It’s time to transform habits of harm so we start healing what divides us.
Something alarming happens when we hear the word racism.
Something deep within us is awakened into fear. All of us, regardless of our race and experience of race, get triggered, and more than the moment is at play. That word picks at an existential scab—some level of dis-ease at the mere insinuation of the word, some itch that we can’t seem to scratch. This activation happens to all of us.
Regardless of how we look on the outside, we turn into frightened combatants. The heart quakes, and the mind narrows to its smallest, tightest place—survival. We all tend to go to our weapons of choice—aggression, distraction, denial, doubt, worry, depression, or indifference—using varying levels of power to execute our desired outcome or disguise our discomfort.
The stress can feel intolerable—even life-threatening, and for too many of us, such fear is not unfounded.
Some of us do not acknowledge that we are racial beings who belong to the human race, nor do we recognize how our instinct is to fear, hurt, or harm other races, including our own. We don’t know how to face into and own what we have cocreated as humans.
Why is this topic so red-hot? How can each of us find the mental clarity to be present to what is actually happening—not what happened in the past or what might be coming—and learn to respond wisely?
Whatever is happening today is the result of past actions, and the bitter racial seeds from past beliefs and actions are blooming all around us, reflecting not only a division of the races rooted in ignorance and hate but also, and more sorely, a division of heart.
Racism is a heart disease.
How we think and respond is at the core of racial suffering and racial healing. If we cannot think clearly and respond wisely, we will continue to damage the world’s heart.
For more than 20 years, I’ve coached leaders and teams in cultivating cultures that are inclusive, creative, productive, and respectful. I was trained in clinical psychology, organizational development, and diversity consulting. This background alone, while it brought awareness and understanding, did not transform my relationship to racial distress.
The science of mindfulness and racial distress
The best tool I know of to transform our relationship to racial suffering is mindfulness meditation, which for more than 20 years has supported me in experiencing racial distress without warring against it.
Research shows it improves neurobiological functioning, stress reduction, and overall physical and mental well-being.
I was attracted to this practice because my habitual ways of relating to racial distress were not working. Raised with working-class values in South Central Los Angeles in the heat of the civil rights and Black Power movements, I experienced significant trauma and despair that shaped my individual racial identity, plunging me into years of righteous rage.
At 27, I had open-heart surgery for a mitral valve prolapse, a procedure that began a spiritual inquiry into my habits of harm.
When introduced to mindfulness meditation years later, I learned how to interrupt the mental war I was inflicting on others and myself. I learned how to relate with more compassion, and I opened to a deeper understanding of my racial conditioning.
“We might consider discomfort a wake-up call inviting us to inspect the ways we have been programmed to blame or distrust each other.”
I have not reached nirvana, but I do know the freedom that comes from being able to look at what is really happening, not what my mind is programmed to believe is happening, without raging inside.
Over time, this practice has influenced a more healthy response to racial distress and has shown me the meaning of Nelson Mandela’s quote: “When we can sit in the face of insanity or dislike and be free from the need to make it different, then we are free.”
Mindfulness meditation helps us put a crucial pause between our instinctive and often overwhelming feelings of being wronged or endangered and our responses. In that pause, we gain perspective—we find our breath, our heartbeat, and the ground beneath our feet. This, in time, supports us in seeing our choices more clearly and responding more wisely.
We can cultivate more and more moments of inner freedom. We can respond to racial suffering with more clarity and wisdom. We can be more curious and aware of our impact. We can learn to forgive others as well as ourselves. We can live each moment in continuous prayer for the well-being of all races.
What happens when we talk about race
Talking about race is messy because it brings to light our racial beliefs and values expressed in ignorance, innocence, and righteousness.
Many of us show up with good intentions but put our foot in our mouth, get scared, become frustrated or belligerent, or just shut down. Our mind plays habit songs that get in the way of our ability to connect and be open to what’s right here.
For example, the following comments are common narratives expressed from participants in the Mindful of Race training.
Whites commonly say:
- I don’t see color. Aren’t we all the same?
- Race is an illusion. Why are people of color (POC) so attached to this concept? Let it go!
- I’ll just listen. I know I have a lot to learn. Besides, if I say too much, I’m likely to say something stupid and get nailed again.
- I don’t know what I don’t know. POC need to teach me about race; tell me what to do.
- Why are POC so angry with me? I wasn’t living at the time.
- I don’t know how to have this conversation without feeling blamed, guilty, frustrated, or angry.
- I’m oppressed in other ways, so I know what it feels like to be a POC.
- We can’t really talk about race because there aren’t enough POC in the room.
People of color commonly say:
- Talking about race means that in addition to being disturbed by white people’s ignorance, I’m going to have to teach white folks what they choose to deny knowing—amnesia of whiteness.
- If I talk about race, I’m labeled the angry person and nobody listens. Talking about race means talking about Black folks and white folks. I’m neither! Why should I care? I’m invisible.
- When will white people take responsibility for their collective impact on other races?
- I don’t want to keep educating white people about race. They need to do this for themselves.
- I don’t need to be friends with white people. I just want them to stop getting in my way and stop doing harm.
How do we understand these standoffs and this dread, even with people who willingly want to change?
How do we transform these habits of harm?
We can’t heal if we can’t talk to each other, and we can’t talk to each other until we understand why we can’t talk to each other.
We must dive below our knee-jerk responses to examine our conditioning. We must be willing to be uncomfortable. In fact, we might consider discomfort a wake-up call inviting us to inspect the ways we have been programmed to blame or distrust each other and, in so doing, how we have learned to live with a heart disease.
Questions for self-reflection
Here are 11 questions to check your inner experience prior to talking about race:
- What old traumas or wounds have been activated? Acknowledge and take care of them. You don’t have to be trauma-free before you have a difficult conversation, but you do want to enter with clarity and stability.
- How is your view influenced by your racial group identity? For example, is your upset inflamed by your dominant or subordinated group membership?
- Is your grievance addressing the individual, group, or institutional level? Clarify your voice.
- What characteristics can you acknowledge as good or neutral? Can you see aspects of yourself, past or present, in this person or situation?
- What thoughts, emotions, or beliefs do you overly identify with?
- Are you taking this disturbance personally? Is that absolutely true?
- Do you believe this situation has always been or will always be this way? Is that absolutely true?
- Do you believe this situation should be other than it actually is right now? Is that possible?
- Do you feel clear enough to confront this disturbance without causing harm to others or yourself?
- What is your intention—do you want to be right, to better understand, to bridge separation, to reach agreement, or something else? Be clear about your intention without being attached to the outcome.
- Are you open to learning?
These reflections are meant to support you in staying centered and in your integrity without “bypassing” what is difficult to talk about.
How to step into the conversation
- Once you have completed the reflections, clarify one concern you want to address. Initiate contact with the person you want to speak to and talk for 15 minutes as a start.
- Keeping the time short will help you focus and avoids overwhelm. When you take on one issue at a time, you can experience incremental relief, which builds inner confidence and stability.
- Prior to meeting, center yourself by taking three deep breaths. Remind yourself that nothing is personal, permanent, or perfect. Keep 50 percent of your awareness on your body and breath throughout the conversation.
- When you meet, sit face-to-face, making gentle eye contact and observing body posture and subtle shifts.
- You may want to request that the person not interrupt for the first several moments. Use a tone, pace, and pitch of sincere kindness and curiosity, and remind yourself of your deepest intention.
Adapted from Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out by Ruth King. Copyright © Ruth King. Published by Sounds True in June 2018.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.