04/19/2012 11:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2012

I am Trayvon Martin AND George Zimmerman

Over ten years ago, when facilitating a diversity training session, I used as an example of racial socialization how black parents caution their sons not to wear hoods when walking in white neighborhoods. This example was questioned by white members of the audience and even considered by some as being overly sensitive. Since the tragic death of Trayvon Martin we have seen the picture of Trayvon in a hoodie in every visual media. Thousands have marched in solidarity with t-shirts that identify them as being Trayvon Martin. Many of my Facebook friends have swamped their profile picture for that of Trayvon's. Those of us, black, brown, yellow, red and white, who have been victims of injustice identify with Trayvon Martin. We all know Trayvon as our sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers.

A friend Rosalind posted a video on her Facebook page of a young, white teen who poignantly states that for middle-class, white, socially-concerned activists, a more accurate t-shirt to "display on her white body" is I am George Zimmerman. She puts out a call to action to use white privilege to recognize and own one's role in the complicity that causes these injustices.

Girlfriend is keeping it real and at a tender age has achieved a great deal of cultural humility and cultural competence. Yet, all of us have a long way to go before "we have overcome." Overcoming is about ridding ourselves of how we perpetuate racism and other isms by our often unintentional actions. The hallmark of diversity maturity is when we realize and come to terms with the fact that we are both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. No George Zimmerman in me, you say. Wrong.

This is how it works. Our brain is wired not to manage differences well. We get a signal that goes to the thalamus to be translated into brain language and then it is sent to the visual cortex where it is analyzed and interpreted. If the message is interpreted as emotional, it goes to the amygdala, the emotional center of our brain. What happens when we encounter differences and we have little or no experience with cultural differences, the signal bypasses the visual cortex and goes straight to the amygdala. In other words, we experience an amygdala hijack and we go into fight or flight response. In the case of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman had a fight response.

The brain also depends on two hardwired processes for decision-making -- pattern recognition and emotional tagging. These processes are part of our evolutionary advantage and typically reliable under most circumstances. Unfortunately, managing differences is often where these processes let us down, especially when the socially loadings are faulty. We depend on pattern recognition in new situations and make assumptions based on our prior experiences and judgments. We also depend on emotional information that has been attached to thoughts and experiences stored in our memories to tell us what to pay attention to and what actions to take. In the case of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman relied on faulty pattern recognition and misguided emotional tags.

Social psychologist researcher Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard's Implicit Association Test notes that our biases tend to be like a car that is in need of alignment. We have to keep our hands firmly on the steering wheel in order to keep it safely on the road. When our biases go unchecked they become destructive and lead us to places we never thought we might go.

We all live in a society fraught with racism and other isms. It is in the very air we breathe. It makes grooves in our brains like old 45rpm records. We have to work hard to get the old tunes to stop playing and to create new songs from chords that naturally might not be considered harmonious. Yes, it is true that the vast majority of us would not have taken the action that George Zimmerman did. We work hard to rid ourselves of biases and keep them in check. However, we are hard wired and socially loaded to believe that a young black boy walking in a white neighborhood with a hood might be dangerous. That is the sad truth. I am Trayvon Martin and I am George Zimmerman. To believe otherwise is to miss the opportunity to learn how to resolve these issues and create the kind of society where a young black man wearing a hood can walk freely without assumption or judgment through any neighborhood.

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