The University Record, January 24, 1994

Poussaint: King was about bringing people together

By Mary Jo Frank

“We all have to learn to listen with humility. We all have to learn to listen with respect,” says psychiatrist and author Alvin Poussaint.

Speaking to School of Business Administration faculty, staff and students at the School’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Poussaint said that to have strength and diversity takes effort and practice.

“It doesn’t just happen. It takes humility. He [King] was a consensus leader. He was not authoritarian,” recalled Poussaint, who is associate professor of psychiatry and associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School.

The one single issue that might “explode in our faces is ethnic conflict, and its religious counterpart, which threatens to destroy people,” said Poussaint, who described genocide as “racism out of control.”

Noting that people’s natural propensity is toward bigotry, a sort of tribalism, Poussaint said King was “about bringing people together” and favored integration.

A script consultant for the TV series “The Cosby Show” and, later, “A Different World,” Poussaint confessed that even he is not always as sensitive to others as he would like to be.

He recalled giving a lecture at Harvard on mental retardation and using the term Mongoloidism to refer to Down Syndrome. Following the lecture, he was surrounded by Asian American students who objected to his use of the term.

Poussaint said he had not meant to offend; he had used the term he had been taught in medical school.

“They were absolutely right. What bothered me is that I had missed it—a lesson in sensitivity,” Poussaint said. “We all have something to learn.”

An expert on family issues, Poussaint said violence underlies much of the current strife in the United States. We need to heed King’s teachings on non-violence, he added.

While some tend to blame violence on male hormones, Poussaint believes the roots lie in socialization: boys are given toy guns because they are supposed to grow up to go to war, to be killers.

Nowhere is this socialization more evident than in the supermarket diaper aisle, he said. Blue diapers with a truck motif for boys and pink diapers with flowers for girls have an effect. Boys grow up thinking they’ll be mechanical and girls grow up “thinking pink, believing they won’t be good at math and science.”

Children are indoctrinated in many ways, including the nursery rhymes, stories and comic books they’re exposed to. A Black child brought up with such traditional materials as Mother Goose and Goldilocks and the Three Bears is going to think by the age of 3 or 4 that all kings and queens are white. Comic book heroes—Superman, Spiderman and even Captain Midnight—are all white, noted Poussaint, who recently co-authored with James P. Comer Raising Black Children, a guide to parenting. Comer is professor of psychiatry and associate dean, Yale University School of Medicine.

Parents need to pay attention to what they’re reading to their children and even the pictures that hang on their walls. “Little things mean a lot,” Poussaint said.