IRVINE, Calif. — Joseph L. White, a psychologist, social activist and teacher who helped pioneer the field of black psychology to counter what he saw as rampant ignorance and prejudice in the profession, has died. He was 84.
White, who lived in Irvine, died of a heart attack on Nov. 21 near Chicago during a flight to St. Louis to see his daughter for Thanksgiving, said Tom Vasich, a spokesman for the University of California, Irvine, where White was a professor for decades.
White was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1932 but grew up in Minneapolis. He enrolled in San Francisco State College in 1950 after working his way west as a waiter on a passenger train.
He earned his PhD from Michigan State in 1962, becoming one of only a handful of blacks in the nation to hold a doctorate in clinical psychology.
“When I left the program, I was what you call a black Anglo-Saxon. I was the nicest Negro you ever wanted to see,” but prejudice changed him into “a militant Negro,” he recalled.
With a wife and three children, he tried to find a home and an office in Long Beach, California, but was repeatedly turned down despite having a college education and having performed military service.
In the midst of the civil rights and black power era of the 1960s, White campaigned for what is now known as cross-cultural psychology that took into account the perspectives and needs of ethnic minorities. In 1968, White — then dean of undergraduate studies at San Francisco State — and other black psychologists formed the Association of Black Psychologists.
They were angry at the way mainstream psychology took what they considered a white Western worldview that ignored or misunderstood black culture and lifestyles. The field also was dominated by a prejudiced view of African-Americans.
“Psychology is part of America. Black people are invisible in America, they’re invisible in psychology,” White said in an interview for the association’s 2008 convention. “In America, black people are considered to be inferior, dumb, slow, childlike. Same thing in psychology, about [how blacks have] low IQ, can’t do a complex task. We said: ‘How the hell did this happen?’ ”
White argued, for instance, that Eurocentric psychology misunderstood African-American spirituality, views of time and emphasis on collective behavior.
“Essentially, Joe was critiquing traditional psychology’s arrogance in believing that it was the norm against which all people and their cultures should be measured and telling black people that ‘you cannot seek validation from people who are oppressing you,’ ” said Thomas A. Parham, a past association president and vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Irvine.
White called for blacks to found a psychological field of their own. He popularized his ideas in a 1970 article in Ebony magazine and became known among colleagues as the “father of black psychology.”
Gays, women and members of other ethnic minorities adopted the same approach for their communities, White said.
White also kept up a clinical practice for decades and mentored many psychology students. He also worked on educational projects to provide opportunities for minority students. In 1968, he helped found California’s Educational Opportunity Program, which was expanded to all state college campuses and has provided financial aid, tutoring, counseling and other help to thousands of low-income and educationally disadvantaged students.
“Dr. White was a renowned scholar and will be remembered for his pioneering work in clinical psychology. But like all great professors his most enduring contribution is that he touched so many lives as a mentor and a teacher,” family friend and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement.