Self-Actualization and Social Justice

My first Psychology class changed my life because I learned about self-actualization which transformed the way I view social justice. According to Abraham Maslow self-actualization is “the inborn drive to develop all one’s talents and capacities. It involves understanding one’s own potential, accepting oneself and others as unique individuals, and taking a problem-centered approach to life situations.” Imagine how much different a world we would live in if every person, if we as a society, were able to self-actualize.

This concept is not growing rich by positive thinking or a case for meritocracy.  It explains that in order to self-actualize we need to meet certain human needs. These needs are like stepping stones, where you must have a certain amount of progress in one in order for the others to even be possible. This is called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is illustrated as a pyramid. At the very foundation, before we can even get to things like esteem and reaching potential, there are basics like physiological needs, the need to feel safe, the need for love and belonging. So even an intelligent child with boatloads of potential will not make it very far if they are not being fed properly, if they do not feel safe, if they do not feel loved and a sense of belonging.

Think about that for a second. Then think about how poverty is concentrated in communities of color, reducing access to basic needs. Think about how people of color and other marginalized groups cannot and do not feel safe in the US and, to be honest, many places around the world. Not only may there be crime and violence around them as a result of poverty, but even the police make many PoC feel extremely unsafe. These are the two foundations. It is popular to blame society’s ills on the “breakdown of the family.” Sure, family, love, and belonging can help, but lacking stable foundational needs of physiological wellbeing and safety can cause extreme strains on family life and relationships in general.

What a difference it would make if everyone had their physiological needs met – ensuring everyone has healthy food, shelter and such. Then how about if people of color were allowed to feel safe, perhaps in a justice system that was actually just as opposed to stacked against the poor and against PoC as it is now. What if these two foundational needs were met? I would think a lot more people would be capable of striving for and achieving self-actualization.

Yet those with money and power tend to deride people who are struggling in oppressive environments, for example, people living in poverty, saying these folks can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This attitude is often used to justify damaging policies and decisions that exacerbate problems, and the general callousness some people show toward the suffering of others. I would think if people had functional boots complete with the bootstraps to secure them, a lot more people would be able to pull themselves up.

There are too many people, particularly PoC, particularly black people, who are actively discouraged from living up to their potential. This discouragement comes not only from racist white people, not just from other black people who subscribe to respectability politics, or who have a general defeatist attitude, but also from a society that neglects their needs, a society that makes them feel distinctly unsafe.

Perhaps we should start thinking about self-actualization as an outcome of social justice. How about if society prepares its members for self-actualization rather than giving us boxes and expectations that have nothing to do with our foundational needs or our potential. It can be a game changer, but there are those who don’t want the game to change because they think they’re poised to win. Unfortunately for them, the only way anyone wins is when we all win. We are interconnected with our fellow humans. Self-actualization is as much a responsibility of the collective self as it is for the individual.

I am not claiming this approach will prevent all ills and that everyone will suddenly become successful and reach their potential. Remedying historical and institutional barriers to self-actualization will not remedy all individual barriers. However addressing the fundamental needs of marginalized people does provide an environment that allows progress rather than one that actively prevents it for many individuals. There are two sides of the coin here, the individual and the society. The problem is we stress individual effort without sufficient effort within the society (or its governing bodies) to ensure the foundations of physiological needs such as healthy foods, shelter, healthcare, etc and safety needs are met. This must change. We must acknowledge – yes, anyone can achieve greatness, but within the right conditions.

So rather than make sweeping judgments about individuals or groups within society having difficulty with upward mobility or overcoming cycles of poverty, rather than going on condemning Cosby-esque rants (see how well that worked for him), we need to do better in advocating for the needs of marginalized groups so they have the foundation on which to build. There is no place anymore to expect meritocracy and respectability politics to pull marginalized groups out of poverty because those expectations don’t have a foot to stand on. History and enduring unjust laws and policies have made sure of that.



© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved