Mindfulness and Undoing Racism
I know I'm racist. Unfortunately, I didn't always know this. For a long time I thought - naively - that I was one of the "good white folks" who had escaped this particularly insidious cultural artifact.
Then I began to notice some disturbing patterns.
For example, a black man in a suit barely registers in my nervous system. Just another passerby on the street. But a black man in a hoodie sends a short jolt up my spine.
Rationally, I know this could be exactly the same black man: in the morning on his way to work; in the evening on his way to the gym.
But the body registers these two perceptions differently. One appears safe, one doesn't.
Taking this one step further: White guy in a hoodie, no jolt up the spine.
Inevitably, some (white) readers will come to my defense here. "Well," they might say, "black and brown folks are racist, too."
But there's a difference between bias and racism. A black man, for example, might be biased. He might see my white skin and experience his own version of that jolt.
But even if he does, the culture won't support his fear. If he calls the police, they're unlikely to question my presence on the street. If I call the police, they're quite likely to question his presence on the street.
This difference in our cultural status - this power differential - is what transforms bias into racism.
In other words, the possible consequences of my bias are what make it racism. And the system that supports me and undermines him are what uphold that racism*.
So what does all this have to do with mindfulness?
First, mindfulness is what has allowed me to notice my racism.
Noticing this body, moment after moment, day after day, I know intimately how it responds. I know how it responds to warm water and cool water. I know how it responds to pleasure and pain. And I know how it responds to white faces and black faces and brown faces.
That's step one in overcoming racism, as far as I can tell.
Step two is the release that comes from noticing. Because I can notice the tension in the body and recognize it as an inaccurate perception. From there, I can smile at a black man in a hoodie.
It seems a small thing. And it is. But it makes a difference in my experience of walking through the world. And I hope removing my own racism from the tiniest interactions might make a small difference in the experience of others.
Here's another way mindfulness relates: when talking about race across racial lines, mindfulness helps me hold my own experience. If I feel uncomfortable, I have a way to hold my discomfort. If I get triggered, mindfulness is there to meet the difficulty.
This makes possible conversations that wouldn't otherwise be possible. It also means, hopefully, that no one needs to take care of me. I can use mindfulness to take care of myself.
Unfortunately, mindfulness alone is not enough. Mindfulness is a wonderful support to anti-racist work. But it is not the work itself.
The work itself is harder to define. I think it has to do with engaging across racial lines. I think it has to do with studying and instituting anti-racist pedagogies in our mindfulness communities. I think it has to do with taking action when racism arises. And I'm sure I've only begun to scratch the surface of what this work entails.
May we, and especially my white brothers and sisters and siblings, do this work together.
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