Mindfulness and Anti-Racism

Jul 13, 2020Uncategorized0 comments

Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. 

—Thich Nhat Hanh

Like many of us lately, I’ve been engaged in conversation with family, friends and colleagues about racial equality and my own path toward understanding and dismantling my white privilege in a more intentional way. One of my favorite teachers on this journey is my daughter Callan Quiram, MA, and EdD candidate studying Educational Equity. Recently we were exploring the issue of performance allyship which led into a reflection on the need for cultivating awareness of our own internal experience in order to put anti-racist learnings into action. Bringing awareness to our thoughts, feelings, reactions and actions is supported by mindfulness skills. As Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches, learning how to “observe in ourselves the toxicity of certain beliefs, thought patterns and behaviors as they arise in the moment” allows us to do the work to “lessen their hold on us”. How can mindfulness help us lessen the hold racism and privilege have on us? Here are just a few reflections from our conversation:

ML: How do I know if I’ve been engaging in performance allyship?

CQ: In my doctoral program, we’re studying the book by Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist, and in our group we talked about how there was this piece of it that felt like a check list item. We felt concern that white people might read it and say “Ah yes, I’ve read the book and now I am an anti-racist” without having to take any action. And at the same time my friend shared a post on social media about performative allyship that said that there’s a difference between learning about equity, learning about racism as a system and learning about our place in it as an ally versus using what you learn as an exercise in self-improvement. That spoke to me very clearly about performative allyship. If you find yourself wanting to do something in order to feel better about YOURSELF, that’s the performative piece. So, if you ask yourself why am I doing this work… is it because I feel guilty because I recognize my place in the system and I don’t know what to do about it? In other words, is the process of examining my biases in the work of anti-racism about ME or is it ultimately about understanding people who experience racism? And I think that’s the hard part for me and for us white people because I think it’s actually really, really, really, really hard NOT to make it about us. 

ML: This makes me think of mindfulness, because what you’re saying is that we, white people, need to build our awareness of our internal experience to really engage in this process in an authentic way. In a way that makes actual change and not, as you described, just checking it off the to-do list. Dr. Kendi wrote “Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” The kind of awareness he is talking about requires some sort of supportive practice in order to go there. Mindfulness practices help build that muscle of awareness. 

CQ: Yes, you have to have an awareness… you have to be willing to be open to the awareness that you are participating in racism in a certain way. You have to be willing to see and hear people and I think that practice of seeing and hearing others is not something we do in white communities very frequently and it’s something that takes a lot of skill and practice and this is probably where mindfulness practices would help. I think a lot of whiteness is tied up with narcissism because we’re used to being the center of everything. I do have to constantly ask myself in conversations… where is this feeling, this reaction I’m having coming from? I am a white woman of privilege and this privilege is part of who I am so I have to pause and question why I have a reaction and then do something with it. I’m constantly examining my ideas of how things SHOULD be done. Where does that come from? Why do I think that? What can I learn from hearing the other person’s perspective and allowing myself to be open to what they say?

ML: So how have you been learning how to develop this skill of increasing your awareness of your own experience so you CAN hear and see others?

CQ: Great question. My process has been marked by sadness and anger and all of these very difficult feelings like shame. The piece that pushed me to action is that integrity is very important to me… I want to be the person that I say that I am. I have decided that I am someone who isn’t racist so I have to learn what it means to not be racist and I have to DO those things. Right? Like it’s not enough for me to think that I am somebody, I have to BE the person that I think I am and I can only be that person when I take action. 

ML: How do you soothe your sadness, anger and shame in order to have hard conversations with fellow white people? 

CQ: I had an incident with two black students a few years ago who called me on something I did that was racist and I had a panic…because, of course, I did not see myself as capable of being racist. That realization was painful. I wasn’t able to self-soothe in that moment unfortunately but I look back on that experience all the time and I continue to learn from that failure. It helps me stay committed and aware. Now I’m much more careful even though I still have that feeling of “oh my gosh, I don’t know what to do”. But I’ve spent so much time reflecting on what’s important to me that it’s become more natural for me to check myself. I try to pause, notice that I’ve reacted to something, take a deep breath, or many, and then work to hear the other person’s truth, respect what it is, and also bring up that other realities might also be true. I think it’s important to come back to the human connection. Always.

Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that “Mindfulness practice provides an opportunity to walk along the path of your own life with your eyes open, awake instead of half conscious, responding consciously in the world instead of reacting automatically, mindlessly”. Mindfulness practice also fosters an attitude of kindness and compassion for ourselves and our experience which, in turn, generates greater kindness and compassion for others. This is the key to taking authentic action toward dismantling racism in ourselves and our communities. 

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Callan is a Colorado native and is currently the Director of Pre-K at Rocky Mountain Prep at charter school within the Denver Public School system. Callan has taught PK, 1st, and 5th grades and has also lived in Washington D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia. Most recently, she worked with Denver Public Schools’ Early Education department as a preschool program coordinator, where she set and implemented vision for PK, coached and supported teachers and school leaders, and organized preschool systems and compliance. Callan is working on her doctorate in Education in Educational Equity at the University of Colorado, Denver campus and is committed to crafting and implementing policies that create equitable access to all students. She lives in Broomfield with her husband Jeremiah and their 2 dogs and 2 cats.