Marvin Gaye, Antiracism, and Therapeutic Differentiation

Marvin Gaye, Antiracism, and Therapeutic Differentiation


What’s Going On

By Al Cleveland, Renaldo Benson, and Marvin Gaye

You know we’ve got to find a way

To bring some lovin’ here today

 (full lyrics at the end of this post)

In 1971 Marvin Gaye released the hauntingly beautiful song “What’s Going On” in response to the police brutality, inequality, and suffering he was witnessing and experiencing. 40 years later we are still desperate to have productive conversations about, and find solutions to, “What’s Going On”

Gaye’s stance is similar to how many relationship therapists respond to conflict. A perspective of earnest reflection, curiosity, and hope that we can lean into the heart of the issue to resolve things through love and understanding. Whether or not it was Gaye’s intention for this work to become such a powerful activist song, it’s impact upon release was certainly inevitable. I’d like to think that, just as with powerful artistic expression, powerfully healing therapy is a form of protest and activism. When we heal individuals, and then family systems, we then have stronger connections to support the greater good.

Especially over the past year, I have been thinking about how antiracism/dismantling white supremacy work is also a therapeutic differentiation task. Antiracists work to figure out who they are and what they stand for in the context of moving forward from a historically racist society. Just as with differentiating from your family, whom you cannot completely cut off, you cannot completely cut off the part of you that grew up in a racist society.

If you need a review on differentiation here is a summary from the Bowen Institute:

One article that I have been exploring with myself, colleagues, and clients repeatedly over the past year is Tema Okun and colleagues’ 1999 article outlining 15 characteristics of white supremacy culture and their antidotes:

A website dedicated to this article and further education just launched this month (May 2021):

Reviewing the characteristics Okun and colleagues’ work reflects has been like a Bowenian “going home” task where you look carefully at the dynamics within which you were brought up, how they are still affecting you, and how you are still playing them out. The article was written primarily addressing “organizations,” which I assume to mean larger systems such as places of work, education, and social services. But I think these characteristics are also significantly at play when we see suffering in more personal relationship dynamics.

I encourage families to read through the explanations of the 15 characteristics Tema and colleagues describe keeping their close relationships in mind. Do you see these playing out between each other?

Now that we have some more careful reflections about “What’s Going On,” how can we use the suggested antidotes to turn towards more loving connections?

Full Lyrics:

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eh eh

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe

Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you…

Spencer Northey

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