The Inner Work of Racial Justice
In her book The Inner Work of Racial Justice, Rhonda V. Magee writes: “the temptation to feel we are somehow so evolved that we don’t need to examine race in our lives—a form of what Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood called ‘spiritual bypassing’—is just one of the many ways that we avoid the pain and personal challenge of dealing with the racism that we know exists.”
At the end of 2019, a couple of months after her book came out, Magee, who is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, joined us at our summit in the Bay Area. Magee is trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, and she’s a facilitator of trauma-sensitive, restorative MBSR interventions, known in part for her work on minimizing the effects of social-identity-based bias. (We recorded her conversation with our chief content officer, so you can learn more about Magee’s story on The goop Podcast.)
The first part of Magee’s book guides you (however you identify or don’t) in examining how race and racism shape you. She calls a set of strategies that she developed ColorInsight, which includes embodied mindfulness and compassion practices both for being with yourself and your own Race Story, and for making space to listen to and hold the experiences of others. Magee gave us permission to excerpt a poignant chapter that outlines the work of ColorInsight.
We Begin with Ourselves
If we want to be a part of the ongoing awakening, if we want to stem the rising tide of division in our time (of which racism is just one part, albeit a central one), we have some choices to make, choices of great consequence. We can go through our lives holding on to notions of race that we were taught or adopted at some point in the past, and we can passively receive the messages about race and racism that pervade our culture—that it’s just the way it is, or part of the biological, natural way of human life in a world of scarce resources. Or perhaps we can seek to be “colorblind.” We may want to believe that we have transcended the need to be a part of race conversations. But beware: the temptation to feel we are somehow so evolved that we don’t need to examine race in our lives—a form of what Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood called “spiritual bypassing”—is just one of the many ways that we avoid the pain and personal challenge of dealing with the racism that we know exists.
The work of ColorInsight, however, calls you to do something different. It supports you in looking at race and racism as perhaps you have never done before, whatever your background or experience. It supports you in rejecting the temptation to normalize racism, or to bypass it, and instead helps you find ways to stay in the complex struggle for multiracial, democratic justice—in courageous fellowship with others. The practices and reflections in this book will show you how. Together we will look at race in our lives with an ongoing, personal commitment to dissolving racism and its spirit-killing material consequences, when and where it arises, in all its forms. To do so, you will be challenged to really examine your beliefs, conditionings, and behavior. You will think and act differently in ways that will lessen racism’s many impacts on you and on others.
“It supports you in rejecting the temptation to normalize racism, or to bypass it, and instead helps you find ways to stay in the complex struggle for multiracial, democratic justice—in courageous fellowship with others.”
By introducing teachings and practices focused on increasing your understanding of your own deep, subtle experiences with race in your life—and helping you develop the capacity to stay with the complexities they present—this book will help you deepen your ability to create and to maintain deep, rich, and diverse communities.
And Yet, It’s Not Personal
When we explore the original teachings on mindfulness deeply, we see that the awareness it supports has personal, interpersonal, and communal systemic implications. It’s an awareness that supports you in waking up to the many facets of your life in the world.
Indeed, as the historical Buddha reportedly taught, mindful friendship, staying in relationship and good fellowship with practitioners in human community, was not “half of the holy life.” It was all of it.
Actions aimed at alleviating suffering—working to distribute resources in the direction of fairness and increasing well-being for all—help heal the world. Taking such action is a form of justice itself. Thus, if we really hope to gain the true benefit of mindfulness practice, we must start by seeing it as a very personal practice whose benefits we realize in how we relate to and engage with others—including those we are tempted to view as less worthy because of the deep teachings of racism. Mindfulness practices help us to deconstruct the racialized identities we have constructed, and the racism that these identities were created to uphold. They can help us to live in the freedom that comes with the awareness of the possibilities inherent in our common humanity.
“We are working to disrupt, deconstruct, and break open patterns that make normal and ‘okay’ the suffering of people at the margins of our lives.”
As by now you have no doubt come to see, this work is not for the faint of heart. We are working to heal ourselves. We are working to disrupt, deconstruct, and break open patterns that make normal and “okay” the suffering of people at the margins of our lives. We are working to build a new world—one that actually inclines toward the liberation of all, not toward our greater but more subtle enslavement. And because all that we do is subject to change and is impermanent, we are seeking to develop the capacity to do what we can with a lightness that keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously and, at the same time, illuminates the dire necessity of continuing to do our loving best even in the face of some defeat. Let’s get to work.
Waking Up to Racism and Its Temptations
In the United States, there has been a resurgence of explicit bias and racism strong enough to make our concerns with understanding and ferreting out implicit bias look positively naïve. Racism and colorism, in forms both implicit and explicit, along with additional forms of Othering and disrespecting people who are “not our kind,” exist in many parts, if not virtually every part, of the world.
What if this difficult time, this moment in which we seem more racially and culturally divided than ever, signifies not the beginning of the end but a profound opportunity for a new beginning? What if we now have a new chance to get it right? What if this time in which we can all see more clearly than ever how easily we can be divided by appeals to racism is just what we need to help us work for racial healing in ways that we never have had before?
We can no longer deny that race matters. We can no longer believe that racism is a thing of the past. Given this, if we want a just world, we have to engage in efforts to lessen the harms of racism occurring in our workplaces and communities every day of our lives. What can we do? How can we work with others toward truly inclusive, racially just democracy?
Once we have recognized that, indeed, racism is a problem in our midst, we can turn toward the work of looking deeply at its roots. We can see what wisdom teaches us about how to solve at least some aspects of the problem, those rooted in our own minds and ways of being with others. And we can set ourselves on a lifelong journey toward working to recreate structures, redress wrongs, and begin real healing—starting with ourselves and extending to others.
“Thus, to end racism, we must change. And from that place, we must change the world around us.”
The journey of racial justice is multidimensional. One dimension of that journey may be thought of as an outward one. We consider and reflect on how race and racism operate today, noting its similarities and differences from the past. We look at how notions of race have shaped virtually all aspects of the contemporary world—our brains, our perceptions, our thoughts, our interactions, and our communities—and we work with these notions through teachings and practices. We grapple with the legacies of race-making in our culture, including the structural and institutional racism that we have inherited over time. We adopt practices and policies that have been shown to decrease bias in our lives and communities. We take this outward journey into the world with a commitment to understanding race and racism as never before, and to helping to redeem the wrongs of the past through our healing actions today.
The outward journey is essential. To work on ending racism for good, we must see and come to terms with how deeply racism is embedded in our culture and in the social practices that make up how we live and work. And we must see how our own experiences and our responsibility to make the world a better place are tied to the experiences of the generations that have come before and set us on the road to redeeming the future for our children and theirs. Thus, to end racism, we must change. And from that place, we must change the world around us.
To paraphrase the novelist William Faulkner, the past is not dead. Indeed, it’s not even past. Somewhat similarly, James Baldwin reminded us that to change absolutely anything, we must first have the courage to face it. We must face the fact that racism is essential to the culture we have inherited and are subtly recreating each day. It has shaped our communities and life opportunities in ways that we can no longer ignore. We have to face these facts if we ever hope to change them. We must commit to doing the ongoing work of learning about, repairing, and redeeming the wounds still festering from our histories and the harms we have collectively done to those marked as Others.
Doing so requires that we commit to truly understanding those harms. We must work to repair and heal from them ourselves. And we must pass what we know on to our children. We must commit to projects of racial justice that change the structures by which racism maintains its footprint in the world. The specific work of the outward journey will look different for each of us, based on our own particular life experiences and positions within social structures. But we each have work to do.
To do this work involves a second dimension of practice, learning, and growth—an inward journey or commitment to ongoing personal awakening. We must awaken to the ways that race and racism have shaped our own brains, our ways of being in the world, and our hopes for the work we might do together.
“We live in a culture in which we have lost touch with the richness of our true human inheritance and with the imperative that we honor it.”
Much in the contemporary world recreates and sustains racism. It does so by teaching us to look out for ourselves and “our own kind” first, last, and always; to think little of the injustice and pain that others face; and to think mostly of (but not be in) the present and perhaps the future, but little of the past. We are given to believe that we are all lacking much in a world of great scarcity. We must do more, dominant culture tells us, to earn more; and, to fight for more of our share of a shrinking pie. We live in a culture in which we have lost touch with the richness of our true human inheritance and with the imperative that we honor it.
Through the Doorway of Shared Human Inheritance
Take a few moments to reflect on what you view as some of the many positive aspects of our shared human inheritance. Consider anything from language, to the capacity to cultivate and share the foods we eat, to music, and to the various ways we have learned to thrive.
What are some of the things that human beings have passed down through the ages that you value most?
What have you been given as a result?
What more are you willing to give back?
Now allow this inquiry to dissolve, and as you do so, let your awareness expand. Drop into the silence and let go of the sense of yourself, your efforts. Allow your sense of self to soften. As you breathe in and out, imagine your human life story as a river, flowing into the ocean of humanity, all a part of the more than human world. Rest in the ocean of awareness, and all of its powerful possibilities from here.
From The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda V. Magee, published by TarcherPerigee, an Imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2019 by Rhonda Varette Magee
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