Maria Mocerino

When Dr. Monnica Williams told her academic advisor that she wanted to study racism, he didn’t even know that she could. Though this exchange happened in 2002, there hasn’t been a time when racism wasn’t present in the history of the United States. Thus, as a Black woman, and one in the medical field, Dr. Williams has experienced firsthand how blatant, habitual, and detrimental racism is.

Dr. Monnica WIlliams has dedicated her life as a clinical psychologist to studying racism, building anti-racism efforts, and developing tools with which to measure and treat race-based trauma.

Despite the obstacles, however, and perhaps in response to them, Dr. Monnica WIlliams has dedicated her life as a clinical psychologist to studying racism, building anti-racism efforts, and developing tools with which to measure and treat race-based trauma. Most of our history has been whitewashed, which is why Dr. Williams tells it like it is for people of color, and that includes herself. 

Currently, Dr. Williams holds a Canada Research Chair position with the University of Ottawa, where she is also developing a master’s program in psychedelic studies. Her clinical work and research focus on African-American mental health, culture, trauma, and OCD. She was the PI for a MAPS-sponsored phase 2 study of MDMA for PTSD, with a focus on culturally-informed treatment for people of color. Her work has appeared in several major media outlets, including NPR, The Washington Post, and the New York Times.

With the Black Lives Matter movement, Dr. Williams has been working overtime to encourage and support the education and promotion of anti-racism efforts. In the midst of a busy schedule, she took some time to talk to me about her upcoming graduate course on psychedelic studies, her experience as a Black woman in the medical field, racism in the field of psychology, and how to combat racism. 

At the University of Ottawa, we’re starting a psychedelics studies training program. We started our first class this summer in a series that people can eventually take for certification and a master’s degree.

MM: What have you been working on, since the last time we spoke? You had just relocated to the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Monnica Williams: Right now, with the racial unrest, protests, and attention around Black Lives Matter, most of what I’m doing is responding to requests, daily, around that. I’m trying to be a source of support and education, and do whatever I can, really, to promote anti-racism efforts. At the University of Ottawa, we’re starting a psychedelics studies training program. We started our first class this summer in a series that people can eventually take for certification and a master’s degree.

MM: That’s exciting. Can you tell me more about the course?

MW: This is a joint effort between Anne Vallely, my colleague in religious studies and me, in psychology. We’re both interested in psychedelics. She wanted to create an undergraduate concentration or minor in psychedelics and I had wanted to do a certificate or minor for clinicians. The higher-ups ended up saying, why don’t you do a master’s degree? It takes a while to do that, so in the meantime, we’ve started a program through which you can get a credential, which would count towards the master’s.

MM: In terms of addressing issues of systemic racism, how did you approach building a program around this subject?

MW: All the courses have a multicultural foundation. To get the master’s, you’d have to have a graduate course in multicultural psychology or culture and diversity anyway. We’re trying to make sure that the people come out of the psychedelics studies training program with the type of broad cultural appreciation that I think is essential to do this work well.

became interested in the work that MAPS was doing around trauma because, after all of my research, training, and work around trauma, MDMA seemed like such a better idea than cognitive-behavioral methods.

MM: Why did you become so interested in psychedelics?

MW: Some of it was being at the right place and time. I had done an interview for the New York Times on racial trauma, which a couple of folks at MAPS had seen. At the time, they wanted to make sure that they had more representation and diversity in their work than they’d had in the past. I became interested in the work that MAPS was doing around trauma because, after all of my research, training, and work around trauma, MDMA seemed like such a better idea than cognitive-behavioral methods.

MM: You’re a scholar of racism. When you were coming into your career, can you give me a sense of what the field looked like at that time?

MW: I deal with racism pretty regularly. Almost every person of color in America does. It’s just a part of your life. You get used to it in some ways. You don’t in other ways, but it’s something that you have to navigate. On my website, every day, I get a racist email. I delete it, but still, my heart is racing because it’s so stressful to deal with it every day.

I even remember in graduate school telling my graduate advisor that I thought it would be interesting to study racism. He thought about it a minute and said, “I don’t think you can study that.

I even remember in graduate school telling my graduate advisor that I thought it would be interesting to study racism. He thought about it a minute and said, “I don’t think you can study that.” Of course, later on I learned that you can study racism and lots of people have studied racism, but this was 2002. My respected, wise academic advisor had not yet heard about racism studies.

MM: Who were some of the people that came before you that you’ve to build your work on?

MW: A lot of my work was built on the work of Robert Carter. He wrote an influential and complete article about race-based stress and trauma. All of us that do this work have to pay homage to him. There was a team of researchers at the University of Michigan who did a huge epidemiological study of the mental health of Black Americans. I don’t even know how they got the funding to do that, because this was a multi-million-dollar project. A lot of what we know about the physical and mental health impact of racism on people of color is because of their work. We’re still publishing off of that data today.

Even from its beginnings, there are a number of psychologists in the field that were trying to make a name for themselves by proving that White people were superior to people of color by measuring peoples’ heads, crazy stuff like that.

MM: You said that, historically, the field of psychology has been rooted in racism, and I was wondering if we could tease that out because your article left me on a cliffhanger.

MW: Even from its beginnings, there are a number of psychologists in the field that were trying to make a name for themselves by proving that White people were superior to people of color by measuring peoples’ heads, crazy stuff like that.

Granville Stanley Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association whose research focused on childhood development. He believed that Africans, Indians, and Chinese people were members of adolescent races in a stage of incomplete growth.

We had other presidents, too. Louis Terman said that “there’s nothing about an individual as important as his IQ.” Terman went on to say, referring to Black people, that “their dullness seems to be racial, and children should be segregated into special classes and given instruction that is concrete and practical because they can’t master abstraction.”

A lot of the tests we use now, like the IQ tests that we use, were developed initially by people like this because they wanted to show that White kids were superior, but they wouldn’t consider things like education and income.

A lot of the tests we use now, like the IQ tests that we use, were developed initially by people like this because they wanted to show that White kids were superior, but they wouldn’t consider things like education and income. There was one researcher who came up with a memory test. Black kids did better than White kids, so that disappeared into obscurity. Though those tests have evolved a lot over the decades, that’s still the root of it.

MM: Let’s talk about the racial trauma scale; what is that, and what does that measure?

MW: I actually have an interview for clinicians to use for people of color to help uncover racial stress and trauma that they’ve been experiencing in their lives. I am also working on a self-report questionnaire that people can fill out that will give a score indicating how much racial trauma they have.

A colleague, and I wanted to see if we could develop an intervention that would make people do fewer microaggressions.

MM: What was the Racial Harmony Workshop?

MW: John (pseudonym), a colleague, and I wanted to see if we could develop an intervention that would make people do fewer microaggressions. At this point, I’d been doing a lot of diversity workshops myself. He had done a workshop called “In Black and White.” He tried to reduce microaggressions by bringing Black and White people together as a way of improving relationships.

but you actually have to teach people what microaggressions are because they don’t know that they’re doing it, so they don’t know that they need to stop.

White people loved it, but the Black people experienced so many microaggressions. The course didn’t really work, and he didn’t know why. I knew why. I said that the social connection was great, but you actually have to teach people what microaggressions are because they don’t know that they’re doing it, so they don’t know that they need to stop. We tried it again, and it had a much better result.

My colleague, John, however, was a White man, and we ended up having a very bad falling out because of his racism. After the work that we did, he told me that he wanted to be the first author on all of our publications and take credit for everything, so that obviously caused quite a rift. It was pretty traumatizing for me, thinking that we were working together for a year or two as equals. All the while in his mind, I was just his helper.

MM: That was his stance?

MW: For example, I had collected some data for a project that I was collaborating on with him. He took the data, published it, and did not include me as an author. I had to file a complaint, but I didn’t have proof, even though it was clearly data that I collected. This is the problem with structural racism. When people like me say, “He stole my data,” they say, “but you can’t prove that you didn’t tell him that he couldn’t use your data and not put your name on that.” Who does that?

MM: I remember the last time we spoke, you were doing the MDMA program at the University of Connecticut, and they shut you down because they were uncomfortable with you being a Black woman heading this study.

MW: Medical school is a White man’s world, so a Black woman in a medical school? They don’t take you seriously.

MM: The last conversation we had, we were talking about how our communities are segregated, so this sounded like an interesting program that could be used at various institutions for people to start dealing with the reality of this.

MW: The Racial Harmony Workshop was good. We had Black and White people talking to each other about their real experiences and being vulnerable. A lot of White people didn’t even realize how much racism people experience because they’re Black. Students of color could feel, maybe for the first time, that a White person was actually listening to them, which is why I think this was so effective.

The best way to combat racism is to bring people together and have them get to know each other, rather than make assumptions about each other.

The best way to combat racism is to bring people together and have them get to know each other, rather than make assumptions about each other. 

Art by Mariom Luna.



A Conversation with Ismail Ali, Adele Getty, Mariavittoria Mangini and Tessa Vita Wednesday, September 30th from 12-1:30pm  REGISTER FOR THIS EVENT HERE The modern psychedelic community...

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