Past President, Dave Sbarra, on Allyship in Clinical Science

Complicit No More:
Stumbling Toward Allyship

by David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., University of Arizona & Past President, Academy of Psychological Clinical Science

A lightning strike set the mountains behind our home in Tucson on fire. Far enough to be out of harm's way, the red embers were distinctly visible on our family’s evening walk. As the sun set, our kids asked about a possible protest tomorrow. What kinds of signs should we make? What should we say? I had already thought about an answer, so I responded quickly, "Black Lives Matter. Support, Listen, Learn and GROW!" 

In truth, the fire on the mountain was making me feel especially uneasy. It was an external unease— spurred by a red sky hanging over a nation on the precipice of its own combustion— that mirrored my internal unease. As we spoke with our children about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, I encouraged them to always do their best to make the world a more just and equitable place. Help create a more inclusive, civil, and compassionate society, I urged them. But, had I done my best? With the fire off in the distance and the sky ablaze, I knew the answer was no, I had not. I had said a lot and we tried to raise socially conscious children as well as possible. But when it came to structural conditions that allowed Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd to be murdered, I was neutral. This is to say that I was complicit.

I open this professional commentary with a personal reckoning because, perhaps more than anything else, the last four months taught me that most all streams of life flow together in the end. The personal is the professional. Politics permeates science. The health of our society is reflected in the health of our most marginalized groups. On that front, we are not doing especially well. The political agendas that oppress marginalized people likely explain the bulk of the variance in health disparities. It. All. Flows. Together.  

As I reflect on these facts, it is equally inescapable that I let things slide as a clinical scientist and a leader in our field. I directed our clinical program here at the University of Arizona for 10 years; I have also served, in one capacity or another, on the Academy of Psychological Clinical Science’s (the Academy’s) Executive Committee since 2012, and I am now finishing a term as our immediate Past President. (The Academy is PCSAS’s parent organization). In all this time, and with all the energy I devoted to our field, I let matters of diversity, equity, and social justice fall off my radar. 

The more I study and listen, the more I learn that being a left-leaning supporter of good causes, an encourager of other people’s actions, and an epic retweeter of great Think Pieces of high moral value are not enough. If you ask me whether racist inequality should be abolished at all costs, I would say yes, of course. If you ask me what I have done to rid clinical science of the conditions that give rise to racist inequality, I would put my head down and sheepishly say nothing much. I have done some good things, but given the scope, scale, and history of the injustices, it all suddenly feels like a drop in bucket.

The privilege and power conferred to me as a tenured white male professor in our field is enormous. Part of the problem is that privilege was (and probably still is) a hidden regulator: I didn’t really know I was steeped in it until I started listening in new ways. This may sound moronic but it’s the best I can do. Of course I know the objective facts of the situation—that minority and under-represented voices are largely absent from our curricula and our faculty; that structural racism limits the advancement of black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); and, that BIPOC, as well as people from all under-represented backgrounds, often need to work twice as much to get half as much. I thought, however, that allyship meant being a cheerleader and supporting these causes from the sidelines while other people fight the battles. I’ve come to learn that this perspective could not be more wrong.

Ibram Kendi's book How To Be an Antiracist makes an incredibly powerful argument that being "not racist" is itself a racist trope that is used to justify with a pathetic tone of neutrality the inequities that plague our society. Allyship means making the struggle your own, and for me—and I have to assume for my equally privileged counterparts—this means time and energy to the cause. My reckoning means more time filling the extreme gaps in my knowledge about diversity science and social justice—for example, I just joined and attended portions of the excellent conference led by Academics for Black Survival and Wellness; I am participating in a writing group that is trying to integrate issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion into the broad  clinical science research agenda. I am revamping my graduate ethics class to attend more carefully to issues related to social justice. I am also shifting my priorities away from my personal research program so I can spend more time applying for grants to re-invigorate a summer training program for under-represented undergraduates that I have run the in past.  I will spend more time ensuring professional societies and journals confront these issues; and more research collaborations that involve BIPOC and other minority scholars, as well as an effort to build more diverse and inclusive samples in all of my research activities.

Let’s face it, we all know the intention to action gap is huge. These are my intentions and some beginning actions. I’ve stated them publicly. I challenge everyone with privilege, power, and status to do the same. I am sure I will fail at reaching these goals. But I hope I’ll fail forward. If we all fail forward, clinical science will be forever changed. 


Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One world.

Reprinted from the PCSAS Newsletter. 


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