Uncovering Your Racial Bias: Mindfulness Practices for Growth and Healing

Mindfulness can help us become aware of the lens through which we see the people around us, giving us more insight into our bias and the opportunity to choose how we act.

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Welcome to the second article of our series on mindfulness for racial healing by Tovi Scruggs-Hussein. You can read the first article of the series here. 

If you have questions please send them to [email protected] and we may include them in a future Q&A article with Tovi’s response.

In my first year as a teacher, I distinctly remember the moment I looked around my classroom on the first day of school, as all teachers do to assess their circumstance, and remember what I told myself about what I saw. There were lots of Brown and Black students, a few White students and one Asian student. I remember thinking, this Asian student’s not gonna need any of my help. He’s gonna be just fine. My body language gave away my thinking as I literally turned my body away from him. I remember looking at the White students and the feeling I had about them was simply neutral, because I knew the system was designed for them, and thought they were also going to be just fine. Then, I looked at my Black and Brown students and thought, Huh, they’re probably going to need more of my attention. 

When I was in school as a young girl, I attended school with lots of White and Asian children, and in all of the classes that I was struggling in, Asian students seemed to do really well. They performed the way I wished I could. I noticed this as it happened throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, and university.  All this led to when I became a teacher and my biases were positive about the Asian students, fairly positive around White students, and negative about my Black and Brown students—accepting the all-too-traditional narrative of Black and Brown students in our schools. Of course, it was help I was more than willing to give them, and that too was a part of my bias. 

We come to understand not only what is happening in our outer landscape, but also our inner landscape, and in the case of bias, they are both important, as we have to illuminate it before we can interrupt it. 

Because of our biases, we often favor our in-group, even if the bias we hold isn’t completely positive. The connection and the socialization of the in-group, in this case, added an extra layer of care. It’s also important to add that the societal narrative fueled my bias so strongly that I had to use self-talk and rationality that acknowledged that I was not any different than my Black high-school students; I was a good student and was college-going. They were too. The traditional narrative caused me to “other” them—all due to bias. So, while bias can work in favor of our in-group, it can also work against our in-group and result in internalized oppression (a recognized understanding in which an oppressed group accepts the methods and incorporates the oppressive message of the oppressing group against their own best interest.)

My conditioning and lived experience through birth and my identity, through my education, through societal conditioning, lent to the bias I held. 

We’re All Biased

We all go through a conditioning process as we grow up and this is where we develop our biases. All humans go through this and anyone who tries to tell you that they don’t have biases hasn’t spent much time learning about them or examining their own beliefs and conditioning through self-exploration. 

A few years after I had this experience with my first classroom of students, after cultivating a mindfulness practice of deep meditation every day, I became fully aware of how the biases I had were not conducive to teaching all students equally. I knew that if this was happening to me, it had to be happening to other teachers, and though it is embarrassing—and even shame-inducing—to think I was unaware of my biases, I now share this story to teach about the power of bias and the impact of these biases when they go unchecked.

3 Facts About Bias

Before we delve into possible ways for working with bias, it’s important to name three facts that tend to come up when we dive into it. 

1. Talking About Bias is Hard

Bias is indeed considered to be a very uncomfortable topic of discussion—so uncomfortable that many of us avoid it as a topic in our personal contemplation. It can be so triggering we don’t even want to let ourselves think privately about it. 

Now, more than ever, we know that this is not only because exploring our own biases can uncover unfortunate truths about our unequal society, but mainly because it can uncover things we don’t want to admit about ourselves. Taking into consideration the level of most people’s discomfort with this kind of personal inquiry, mandatory training can actually result in reversing the work of becoming more culturally aware. Often, people are concerned or fearful about creating division and the possibility of losing relationships for saying “the wrong thing” in a training. As my dear colleague and racial equity consultant Joe Truss says, “Racial-equity work is like trying to defuse a bomb and cutting the wrong wire.” Indeed, we see this happening over and over again in all kinds of spaces, so our awareness that this work is uncomfortable is an important understanding to have and be prepared for. 

2. No One is Exempt From Bias

No one is exempt from deeply rooted personal biases about all kinds of things. We come by them naturally, but we tend to dismiss or minimize their impact. Now is the time to figure out why, and how we might learn more.

3. Bias Is Harmful

Even though we aren’t always conscious of our bias, it still affects our thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs. It informs the way we go about our lives every day and how we treat and engage with others. While most like to say that our bias is implicit and almost always plays out in unintentional ways, I want to offer that while our bias is often implicit, it is harmful just the same. The outcomes of implicit versus explicit bias are the same; the key difference is the intention and the conscious awareness—or lack thereof.  

How Mindfulness Can Help

Mindfulness meditation practices hold many of the keys to our increased understanding of our biases and can offer a pathway to interrupt our bias-based habits that reduces their negative impact. Throughout this process, feelings of guilt and shame may arise. Working to avoid getting stuck in those feelings is essential to help us continue to learn. 

Simply put, illuminating and interrupting implicit bias is a marathon rather than a sprint, it takes buckets of stamina and resilience. Strengthening our understanding of ourselves with the help of meditation can provide a self-compassionate path forward. 

The more we know about present-moment awareness and the power it has to mitigate bias, we understand that it serves as a dual-awareness. We come to understand not only what is happening in our outer landscape, but also our inner landscape, and in the case of bias, they are both important, as we have to illuminate it before we can interrupt it. 

The Neuroscience of Bias

We often aren’t able to actually rid ourselves of biases because it is virtually impossible to erase years of conditioning. Our power lies in interrupting the bias, catching it before we act on it. The bias itself does not create harm. Acting on the bias is what creates harm. 

Because many find this work rigorous and uncomfortable, it’s common for people to simply give up. Learning to control the ways we act on our biases requires the ability to regulate emotions and slow down reactions—two skills that are built by practicing meditation. Here’s how it works in three key areas of the brain:

  • The Amygdala: is the part of the brain wired to protect us from danger. When we perceive a threat, the amygdala releases stress hormones that induce the flight/fright/freeze response, and we are likely to behave reactively, rather than thoughtfully. Neuroscience shows that regular meditation practice may actually shrink the amygdala and that it reduces dramatic reactivity. In short, with regulated nervous systems we are better able to think things through and  come to understanding things we may have not  been able to realize before. 
  • The Insula: This deep internal area of the brain is the center for empathy and compassion According to neuroscience, because of mirror neurons, we can actually increase feelings of love, care, compassion, and empathy by engaging in meditative practices that focus on these emotions. One popular kind of meditation that supports thi