“Always be optimistic that things will improve” With Dr. Branson Boykins

I think I have to always be optimistic that things will improve but we also have a very long way to go. Sometimes the baby steps we take are hard to appreciate because we are fighting for so much and receive so little in return. As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must […]

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I think I have to always be optimistic that things will improve but we also have a very long way to go. Sometimes the baby steps we take are hard to appreciate because we are fighting for so much and receive so little in return.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Branson Boykins, Ph.D., assistant professor at Alliant International University.

He is an assistant professor and core faculty for the Couple and Family Therapy Program at Alliant International University at the Irvine Campus. Dr. Boykins received his doctorate in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University. His main research interests are within the field of multicultural psychology and understanding contemporary forms of biases (i.e., implicit racial biases) and best practices when working with diverse and underrepresented populations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Sure, so I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Being a Detroit native is very near and dear to me and I will talk about why more later, but I grew up in Detroit around a lot of family and friends. Detroit has a unique culture of hard work, grit, and togetherness. My parents were probably the biggest sources of strength for me and helped me in very different ways. I think my father really instilled upon me what hard work, determination, and pride regarding how you carry yourself as a Black man should be. Even after my parent’s separation I had several male figures such as uncles and my grandfather that really believed in these same values and held me to a certain standard. Very old fashioned -respect one another, education, hat off inside the house, manners, that type of stuff. My mother really taught me about love, support, and resiliency in the form of overcoming adversity. I think heavily about all that she endured throughout my younger years and how she put herself through school, work, and raising two children even when finances were low. My childhood mainly centered on family, sports, and education. Though I am not the most athletic person in my family, we always had competitiveness and hard work instilled in us. This followed me and helped me through many pitfalls and times I failed. After growing up in Detroit, I went to college at Michigan State University. It’s funny I initially wanted to go into politics and study law. My mother actually pushed me into psychology which leads me to my current profession where I received my doctorate in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University and now I work as a professor for the Couple and Family Therapy program at Alliant International University in Irvine, California.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There is not a single book that resonates with me, but I think about the importance in being educated that family members encouraged us. I can remember several significant moments in my life where family members gave me books to help guide or inform me. For example, one of the most memorable books my father gave me was Cane River by Lalita Tademy, which beautifully tells a story of three generations of African American women that lived through slavery and years following. That book was one of the first that I read from a historical standpoint that was not connected to some formal class or for some other purpose outside of pure enjoyment. I learned a lot from that book regarding not only historical accounts of slavery but from a feminine perspective and how even as men sometimes, there are aspects of our shared experiences that are unknown or neglected by us. Also, my grandfather gave me the book 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Man by Henry Louis Gates. From that book I began to reevaluate my racial identity and saw the complexities of several prominent African Americans such as: Collin Powell, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, and others. This book helped me see similarities between these American heroes but also recognize differences and that there is not one universal way to be a Black man in America.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Several important moments and quotes have helped me to ultimately find my voice. I always say that the most noteworthy moment that was given to me in my doctoral program came from one of my mentors, Dr. Joseph Morris. I remember often being in his office and discussing so many life events and seeking guidance from him. I remember one time early in my doctoral program discussing how I felt unsure of myself or felt timid in discussing racial matters with my peers and classmates. In that moment I remember Dr. Morris telling me that the program and he brought me to Western to do exactly that. To speak to my experience and discuss my lived experiences. In a way it almost gave me permission to speak up, and that my point of view or my racial experiences were valid. Furthermore, he validated that it is scary talking about race, a misconception that it’s easy to have discussions about race especially with people who are color-blind or do not share a similar view.

One important famous quote that I often think about is Martin Luther King’s measure of a man: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. I think about this a lot when I feel pressured to say something about social justice and inclusivity. For me, when things are great and there is no penalty for speaking up, that is not the true measure of someone’s dedication but what do they do when the consequences of calling out racism is unclear, or when they have to challenge a person in authority, or fearful that it will damage a relationship. I think people don’t realize that people of color often do calculations of the cost/benefit of speaking out and picking battles as it is very taxing and tiring to discuss these topics over and over again but we must.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

For me, the reduction of stress requires a lot of preemptive work to be in the days/weeks prior. It is normal to feel stress or anxious before any important moment. That is why first, preparation is key. Being prepared days prior is vastly important as it can help with catching mistakes, rehearsal, and acquisition of knowledge so you know what you are doing. I tell my students often, that it doesn’t matter if you have the background/knowledge if you cannot present it in a professional and coherent fashion, the message will be lost to the audience. I also believe certain behavioral tasks can also be done to relieve stress and help in the days/weeks prior. An extremely important coping strategy is sleep, being well rested and receiving quality and enough sleep can be immensely helpful. Next, practice mindfulness and physically active activities to also help release the stress and tension in your body. Mindfulness is a great practice to relieve stress and calm a person, but I also believe physical activity to provide a cathartic release is something everyone should practice. I think everyone needs multiple hobbies to practice and you should have at least one that is physically active or demanding such as running, biking, hiking, or playing a sport. For me, I practice Brazilian jiu jitsu and it is a huge stress reliever. As a martial art not only is it physically active but it also forces you to be mindful and create a strategy to defeat your opponent, people often refer to it as human chess and I am always trying to recruit new people to try it no matter what their age or body/type is. At the very least it is rewarding to learn as a form of self-defense and control over one’s body and emotions in the moment.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Sure, unfortunately what this moment is highlighting is the continued presence of systemic racism. I think it’s always important to be honest and not minimize the severity of this topic and speak directly to what it is. Unfortunately, racism in this country has been prevalent since its foundation and this moment like many other previous moments has created awareness to the social injustices and practices that serves as life-threatening barriers to some and acts of favoritism and privilege for others. Due to the advancements of technology, we are now seeing what many people of color have reported but were denied or told was in our heads. Not only are video recordings highlighting the difficulty that people of color experience with law enforcement but also how just living their lives can lead to confrontations and racial micro aggressions that only leads to more racial trauma, and people questioning their livelihood without any recourse. Part of the reason why this continues to exist is the minimization of the stories of people of color, and no matter how many times people of color point out racism, White individuals often will minimize this experience, openly state they don’t care, tell us it’s in our own heads, or gives us solutions that in no way address the problem and come from a lack of knowledge about what is racism. For example, one solution that I have often heard is that racism is something in Black people’s head. That if we just stop talking about racism it would go away. When you actually think about this solution it’s quite laughable but also very dangerous. Dangerous in that it only helps the perpetrators, so they don’t have to hear about racism and it maintains a system’s status quo that is inherently racist. Furthermore, this logic would not be applicable to any other societal ill or injustice. It’s like someone said rape and sexual assault is a huge problem within our country and we need to address this topic. The counter argument would then be rape or the fear of being raped is in your head and if you stopped talking about it — it would go away. That is ludicrous.

Another reason for the lack of progress is the expectation of blind allegiance to this country. When we think about changing this country, people of color are often given messages of “shut up and be grateful that you are here”. This sentiment is conveyed in messages of go back to Africa or Mexico. When White individuals want to create societal change or protest, they are not told to go back to Europe or countries of their ancestry/ethnicity. However, for people of color, your protest or addressing issues that you would like to see changed in this country are met with hostility and not seen as patriotic or having the right to make change in this country. Therefore, we are expected to have “blind” or “silent” allegiance.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

The biggest impact I believe I have so far is within my organization that I work in being Alliant International University. From the macro level, I try to engage in workshops, trainings, and research to help promote diverse experiences, narratives, and consideration when working with diverse populations. However, the biggest change I try to create is through my students. I’ve been fortunate to have had great mentors that have not only given me support and guidance in my professional development but have also pushed me to be aware that there is so much more for me to learn. Therefore, I try to push my own students to take a social justice lens and become better prepared to work with clients that are diverse and underrepresented. In the field of psychology and counseling it’s important to learn about the cultural identity of your potential clients but even more important, is for the therapist to have a sense of awareness of their own cultural identity, values, and own biases. In my classroom, we talk about these areas and issues regarding privilege, racism, implicit biases, and promoting social justice and inclusivity. Many students (especially Caucasian ones) have never discussed their racial identity or privilege. In fact, I often have to gently and tactfully highlight how they are privileged and manage their reactions and often disbelief. One other way that I promote inclusivity is fighting for admission of students who might have been rejected by other programs. Often times due to upbringing, class, or the inherent racist educational system, students come to our program with not the best GPA, educational experiences, or employment opportunities. I try to see potential in some students and how we can work and mold students to make them just as competitive and knowledgeable had they come from an Ivy League school.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

We all have blind spots, and if a company, organization, or university wants to be inclusive you need to look around the room and see who is giving input. Is the staff racially diverse? Are there women in positions of power and authority? Also, you can’t have a token Black person or a single person of color because they can’t catch every micro aggression, or make sure every ad is racially sensitive. That is an unrealistic expectation, and the employee may not even want that responsibility. Rather you need multiple individuals who are knowledgeable about cultural sensitivity. Also, you need each person to have the position for their voice to be heard, respected, and implemented. Far too often people of color’s opinions and ideas fall on deaf ears. So, it’s not just that they are in the room, but they also have to have the power to make decisions or changes. From this then you can start to approach decisions from multiple perspectives. The power of diversity is that you want different viewpoints, ideas, or suggestions rather than relying on the same historical way that obviously is not always working or leads to racially insensitive messaging or the absence of people of color.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Before I list my 5 ideas or steps, I want to say that these are my ideas and the problem with systemic racism is that it’s so engrained and rampant within our society that someone else could think of 100 different ways to answer this question and they might be just as accurate or correct as myself. I want to highlight that there is not one universal answer and many people have different ideas on the subject. That is why one of my answers calls on leadership from people who have spent a lifetime or decades of their work to lead and guide the fight from many different fields of thought or training.

  1. Acknowledgement. I believe we cannot even start to make this country more inclusive without first acknowledging that there is a problem. Right now, a significant number of Americans believe that racism is non-existent, very small, or that it’s only perpetuated in some remote parts of this country. We need to first acknowledge and accept that racism exists to this very day, and it is systemic. That we have a system that sometimes is visible but often acts implicitly. Whereas it continues to provide benefits and privileges to some while also serving as barriers to others. As a country we have to first acknowledge without question that racism is a part of this country and do we really want to make changes to become more inclusive and fair, or do we just want to make seem like we care but really do nothing. For example, I recently heard Roland Martin use the term civil rights mascot for Martin Luther King, whereas people like to reference MLK as inspiration quotes but do not highlight how hated, revered, and disrespected daily he was until his untimely death. The same still holds true for civil rights leaders today. People in positions of power, disrespect civil rights icons without consequence currently, because the question of whether or not this country is racist is still up for debate. That is why it is so frustrating in having racial discussions because people are unaware or sometimes this country just wants to appear inclusive but not make systemic changes for actual change. That is why acknowledgment is key, we have to acknowledge racism is prevalent in this country and not just when it comes to criminal justice but also in regards of housing discrimination, voting discrimination, allocation of financial resources, hiring decisions, the educational system, media representation, and more.
  2. Education. If we decide to make this country more inclusive and acknowledge the complex racist system we live in, then we have to educate people on what racism actually is historically and in its present form. Far too often people know nothing about racism and talk about it from a perspective of being an expert. For example, you can have an expert on the history of this country and racism from many perspectives, but a single White individual will rely on their personal experience as equal justification. Whereas often arguments end in an agree to disagree ending. I have seen students and individuals for example be presented with a mountain of data, lived experiences, and research from people who have spent decades learning and discussing these issues and a person will just say things like well I don’t believe it or these were single incidents and we will have to agree to disagree. That is why after acknowledging the current racist system it is important to be followed by education of what is racism. Another example is the common justification of I cannot be racist because I have a Black friend. Once you understand racism from a theoretical or conceptual perspective then you can understand why having familiarity with a person of color no matter who they are cannot free you from prejudicial thinking. That when people of color talk about racism, they talk about in systemic language in comparison to White individuals who often focus on single individual acts. This country has never had training as a whole of what is racism, privilege, and why reverse racism is not possible by the definition of racism. Furthermore, racism is often perpetuated in implicit decision making. Whereas if you look at research for example by John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner you can see how implicit forms of bias are more prevalent today. That everyone can make implicit decisions based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Another part of the problem is that we want to believe that we (anyone in this case) is not racist but in reality someone with a lot of power can be making decisions based on race that provides favoritism to some and bias to others. They could be a random person with no power, or they could be someone who approves a small business loan, a judge, a teacher, or even the president. We have to first learn that we all hold biases including myself that no one is free from prejudicial thinking and we all should be educated about racism, privilege, micro aggressions, and ways to combat racism and make space for more inclusivity. Therefore, my dream would be to treat racism with same vigor as a medical disease such as cancer. That as a society we would heavily invest resources in the understanding of racism, causes, treatment, and societal impact. Furthermore, as we would for any medical condition doctors, researchers, educators, and others who have spent decades of their life’s work to address this issue would lead the charge in this research and finally receive their proper recognition and resources to appropriately address this topic and educate the entire country.
  3. Deliberate Actions. Part of the problem is that racism is so prevalent and so engrained in multiple if not all systems of this country it becomes so large how does one combat racism to create a more inclusive and equitable society. Personally, I believe that we cannot make changes to this country without intentional and deliberate actions. Think about for a minute that we are having discussions about removing confederate names and statues of people that would not want me here talking with you or having the opportunity to have a doctorate. Though I think it is a necessary step, but this action is not personally at the top of my list. In my opinion we need deliberate actions to make this country more equitable. As I previously outlined systemic racism is prevalent in so many institutions, and if I take one system that I am in for example (education) how I can take deliberate actions to make my space more inclusive. The current system would tell me that when I think about whom a good graduate student in our program would be, the current system would state someone from an Ivy-League, top-tier research institution, with a high GPA and GRE score. Based on this system, the vast majority of our students would be White men. However, I know for example, students of color are largely underrepresented at these universities. Students of color often perform poorly on some standardized test such as the GRE which are poor predictors of academic success yet still, they are still highly valued in education. That is why I do not solely go by this metric. I want students who also have different educational backgrounds. I will fight for students who I see potential in and with guidance can be just as good as any other student despite what others might see as a marginal student. Here I am making a deliberate action to give students who others might not give a chance an opportunity. Without students who are racially diverse I lose diversity of thought, I lose students wanting to do research on racial minorities, or better understand their experiences. I hope that if we are wanting to make this country more inclusive then we make deliberate actions that go beyond or further than for example, Affirmative Action, Fair & Equal Housing Opportunity, and Anti-Discrimination Laws to deliberately write historical wrongs and change the current system as it requires deliberate and intentional actions.
  4. Erasure of Stereotypical Messages. As I said before, I am a Detroit native, and that is very important to me as often people think when I say Detroit, I grew up in a suburb outside of Detroit. In fact, far too often people only equate things with cities like Detroit, Chicago, Compton, or elsewhere with criminality or lowered expectations. However, I grew up with so many other men and women from Detroit who are engineers, social workers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Unfortunately, part of the reason is the representation of people of color and lowered expectations or the disbelief in our greatness. When people see a Black child from Detroit, do they see someone who will create the next solar car, or an undocumented immigrant from Mexico as growing up to be a doctor who creates a breakthrough in cancer research, or as the trans child from Chicago as leading efforts on climate change. Unfortunately, people only see negative aspects for people of color and society tells them that cannot be great. Part of the difficulty (and a personal area of interest that I hope to do research in) is the lack of representation for people of color in film, television, and media. It is always amazing to me how people of color have no problem supporting media/films that are predominately (if not all) White cast. My friends and I loved Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and even the Marvel avenger’s universe. However, most if not all these films have very little diversity or representation of people of color and yet and still, we support them. What stops these executives from creating Game of Thrones but with in all Black cast? What if Michael B Jordon played Jon Snow and Zoe Saldana was Khalesi. Would White America support us the same way we support them? The absence of people of color, and of diverse backgrounds who others can identity within film and media does not allow for children of color to see a Black Spiderman in a non-animated role. The absence does not allow representations for us to be great, heroic, or patriotic. Also, it does not allow White audiences to view people of color in the same lens. I believe the same is true when we discuss children of color from urban metropolitan cities.
  5. Inclusivity/Social Justice. The last suggestion was one of the toughest for me. There were many other suggestions I could have made and initially it started out as love or patience. However, personally I dislike when someone says we need to love one another, or we need Jesus/spirituality because often these suggestions do not tackle the issue of systemic racism and people of color are also tired of waiting for change. However, I think for true social justice and inclusivity we must be mindful of many intersecting factors that prohibit systemic change. Therefore, when I say inclusivity and social justice, I hope everyone is working together to create change and not just a select few.

Though I am mindful we should be deliberate and specific in who is leading the charge. Furthermore, I state we have to be inclusive of everyone and meet them where they are at, part of what I am discussing is how we all hold biases and we all need to do social justice work not only for ourselves but also who do you fight for that does not look like you or identify the same as you? For example, let us talk about privilege. Topics such as privilege are met by White individuals with resistance or disbelief. Part of the reasoning behind this resistance is White fragility. In my opinion White fragility is a tiring and frustrating experience for people of color to discuss and help White individuals to work through because we are not afforded such privileges. Nonetheless, I must be mindful that I need White individuals who have power and privilege to help in this fight and speak to other White individuals about their privilege. Sometimes this requires more of me as a teacher than the person who has power. Sometimes, I have to be more caring, mindful, and patient with my White brothers and sisters than they ever were with me. The goal is not to promote cancelling culture per se as much as it is to hopefully bring these individuals along in the fight for social justice and hopefully have them understand how their past racist beliefs are incorrect and can be changed to create a more inclusive environment. The same is for people of color. Let me stop before I go any further and highlight what I am about to say is not reverse racism or people of color are just as racist as White individuals. With education about racism you will see that I am making a very different point. My point is that when we say Black Lives Matter, let’s make sure we are saying Black LGBTQ+ lives matter, Black Women’s lives matter. Those by promoting racial inclusivity for African Americans I also want to see progress for my Latinx brothers and sisters and other racial minority groups. I can be an ally for multiple cultural groups and understand that they are as well oppressed and sometimes even within their own cultural group in addition to the oppressive society. I talk about how this is part of the racist system where we fall into what is called the “Oppression Olympics” of who had it worse. The system unfortunately doesn’t allow for Black Lives Matter to also be a movement for other groups because unfortunately we are fighting for a tiny slice of the pie and the fear of losing our moment for another cause will cause division and not inclusivity. Also, we must be mindful that as people of color, we do not hold oppressive stereotypical views of other minorities that have been instilled upon us to maintain the status quo. For example, many people will believe that Jewish, Latinx, Asian Americans, sexual minorities, and others have not contributed to the advancement for African Americans and people of color through the civil rights and social justice movements. Whereas this could not be the furthest from the truth. The goal should be an inclusive and representative country and that requires not only for me to knowledgeable and proactive for the rights of people that are similar to me, but also just like for White individuals regarding race, as a Black Man I should be outraged and intentional about fighting anti-Semitism, for the rights of women, sexual minorities, undocumented immigrants, other racial minorities, and others.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

To be honest I don’t know, I think I have to always be optimistic that things will improve but we also have a very long way to go. Sometimes the baby steps we take are hard to appreciate because we are fighting for so much and receive so little in return. I’m optimistic because previously I thought the Washington football team would never change their name for example, we’ve seen mass displays of acknowledgment that Black Lives Do Matter, and some police and criminal justice reform. However, what about the educational system, what about the low number of people of color who sit in positions of authority, can we talk about unequal hiring practices? How long before we have another Black President? Will we ever have a Latinx female President? Or Native American on the Supreme Court? When you start to see how far we have to go to promote inclusivity and equal representation it’s hard not to feel doubtful. Especially when you know everyone is not in agreement with you on making a change. Those getting to a place of equality means right now we need to focus on people of color and underrepresented groups that have been marginalized and oppressed. However, we have to keep fighting, I remember something my grandfather told me when I complained about racism when I was in undergrad-he responded with “oh you wanna tell me about racism and what’s difficult” and I realize that I stand on the shoulders of people that came before me and my job is not only to keep pushing forward but to bring others with me. That was my father told me and many others have told their children that you are going to work twice as hard and receive half as much but you have to keep pushing forward and working to make this world a better place and I’m hopeful that at least we will leave the country in a better place than the generation before.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There’s not one person but a few that immediately come to mind is first Barack Obama, I mean who wouldn’t want to meet him. I always say Obama is my favorite president, not because of any policy but because he won. His victory in 2008 showed anyone that was not a White man whether they were a woman or person of color that you can be the president. In addition, I would love to hear his thoughts, views, and some of his insight on creating social justice. In addition, I would love to meet Robert Townsend. Many of the stereotypical messages and the desire for African Americans to be viewed in non-minstrel roles, Robert Townsend addressed in his film. So, I would love to speak with him to hear about his inspiration and how also I could work on a research study that addresses some of these issues. Lastly, there are a few people in my profession I would love to meet such as Claude Steele, Nancy Boyd Frankiln, and Derald Wing Sue.

How can our readers follow you online?

Right now, I’m at the very early stages of my career. I don’t have an online presence, but I have some ideas. I’ve been thinking about a podcast and maybe I can get some help with that or starting a website. Right now it’s just a simple email: branson.boykins@alliant.edu. But don’t worry, hopefully you will see or be reading more from me in the future.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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