Francisco, demanding a hearing for
their grievances. They asked the board,
and by extension, APA, to see African-Americans on their own terms and
through a lens of resilience. While the
board members initially balked — some
even accused White of racism — his
ideas gained a foothold in the field,
setting the stage for the multicultural
practice and research of today.
Today, the University of California,
Irvine, professor emeritus — who served
as campaign director for Robert F.
Kennedy in 1968 and knew Malcolm X
and Martin Luther King Jr., among other
civil rights leaders — says he’s pleased
but a bit shocked by the reach of his
“They say the unplanned journey is
the best one,” says White, 83. “If you had
told me in high school that all of this was
going to happen, I would have denied it
to high heaven.”
How did you initially get involved
I grew up in Minneapolis, and I had
been trained to work as a waiter in the
big hotels there. But when I turned
16, my mother wanted to get me out
of there because she was worried I
might be headed toward the streets. So
she shipped me off to relatives in San
Francisco, one of whom was an aunt
who was 10 years older than me and had
just graduated from UCLA.
Two things happened: Black people in
San Francisco could not join the waiter’s
union, so that avenue was shut down to
Then my aunt sat me down and said,
“Look. If you can’t be a waiter, why don’t
you think about going to college?” That
appealed to me, partly because she told
me that higher education in California
[at the time] was free. Also, the war had
just started in Korea, so I was able to get
a four-year deferment just by going to
So at age 17, I enrolled in general
education at San Francisco College
[which later became San Francisco State
University], 10 blocks from my house,
and one of my classes was a psychology
Which aspects of psychology
One was Pavlov and his dog. I thought,
“That’s the way they condition people.
They say black is bad, bad, bad, bad,” from
the time you’re a little baby — and pretty
soon they don’t have to say it any more.
The other big influence for me
was Freud, particularly the business
of defense mechanisms — that you
could look straight at something and
not see it because you were protected
by repression, projection, suppression.
… Your defense mechanisms wouldn’t
allow you to see reality.
Dr. Joseph White (left) with Malcolm X
(center) in 1968.