Why We Need Reflection Now More than Ever: A Path to Ending Racism, Discrimination and All Acts of Hatred
Racism is real.
Whether implicit or explicit, unconscious or conscious.
It is real.
In 2016 at the Mind of Life Institute’s International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in San Diego, California, fellow attendees and I were blessed with the passion and insight from one of the most brilliant minds in the greater mindfulness community: Rhonda Magee. Sharing her life’s work within the field of social justice, Rhonda brought to light some of the emerging literature behind the power of meditation to counteract some of the damaging effects of our unspoken implicit biases.
Some people argue that implicit biases are not real, not conscious, and as such, are simply artifacts of statistical manipulation from artificially designed studies.
Some people, on the other hand, have spent their entire lives studying these prejudices and argue that such unconscious biases and processes are at the root of nearly all our decisions, actions and speech.
I cannot tell you what is true and am not here to argue one theory over another. I am simply here to hold an open space, and acknowledge that is it possible and indeed more likely that most of what we think, do and say is a manifestation of processes of which we have no conscious awareness.
When I left San Diego in late 2016, I was inspired to bring some of these ideas back to my supportive community in Charlottesville, Virginia. In partnership with my mentors and colleagues with the University of Virginia School of Nursing’s Compassionate Care Initiative, I sought to expand upon an individualized mindfulness program for nursing and medical students and include as a part of the study, specific measures of burnout, perceived stress, self compassion, and implicit bias. In the end, however, we determined that it wouldn’t be feasible to include measures of implicit bias as part of the pilot program. And while we wouldn’t be able to study the fascinating phenomenon of implicit bias in health science students, implicit bias and specifically racial bias would not leave my life alone.
In early December 2016, amidst the final preparations of the initial pilot study, I stumbled across the person that would change my understanding of bias and racism forever.
Now to be honest, this actually wasn’t the first time I had met this courageous individual, nor was it the first time thinking that it would be a good idea to start a conversation with this person.
It was, however, in a mysterious and nearly indescribable way, the first time I found myself walking with a stranger I so deeply wanted to understand, to cherish, and to love.
From the reasons behind her multi-colored highlighters to the passion behind her inviting apartment zoo, I wanted to listen, to hear, to know the story of the most beautiful human being I will ever know.
I should be honest as well to tell you that this person did not look like me.
My skin was light
Her skin was dark.
And to some, that made all the difference.
Over the next few months we found ourselves at the end of more awkward moments and stares than I had previously experienced.
But I had no idea.
Through some of the most randomly beautiful experiences, my love for her and my curiosity to discover the passion behind her greater why exploded.
But my curiosity and love did not take me everywhere my present soul needed me to go.
For you see, I was curious enough to ask her on a date, I was creative enough to write her pages and pages of poems, I was courageous enough to even ask her to marry me, but I didn’t know that the space I was seeking to hold for her flourishing was not enough, not even close.
I thought I was inviting, inquisitive and insightful. I thought I was open, compassionate and aware.
But never once did I realize that my listening was not enough, that my encouragement was not enough, that my caring was not enough.
What I needed to do was ask. To ask her how exactly had she been hurt by judgment, how had she been targeted, how she had been judged for the color of her skin and lack of a Y chromosome. I needed to ask how she had suffered. I needed to ask if she wanted to let out every last little detail of the hatred implicit or explicit that she had endured. I needed to tell her that she was not crazy, that she was not paranoid, that she was not delusional when it came to understanding the intent of the hate of which she had been subjected. I needed to ask her how she wished to release this suffering, how I could allow her to no longer remain silent and accepting, I needed to ask her how I could try to protect her from this cowardly hate and seek to rid this world of its destruction.
There was a lot I needed to do.
I didn’t realize any of this until she found the courage to tell me. I didn’t realize any of this until she found the strength to speak between drips of flowing tears as we sat in the dark of the Belizean jungle inside of a cabin in which she wanted absolutely no part.
I simply didn’t know and I had absolutely no excuse.
All of this “not realizing,” “not knowing,” “not asking” coming from a man who walked the streets of Charlottesville on August 16th 2017, who wrote so passionately about his desire to nonviolently protest and pray for the end of this hatred, this from a man with a bisexual “adopted sister” and a transgender colleague and friend. This from a man whose three closest medical school classmates looked nothing like he and this from a man with a black homosexual friend he called his second father.
This man thought he was loving, mindful, accepting, compassionate and understanding.
This man was surrounded by more love than he could have ever imagined, but sadly he was surrounded by more acts of intolerance and hate than he could have imagined too.
I use the terms above not as labels, but as the simplest means (from commonly used language) to articulate the wonderful diversity in my life.
Some people may find what I have said above false or offensive saying I am making assumptions that my friends of different racial and ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation and gender identity have been judged and treated with disrespect or worse, with pure hatred.
You may be right, but something tells me that, the assumption that they have been judged, targeted and hurt is MUCH MORE likely than the assumption that they haven’t and by not asking, not holding space for the telling of such potential acts on their own terms, I would be doing them a greater injustice.
I will never know what is it like to be a black female treated as if she doesn’t exist, an adopted bisexual woman shunned by her Catholic family, a homosexual black male in beautiful partnership with a white man 13 years his younger.
I simply cannot know.
But this shouldn’t stop me from being curious to the death. This shouldn’t stop me from asking the questions I never realized I most desperately needed to ask.
Holding space I have discovered, is simply not enough.
We must ask, we must listen and we must act.
We must practice, we must sit and we must stand.
We, as a greater community of mindfulness teachers, leaders and students are not here to study compassion, mindfulness, or meditation to prove to others that these practices reduce stress, prevent burnout, or make better human beings.
We are not here to study these practices to validate for ourselves that they can increase self-compassion, improve state awareness, or make more mindful students.
We study these disciplines to prove to the world just how little we understand and how much farther we are from creating nations governed by compassion and not fear, founding schools for flourishing and not creative annihilation, cultivating communities grown for nourishment and love and not marginalization.
Self-Compassion is not a concept, a primary outcome or goal of meditation.
Meditation is not a means for simply becoming more mindful.
Yoga is not a way for you to suddenly touch the floor.
These practices, or should I say ways of exploring the world, are just a small sampling of the journeys we can take to truly create a place in which discrimination, hate and fear no longer run our world.
I have always been a hopeful and optimistic person, and have been on occasion accused of being too naïve when it comes to my hopes as a doctor and human being to foster a world free of suffering or at the very least, a world of empowered people able to transform suffering from the mud into a flowering lotus.
But I’m not okay with just being hopeful.
Hopeful didn’t get me to ask the right questions.
I’m here now to be helpful and I need your help.
We need everyone’s help.
There are still so many questions I cannot yet fathom of asking, so many things I still do not understand, I have no good answers, no magic solutions, and no perfect pills.
But perfection is not the enemy of good you see.
So I ask you one final question.
One last plea from a man with no good answers.
With no money, no formal training and seemingly no time, what would you do to support the wellbeing of your community?
What would you do to give voice to the hurting, what would you do share compassion with the world, what would you do to make reflection come from someplace other than just a mirror, what would you do to eradicate racism from this planet?
It’s about time we start asking these questions and living the answers like we never have before.