How to not be an anti-racist asshole: Mindfulness and Racial Progress

December 21, 2021

There are a lot of well-meaning people who’s well-meaning actions just make things worse. I’ve  certainly been one of those people. Portland is filled with self-proclaimed anti-racists who believe that by smashing windows and setting trashcans on fire, they are somehow making black lives matter. Have they bothered even asking any of these black lives if this is a good strategy? The people of color that I’ve talked to see is it as purely white performance. Now working on policies that help people of color buy homes and operate local businesses, that helps. A lot.

My challenge to anti-racist activists, of which I am one, is to take a break from chasing down neo-Nazis and Proud Boys, and take a look in the mirror. Until we start on the long process to undo our own internalized white supremacy, we will be blind to the racial trauma we cause while we’re chanting “Black lives matter!” There is a simple sociological formula that goes like this:

Racist socialization

Internalized white supremacy

Implicit bias

Micro-aggression

= Trauma

In 2021, still, we all learn various versions of “white is normal and better” lessons. That seeps into our subconscious where it lives as implicit bias and then emerges as micro-aggresions (a clutched purse, an off-handed comment, a joke that shouldn’t have been told). And that small thing lands as another wounding message to people of color that they are still not full members in this society. And the endless barrage of those “micro-assaults” become cumulative trauma. And that’s why BIPOC folks were in the streets in 2020, because enough was enough.

As I’ve written in this blog, 2021 has provided a great opportunity to move inwards from the barricades as Delta, and now Omicron, send us back into our shelters. Mindfulness and meditation give us strategies to interrupt our hard-learned tendencies to act in racist ways, even while we lecture others against their racism. I had a great week training with the Center for Equity and Inclusion here and Portland and consumed Mindful of Race by Ruth King. Both had huge impacts on how I move through the world as a white person.

King, a Buddhist woman of color, offers useful strategies to manage those situations that can cause racial distress. It could be finding yourself in an uncomfortable conversation with a Trump-loving uncle who wants to make America white again, or, on the other side, those white fragility moments when a person of color is taking apart your liberalness as just a vacant act of wokeness. One of her mindfulness strategies, that goes by the acronym “RAIN,” has been helpful for me in not only navigating my racial interactions, but also being more present in my relationship with my wife. It works like this:

The “R” stands for recognize. A big part mindfulness is paying attention to our emotional states as things to be observed. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, where is it? Is it a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach or an angry tension in the middle of your forehead. Recognize it. “There’s that feeling. Hello again. I see you there.”

A is for allow. Buddhists teach us that everything is temporary, especially our emotions. Instead of letting them control us, let them float past, like a cloud. Accepting impermanence (“anitya” in Sanskrit) allows us to not, as U2 once perfectly sang, get stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. So in those racially tense moments, we can see it and then remind ourselves that they will be in the rearview mirror shortly, so hold off on any emotionally driven impulses (including micro-aggressions).

I is for Investigate. Mindfulness teaches us to be curious about our thoughts. Where did this discomfort come from? Could it be projection, or due to a lack of true reflection? Could it be rooted in mis-learned lessons from our childhood? Maybe it’s those implicit biases we all hold.

And finally, the “N” is for nurture. What do you need right now to pass through this moment without adding to the racial harm? And what do others need to address their harm? It could be developing a strategy to address a problematic policy or person, or it could be a hug and a short walk around the block to calm down.

At the root of King’s teaching is kindness. Kindness to ourselves and to those traumatized by racism, and, yes, kindness to those who perpetrate racism in the world. They, like us and as us, are products of this racist society and capable of becoming forces for racial healing themselves. The Buddhist principles of racial mindfulness might be a tough sell to a black clad 20-year-old who thinks vandalizing a police station somehow helps black people, but that 20-year-old has the capacity for personal transformation and the ability to participate in stopping the harm so there can be true racial healing.