I have become convinced that meditation is an important tool for every white person engaged in the effort to deconstruct race and racism. I’m so convinced that I’m putting on a workshop specifically designed to teach white people about it. Since I feel so strongly about this approach, I thought it might be a good idea to explain how, exactly, this works.
First, meditation is a practice of looking directly at our thoughts. Because of the way in which race operates in society, all white people have racist thoughts (in fact, all people have racist thoughts). To be clear, for most of us, this is not intentional, and it isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. As this author states in writing about racism in England,
“[Having racist thoughts is] nothing for people to be ashamed about, and we shouldn’t despair, because if making snap judgments is part of being human, challenging our own assumptions is what makes us humane. There's a huge difference between prejudice and discrimination. Between being someone, who, when asked to imagine the model employee, imagines a white person, and someone who only hires white people. And the good news is, we're better than ever at challenging our own assumptions, and more tolerant than ever in our daily lives.”
The problem is that many of us white people don’t want to acknowledge our own race-based thinking, so we avoid even looking at it. Meditation is about looking at our thoughts, including the racist ones, and examining how they operate. This is a crucial first step. We’re not going to be able to dismantle racism if we do not acknowledge how race operates in our minds.
Second, meditation can help us tap into the compassion that we need if we’re going to end systemic racism. A friend once asked me why white people seem to lack empathy and compassion when it comes to racism. It’s a valid question. The truth is that we need compassion if we are going to really do this work. And most white folks don’t seem to have much compassion when it comes to race and racism. Why?
For the most part, white people almost never think about race or racism. We think about what we’re having for dinner, our future, our appearance, problems we’re having with a (probably white) boss, (probably white) co-worker, or (probably white) classmate, and how much we love our (probably white) family and friends. We think about the plot lines of Downton Abbey. We think about Harry Potter. We think about our cats. Like everyone, we think about all sorts of things. But most of us never, ever, think about race and racism. We are basically ignorant when it comes to race, because we never think about it. And we certainly don’t educate ourselves about it. For that matter, many of us encounter very few people of color in our lives. Even when we do encounter people of color in our lives, many people of color are understandably reluctant to address us on matters of race because of white fragility. So we don’t learn about it and we don’t take the time to educate ourselves about it. We don’t see it. It’s hard to be empathetic about something you don’t see or know anything about.
Of course some white people think about race A LOT - people who hold overtly and explicitly white supremacist views. People who think that people of color (and Jews) are biologically, genetically inferior to white people. But very few white people hold these views (though the Trump campaign is showing us that more people hold these views than most of us believed). The overwhelming majority of white people are taught to believe that these views are wrong, and we do not hold them. We believe that those people are racist and we are not.
Instead, we believe that we are “colorblind.” We are taught that race does not matter. We are taught as children, and reminded every day, that it is bad to be racist and good to be colorblind. We are raised with the unchallenged assumption that because race does not matter, we should not address race. Having empathy around race and racism would require looking at race. That would mean that race mattered, and the idea of race mattering goes against everything we think we know. This is why I think that, perhaps paradoxically, colorblindness is today’s racism. Slavery racism was replaced by Jim Crow racism. I believe that colorblindness has replaced Jim Crow as modern-day racism.
Of course, white people are not incapable of empathizing with black people. Every time a video of the police shooting a black person goes viral, most of my white friends appropriately express extreme sadness and horror. We have a lot of empathy with black people then. So we are capable of it. But this is precisely the point - we need to have it pointed out to us, in a video, on Facebook. We do not have empathy in general because unless racism is in our faces, we just don’t think about it. But if we are to dismantle systemic racism, we have to think about it, and we have to develop the compassion needed to do this work.
Third, meditation allows us to slow down, thereby creating a space for insight to emerge. Once during meditation practice, I had the insight that what I think of as ‘whiteness’ is evil. Not that I am evil; it is the construct of race (without which ‘whiteness’ would not exist) that is the problem. I had recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” (which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it), and was contemplating his phrase “Americans who think they are white.” I allowed that phrase to sink deep into my mind, into my being. Suddenly, something clicked – what I think of as ‘whiteness’ is evil. It cannot be reformed, but must rather be abolished. This experience changed everything about how I think about race and racism.
Again the point here is not that white people are evil, and nothing I am saying should be interpreted as disparaging them/us. Rather, I am talking about deconstructing a system – racism – that was created for the evil purpose of justifying the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of Native Americans. There is simply nothing good about that system. I am not disparaging the people. There is plenty of good in all of us.
And, it’s worth pointing out, the system of racism has hurt us too. The whole institution hurts people of color primarily, in the form of violence, discrimination, inequality, etc. But it hurts white people secondarily, in the form of loss of humanity. Race disconnects us from our fellow human beings, and blinds us to the horror and pain that many people of color experience on a daily basis. Meditation can help us have the insight we need to get past these blocks and get on with the business of creating a better world.
Fourth, meditation is very grounding and forces us to relate to the feelings in our bodies. I don’t think that, realistically, much will change until white people feel the evil that whiteness is. We have to feel revulsion and disgust, motivating us to work actively to end systemic racism.
When white people are forced to think about race, we generally have two reactions:
- If we are told we are being or saying something racist, we react defensively because we believe we are colorblind and to most of us, colorblindness is the antithesis of racism.
- If we are not told that we are being racist, but someone is pointing out a structural inequality, we are trained to come up with some explanation other than racism because we are trained to believe that race does not matter.
When we are reminded of mass incarceration, we typically come up with one of two explanations. Some of us say that it is due to overly punitive laws and policies. Others will say it is due to ‘black-on-black crime’ (not a thing). Inequality in education is said to be because of class differences, not race. Inequality in health outcomes is due to poor nutrition, access to resources, etc. White people are trained to see these things, not racism. Because we imagine ourselves to be ‘colorblind.’
Instead of reacting in these ways, we could actually learn to sit with the feelings that come up when race is mentioned. We could listen. We could consider the possibility that we are saying or doing something racist (hint: if a person of color tells us that we are saying or doing something racist, we probably are). We could think about the connection between systemic racism and structural inequalities. But we usually don’t, because these topics tend to make us feel deeply uncomfortable. Meditation helps us learn to sit with the feelings of discomfort that arise when we examine these issues.
As writer and thought leader James Baldwin said, “[white people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” Meditation is one step toward releasing all of us from the shackles of racism. More work is needed, in the areas of activism, advocacy, and law and policy change. But we can’t attack what we can’t see. Meditation can give us sight, help us develop compassion, create space for insight to emerge, and allow us to sit with the feelings of discomfort that often arise when race and racism are addressed.