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Black History Month

Fresh perspectives on Racism, Colonialism and Psychology: the Writings of Dr Kwame Owusu-Bempah (1945-2017)

23 October 2020 | by Black History Month

In the previous History of Psychology Centre Black History Month blog, we learnt about the Doll Test developed by African-American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Phipps Clark and how it was used to overturn segregation in US schools. This week, we focus on the research and writing of another campaigning Black psychologist, Kwame Owusu-Bempah, who was, as we will discover, critical of the use of such tests which he felt showed an unhealthy obsession with self-identity rather than focusing on the causes of racism in society.

Dr Owusu-Bempah, known as Bempah to his friends and colleagues, was an academic and activist who spent 30 years at the School of Social Work at the University of Leicester.

His book 'Children and Separation: Socio-Genealogical Connectedness Perspective' was one of the most well-read psychology books of 2007.

Bempah’s research was primarily focused on two issues; the psychological development of children and racial justice.

A passionate campaigner against racism, he used many outlets (including columns in The Psychologist) to share his innovative ideas for identifying and tackling racial injustice.

Owusu-Bempah was born in Akokofe, near Kumasi, Ghana’s second city, [comma] in 1945.

The son of farmers, he showed himself to be academically gifted from a young age. He studied at a local seminary and became a civil servant.

After migrating to the United Kingdom as a young man, he initially worked as a nurse, before, in 1974, gaining a degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Leeds.

He continued working part-time as a nurse whilst working on his master’s (1979) and later a doctorate from Loughborough University awarded in 1983.

Initially Bempah ran Leicestershire Race Awareness Consortium, providing anti-racism training to local authorities and other organisations and then in 1990 was appointed lecturer and later reader at the University of Leicester.

Bempah used these roles to challenge the racism and colonialism he saw as endemic both in western society and within the field of psychology.

Writing in The Psychologist in 2006 Bempah publically offered sharp and incisive critiques of current psychology teaching and research methods:

“...through IQ tests, personality inventories, and other psychometric tools, psychology serves the interests of dominant groups in society at the expense of the victims of its endemic isms.”

Along with his collaborator Dr Dennis Howitt of the University of Loughborough, Bempah explored his analysis of the racism psychology teaching across two books, "The Racism of Psychology" (Harvester Wheatsheaf 1994) and "Psychology Beyond Western Perspectives" (BPS Books 2000). A reviewer of the latter commented that it was:

“...an important step forward in the field of western psychology… foregrounding issues of race, ethnicity and gender with a degree of bluntness and forthrightness that is often lacking in much psychological research.”

The candour and passion ascribed to Bempah is particularly evident in a joint article with Dr Dennis Howitt in the March 1999 issue of The Psychologist entitled ‘Even their soul is defective’, where Bempah and Howitt specifically criticised the Clarks’ Doll Test stating that this research was representative of psychological studies that:

“...depict[ed] black people of diverse back grounds as defective in body and soul… that black people, especially children, experience negative self-identity… and that they are identity-confused and lacking in self-esteem.”

They argued that much psychological research perpetuated “harmful myths about black people’s inner qualities” and contended that this was due to a problematising of the Black experience in psychological studies, a deep-seated conception of Black inferiority and an obsession with Black self-perception rather than an examination of the external systems under which Black people live.

The target of psychologists, they contended, “must be the racist system rather than the psychology of individual children”.

Rather than challenging stereotypes and negative social perceptions, Bempah believed psychological research often provided justification for white superiority, leading to very real social consequences.

For example, Bempah and Howitt argued that rates of Black adoption were lower due research suggesting that transracial adoption impacted negatively on young Black children.

While this subject is still a matter of ongoing debate today, Bempah believed that there was no empirical foundation for such assertions, “only political or ideological interest”.

As well as featuring Bempah and Howitt’s critique, the March 1999 issue of The Psychologist also gave room for other academics to critique their arguments.

Steve Reicher of the University of St Andrews, Ann Phoenix of Birkbeck University and Gerry Finn of the University of Strathclyde all provided detailed analysis of the article.

These individuals took issue with the disregard of the social good to come out of established psychological tests dealing with race, including the Doll Test and Bempah’s perceived binary view of racial stigmatisation.

These arguments, along with a response from Bempah and Howitt are available in our archives:

Howitt and Bempah’s article in The Psychologist exemplifies of the importance of having an arena for Black intellectuals to discuss their research, ideas and experiences.

Creating platforms for psychologists to discuss issues of racism, colonialism and inequality is crucial for the profession and wider society, and is something that as an organisation we should be striving to do much more of today.

The writings of Bempah in The Psychologist over the years provide an insight into the life and ideas of an exceptional and courageous psychologist.

Kwame Bempah challenged the psychology community to think more deeply about the issue of racism, and to take steps to change orthodoxies to better fight it.

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