The Ugly Racist Origin of U.S. Psychology

 

In the year 2000, I entered college as a budding young freshman at Penn State University, and my outlook on the world was similar to many 17-year-olds at the time, a pure optimist. Thinking to myself, “The world needs changing! Once I get an understanding of what drives thoughts, feelings, and behaviors – I could contribute to that change.” I majored in psychology and began my journey.

Although I received a remarkable education during those 4 years, it wasn’t until after I graduated when I began to uncover the history that didn’t quite make it to the lecture hall. Somehow, I was guaranteed an education of sexist origin of American Psychology. Some of the psychological problems I treat today can be directly tied to American Racism.

“This disease is marked by a slave’s desire to want to flee from captivity. The cure? The cure for this wretched disease was to whip the slave back into his right mind. This is not a joke.”

The Lash / Henry Louis Stephens. Image date: ca. 1863. Card depicting the whipping of an African-American slave. Part of a series of collecting cards depicting the plight of the slave.

Signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is considered the “Father of American Psychiatry”. He coined the psychiatric medical diagnosis, negritude. According to Medical Apartheid, negritude was understood to be a mild form of leprosy and its one and only cure was to merely, become white. The “leprosy” Dr. Rush referred to was called melanin. Some of us are trying to cure our negritude today.

Type negritude into Google:

ne·gri·tude
ˈneɡriˌt(y)o͞od,ˈnē-/
noun

1.) the affirmation or consciousness of the value of black or African culture, heritage, and identity.

“Negritude helped to guide Senegal into independence with pride”

How conveniently is Dr. Rush’s definition left out, similar to many other instances of historical “white-washing”.

A well-known Louisiana physician, Dr. Samuel Cartwright coined the diagnosis, drapetomania. This disease is marked by a slave’s desire to want to flee from captivity. The cure? The cure for this wretched disease was to whip the slave back into his right mind. This is not a joke.

Some of us believe this racist mentality in mental health is just a thing of the past or it was “just the times.” However, I observe this mentality in many well-intentioned mental health workers today. The connection between negritude and drapetomania is very simple: THEY BOTH IGNORE HOW RACISM IS THE CAUSE OF THESE SO CALLED CONDITIONS. A mental health worker is INADEQUATE if she fails to discuss how the racist historical legacy, and the current institutional racism of the United States is DIRECTLY tied to the mental health conditions suffered in many communities. This phenomenon has been deemed intergenerational trauma. Without this realization, and an aggressive plan of action, the mental health conditions of African Americans will either merely remain the same or continue the downward spiral.

This idea of racism being included in the foundation of American Psychology is just a microcosm of the most institutions: Education, Banking, Criminal Justice, Labor, Sports, and the list goes on and on. Admittedly, Mental Health has taken some strides to right the wrongs of their predecessors, but much work is still to be done.

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