White folks in racial justice circles often experience shame, guilt, and confusion. We unpack our invisible knapsacks of white privilege; we notice biases we didn’t know we had; we start to discover the personal, relational, and systemic dynamics of racism and white supremacy. And what arises within many of us is the inevitable question, “So, what can I do about it???”
My experience with this question is that it represents a longing to “make it better” in a couple of different ways: we genuinely want to help heal the suffering of racial injustice, and, we desperately want to end the discomfort of being on the “bad” side of the equation. I know this experience and the sensations of it well. Even as I type this now, I can feel the tightness arising in my chest and up through my throat, the drawing down of muscles in my face, the tears forming in my eyes. We don’t want to be here. We don’t want supremacy lived out in our skin. It hurts. If you identify as white and can hear what I’m saying, just sit here with me for a moment and feel this. If your mind wants to jump to judgment or “fixing” or trying to justify or validate your experience as a “good” white person, just watch that happening and bring yourself back to here, now, feeling the sadness of this legacy that we are a part of.
This is one thing we can do. We can stick with it when it hurts. It sounds simple, but I believe in this process as a profound path to healing ourselves and our communities. We practice (and it is a practice) waking up to our own direct experience of racism and white supremacy. We realize our own personal suffering here. And from this place of truth and sadness, skillful action is possible.
Skillful action can mean many things – it can mean investigating these issues in greater depth through the many resources that exist today to help us learn more; it can mean joining a racial justice discussion group or forming one where you live, work, or pray; it can mean donating to POC-led racial justice organizations; it can mean advocating for racially-just policies in your home community. But underlying any of these is the most basic of skillful actions: living each moment with greater awareness.
This is the commitment I’ve made to myself. I want to see racial bias when it come up for me. I want to feel the emotions and sensations that accompany each thought I’ve been conditioned to believe. Each time I do this, something subtle shifts inside - there is a little more openness, a little less judgment, a little bit of compassion. In that moment of awareness, I am more skillful in how I relate to myself and others. Each experience like this contributes to a changed mind (literally). With this practice, I can be more skillful in how I challenge racism and white supremacy in my personal interactions with the communities and institutions I’m a part of.
So, this question for me becomes less about “what can I do?” and more about “how can I be?”
I am making a commitment to start this blog because I feel inspired and driven to share what’s on my heart and mind these days related to mindfulness, justice, and trauma.
The intersection of contemplative practice and social justice has long been seeking my attention. In the past few years, I've discovered a growing number of resources about bringing mindfulness to race as well as bringing up race in mindfulness circles. Some leaders in this area like Rev. angel kyodo williams encourage white folks to do their own work internally and in white spaces. In an effort to more seriously take this advice, I am using this space to explore my own experience of waking up to racial injustice through a lens of mindfulness.
My acknowledgment of and interest in racial justice began with a trip abroad in college. Ironically, I had to leave the country to see how race played out in another place – the Dominican Republic – in order to “awaken” to racial dynamics in a personal way in my own communities and country. In the DR, fairer-skinned Dominicans are favored over darker-skinned Dominicans and Haitian immigrants. I saw this dynamic play out in the orphanage where I lived and in the communities beyond it. Even young children acted out roles of power and privilege over their darker-skinned “brothers.” I remember trying to step in when it turned to bullying. I remember feeling outraged by the injustice of it. And then I went back home to the States, where racial privilege was the air I was breathing without even noticing...
For most of my life, I let my white privilege “protect” me from having to acknowledge race. Living in a society steeped in racist ideology from birth, surrounded mostly by white folks growing up, I unconsciously exempted myself from facing my racial privilege. After more direct experiences with racism and a powerful couple of years in grad school for social work, I woke up, and I started to see racial injustice everywhere.
So finally, in my mid-20's, I had become outraged by racism and white supremacy. I discovered a lot of shame and fear arising when I participated in race-based discussions with mixed-race groups. I “said the wrong thing” many times, driving me deeper into discomfort (aka "white fragility"). I would feel inspired to engage on the topic out of a sense of caring and responsibility, and I admit, a hope that I could “fix it" on some level. And then I would encounter that familiar discomfort of my own pain and the "unfixableness" of it, and I would retreat, hiding away in other work, pursuing other passions. Of course, this retreating is an option afforded me only because of my privilege. People of color cannot just “retreat” from daily life or "opt in" when they feel inspired to consider issues of race.
I can no longer retreat - I am facing this struggle inside myself with a renewed commitment. I am inspired by Lama Rod Owen's directive to "go to the frontlines of your struggle." My frontlines are in here and out there, meditating, reading, writing, and connecting with others about my part and our parts in this racialized world.
Racism causes suffering and deep harm for all people - for people of color more directly and violently than white people. It absolutely pervades all that we are and do if we don't consciously face it. Can we turn toward this suffering and harm with love so that it may be transformed in our own hearts and then beyond?
I bring up love because it's at the center of everything. For me, mindfulness is about love, about bringing love into every experience of this being-human. Love is the force that makes it possible to live fully – love for others and a deep love for oneself. To share my own ignorance and suffering is an act of love. To recognize the ways in which I’ve caused suffering for others is an act of love. To investigate the constructs and lived realities of race and racism in my own life is an act of love. And I'm deeply inspired by the countless acts of love that I've been witness to as others engage with this work.
In this humble blog, I will continue by bringing love to the table for a discussion on racism, my role in it, and how we can do our own work to challenge it with mindfulness.
In this article written for the Mindful Schools community, Grace explores her own awakening to bias, the origins and manifestations of bias, and how we can use mindfulness to challenge it in our daily lives.
Read Grace's article: Race-Conscious Parenting: Using Mindfulness to Challenge Bias,
first published in Issue #69, May through August 2018. Copyright © Crazy Wisdom, Inc., 2018, www.crazywisdomjournal.com.
The Power to Be Blog explores the use of mindfulness in shifting both individual and collective awareness toward a more just and loving world.
Grace Helms Kotre, MSW, shares mindfulness as a tool for empowerment with youth and adults in schools, organizations, businesses, and private lessons. Grace sees mindfulness as a radical and powerful tool for promoting justice, healing trauma, and bringing greater peace into our daily lives.