Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, you’ve undoubtedly been inundated with some form of media coverage about the Trayvon Martin shooting. Please allow me to take a minute to indulge my compulsion to write about this case and the underlying connection to professional counseling practice. Now, while I want to serve in the role of promoting the provocative by discussing the utility of hooded sweatshirts, skittles, and iced tea, I’ll refrain. While I want to debate with you the inappropriateness of utilizing “Stand Your Ground” statutes in this case, I simply won’t. Instead, I’m going to try to sell you on the premise that George Zimmerman, the shooter, was conditioned to think about the young, black male in the same manner that you have. Yes, YOU!
First, to set the stage for my argument, I want to make a statement that might appear to some as bold or even incendiary. When I first saw Mr. Zimmerman described as a white male, I scoffed at my television. My initial thought was, “yeah, he might have described himself as white, but I doubt that whites describe him that way.” “Kinda brown if you ask me,” went through my mind. Now, while that point does nothing for my argument about how Mr. Zimmerman was conditioned, it is very telling about my own conditioning. You see, I’ve been conditioned to see Mr. Zimmerman negatively due to what I perceive as an acceptance of dominant-group ideals and a discrepancy between personal and societal racial/ethnic identification. Allow me to put my personal conditioning aside, however, and proceed with my argument that we have all (i.e., regardless of our racial/ethnic identification) been conditioned to see the young, black hoodie-wearing male in the same way.
I won’t serve as Mr. Zimmerman’s judge or jury. I will say that he is a victim of the same system of oppression that ultimately cost Mr. Martin his life and allowed Mr. Zimmerman to avoid immediate charges. While it is obvious that the oppressed (i.e., Mr. Martin) was a victim of dehumanizing stereotypes and prejudices that likely led Mr. Zimmerman to assume nefarious intent, it is also apparent that the oppressor (i.e., Mr. Zimmerman) was also a victim of the same oppressive system. You see, his flawed logic was based on a system of conditioning him to see his “whiteness” as ideal and Mr. Martin’s blackness as a reprehensible characteristic. I would argue that this is the same way you’ve been conditioned.
Even if you were given overt lessons on the equality of all men regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, or some other identity, you were taught your “real lessons” by society; by your social conditioning. Now, the fact that Mr. Zimmerman may have been conditioned to see Mr. Martin negatively has no bearing on his guilt or innocence, nor does it excuse his unconscionable actions which resulted in the death of a teenager. No, instead my hope in presenting this picture here is to promote your own examination of your social conditioning, and how it shapes your practice as a counseling professional. How well do you understand your own conceptualization of “normal behavior?” How much of your beliefs about “appropriate” behavior is based on dominant group (i.e., white, male, Christian, etc.) ideals? How much does this play a role in your counseling practice (F.Y.I…if you said very little, go back to question 1 and re-evaluate!) How much does it affect your eagerness to advocate on behalf of your clientele? Your beliefs about the young, black male in the hoodie will affect any relationship you hope to foster with him as a client. Ehh, no matter though; he’s probably up to no good anyway! It’s okay, I slapped myself on the wrist for writing that last line. No more satire. I promise.
In closing, I want to say that I appreciate seeing all of the tributes to Mr. Martin by wearing the hoodies and purchasing the Skittles. Unfortunately, change won’t occur by showing the world how much we are like Mr. Martin. True change will only occur when we assess and reflect upon how much we are like Mr. Zimmerman.
Kenneth Oliver is a counselor in Missouri and an assistant professor at Quincy University in Illinois.