Justifiably Maladjusted

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached that we must be maladjusted to the bigotry and racism in our society. Find out what that means today.  

Written By Gretchen Kalwinski

By Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s influence and encouragement of “maladjustment” was essential in the field of psychology. And 50 years later, at the 2017 American Psychological Association (APA) Convention, Dr. Nathaniel Granger Jr. reminded participants why that is. 

“Dr. King was very charismatic,” says Dr. Nathaniel Granger, who has been reenacting King’s speeches at various events for more than 20 years. “And back then the field of psychology was very white. I think by King using that phrase, it took the term to another level. When King used the term, he did so to explain why we must be maladjusted to bigotry, racism, discrimination, and injustices.”

In other words, we must not see these social ills as normal, par for the course, or acceptable.

Nathaniel Granger
Dr. Nathaniel Granger

“When I look at today’s political climate, it’s obviously maladjusted,” says Dr. Granger, who teaches in Saybrook University’s Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal Psychology Specialization. “However, it’s not the maladjusted that King was referring to. It’s a sick society. But we have to urge our clients and everyday people to be maladjusted to the maladjustment so we can change the ills of our systems.”

In MLK’s 1967 speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, he said he was "proud" to be psychologically "maladjusted,” never intending “to adjust myself to slavery and segregation,” never intended “to adjust myself to religious bigotry,” and never intended to “become adjusted to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization—the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly on May 18, 1966, MLK even suggested a new name to encourage maladjustment: “I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization—the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, cried out in words that echo across the centuries—‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’; or as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who in the midst of his vacillations finally came to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; or as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, could scratch across the pages of history, words lifted to cosmic proportions, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Dendron, a newsletter funded with a startup grant from the Levinson Foundation, was born in 1986 by a group of mental health professionals and advocates. By August 2005, the project creators of Dendron changed its name to MindFreedom International. Mental health professionals and advocates in MindFreedom International used MLK’s words and the civil rights movement to expand on their mission of maladjustment.

Dr. Granger was one of several panelists featured in the recent documentary “Creative Maladjustment” detailing King’s accomplishments and connection to the field of psychology.

The influence of creative maladjustment in today’s society

While King’s speaking influence is certainly still prevalent, it’s reasonable to wonder what becomes of maladjustment in society. The answer: A rise in social justice organizations such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the 2017 Women’s March—three of several movements that continue to showcase how people from all walks of life refuse to accept the injustice of classism, sexism, and racism.

Dr. Granger has been able to plant his feet in both worlds. The U.S. Army veteran earned his Psy.D. in 2011 and has been working in executive coaching, teaching, and psychotherapy ever since. The Chicago native is also now part of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization affiliated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955. Grange is also a member of the Denver chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, an anti-violence group that is not always perceived that way.

It’s interesting to see how people are perceived even when trying to fight against anti-discrimination issues,” Dr. Granger says.

“It’s interesting to see how people are perceived even when trying to fight against anti-discrimination issues,” Dr. Granger says. “There’s this book by Beverly Daniel Tatum called 'Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?' that stands out to me. The book discusses how even in school, there are these microaggressions out there. But when white people come together, it’s OK. So then black people have a feeling, this overarching feeling that no, we can’t come together. If people see us together they’re going to think we’re a group or a gang or some type of clique, that we’re up to no good.”

These questions are what sparked his interest in writing his dissertation “Perceptions of Racial Microaggressions among African American Males in Higher Education: A Heuristic Inquiry.” In it, he asked and answered questions such as “How do these microaggressions impact me as a black male and other black males? How does this impact our ability to succeed in higher education?”

Dr. Granger confirms that “the research shows that academia is very microaggressive, particularly toward African-Americans and other marginalized groups. African-American ethos is centered around communalism. We like to congregate. However, academia is based on eurocentrism, which promotes individualism where you stand alone and you do your own work. That goes against our internal mechanism. We like to huddle together.

“Obviously this kind of apprehension didn’t stop me from joining organizations such as Black Lives Matter. But in academia when you see black people huddled together, particularly in a predominantly white school, it’s looked upon with suspicion.

By people such as Granger joining organizations that may not be perceived fairly, this is another step in the right direction. It could make observers look at social justice organizations through new, less biased eyes.

“I would encourage today’s psychologists to really reach down and grab hold to the intestinal fortitude to stand firmly against bigotry and injustice and anything that comes against human dignity and human rights,” Granger says.

“I think psychologists are in a very important position to strategize. Majority of psychologists need to be more vocal when it comes to social ills. Cowardice should not be encouraged, and we cannot allow cowardice to become fashionable in dealing with social woes. We need to do something to ameliorate the symptomatology associated with the sensationalism that we see.”