White Psychology…and Course Concepts?

In some further reading suggested by Dr. McCoy one a prior post of mine, titled “Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong“, written by Brian Resnick, I found more engaging content than I could fit into my last post alone, so for those of you following what I write, consider this a continuation, but down a different road. The main thought striking me now about this article is this: in psychology, there are many who encounter evidence that disproves foundational psychological knowledge when those foundations are studied rigorously. Why are the psychologists responding with comments like this: “I will stand by that conclusion for the rest of my life, no matter what anyone says” when their research comes under scrutiny? My thought on course concepts pertain to Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play And Other Works and Ron Eglash’s African Fractals who discuss “repetition and revision” (8) and “fractals”(3)  respectively. These concepts relate to an idea of going back over what we already think we know to achieve a deeper understanding of the concept in greater detail, which I believe to be intellectually responsible. I think that the quoted psychologist, who isn’t named, could pick up a few beneficial notes from our class. As a note of caution to myself, though: I don’t know this psychologist, nor their study, nor the study that is proving them wrong, but I think the concept fits more than just a single case study.

Another thing that strikes me about the field of psychology is the predominant whiteness. Almost all of the scientists, and all of the “foundational” ones, with the earliest studies and theories on which all others currently base their work, are white. Resnick’s article shed light on the cultural state of intellectual humility, claiming with evidence that scientists and academics don’t want to be seen in any light other than the successful. People are worried that they will be treated with less respect and not given a second chance. These are real fears for real people. I imagine that our current academic system is the base of many problems with the lack of intellectual humility that is present in the highest academia. Those producing the newest and most profound ideas hold with them a sense of status that is tied to an income that they depend on. If they are proven wrong, they believe that their fame and income will disappear, even if in the back of their mind they do truly desire the absolute truth behind the topics of study. The system, to them, does not allow for error, and it eats those who fail alive.

However, I think this is not the case in our classroom nor in African American Studies as a discipline. I think that all of the content we have covered in this class has built on each other, from the essays to the stories, to build something with pieces of everyone; a true quilt (course concept from Barkley Brown) of academic rigor. Those whose ideas were superseded have stayed within the quilt. For example I believe that Frederick Douglass was overwritten by Harriet Jacobs, who added womanhood into the slave narrative. It is not that Douglass was wrong in his story–it is simply that Jacobs had a different angle to offer. Similar concept: slavery; taken as a fractal to the next iteration (Eglash, again) to create a new and complex image of reality. From the earliest roots of Black Academia, being wrong or improved upon has rarely if ever (my knowledge and research fail me) resulted in intellectual and capital banishment from the community.

Why is it that White Academia has not caught on to this positive and recursive view of academics? I think that Victor LaValle’s Big Machine may have something to offer. “I don’t have much faith in institutions, but I still believe in people” (365). This passage from Ricky explains a root of what could be done. I believe that most of my friends and colleagues know that I try to do good in the world, whatever that may be. If I am ever to misspeak, show up late, leave laundry unattended, etc. , these people are fast to forgive me because they hold my actions in a bigger scope of my whole character. The personal level makes forgiveness easier, almost the only way to interact in fact. Imagine if you ceased communication with your friends when they do something incorrectly! Nobody would interact with anybody as far as I can tell. This is all very different with institutions. We don’t know an institution personally, and so failure is seen as a failure to the institution, which has rules about said failures and stigmas about it that are difficult to conceptualize. People don’t want to fail their institutions, yet in having that goal, the institution fails them.

Academia (perhaps even culture as a whole, although that can get dicy) needs to make space for genuine intent with ill results. If people are worried about being cut off if they make a mistake, then they won’t engage in difficult content, they will simply maintain a steady trajectory on the safe side of things, just getting by while the complex problems of the world thrive. That said, the other side is not the goal, that is to say that we cannot just do bad work and forgive endlessly. As ridiculous as that sounds, it needs to be mentioned so we can effectively conceptualize a balance, a both/and, if you will. We need to feel comfortable with our work enough to publish it, but we need to be humble enough to let others challenge it. I believe that Black Studies can bring these diverse and forgiving concepts into many different fields, most of whom desperately need it in this day and age.

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