Trayvon Marin and Humanistic Psychology

What does humanistic psychology have to say about Trayvon Martin?

By Louis Hoffman, PhD

Although many felt that Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman trial received too much attention in the media, my concern is that we are too quickly forgetting its importance. It is not likely that anyone will forget Trayvon's name anytime soon and Zimmerman is likely to continue to receiving media attention for at least the near future. But already the substantive discussions of what this means for our society is starting to get lost.

The reason for the emotional intensity around the Zimmerman trial has often been misunderstood. Many have been critical of the media for over-dramatizing it and blamed them for the intensity of the reactions this has garnered. I would agree that the media has, at times, covered this issue poorly and focused too much on the polarized extremes. However, I do not believe that it was the dramatization or polarization that was the primary reason for the intense emotions surrounding the incident and its trial. In fact, I think the intensity had little to do with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in general. It was not the particularities of what happened that made it stand out. Instead, the emotional intensity was so strong because much of this experience is too commonplace.

What happened to Trayvon Martin could of happened to so many youth in so many places with so many aggressors ending with the same results. It was not the particularity, but the commonality that gripped the emotions. Too many people know that fear and the anger associated with being viewed as suspicious because of the color of one's skin. Too many know the fear of letting their sons go out into a world that views them as dangerous. Too many know the grief of losing a loved one to tragedies based on the color of their skin.

I do not want to diminish in any way the profoundly painful loss of the innocent child, Trayvon Martin. Despite some rather ardent attempts to present him as a difficult or troubled child, it seems evident to me that Trayvon was a good kid. He was not perfect and made some bad choices, but this simply means he was human. As I am sure is true of nearly everyone reading this, I would hate to be judged by the poor choices I made in the first 16-years of my life. Unfortunately, too many were willing to cast judgment on Trayvon for a few mistakes made in his short life while discounting all the evidence that he was a good kid with great potential.

Personal Experience

I have previously written about my personal reaction the day the Zimmerman verdict was announced (Hoffman, 2013a, 2013b). My initial reaction of shock and anger quickly faded to sadness and fear. My three sons are biracial and will be labeled by many as “African American,” even though their heritage is less than 50% from Africa and neither of their parents are African American.

In the days that followed the verdict, my thoughts kept being drawn back to how to discuss this with my sons. They are still too young to understand what happened and the implications. Yet, I know someday I will need to have the conversation. How do you tell someone who is still so innocent of the realities of the world in which they live? The struggle for me is not just helping them to understand, but about how this will impact who they are and how they experience the world in which they live. We all have to tell our children that the world is a broken place. Yet, the ways in which it is broken is not equal and the stories we must tell are not the same.

My own way of making sense in the world often involves poetry. Poetry provides a vehicle to bring the rational and the irrational together, to think and process through my own experience. As I considered the conversions I would some day have with my sons, this poem began to form in my thoughts.

My Imperfect Perfect Son

My imperfect perfect son
Why did you go walking down there
That fateful night?
You know better,
You know the rules.
Why did you wear those clothes?
If you dress like that, 
You better be prepared to act accordingly
Why did you get angry?
And why didn't you just submit?

My imperfect, perfect son
Why?
Why are we now left grieving
After so many wrongs?

My imperfect, perfect son
Why did you go walking down there
That faithful night?
You know the rules are different for you
Some freedoms, in this great country
You still don't have

My imperfect, perfect son
Why did you wear those clothes?
Those innocent clothes
They do not mean the same thing on you
As they do on a white man
Of a certain appearance
Though they serve the same purpose
In the chilly night air

My imperfect, perfect son
Why were you so scared?
And why were you suspicious of this man
Who approached you with a gun?
And why did you let these fears and suspicion
Show as anger? 
You know your fears will be dismissed
While the aggressors will be perceived as real
You know your suspicions are not seen as valid
As the man who chose in advance to hold the gun
You know your anger is never seen as justified
Because of the color of your skin
You are just a child,
But you know you will be expected 
To be the bigger man

My imperfect, perfect son
Why did you think you could live in this world
With the freedoms so many others enjoy
Without question.
You were not free, my son
As our freedom is only within
In how we will respond to the injustices
That constitute the world in which we live in

My imperfect, perfect son
Why are we left grieving
Another of so many wrongs?
Another tragedy befallen on
Our community?
But know, my son
That this wrong will not be forgotten
This wrong will serve to inspire
In this wrong we will find our inner freedom
And in this wrong we will speak out
We will scream out
And we will not stop 
Until this inner freedom
Is matched 
In the world we must live

Implications for Humanistic Psychology

So what does this all mean for humanistic psychology? I do not believe there is an easy answer to this question, but I believe it is vitally important that we step up and ask ourselves this question honestly. If the answer comes too quickly, we ought to be suspicious. In the Society for Humanistic Psychology presidential address from last August, I put it this way:

If humanistic psychology does not have something to say about Trayvon Martin, I am truly worried about our future. I am not saying what that voice needs to say, but it needs to say something . It needs to have ears, and it needs to have a voice, because sometimes silence is the most devastating of all types of speech. (Hoffman, 2013b, p. 5).

Over the past several years I have been writing frequently about diversity and humanistic psychology. Often, I have been critical of humanistic psychology; however, more recently I have been more optimistic. But the optimism comes and goes. Quite often I fear and sometimes even suspect that we will gradually regress back to where diversity is not taken very seriously again. As I write this, I am a bit more pessimistic.

We have not had the outcry about Trayvon Martin that is needed. I know that many are weary of talking about race and diversity. I hear this regularly from people who have the choice about whether to talk about it. But for those who have to live it on a daily basis, there is not the same choice. The weariness many of us experience with the topic of diversity is hard to compare to the weariness felt living with it.

The lack of outcry is too representative of the history of humanistic psychology. Grogan (2013) noted that during the 1960s, despite many shared values with the civil rights movement, humanistic psychology was conspicuously silent. When we examine why humanistic psychology has failed at becoming more diverse, we must not just look at what we are doing; we must also consider what we are not doing and when we are conspicuously silent. When something occurs like an unarmed 17-year old black youth being killed following what appears to be racial profiling and then is portrayed as the aggressor, humanistic psychology must recognize the need to speak out. We must recognize how this impacts so many people who share in this experience. We must recognize that this is a symbol of the injustice and terror that many people of color live with on a regular basis. We must recognize that to remain silent makes us irrelevant, if not part of the problem, to many people.

Similarly, in the last several months I have witnessed microaggressions that have occurred within humanistic psychology where the response was too much silence. I am ashamed to say that there was at least one time where I was part of the silence. It is not easy to stand up, especially when it is not clear that what occurred was a microaggression or when they come from people we care about. When witnessing these, I frequently have to step back and remind myself the consequences of being silent in order to summons up the courage to speak. I recognize too well the cost of speaking up. I also am aware that often, when I speak up, my voice will be speaking up alone and met with defensiveness and hostility no matter how gentle the confrontation. The whisper of a gentle confrontation is too often met with the roar of the defense. When making this leap of faith to confront the microaggression, at least some of the time, I will be wrong in my appraisal.

When I begin to hear the silence after a possible microaggression, my mind soon begins to wander to who may be in the audience. Who may be hurt by what occurred and I may never know? There have been many times when I have let the silence go, hoping it would pass without harm, only to later hear of someone who heard and was wounded by it. They were wounded by the microaggression, but their feeling of safety was rattled more by the silence. When this happens in our own circles, it once again signals that maybe humanistic psychology is not a safe place.  

As I left the role of president of the Society of Humanistic Psychology, I was proud of what had been accomplished over the past 5-7 years with regards to diversity. Yet, I cannot be too proud. There still is too much evidence of how far we have to go.

Conclusion

Trayvon Martin lives on as a powerful cultural symbol. There is much that we can debate about what happened and the trial, but it is hard to deny the relevance of this to the lives of many people who regularly experience prejudice, racial profiling, microaggressions, and other forms of discrimination. Also, it is hard to deny that this is relevant to the lives of many of our clients and to our society at large. But the question remains yet unanswered: Will humanistic psychology step up?

References

Grogan, J. (2013). Encountering America: Humanistic psychology, sixties culture, and the shaping of the modern self. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Hoffman, L. (2013a, July 15). What the Zimmerman verdict means to me. New Existentialists . Retrieved from http://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-15-13.

Hoffman, L. (2013b, August). Multiculturalism, epistemological diversity, language: Embracing poetry and science to advance psychology (Society for Humanistic Psychology Presidential Address). Invited paper presented at the 121 st Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Honolulu, HI.