Derald Wing Sue
Interviewed By Jeffrey K. Zeig, PhD
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes, 49 seconds
Derald Wing Sue was born in Portland, Oregon and is Chinese American. He grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and remembers being teased due to his ethnicity. Although the prejudice and discrimination negatively affected Sue, it prompted him to study multiculturalism and later, cross-cultural counseling.
Sue is a certified hypnotherapist in Portland. He has authored 23 books and has written on various topics including multicultural counseling and psychotherapy, psychology of racism and antiracism, cultural diversity, cultural competence, and multicultural organizational development. His most recent book co-authored with Lisa Spanierman, the revised edition of Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2020), is on multicultural competencies and the concept of microaggression. Sue has also co-authored with David Sue Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice (2015) which was controversial due to the authors’ philosophy on multicultural counseling.
Sue has an MS and Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Oregon. After completing his degree, he became a counselor at the University of California, Berkeley counseling center, and was known as the counselor who supported Asian American students. In 1972, Sue and his brother Stanley co-founded the Asian American Psychological Association and Sue served as the founding president of the organization.
In 1996, Sue testified before Bill Clinton’s President’s Advisory Board on Race. He also has served as a president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues, and the president of the Society of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association 1999, along with Melba Vasquez and Rosie Bingham, he co-founded the National Multicultural Conference and Summit.
Jeffrey Zeig: As an expert on multicultural counseling, you confront the personal and collective denial in which we shroud ourselves. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, you find the subtext, and you are not afraid to speak out against long-held institutions. Let’s begin with the idea of white privilege, and how that works in society in ways of which we might not be aware.
Derald Wing Sue: One of the issues is that whiteness is a default standard in our society. And as a result, it is invisible to most people who are white, have power, and privilege, but it is not invisible to people of color. There are unearned benefits and advantages that white people have just by virtue of having white skin. And oftentimes, it challenges the myth of meritocracy – a white-skinned person believing that everything they attain is due to their efforts and hard work. And they do not understand why people of color are disadvantaged. But there lots of examples of how people of color are disadvantaged. They are often monitored when walking around a store, and they are required to show more ID to cash a check, especially African Americans. My white brothers and sisters don’t experience that.
JZ: Now, this gets into a topic that you have researched extensively, which is the effect of microaggression on both the perpetrator and the victim. Can you talk about that?
DWS: Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, insults, invalidations, and put-downs that people of color experience. Microaggressions are not simply race-based, they can be gender-based they can be based on disability. Any marginalized group can be the object of microaggressions. The thing that makes microaggressions so powerful, is that they are invisible to the perpetrator. A person who engages in microaggression is not aware that they said something that was offensive or demeaning. The example I like to give is that I’m frequently complimented for speaking good English. Now, the person saying this means it to be a compliment, but the hidden communication that they don’t see is that they perceive me as a perpetual alien in my own country. African American teenage girls oftentimes say that their white classmates will tell them that they are pretty — for a dark girl. Now, the classmate saying this means it to be a compliment, but in essence, it is saying that the girl is an exception, because most black people are not attractive or pretty. And our work now is what we call micro-interventions, or anti-bias strategies that people of color can use because when we receive those ‘compliments,’ we feel offended and oftentimes we don’t know what to do. The dark girl could say to her white classmate, ‘Well, you’re pretty for a white girl.’ This could make the white girl stop and realize that what she said to the girl of color has a deeper meaning and implication. And it’s the invisibility of that hidden meta-communication that reflects implicit bias — reflections of world views of normality, abnormality, inclusion, exclusion, superiority, and inferiority. Most people who engage in microaggressions are well-meaning, decent, moral human beings who experience themselves that way. But they are out of touch with the implicit biases and perceptions they have. And that means that perpetrators’ perceptions of reality are distorted because they don’t understand themselves as racial, cultural beings.
JZ: They don’t understand that they’re being disrespectful. You have pointed out in your writing that this is a bind for the person who is the victim of micro-aggression because it’s difficult to know how to respond to this type of racism.
DWS: Yes, it is. And when we first published our 2007 taxonomy on microaggressions, many of my white colleagues wrote in and said that we were making a mountain out of a molehill – – that microaggressions are trivial, insignificant, harmless. That it’s no different than a white man having an experience with a rude clerk who had a bad day. But we were able to show that micro-aggressions — racial, gender, sexual orientation — are much different than the everyday incivilities that a person might experience. Microaggressions are constant and cumulative.
In fact, APA did a major study of 3,000 individuals, and it shows that microaggression occurs from the moment a person of color awakens in the morning until they go to bed at night; from the moment they are born until the day they die. If you see a microaggression out of context, you might think that it’s harmless and trivial, but it’s cumulative. Someone might think, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But that person doesn’t see that the person of color might have experienced three or four microaggressions already that day and that one incident is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
JZ: You have great faith in that if you explain to people what microaggression is, if you make it public knowledge, then those who are inadvertently committing these microaggressions may realize what they’re doing and stop. In my experience, knowledge is not the most powerful tool. Experience is the most powerful. I believe that experiential learning, not didactic learning is what makes people change.
DWS: I agree. And this is something I say all the time — that we could’ve eradicated racism a long time ago. But what you’re really dealing with is not only cognitions, but embedded emotions, the behaviors, and even the spiritual level. And how do you really become open and aware of what’s going on? And the point I’ve made in much of my writing is that it must come from experiential reality. If you really want to understand the life experience of let’s say African Americans or Asian Americans, opening a book and intellectually reading about their history and culture doesn’t do it. You must have intimate close contact with people who differ from you in terms of race, culture, and ethnicity. And, you have to monitor your emotional reactions: ‘Why am I suddenly tensing up in this elevator with a black man? What is this saying about me?’ You must get embedded feelings out. And the only way you do this is to have intimate experiences.
I’ve done a lot of work in terms of raising race-conscious, anti-biased children, and I began to look at the developmental levels. Many people don’t realize that infants from three to six months can discern differences. They do it with eye contact. And the three differences they can most likely detect are race, gender, and skin color. And as they grow from very young children up to 5 years old, they know these differences, but they haven’t associated negativity with the differences. They might say out loud, ‘Why does this boy (or girl) have a brown skin? Does it taste like chocolate?’ Well, those are good questions. The child is making observations, but parents immediately hushed the child up.
From about 6 years old to 10, the differences begin to have negative associations. So how do you stop children from having these associations? Well, the more friends of color that the child has, the more the child’s parents socialize with people of color, and people who are different, the less likely the child will have negative associations. Do the children witness you, as a parent or a teacher, having fun with people who are different? We have stereotypes and biases. And the approach for us is remediation. But with young children, the approach should be prevention.
And to become culturally competent as a therapist, it’s not simply, ‘I went to a workshop.’ Do you have friends who are different? Do you live in an integrated neighborhood? Do you attend events put on by communities of color? Do you go to museums that have a multicultural emphasis? Are your reading materials multicultural in content?
JZ: So, exposure to multicultural experiences is best for everyone, including therapists.
DWS: Yes, and it is also important for helping professionals to understand themselves as racial-cultural beings. One of the things that I often do when I’m training mental health providers, is go around and ask people, ‘What does it mean for a black person to be African American?’ ‘What does it mean for an Asian to be Asian American?’ Then I say, ‘What does it mean to be white?’ And I get all these reactions: ‘I’m not white, I’m Irish,’ or, ‘White isn’t a race.’
They are baffled because they are unable to understand that being white may not be a race, but it means a completely different experience or reality than being a person of color. And they don’t understand that they can be guilty of cultural oppression that imposes their worldview – by making a determination of what is normal, abnormal, healthy, and unhealthy And they don’t realize what that worldview consists of; it’s invisible to them.
JZ: You are going to keynote at the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in December. We’re glad that you will be gracing our podium as you’ve been one of our most popular speakers. But you’re also a wonderful writer. How many books have you written?
DWS: I’ve written 23 now.
JZ: You seamlessly immerse the reader into the topic with stories and it’s always a pleasure to read your work. You have also studied hypnosis. What can you say about that?
DWS: I’m a certified hypnotherapist in Portland, Oregon. I like the power of sending what I call ‘metacommunication.’ Erickson was a master at nonverbal communication — able to send messages that the person might not be aware of. That’s what I find with microaggressions – it’s hidden communication — and that’s why I link the two as being very similar. And one of the things that I train people in is this concept of perspicacity: the ability to see beyond the obvious, to read between the lines, to understand nonverbal and verbal communication. And that is what I find so intriguing about hypnosis.
JZ: Yes, me too. Let me ask another question that may be related to microaggressions. As human beings, we’re like chickens, in that we form a pecking order. And being hierarchical creatures, there is going to be one group that is oppressed — if they’re too tall or short, or black or whatever. Whatever the distinguishing characteristic is, it’s as if we are biologically designed to be hierarchical, which means that we are overtly or implicitly going to oppress the ‘out’ group. So then, we’re fighting against a biological imperative. But do we need to follow that imperative?
DWS: This is where neurobiology reveals much about how our bias is developed. And this raises a primary issue. People ask me, will we ever eradicate racism? And, I don’t think so. And thinking about this, I do get depressed and think, ‘Then why am I doing this?’ And the answer is that I do have an impact on my family, my friends, and so forth. It gets back to this concept of doing the right thing — that what you do is as important as the outcome.
Elie Wiesel [Holocaust survivor] once said that even if what you do is not going to have a major impact, you have to do it, because it is the right thing to do.
JZ: To do the right thing is to be in integrity with yourself, and not so wedded to grand outcomes.
DWS: Yes. Excellent.
JZ: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful spending time with you.
This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 40, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.
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