Mindfulness for Racial Healing

Mindfulness can serve as the foundation for powerful conversations, transformational growth, and self-awareness when it comes to race and racism.

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A note from the Mindful editors:

Welcome to the first article of our series on mindfulness for racial healing by educator, leader, and one of the 2021 Powerful Women of the Mindfulness Movement, Tovi Scruggs-Hussein. 

As the mindfulness community stands at the forefront of helping people everywhere to develop emotional intelligence, compassion, and awareness of both self and others, we hope this series will result in opportunities for reflection, unlearning, and vulnerability to nurture cultural humility and heal. 

We are all affected by the divisiveness that currently defines our socio-political environment. This series is an invitation to explore difficult topics with the love and compassion needed for deep, systemic change. 

Here’s what you can expect:

  • Monthly articles featuring mindfulness-based tools for exploring the topics of race and racism, including: the neuroscience of white fragility, how shame limits our growth and ability to have conversations about race and racism, the nature of bias, and the true harm of what we often call microaggressions.
  • Guided meditations to help you bring insights into practice and then out into the world
  • Reflection prompts that accompany each article so you can integrate the work
  • Monthly Q&A opportunities. Simply send your questions to [email protected] and we may include them in a future Q&A article with Tovi’s response.

How Racism Harms Everyone

Since the May 2020 killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning/awakening that ensued, there’s been no shortage of proposed solutions to the problems of race and racism in the United States. 

My approach takes the long view by centering the emotional nature of our racialized experience that perpetuates systemic racism in our mainstream culture, and calls for comprehensive healing for people of all races. My unique approach to racial healing and my Racial Healing Allies program, as it exists today, was born almost two decades ago.

At the beginning of my nearly 30 years of transformational leadership, encouraging and empowering positive change in schools throughout California, I developed a robust meditation practice. Over time, I wrestled with making the bold assertion that even the members of the dominant culture suffer when our institutions and systems operate so inequitably based on race. At our core, we thrive in states of connection to both self and others. We are born in a state of open-connection to others, free of the -isms that we come to learn. As we grow in socialized constructs such as race, we are taught to create disconnection, even when the disconnection does not serve us.

At our core, we thrive in states of connection to both self and others.

Let me use education as an example. Our educational system in the U.S has a teaching demographic that is approximately 80% white, middle-class and the students are often over 50% non-middle class and non-white. There is a high rate of under-performance in academics by non-white students that has been documented for over half a century. Looking at this data, and the structure of the school system, we can see that students consistently change classrooms from year-to-year as they progress through the education system, while the teachers remain in their same jobs for decades, and the disparity between the demographic makeup of the two groups has stayed the same. The underperformance of non-white students is consistent throughout decades of data captured and reflects a cultural-disconnect, rooted in cultural and racial bias.

When we shift our perspective on the data to focus on the teachers, instead of the students, we see that it’s more likely that white teachers are underprepared for teaching demographic groups that are different from them. Further research shows that many white teachers are showing up to teach with unexamined racial biases, which in turn leads to misunderstanding and lower expectations of their non-white students. This disconnect is a likely cause of non-white students in the US school system underperforming on tests. All of this leads us to ask the question: If teachers’ education included examining and dismantling their biases and training for teaching young people who come from different backgrounds and life experiences from them, would we see better results? Probably so.

Please know there’s nothing wrong with the fact that our country’s teaching core is mostly white, middle-class women; what’s wrong is that we tend to look at achievement data from a lens directed at the student rather than the adult. The adult is the consistent variable for the last five decades, not the students (they change from year to year while the data does not).

If adults—in any sector—particularly from the dominant culture, engaged in racial healing work and cultural-responsiveness, there would be a foundation of learning and understanding regarding a bridge of cultural connection rather than disconnection.

So, as we explore this beyond education and apply it to all of us in every sector, how does this relate to the dominant culture also being harmed by racism? The dominant culture may be loving, caring, and service-oriented, yet their well-intentioned efforts are yielding dismal results. For teachers, this can result in feelings of futility and low self-worth. These feelings of futility correlate to poor job satisfaction and feelings of low-esteem. At the same time, these same feelings are felt by the students who are being under-served. If adults—in any sector—particularly from the dominant culture, engaged in racial healing work and cultural-responsiveness, there would be a foundation of learning and understanding regarding a bridge of cultural connection rather than disconnection. This bridge of connection would lead to greater outcomes for all involved.

6 Key Elements of Racial Healing

1. Meditation Practice

We know deep racial healing work requires settled minds and bodies. Meditation helps us settle and improves our ability to acknowledge and work with the discomfort of difficult emotions. Meditation actually activates parts of our physiology and neurobiology that facilitate long-term habit change for sustainable growth.

2. BE-ing Before DO-ing

We focus on be-ing before do-ing. In other words, center the “why and how” before the “what and when.” Every one of us can create meaningful, sustainable change when we approach healing from the inside-out. It’s imperative to “go slow to go fast.” It takes time, intention, and effort to learn new and un-learn old ways of being. This learning process requires us to surrender what we think we know in order to form a new awareness about race and racism in our own lives. It asks us to examine our personal biases and face some uncomfortable truths.

This connection, in truth, is a re-connection. Racism can only exist and thrive in an environment of disconnection.

It’s important to understand the transformational nature of this approach as it relates to our common humanity. Transformation requires time and a willingness to change, even when it is uncomfortable. And racial healing work is uncomfortable. This approach cultivates and enhances our racial stamina—our ability to work the muscle of discomfort to stay leaned-in, present, and engaged in difficult conversations and reflections about race—and our roles and contributions to systemic racism. This leads to greater connection to self (first) and greater connection to others (second). Our self-transformation facilitates relational and then systemic transformation. This connection, in truth, is a re-connection. Racism can only exist and thrive in an environment of disconnection. Systemic oppression in all its forms relies on disconnection to exist. My approach is grounded in outcomes to shift ways of BE-ing, so that over time, we become ready to take actionable steps (DO-ing) to heal our racially chaotic world. We don’t “do” first, we “be” first.

3. The Problem is Systemic

Racism is a systemic problem, and racial healing must happen systemically. This requires us to explore how racism operates through each of us, both individually and collectively, at all levels of our society. Deep self-awareness comes from recognizing the systemic parts of racism we’ve contributed to. When this happens, we’re often engulfed in powerful new waves of compassion that can help us intuitively recognize shifts we can be a part of in our own micro-systems. 

4. Healing Happens Together

Learning often looks very different across racial groups, but my team and I have seen that growth is accelerated when people of all races learn the importance of coming together to heal. This may come with the experience of discomfort and sometimes dissonance, but opening ourselves up to these opportunities are critical to increase racial stamina and our ability to manage the physiology of complex emotions and discomfort. We develop the strength to refrain from alienation, agree not to vilify any group of people, and work with compassion and non-judgement as non-negotiable principles of everything we do. Of course, affinity spaces also have great value and are aligned to compliment the work of inclusive, mixed-race spaces for added depth and support in racial healing. 

5. Acknowledge Trauma and Take Care

Parts of this work, especially for BIPOC, can be re-traumatizing in the context of an already traumatizing experience in the world. For white people, the experience can be deeply uncomfortable as they awaken to the depth of the disconnection they’ve orchestrated—often unconsciously throughout their lives—and that this disconnection has been systematically intentional (even at their own expense).

Racism has become a double-edged sword for our society. Acknowledging the trauma, along with providing healing strategies (inclusive of meditation) is part of what makes these racial healing spaces so powerful. For instance, you may engage in the sacred pause of a deep breath to recalibrate your connection to the present-moment. Another supportive healing strategy is journaling, bringing awareness to processing your feelings. Being mindful to rest and slow down, giving yourself space to work through whatever is arising can help us take care of ourselves while maintaining our capacity to keep going.

6. Compassion and Self-Compassion

Compassion and self-compassion are necessary skills for unlearning systemic racism and cultivating the ability to lead with love. As we engage in the rigorous and often challenging work of racial healing, we stay rooted to the intention to alleviate suffering for all people and ourselves, staying rooted and connected to love for common, shared humanity.

The intentionality of leading with love helps us to stay loving with ourselves and others in hard moments and is, itself, an antidote to the suffering of disconnection generated by racism. Further, anchoring to compassion and self-compassion supports us to not shrink away from our values, to be certain to keep healthy boundaries, and stay courageous with feedback and say what needs to be said in the often difficult conversations and interactions in racial healing work. 

It’s important for me to explicitly state that I visioned and embarked upon the work of racial healing in mixed-race spaces on behalf of children in our educational system, and on behalf of those we collectively serve, whether it be ourselves or others. My firmly held belief is that thro