Psychologists and race : exploring the identities of South African trainee clinical psychologists with reference to working in multiracial contexts

Nair, Sorayah (2008-03)

Thesis (DPhil (Psychology))—University of Stellenbosch, 2008.


The question of how to address diversity in the professional training of clinical psychologists is of concern in South Africa and elsewhere. This concern is particularly salient in contemporary South Africa, where much of the sociopolitical discourse centres on issues of race, transformation, relevance and redress. This research is in line with current debates, and set out to explore the self articulated racial identities as well as the impact of those identities on the work of trainees in the second year of their clinical psychology masters degree, at three universities in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Trainees’ perceptions of the role of the universities in facilitating the working through of challenges identified in trainees’ racial identities and in facilitating multiracial competencies, were also explored in this study. Individual interviews were conducted with nineteen trainee psychologists. A minimally structured questionnaire was used in this qualitative inquiry. The theoretical framework underpinning the methodology used in this thesis endeavour, with a critical lens as background, is primarily supported by the “interpretive” or “hermeneutic” approach to psychological theory. Critical theory offered further support to understanding some of the complex issues in working with racialised discourses. Whilst all trainees identified themselves in racial terms, race continues to be a complex and, for many, a painful construct. For many, the family has been the primary source of racial socialisation, largely premised on essentialist, stereotypical discourse. With regard to the impact of their racial identity on their work, many indicate that their race significantly impacted on this. They reported a particular concern with working in cross-racial dyads. Racial difference was sometimes reported to enhance the clinical process, but was far more often experienced as a difficulty. The trainees were unanimous that the universities at which they had studied had fallen far short of what they would have wished in terms of facilitating multiracial competencies. The findings suggest that whilst legislation has changed the political profile of South Africa, the process of transformation within the psychological sites studied, is cause for concern. The dissatisfaction with the training provided, for many trainees centres around issues of relevance to the South African context. Despite efforts by some universities to diversify the racial profile of trainees, in the attempt to address the needs of people of colour, trainees believe efforts to be insufficient. While this study did not collect data, that could corroborate or question the opinions of trainees, results clearly suggest that trainee psychologists do not believe universities are currently doing enough. The implications of the trainees’ views are discussed and implications considered for trainees, trainers, the users of psychological services, and for the role of psychology as a discipline in civil society.

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