Using Mindfulness to Talk About Racism

Illustration by  Amberi Barreche.

Illustration by Amberi Barreche.

Racism functions as a widespread traumatic experience for people of color. We know now, more than ever, that a colorblind approach does not impel racial equality. Consequently, now is the time for conversations about racism in America to transpire amongst adults as well as children. It is particularly important that white people join in and ignite the conversation, as white privilege ultimately permits voluntary engagement with these topics, unlike those people of color who do not have the privilege to choose.

This summer, I was able to attend the 2016 Mindfulness & Education Conference at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, NY, where a panel of scholars committed to promoting mindfulness as a tool for healing trauma talked about the role mindfulness plays in the issues of diversity, racism and oppression in schools. As both an orchestrator of these conversations as well as a participant, I was eager to hear what they had to say. Many of them identified the importance of two primary components underlying mindfulness: curiosity and compassion.

Stay Curious 

When engaging in conversations with others about racism, diversity and oppression, curiosity can be used to help recognize that each and every person’s experience of the world is unique. Additionally, it is important to highlight that racial and ethnic differences play a crucial role in the experience one has of the world, especially when talking to children about race. 

If we ask ourselves to be curious about a person’s experience of the world, we are forced to both recognize and question the implicit biases and prejudices we devise about others based on a person’s skin color, performed gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion/spirituality, and other identifiers valued by society. Get comfortable asking others to tell you about their experience (literally, try asking someone, “would you tell me about your experience?”), rather than allowing stereotypes to taint our lens and develop false impressions of others.

(Note: kids are really, really good at being genuinely curious about others. If you need a little inspiration or guidance, turn to them.)

Curiosity also functions as a valuable tool for overcoming our own biases and prejudices, in that it fosters self-awareness. I try to ask myself why another person’s presence evokes whatever emotional and cognitive response I may experience (the subway is a perfect place to practice this): What about this person makes me uncomfortable/comfortable? What ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internalized forms of oppression contribute to my response to this person? What feelings do I have about myself that may contribute to my response to this person? By noticing our response to others, being curious about those responses and recognizing the potential internal and external contributions to them, we are taking a moment to bear witness to our own biases.   

Lead with Compassion 

And then there is compassion, or empathy. With the emergence of proverbs like “more love, less hate”, the world is already asking for a more compassionate approach towards humanity. I’m not so sure that curiosity and compassion are necessarily separate entities; rather, I think that curiosity oftentimes allows for the cultivation of compassion. Through my own process, I’ve learned that nurturing a sense of compassion for others, regardless of whatever differences may exist between me and that person, is only possible once I truly allow myself to notice and accept my on-going responses to that person. 

With compassion comes the choice to believe that every person is inherently good. In a world that is becoming increasingly- and alarmingly- polarized, this is not easy, but perhaps most essential. I, myself, rely on my own mindfulness practice to assist me in developing this internal sense of compassion for all.

Historically, we have seen that disconnection does not heal the world of hate. Rather, connection, as fueled by compassion and empathy, is a vital healing agent. In a time where it is easy to feel disheartened, remembering the power of connectedness helps keep me feeling hopeful.