Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Legacy and Call to Action

17 Jan 2022 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Legacy and Call to Action

By Linda M. Woolf, STP President

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education, and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we celebrate and honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a day of remembrance but also a day of action. In 1994, Congress passed legislation designating the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal holiday as a Day of Service—"a day on, not a day off." Around the country, individuals are engaged in endeavors designed to improve the lives of others, build communities, break down barriers, and spread the message of Dr. King. It is a day of kindness grounded in a message of social justice.

In 1967, Dr. King addressed the American Psychological Association (APA) at the annual convention. If you have not read his speech or if you have not read it recently, please take a moment to read and reflect: The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement. Although the language used today may be different, the concerns and challenges raised by Dr. King are just as real and profound as over a half-century ago—protest, political division, voting, war, discrimination, unemployment, vast disparities built into the structures of society, and daily injustices directed against individuals based on the color of their skin. As stated by Dr. King, “It is my deep conviction that justice is indivisible, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The work and vision of Dr. King is unfinished.

In his address to convention, Dr. King spoke about a common psychological concept—maladjustment.  However, he argued against “adjustment” to what long has been defined as “normal”—a historically-defined “normal,” which includes not only deeply rooted prejudice and discrimination within society but also cultural, structural, and systemic barriers oppressing Black individuals and communities in the United States. As noted by Dr. King, “discrimination explains a great deal, but not everything.” 

Today, we recognize that many of our beliefs and social structures were created with the idea of White European ancestry and culture as “normal” and all others defined as “different” and in need of adjustment, assimilation, or civilization. We recognize many of these biases remain within our society, as to what is defined as “normal” and hence “correct” based on ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation, religion, economic status, age, language, immigration status, physical and mental abilities, and so many other expressions of humanity. Within psychology, simply the term “abnormal psychology” carries with it a host of beliefs and attributions about individuals who experience “disorder.” Should we resist change to our beliefs and our actions simply because we have adjusted to ideas of what is “normal” or more often, “We have always done it this way”?  Dr. King spoke to those of us in psychology:

I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

This past October, APA passed two historic resolutions, which not only apologized for its role in past and ongoing racism against Peoples of Color (PoC) but also set forth a call for action and a plan to address the continuing harms caused by the discipline and practice of psychology against PoC. I wrote about these Resolutions in a column entitled, “APA Passes Historic Apology To People of Color.” Take a look at this column. You will find additional information about these Resolutions, teaching, and resources from Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) and from APA.

Certainly, as teachers, we are intimately aware of our call to service and we daily engage in productive action through teaching, research, scholarship, and advocacy. Our work is important. Nonetheless, as I wrote, “I encourage us all to work to "decolonize" our courses, syllabi, research, etc. to make our classes and our disciplinary understanding more inclusive. Within our departments or collegial groups, we can have conversations about what we can do to learn from diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts related to the teaching of psychology and how to translate that information into our respective courses.” As noted, this column includes links to resources that you can explore related to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts of both STP and APA. Take some time to explore these teaching materials.

Today on MLK day, I urge us all again to reflect on not just what we teach but also how we teach so as to meet the needs of students, particularly Black, Indigenous, Pacific-Islander-Asian, Latinx, and other students of color. I encourage us to work within our neighborhoods to reduce educational barriers and create more inclusive and welcoming learning environments for all within our diverse student communities. Certainly, change is never easy and there will be those who challenge efforts to be more inclusive in our courses and teaching. However, in the words of Dr. King, ““The time is always right to do what is right.”

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