Spurred by Black Lives Matter, Professor Desiree Byrd Exposes the Racism in a Commonly Used Psychological Assessment

Desiree Byrd (Photo courtsey of Byrd)

By Lida Tunesi

As the U.S. continues to grapple with racism in the criminal justice system, Professor Desiree Byrd (GC/Queens, Psychology) is showing us how to fight racism in other places, too: by taking a hard look at the day-to-day practices of our own fields.

In a new article published in Psychological Assessment, Byrd calls attention to the presence of the noose, an object with a violent and racialized history, in a common word-naming psychological assessment tool. Graduate Center alumna Emnet Gammada (Ph.D. ’20, Psychology), now a gero-neuropsychology fellow at UCLA, was also an author on the study. Byrd, Gammada, and their co-authors call for the noose to be removed from the test.

“This paper sat in my spirit for decades,” Byrd told The Graduate Center. “I gained agency to write it from the protestors who took to the streets daily to demand justice for the victims and survivors of racism. Though I was unable to join them in person, this paper was a form of intellectual activism that I could take to the academy and the field more broadly. “Being a faculty member at an institution where public scholarship is expected and celebrated made it easier for me to call out the racism inherent in the item,” she said.

Called the Boston Naming Test, this “gold standard” assessment measures someone’s ability to name objects, which can be an issue for people with aphasia, Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia. The noose passed the test’s original creation and publication in 1983, and remained undisturbed until the publisher introduced an upgrade kit last fall, which includes a sticker of a boomerang that can be used to replace the noose. 

“The test publisher’s impotent response was yet another example of what is wrong in the discipline,” Byrd said. “It failed to reconcile or even acknowledge the harm done to test users, which is ethically and morally reprehensible.”

The noose’s deep association with the lynching of Black people in the U.S. makes it a harmful, racist form of stimuli, the authors wrote. Though lynching peaked in the period after the abolition of slavery, the noose’s use as a tool of white supremacy has continued as people have placed nooses in Black people’s spaces, such as in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture in 2017.

Byrd and her coauthors, all members of the African diaspora, have administered the BNT themselves. They have had examinees respond with “looks of disgust,” they wrote, saying things like “‘You expect me to say what that is, knowing what it means for my people?’”

The noose could even affect people’s test performance, the authors wrote, citing studies on stereotype threat and discrimination in psychological assessments. This could also make people less likely to seek cognitive testing in the future and deepen the existing distrust of the U.S. health care system among Black people.

Byrd and her co-authors call on their fellow academics to address the problem at all levels. Editors and reviewers of academic papers can stop the publication of articles that use the BNT, or ask authors to address how the noose might have affected the study’s results. Faculty can teach their students about the presence of racism in psychology practices, and methods to avoid creating more harmful tests in the future. Psychologists, the authors wrote, should stop using the BNT until the noose is removed.

Moreover, the authors hope that their article acts as a “springboard” for everyone in their field to closely examine other evaluations and their implications for Black people as well as other diverse populations.

“I hope that my colleagues will genuinely confront and consider their own and our shared complicity in contributing to racism within psychology by tolerating this item for so long,” Byrd said, “and actively commit to antiracist assessment from this point forward.”

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Submitted on: MAY 10, 2021

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