‘We all have multiple identities’: A conversation with UC Berkeley professor, American Psychological Association President-elect Frank Worrell

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Frank Warrell/Courtesy

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Frank Worrell is a Trinidadian-American immigrant and professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education. After working with the American Psychological Association, or APA, since 2004, Worrell was elected as its 2022 president, making him the organization’s second Black male president-elect. The Daily Californian staff writer Hari Srinivasan sat down with him to discuss Worrell’s research, racial identity and advice for students, among other topics.

The Daily Californian: Congratulations on becoming the president-elect of the American Psychological Association this year. What did you think when you first heard the news?

Frank Worrell: I found out in early November. Voting closed on Oct. 29 — I remember the day because it was my birthday. I got the news a few days later. I was a little stunned. I will be the second Black male president of the APA. I’m also going to be the second openly gay president. I will be a Black gay president. A double minority, if you want to think about it like that. I would like to think that’s a good sign in psychology, and, hopefully, the country can learn from what our association is doing. 

DC: You’ve had an interesting background spanning three countries: Trinidad and Tobago, Canada and now the U.S.

FW: I went to elementary and secondary school in Trinidad. Trinidad and Tobago is an interesting place to grow up — it’s about 65 miles by 35 miles, and it’s the most diverse of the Caribbean nations, racially. We have our own music, Calypso, we have our own national instrument, the steel drum. And lots of interesting food, which you don’t get in North America — food from the tropics. 

I actually decided on psychology because a student had gone berserk at a concert and started cursing, and I was in shock. We didn’t have psychology in Trinidad, which is how I ended up going to Canada. 

Then my best friend from high school, who was attending Berkeley, sent me a Berkeley catalog, and I fell in love with the place and the program, which offered things like clinical training and research training that I hadn’t seen at other places. 

DC: You also have a wide range of research interests.

FW: When I came to do my research at UC Berkeley, I came to study dropouts. I wanted to know why some students stayed in school, despite hardships, while others didn’t. I still study at-risk youth. Along the way, I picked up some other things. For example, for my dissertation, I studied the role that hope plays in decision-making and discovered that students who are very hopeful, even though they are at risk, are more likely to graduate than students who are not hopeful. 

My research has also looked at racial identity, specifically looking at attitudes to predict identity. We ask things like: Do you want to be called American or African American? Do you believe the negative stereotypes about African Americans? Do you think African Americans should live by Afrocentric principles? We end up with these different profiles of attitudes — self-hatred, assimilation, multiculturalism and so forth. We’ve found that these profiles predict how you look at the world. For example, if some incident happens that’s ambiguous racially, a person with an assimilation profile may not see it as racial, while a person with an Afrocentric profile may see it as racist. 

DC: How do you decide to identify within the Black community? For example, even though you are a Black American, you are also a Trinidadian American, which can be distinguished from, say, a Jamaican American, or someone whose family came from Africa, but many generations ago.

FW: In California, I’m almost always an African American. But in Brooklyn — the largest Caribbean island, I call it — there are so many different Caribbean Natives there, so many people from different places that your specific country identity becomes more important. In Brooklyn, I’m Trinidadian American.

DC: How does the racial experience of someone who moved to the United States from Africa in their own lifetime differ from that of someone whose family has been for generations in the United States?

FW: Blacks who immigrate to the U.S. often have an easier time dealing with racism than African Americans and people who are born here. Many speculate that one of the reasons for this is that Black immigrants have a grounding in where they come from. I know I’m from Trinidad — if things don’t work out in America, I can go back to Trinidad. 

If you are African American, however, you are born here. There is no connection, no other place that you can call home. Every time you are dismissed for your race, treated badly, discriminated against, it eats at you in a way that it may not have as deep an impact as on somebody who has another place that they can go back to. 

I think this is one of the reasons why identity is such an important construct for minority groups, but for African Americans, in particular. Because in some sense they are American, but they are often not treated as if they are American. In their very homeland, they’re being treated as second-class citizens. And that has very powerful, negative impacts on African Americans. 

DC: Does this dual consciousness — this idea that, as you say, you can always go back — not just create an escape channel, but also create a kind of internal conflict as to whether you are Trinidadian, or American or a Trinidadian American?

FW: I’m not so sure that it creates a conflict. I think the way to think about it is this: We all have multiple identities. We are talking right now specifically about racial identity. But we have a gender identity, we have our sexual identity. I have an identity as an academic. I’m a psychologist, but my physics colleagues have an identity that’s tied to physics. There are multiple identities that we are always working with. 

The question is: Can we integrate those or are they in conflict? I think for Black immigrants, the multiple identities generally work fine because it allows them to say, “I am here, but I am not,” in a way that African Americans can’t. Ironically, sometimes African Americans have a lot of problems with immigrant Black minorities because we are seen as not taking racism seriously enough.

I don’t think it’s that we are not taking racism seriously. It’s that we are allowed to put in dual-consciousness. We are able to put it to the side to do what we want to do in a way that African Americans cannot. 

Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets, I think in large part because he captures very beautifully the dilemma that Blacks faced when he was alive, that they still face today. I think he’s captured a lot of America, like in his poem, “America never was America to me.” But he also does these personal poems — When company comes, they send me to the kitchen to eat.” In other words, I can’t be visible, I’m not the one who is out front. But that poem ends with hope — hope that I will grow strong and, at some point, they will not dare to send me to the kitchen to eat. 

DC: February is Black History Month. What should we be prioritizing right now?

FW: It’s important to have recognition like Black History Month. I also think it is important for us to recognize that individuals are Black all year round, that we do not shed our identities outside the month that’s assigned to us in the historical context, a historical memory. 

As somebody who is an educator and a school psychologist, my biggest concern is the achievement and opportunity gaps — we have not solved the problem of education in this country. Blacks get lower test scores, and not just on standardized tests but in subjects like reading and civics. Those of us who are psychologists and educators need to work diligently over time so that we are providing an education that leads to the same outcomes for Black students and other students of color as it does for white students. It’s a long-term challenge. It’s not going to happen in a year. It needs to be systematic and long term. When Jerry Brown started giving low-income schools more money from the state for education than schools with more resources, that was a start. But we need to be doing that in a sustained and committed manner over time with goals aiming toward equalizing the educational distributions of all students. 

DC: I’m a disabled student, so I have to ask this question, as you are an educator. What are your thoughts on the state of special education and minority education in this country? If there was one area to address, what would that be?

FW: I think the assumption is made that if you need special education, it automatically means you can’t do certain things. I think in some sense this parallels ethnic minority communities. 

Recent research on teacher expectations has shown that those expectations actually have profound impacts, not just on individual students but sometimes on whole classrooms of students. But that research has also shown us that we can teach teachers to be high expectation teachers. We know the kind of things that high expectation teachers do versus what low expectation teachers do. 

Most importantly, we need to teach teachers — and special ed teachers in particular, as well as teachers who are teaching low-income and students (of color) — that they do not need to assume that they know what the ceiling of the student’s ability is going to be, that they need to meet the student where they are.

A critical part of teacher education is that teachers do not communicate low expectations to students but actually engage with students so that in fact students can make go to the highest levels that they possibly can. 

DC: In a recent talk, you told students to adopt the following mentality: “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and if it does not work out, it does not.” Any other advice for students?

FW: Once, when I was younger, I was driving my mom and her friend around, and my mom’s friend asked, “What do you want Frank to be when he grows up?” My mom said something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “If the two of us are walking in the street and you say to me, ‘look how clean this street is,’ I want to be able to say to you, ‘my son cleans this street — that’s why it’s so clean.’ Whatever Frank does, I want him to do it to the best of his ability.”

That’s what I’d say to every student. Whatever your job is, whatever you decide to do, you do it to the best of your ability. You’ll be one of the best that you can, whether you are a street cleaner, a psychologist, a mathematician, a taxi driver. You do the very best that you can. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].