Joseph L. White, whose pioneering conceptual work earned him the title of “the godfather of black psychology,” died November 21 while traveling to be with family over the Thanksgiving holiday. The professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at the University of California Irvine was 84.
He told interviewer Le Ondra Clark in 2012 of a meeting with the leadership of the American Psychological Association in 1968 in which he detailed his foundational observation: “Psychology is part of America, black people are invisible in America, [and so] they’re invisible in psychology.” This invisibility, along with engrained expectations that blacks were in general inferior to whites, was not based on data but culture – and therefore was hardly worthy of the name ‘science.’ “You created a ‘science’ that reflects the belief of the society,” he recalled saying.
And so he pushed academic psychologists to recognize how the African American experience diverged from the white American experience, and so restored a measure of rigor to the science and in turn helping craft the first of what became a tapestry of ethnically diverse psychologies.
An article in a popular black-oriented magazine made him the voice of the emergent field. “His seminal article in Ebony magazine in 1970, ‘Toward a Black Psychology,’ was instrumental in beginning the modern era of African-American and ethnic psychology,” reads part of a eulogy appearing on the University of California Irvine Libraries website.
Going to a popular outlet, and not an academic one, was a deliberate decision to make sure that the effort reached “the people” and in a language that all could understand, he told Clark. “I wanted the people in the ‘hood to know this thing existed, this black psychology.”
Joseph L. White was born on December 19, 1932, in Lincoln, Nebraska, although his family soon moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota where White grew up as he put it jokingly, a “sunburnt Swede.” As a youth his ambitions were limited to being a waiter in a fancy hotel, but his mother, despairing that her son was starting to lead a dissolute life with sketchy friends — his high school girlfriend, Mattie Della, would later gain attention as the mother of the musician Prince – shipped him to San Francisco to live with her sister. When he reached California and found discriminatory regulations prevented him from waiting tables at nicer restaurants in San Francisco, that aunt convinced him to attend college.
He started at the nearby San Francisco State University and contented himself with drifting by as a C+ student; his interest in psychology flowed from a part-time job supervising a playground. But a counselor at San Francisco State gave him a rude awakening – if he wanted to be a psychologist for real, “I had to clean up my act — and then there’s this Negro business.” White improved his grades and concentrated on being “the nicest Negro” as he completed a bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State in 1954, served two years in the U.S. Army and then was one of the first to enroll in the new master’s program at San Francisco State. In 1958 he entered the clinical psychology Ph.D program at Michigan State University, one of only two schools that would accept an honors student who was also African-American. (The University of Colorado was the other.)
“I was the first black graduate student in clinical psychology there,” White would later tell Tori DeAngelis at the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology website, “and there was this subconscious, unstated point of view that blacks didn’t have the ability. Fortunately for me, I was extremely well prepared because I’d gotten my master’s degree. They were expecting me to just kind of hold my own, but instead, I excelled.”
With his doctorate, White came back to California to teach – and discovered he couldn’t buy a house in the neighborhood he wanted, even though he now had a good job as a professor at California State University, Long Beach. He helped found a campus Educational Opportunities Program at Long Beach (which eventually encompassed the entire California State University system) and began his transformation from being the “nicest Negro to being a militant Negro.” Part of that waking up process occurred when White realized that discrimination “wasn’t just happening to me … it was a system thing.”
He returned to San Francisco State, now as professor of psychology and dean of undergraduate studies, and, following a strike by students in 1968, helped establish the first black studies program at a four-year institution. “Joseph White has made a fundamental shift in how ethnic minorities are viewed, understood and treated in American psychology,” Robert A. Corrigan, then-president of San Francisco State, said in 2008 when White was named Alumnus of the Year. “He has worked tirelessly to make college education accessible to students from every walk of life.”
The year 1968 – the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — was a watershed for White and for black psychology. After the unsatisfying meeting with APA leadership, White helped found the Association of Black Psychologists. The association’s Journal of Black Psychology followed in 1974.
The next year, White started teaching at UC Irvine. He would remain there the rest of his career, serving as supervising psychologist and director of ethnic studies and cross-cultural programs. He also mentored more than 100 students.
Off campus, served on the California State Psychology Licensing Board, chairing it for three years, and was a trustee of The Menninger Foundation in Houston.
While at Irvine, White wrote several books, including 1984’s The Psychology of Blacks: An African-American Perspective, 1989’s The Troubled Adolescent and 1999’s Black Man Emerging. And in 2008 he received a presidential citation from the American Psychological Association in honor of his career achievements.