An Executive Order That Sets a Disturbing Precedent

Why a new Executive Order harms the mental health of the nation.

Posted Oct 12, 2020

A few weeks ago, The White House signed an executive order banning discussion and workplace training that include “divisive concepts” in federal institutions. Included in the definition of “divisive concepts” is the idea that the United States is inherently racist or sexist, that individuals can be consciously or unconsciously racist or oppressive, and the concepts of white privilege and white fragility. Or as the order puts it: "Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” 

The executive order claims that acknowledging the U.S. history of racism and oppression will somehow increase division and unrest in the country, that naming the ways in which systemic and institutionalized racism and sexism exist will somehow enforce them. In actuality, it is the opposite. An order like this promotes a colorblind way of looking at America that denies the very real racism and discrimination that people of color experience daily, from one on one interactions to the larger and systemic racism and inequality that is perpetuated by institutions that were created for and by those with dominant identities. The order prioritizes the comfort of these individuals with dominant identities. In doing so, it also silences the voices and experiences and pain of those with marginalized identities, compounding the trauma of what it is to be marginalized in this country, denying the psychological comfort that comes from simply being validated, and cutting off any potential avenues for change. 

Aside from the psychological distress of this denial, which is occurring nationwide, the order also raises questions for the psychology community, especially for those practitioners who work with federal institutions. Does this mean that, for example, training around race and privilege, which can assist in the overall health of an institution and the people who belong to it, is no longer permissible? What about therapists who treat patients within federal institutional settings? Are discussions of race, inequality, or privilege, which could be very relevant to an individual patient’s story, life, and therapeutic needs, no longer permitted? 

At present, it is unclear how exactly the Executive Order will operate in practice or the type of things it may cover, but there is the very real risk that conversations that have the potential to disrupt the status quo or challenge power, since inequality and racism are servants of power, will be repressed, silenced, and quashed, to the detriment of the health of everyone. Indeed, that is why the executive order even exists. After all, how can we fix something when we are forced to deny that there is even a problem? 

The field of American psychology, like the rest of the country, requires open and frank discussion on race if wounds are to be healed, historical and present inequality confronted, and if we are to achieve the psychological health of the nation and all of us as individuals. Those who would seek to silence those discussions are afraid of what good they might bring.