Rhonda Magee on Her Inner Work of Racial Justice

Law professor Rhonda Magee applies her deep meditation practice to the difficult waters of racially-charged interactions.

illustration by Loveis Wise

Talking about race isn’t easy for anyone—and teaching about race can be a minefield. One of my own most difficult moments teaching about race happened when I encountered intentionally provocative behavior from one of my students, Dan, an Asian-American cis-gendered man.

Dan was in his last semester of law school, and this was his third course with me—it was a course on contemporary issues of race and law.

A major component of the course was a research paper and the students each took turns discussing their thoughts on their projects. When we came to Dan, he said, “I want to do a paper on the Rodney King beating.” His likely “thesis,” he announced, was that the beating King received at the hands of police “was deserved.” 

Even as I write this now, I can feel a blip of reactivity. I can see the policemen in that grainy video that we’ve all seen, appearing to let loose with as much force as they could muster on Mr. King, raining strikes with their batons on the head and torso of a man already on the ground beneath them. And I can feel the empathetic pain, sadness, and anger coming up for me as a result. 

So, when Dan made this announcement to our small seminar-style class sitting around an oblong table, I could sense the tense silence that fell across the whole room. And I could feel my mouth go dry with fear and a bit of intimidation. 

I felt my temperature involuntarily rise, the blood seemingly rushing to my head. “This is what anger feels like,” I knew enough to admit to myself silently. And I certainly felt viscerally and immediately the sense of energy of judgmental thoughts arising in my own mind (“You are wrong!”) and indignation (“How dare you?”). This was what confusion, anger, and dismay all mixed up together felt like. And it was what deep concern and compassion for my other students felt like—several of them were black and brown, and had felt the direct impact of nationwide patterns of overpolicing of black men. Finally, on top of all of this, my own ego was on the line—I’d been tasked with facilitating this conversation and guiding it productively, and this moment certainly wasn’t feeling like success.

Navigating Reactivity Around Race

There are times when the best way to handle strong emotion is to give yourself a time-out, to give yourself space to figure out the best way to address a difficult situation. This felt like one of those times. In the throes of reactivity, my first strategy was to notice my distress and to take steps to find my centered self. 

As best I could, I stayed as centered as possible in the full-on experience of reactivity and judgment. 

“Dan, I want to remind you that this is a legal research paper and not an opinion paper,” I said, feeling supported by the structure, in this case, of a law school course and its stated objectives. “So as you think through your topic and thesis, be sure to keep that in mind. 

“And,” I continued, “we should discuss your thinking about this project, and about this particular topic, one-on-one.” 

And so, we did. During the first of several one-on-one conversations with Dan, I invited him to sit down with me and talk this through. We had both enjoyed our interactions over the course of the other two classes he’d taken with me, so in preparation, I did what I could to refocus us both on the positive history between us. After a bit of small talk, I told him I appreciated his interest in this topic. “I am always curious about what draws students into one topic or another,” I said. “What is it that draws you to this particular topic? Has it been an interest of yours for some time?”

In the throes of reactivity, my first strategy was to notice my distress and to take steps to find my centered self.

It didn’t take long for me to uncover a prior, related trauma Dan had experienced. And herein, another lesson: Beneath every aggression or effort to attack is a wounded human being. 

“Well . . . yes,” he said. His voice slowed as his gaze turned inward. “Actually, I tried to write a paper about this a long time ago, and . . . it did not go well. In fact, it was the worst experience I’ve had in school. Ever.” 

Dan told me that years ago, in a class on multiculturalism—the only other class he’d ever had with a black female professor, in fact—he’d sought to make the same argument about Rodney King. According to Dan, that professor had reacted with what felt to him like fury. Flooded with anger, she had shouted him down for what to him had seemed like an eternity. She’d dismissed his proposal and whatever thought or experience went with it in a way that left him shaking and undone. 

Not surprisingly, as a result, he had not written the paper he’d proposed. Instead, he had withdrawn into his own feelings of anger and shame. From that day on, he held something against this teacher, this particular black woman. And, as he came eventually, slowly, to see, maybe all black women.

Sitting with Compassion

Years of sitting and breathing and noticing what arose allowed me to stay present to my own racing heart and fluttering stomach without investing it with a story of what had to be done next. Somehow, despite my original impulse to run away, I remained right there with him, my eyes on him with openness. I maintained awareness of my own breathing, in and out, and feeling the ground beneath my feet and the chair supporting me at my core. I remained grounded, even as I felt my own emotions arise and subside as the words tumbled forth from this student sitting across from me. And I kept coming back, again and again, to the intention of listening to Dan—my student. And listening to him, I began to actually put myself in his shoes. Empathy and compassion naturally opened my heart.

Rhonda Magee
Years of practicing mindfulness, says Rhonda Magee, has “allowed me to stay present to my own racing heart and fluttering stomach without investing it with a story of what had to be done next.”

Here again, my meditation practice helped. Years of simple mindfulness meditation practice—which helps you recognize more readily when you need to take a moment, as well as the STOP practice—which helps you develop the emotional intelligence and psychological flexibility required for greater mastery over the challenging moments when you engage in difficult conversations.

As I listened to Dan, I intentionally sought not only to hear his voice and story, but to listen as deeply as