“The Way Things Were”: How the American Psychological Association Used History to Make Progress

APA’s groundbreaking decision to apologize for structural racism in psychology came with the help of historical research. Doing so not only helped shape a stronger apology but also made room for stakeholders within and outside of the organization.

This is the second edition of a three-part series on association history. Part 1 looks at the archives of the Association for Computing Machinery. Part 3 highlights the National Association of Credit Management’s long history.

When a large organization like the American Psychological Association takes a bold step—such as apologizing for the organization’s contributions to systemic racism, which it did last fall—the effort can require a lot of hands along the way.

Some of those hands belonged to historians. To help build a meaningful apology that was grounded in truth, APA decided to bring in a task force specializing in historical research.

“It was critical for us to do our research, so that we would understand how the field of psychology was used as a conduit to displace, dispossess, and in a lot of ways also exploit communities of color,” said APA Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Maysa Akbar. “There were opportunities we saw to really highlight this history.”

Dr. Cathy Faye, executive director of the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, helped to lead the research process, which developed a chronology upon which the broader apology—handled by a separate team within APA—was based.

“I think the process was saying, let’s actually dig into this and look at the data and figure out the significant moments of harm in APA’s history,” Faye said.

Yet taking a strictly historical approach wasn’t practical, either. Apologizing for the racist wrongs of an entire field could take years, even generations, to do meaningfully. The initial apology couldn’t wait, but still had to have meaning.

“Doing the kind of archival research that would be necessary for this would require at least a year, I think, of solid research and writing, which we just simply didn’t have,” Faye explained. ”So we relied mostly on secondary literature.” The apology took six months to create.

Read on to learn more about the decisions behind it—and the future role of history in making the field of psychology more inclusive.

Taking the Research Outside

When APA decided to lean on historical research for its apology, it also decided to rely on those outside of the association’s staff, in order to have a neutral yet informed view of APA’s influence. Faye, as past president of APA’s Society for the History of Psychology, fit the bill for this approach.

I think the process was saying, let’s actually dig into this and look at the data and figure out the significant moments of harm in APA’s history.

Dr. Cathy Faye, the University of Akron

“I think there was some inclination that it really wasn’t a good idea for APA itself to be the party that says, ‘OK, here’s what we think we did wrong, and this is what we’ll apologize for,’” Faye said.

With that in mind, Faye’s task force was made up of a mixture of historians, as well as what she described as “psychologists around the country who have lived this history,” many of whom have had past affiliations with APA groups such as the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs during the 1970s and 1980s.

The historians developed the chronology, while Faye worked closely with the task force. “Their feedback changed the final product immensely,” she said.

Faye also worked closely with a committee that developed the apology, offering insights as well as close feedback. “I did some editing on it, really just for historical accuracy more than anything else,” she said.

Next Steps for Historians

Both Faye and Akbar said that there is room to expand upon APA’s initial apology in different ways. Akbar noted that the organization focused on bringing in external voices, in part because relying on records alone might mean that the organization is only approaching this issue from a white, male perspective.

“We captured oral history because we know that sometimes written history can be fraught with the lens of whiteness and doesn’t necessarily capture the silenced voices of color,” Akbar said.

Faye said that from a historical research perspective, this could create an opportunity to conduct better-informed research in the future, including building on oral history efforts in the future. This could help later generations expand on the existing work that APA has done around race.

“We need to be collecting personal histories, working really hard to change the archival record, so that their stories are part of it,” Faye said. “I think that that’s probably the most important thing an organization could do right now from a historical perspective.”

After all, this history isn’t just for the current moment.

“Someday, 100 years from now, someone else is going to be trying to do this kind of work again, and those voices still won’t be there unless we do something differently now,” she said.

(Nikada/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!