Beyond Trayvon Martin: A Socio-Cultural Relevant Psychoanalytic Perspective


By O’Shan D. Gadsden (, Ph.D. Alliant International University-California School of Professional Psychology Fresno, CA  Sheera Harrell MA; Jeffrey Wood, MA; and Heather Moore, BA (Student Contributors) Alliant International University-California School of Professional Psychology Fresno, CA

Much has been written, debated, and analyzed about the Trayvon Martin criminal case. We have all wrestled with its legality from the lens of our own culture-laden lived experiences,  experiences that have influenced our opinions regarding whether or not the death of an unarmed African-American adolescent male was justified self-defense or a brutal killing. Considering the vast psychological and inter-cultural implications of this case, it seems only appropriate that the analytic community add its nuanced perspective, particularly regarding the relationship between this society’s deep-seated racial collective unconsciousness, the criminalization of African-American masculinity, and the racialization of both the death of Trayvon Martin and the handling of the criminal case.

From popular culture, to the boardroom, to the academic setting, African-American masculinity has been feared, isolated, and situated within a deficiency model.  Lay and academic literature alike continue to discuss African-American masculinity from a narrow perspective of crisis and pathology, often without a complex and culturally relevant examination of how sociocultural and socio-historical variables influence the process of identity development and self-agency. Academic psychological literature often seems to be allied with rigid and stereotypical media representations of the African-American male as homogenous, absent, destructive, violent, or otherwise unable to function in healthy and responsible ways (Lausbscher, 2005 & Hammon & Mattis, 2005).

The investigation, arrest, trail, and acquittal of George Zimmerman in this fatal shooting draw attention to how fallacies and stereotypes regarding African-American masculinity get acted out in ways that vilify, criminalize, and literally kill. If we wish to understand how the unconscious negative internalization of African-American masculinity drives our understanding and treatment of African-American males, it is helpful to frame this case within an analytical persepective from which we can make some hypotheses as to why this case was so charged. The personage of Trayvon Martin activated deep-seated fears, biases, and rage that many have internalized regarding African-American masculinity. The stand your ground law was used as a way for many in our society to remain defended and split off from the emotional dissonance, guilt, shame, and anxiety about our historical dealings with African-American masculinity.

So how do we as analytically-focused clinicians make sense of this hyper-vigilance toward  negatively and rigidly perceived African-American masculinity? How do we make sense of the socio-culturally and socio-historically charged variables that impact how we both conceptualize and relate to African-American masculinity? What role can  psychoanalytically trained clinicians play in assisting society and their  patients to explore the multiple functions and impact of their socially constructed identities? Have our theories, treatment interventions, and subsequent recommendations related to African-American masculinity (and other oppressed identities) reflected an acting out of our own negative internalizations on both individual and professional levels?  On the other hand, can the psychoanalytically trained clinician‘s work be a practice of political resistance—-a resistance against the negative impact of racism and other systems of oppression? And how do we continue to shift the public perception that psychoanalysis is an ineffective and obsolete orientation that only has applicability for white, upper middle class patients, and holds no clinical utility when working with African-American males and other underserved populations?

It seems to me that he field of psychoanalysis has a great opportunity to explore more deeply the theoretical and clinical implications regarding the relationship between the process of identity development and racial politics, as well as how racial politics get projected and acted out through popular culture. There also is an opportunity to explore the impact this relationship has inter-generationally. Additionally, we have an opportunity to assist society and our patients to think more deeply about the etiology of our negative unconscious internalizations related to race. This exploration should include the emotional and interpersonal consequences on both individual and collective levels.

So what might this socio-cultural application of psychoanalytic theory and treatment look like?  First, we start by making an explicit commitment to begin to utilize our theoretical underpinnings and clinical skills to assist both individuals and systems to work toward gaining voluntary control of confirmatory biases, discriminatory and oppressive behaviors—through inquiry and curiosity making the racialized unconscious, conscious. This stance would promote and call for a more fluid understanding of the concept of the observing ego by assisting patients and systems to develop a racial observing ego that equips them to relate to African-American masculinity (and other underserved and oppressed populations) from a place of self-examination, and no longer from the stance of hostility, judgment, and/or impulse.

Second, we take an affirmative stance to commit to utilize and expand our understanding of what it means to assist patients and systems in working through,  to include assisting both patients and systems in understanding the impact that environmental variables such as racism, discrimination, and oppression have on their complex processes of identity development, and how these systems and ideologies affect multiple levels of individual functioning. This exploration would require that the patient’s and clinician’s transference and countertransference related to race/ethnicity be examined so that both become aware of their respective distortions and negative affect regarding racialized issues. The patient, clinician, and system would explore how this new level of self-awareness (racialized self-awareness) can be “tried on for size” in each area of their lives that have been touched by their negative internalizations. This racialized working through would allow patients, clinicians, and systems to understand the influence of the past on their understanding of social identities and to integrate the new understanding into their lives, thus empowering patients, clinicians, and systems to gain more control over racialized inner conflicts and to ultimately resolve them or minimize their power.

Finally, we must be more concrete in how we train and expect both analytically-focused trainees and seasoned psychoanalytically trained clinicians to challenge themselves around their own negative internationalizations of African-American masculinity. These internalizations may affect clinicians’ conceptualizations, diagnoses, and treatment recommendations when treating African-American males. This concrete approach would demand that clinicians understand how privileged identities (race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability status) impair their ability to assist African-American males to bring unconscious material and processes into full consciousness.

The pervasiveness of racism, discrimination, and race-related fear and hostility brought to light by the Trayvon Martin case has huge psychological and interpersonal implications. The field of psychoanalysis has both the sophisticated theory and clinical tools to assist our society to began to think more deeply about how this racialized pain affects us intrapsychically and inter-culturally. We must shake off any tendency to shrink away from this cultural call and begin to utilize our skills in ways that shift the dialogue around issues of race and its impact on relational domains. We must no longer mimic popular culture and the larger society by remaining complicit.  Let us explore our own negative internalizations and work toward living out of this new level of consciousness through our clinical work so our society and patients might have more conscious control over their lives in a racialized society.


Laubscher, L. (2005) Toward a (de)constructive psychology of African American men Journal of

Black Psychology 31 (2) 111-129 doi:  10.1177/009579840527472

Hammond, W.P., & Mattis, J.S. (2005). Being a man about it: Manhood meaning among African

American men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 6 (2), 114-126

doi: 10.1037/1524-  9220.6.2.114

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s