life’s all about,” he said. “Since then, my whole philosophy has been to help others.”
From Boy’s Town, Okura went on to a number of high-level mental health positions in the state and federal governments, including as assistant director for International Mental Health Programs at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
In 1988, Okura and his wife Lilly Okura founded the Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation Inc., an organization that grants mental health fellowships to promising Asian-American students. The two funded the project with money they received from former President Bush as an apology for the internment experience. So far they’ve funded 90 fellows.
“I hope to hit (age) 100, and by then the foundation will be able to fund another 100 people,” Okurasaid. “By the time I leave this earth, there will hopefully be 200 Okura fellows to carry on my work.”
Forging a field
Despite the fact that he has shone in academia, Stanford University professor Amado Padilla said his time as a Latino at various prestigious universities has been intellectually and emotionally isolating.
“Throughout my academic training as an experimental psychologist at the University of New Mexico, I never met another Latino or ethnic-minority psychologist,” Padilla said.
And it didn’t get better from there: At his next three teaching jobs–at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 197174, the University of California at Los Angeles from 197488 and Stanford University from 1988 to the present–it hasn’t been easy finding people of like mind and culture, he said.
A notable exception was his relationship with Rene “Art” Ruiz, PhD, a clinical professor at the University of Missouri who became Padilla’s mentor from 1971 until Ruiz died 10 years later.
“He taught me about everything from fine wines, brandy and savoring foods to income tax deductions to how to spend my discretionary income,” Padilla joked.
More important, Ruiz helped Padilla value multiculturalism, which has become a central part of his work and passion. His observations have led him to champion mentoring for ethnic-minority students, Padilla said.
“All of us need role models or mentors in our life, regardless of how old we are,” he said.
Although he was trained in experimental psychology and is well known for his work in that area, Latino psychology has become a major track for him, Padilla added. In the 1970s he received an NIMH grant to systematize the literature on Latino mental health, and has since written several definitive books on the subject.
Unfortunately, multiculturalism is wrongly seen as the weak sister by many academicians, Padilla said.
“Multiculturalism is going to be continuously challenged for whether it’s important,” he warned. “Yet multiculturalism and diversity exist everywhere. It’s important to consider culture and race in all that we do.”
A father of black psychology
In 1965, Joseph L. White was well on his way to becoming what he calls “a black Anglo-Saxon” psychologist, when he was accidentally thrust into a new identity.
The Civil Rights movement was going full steam and blacks in the Watts section of Los Angeles were torching their community in protest. Meanwhile, White was quietly teaching Piaget and Carl Rogers at Long Beach State College, when the media called him–as one of the only black psychologists they could find in the area–to comment. Their only previous interviews had been with white ‘experts’ who weren’t getting to the heart of the matter.
White didn’t have much time to think.
“Why are these Negroes burning down their community?” the interviewers asked.
“Because they’re goddamned angry!” White burst out. With that statement, “overnight, I became the blackest dude around!” the jocular University of California at Irvine psychologist said.
Indeed, given the newness of the concept, becoming an authentic black psychologist was both an emerging passion and a seat-of-the-pants endeavor, White confessed. In the late summer of 1968, he and several other black psychologists stormed APA’s Annual Convention to state their demands, but weren’t sure what to tell journalists when asked to define what they were angrily calling “black psychology.”
The group was supposed to meet over the weekend, but no one showed up, White said. Alone in his hotel room, White tackled the project himself.
“What I scribbled down became ‘Toward a Black Psychology,'” White said.
The text became a defining article in Ebony magazine in 1970. White received plenty of flak from fellow psychologists for his about-face. One colleague from Michigan State, where White received his doctoral degree, accused White of “bringing racism into psychology,” White said.
He advises following your conscience anyway. During Michigan State’s 50th anniversary celebration of its clinical psychology program in 1996, “they gave one award in clinical psychology,” he said, “and they gave it to me.”