“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

–Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]

I am not a political scientist or an expert on race. I am a curious person and committed to living mindfully. To me mindfulness means living an examined life and looking for positive ways to make this world a better place for all beings. We are interconnected as Martin Luther King, Jr. and many wise leaders continue to remind us. What affects people in a different part of the world, sooner or later, is going to affect us. Unfortunately, we awaken to this reality only when we or our loved ones are affected. And when this happens it is easy to be blindsided by our emotions and biases.

This post is an outcome of a reflection on what I have been seeing in popular media and social media. Emotions are running high, and justifiably so, at the extreme views of some people with a racist agenda. However, I wonder if the media is choosing to cover what is sensational like the Vice Documentary that went viral featuring Christopher Cantwell. Why is he being given so much importance? He has been rejected from many libertarian parties because of his extreme views, has a criminal past, and history of substance abuse. Why does the media not speak to the common people who are aggrieved and voted for Trump but don’t have extreme views like those of Cantwell? Why are most conversations on social media focusing on the differences and why are we not discussing how to address the systemic issues that create these differences?

I want to acknowledge the thousands of people coming out in rallies to show their solidarity and rejection of all fascist ideologies. And while we show up in peace walks and make our voices heard via online petitions, what are positive ways to change the conversations we are having to be more inclusive, understanding, and skillful as we search for solutions?

I set out to do some search on my own about what is happening out there and what might be some ways to address the systemic issues related to race and identity pervading our society. I have documented some research that I found to be hopeful in addressing issues of race in a more thoughtful way. I am starting to create a list of creative ways in which people and organizations are bringing change in their communities. I hope this post inspires you to contemplate on this issue more deeply and share your insights and ideas.

Before I get to the research that I am excited about, please take a moment to reflect on this question:

Think back to a time when someone lashed out at you for a belief you held. The words attacked your sense of identity and core beliefs – that you are a good person, competent, and worthy of being loved. How did you respond? Were you able to really listen, see the other person’s perspective, let alone admit any wrongdoing and be willing to change?

For most of us in such situations we close down and become defensive. It is a human instinct to defend our identity even when we are wrong. According to self-affirmation theory in social psychology, the goal of the self-system is to maintain and protect a positive sense of self (Sherman & Cohen 2006). People are vested in the belief that they are good, virtuous, and morally adequate. We know from research that when our self-integrity is threatened, a common way to deal with it is by becoming defensive. Defensive mechanisms include dismissing, denying, or avoiding the threat or altering the interpretation of the event in a way that justifies our beliefs and actions. When people are defensive they are not open to learning. And often defensive responses are automatic and unconscious in nature.

Turning more specifically to the topic of racism, no one wants to appear prejudiced against oppressed groups. The very idea of being prejudiced could be threatening to self-integrity. Studies suggest that majority group members defensively deny their racist views and behaviors in order to protect their self-esteem (Sherman & Cohen 2006).

Further, if people who believe that they have good moral values (like most people) are exposed to negative propaganda against a minority group, they feel justified in acting in ways that would otherwise be considered prejudiced against the minority. For example, Sherman and Cohen (2006) cite a study that demonstrated that students who were given feedback that they scored higher on moral development tests and later exposed to negative propaganda against foreign students, the morally affirmed students were more likely to be swayed by the negative propaganda. They were more likely to endorse punitive and ‘‘proto‐genocidal’’ policies for dealing with the ‘‘foreign graduate student problem” and even became favorable to the proposal to banish all foreign students from attending American universities. Such studies demonstrate that people in power can use messaging to boost the moral identities of people and then feed them with fear-based messaging against certain groups to serve their personal agendas. It is the deep rooted corruption and individualistic agendas of people in power that are more to blame than people who are vulnerable to such messaging.

Anti-Racist Actions: What’s Not Working and Why

Now that we have a little more understanding about how our minds work, what might be the most effective ways to change racist attitudes? What we know is that calling people racists is NOT the way to change their racial bias. More specifically, despite our best intentions, there are two mistakes we are making in our approach to change racial prejudices.

  1. Naming and shaming: In the social media culture we are calling out racists and shaming them in public. At the peace rallies against racism, many liberal activists are screaming and yelling at those they perceive to be on the other side. This as we know is threatening to the identities of the very people we want to change, making them defensive, and incapable of listening or change. It is tempting to label the conservative, Trump followers as narrow-minded and intolerant. And aren’t we exhibiting the same intolerant qualities when we scream at them without trying to understand them?
  2. Clumping different groups as white supremacists: The second mistake we are making is clumping the different conservative groups into a single social identity – white supremacists.

Ashley Jardina, assistant professor at Duke University, clarifies that the vast majority of these white Americans do not align themselves with groups like KKK or new-Nazis and are unfamiliar with newer groups like the alt-right. “White identifiers” are an aggrieved group who believe that American government and society owes them a better chance in life than they currently have. Before we jump to rationally disputing the legitimacy of their beliefs, let’s take a breath here. This is how millions of people in America feel and it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong. If we are to get people to work together to make America a better place for everyone, we will need to suspend our judgments and invite more awareness, compassion, and curiosity in our conversations and understanding of the complex issues related to race and identity.

Before we seek out solutions to end racist behaviors, we need to know the causes underlying such behaviors. We need to understand the perspectives of the people holding these behaviors. I understand and support the immediatel actions to stop extremists groups such as members of the KKK and neo-Nazis. But for the rest of white Americans who feel judged and are fighting for a better life for themselves and their children, we need to open our minds and hearts to actively engage with them. And there is research to show this works.

Changing Racist Views: A Mindful Approach Supported by Research

Calling a racist a racist is not going to work. So what is? Research says empathy, deep listening, and curiosity. In a study involving 500 voters in South Florida, Broockman & Kalla (2016) facilitated non-confrontational conversations in which voters put themselves in the shoes of transgender people. This perspective shifting activity changed their attitudes to become supportive of laws that protect trans people from discrimination and changes were confirmed to be upheld three months later (Broockman & Kalla 2016). Researchers believe this approach can work to change other social biases such as racial prejudices.

The transformative potential of mindful conversations: In this example of an actual conversation from the study, as reported by Brian Resnick for Vox, notice how natural empathy, non-judgment, and curiosity demonstrated by the canvasser make the respondent feel safe to express his views. Through this authentic engagement, the respondent begins to change his attitudes towards trans people:

In the beginning of their conversation, Virginia asks Gustavo how likely he’d be to support transgender rights legislation. Gustavo says he wouldn’t support it because he’s worried about predatory men using the law as an opportunity to enter women’s bathrooms.

Virginia asks why he feels that way.

“I’m from South America, and in South America we don’t like fags,” he tells her.

This next moment is crucial: Virginia doesn’t jump on Gustavo for the slur, and instead says, “I’m gay,” in a friendly manner. Gustavo doesn’t recoil. Actually, he becomes more interested.

Gustavo and Virginia go on to discuss how much they love their partners, and how that love helps them overcome adversity. Gustavo tells Virginia that his wife is a disabled person. “God gave me the ability to love a disabled person,” he says, and that taking care of one another is why love matters.

“That resonate a lots with me,” Virginia responds. “For me, these laws, and including transgender people are about that. They’re about how we treat one another.”

Now that Gustavo is in a place where he’s more open, Virginia asks him to imagine what the worst thing could happen if he used a bathroom with a transgender person. He admits he wouldn’t be scared. Then comes the breakthrough.

“Listen, probably I was mistaken,” he says of his original position on trans rights.

Virginia asks him again if he’d vote in favor of banning transgender discrimination. “In favor,” he says.

Guidelines to be the change: If we are to create a peaceful world we have to start within. From a place of inner peace, wisdom, and compassion we can make an effort to gain a better understanding of the situation and the perspectives of people involved. Here are a few pointers from what we know from mindfulness and above research to be the change we want to see in the world:

  • Awareness of our shared humanity: The human mind is the same. Factors beyond our control such as where we were born, our education, and environment shape our identities. But no matter where we come from and what we have been through, we all want to be happy, we all have been through suffering of some kind or the other. We know what it feels like to be judged, to be alone, to be sad. The more mindful we are of our inner workings, the more empathetic we can be of others perspectives and behaviors.

If I were born in another family, never traveled out of my state, and were continuously told that immigrants are taking away jobs and wealth that I could have access to if it were not for them, I would probably grow up distrusting those people and politicians supporting them and not me. A telling study before the election confirmed that if people who identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they were more likely to support Trump. And indeed fear and misinformation is often used in politics to divide people and win votes. If we can recognize that people are not evil on their own but a function of so many factors beyond their control, we may have genuine empathy for people who didn’t have the opportunities we did to receive education, travel, and develop diverse perspectives.

  • Genuine curiosity: If we try to listen to people with a different point of view and learn about their lived experiences, without trying to fix or change them, we may end up learning something new. In the process of a genuine exchange both parties have the potential to be transformed as we saw in the transgender canvassing research.

We tend to speak to people who have the same views as us. Maybe we need to find ways to engage people with whom we don’t agree. People want to be heard and respected. Can we deeply listen to what people are saying, even when we disagree? As a creative example of creating spaces to have such conversations, see Theo Wilson’s TEDx talk of using barbershops as a staging ground for community dialog and healing around difficult issues.

  • Slow down our thinking and reactivity: We are all viewing the world through the lens of our conditioned minds. When we read or hear something provocative and feel the impulse to take immediate action, stop and breathe. Gather more information about the situation from multiple perspectives, question your assumptions, meditate on your experience, listen to your body wisdom, and open to skillful ways to responding that will build bridges rather than create more differences. Seek to understand first. See through the illusory differences in our sense of self that create the us vs. them separation. We can learn to recognize implicit biases in our bodily reactions and sensations. In a paper on the transformative potential of mindfulness to enhance consumer and societal well-being, we described the role of body awareness in recognizing our biases and engaging in skillful responses.

These are some of the ideas that I have been contemplating regarding ways that I can show up with more understanding, awareness, wisdom, compassion, and curiosity as I navigate the fragile issues of identity and race. I am actively seeking out research and information to effectively deal with challenges of race and identity. I would love to speak with people with different perspectives  and hear your ideas or reflections on this critical issue we are all facing.

How and where can we create safe spaces for people of diverse perspectives to come together to have deep conversations about complex issues such as race and identity?

What are your ideas for promoting inner and outer peace to co-create communities where all members can flourish?

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Obama, Citing Nelson Mandela

List of Resources for Difficult Conversations & Change

This is a list of people and organizations using creative means to have difficult conversations and facilitate change in their communities. Not all of them relate to issues of race but I included them because we can learn and adapt their methodologies:

  1. Shoptalk Live: In order to reconstruct the relationship, wealth, and self-reliance agency capabilities of Black people in the cities, counties and states, Shop Talk Live uses a restorative approach.  They promote and endorse the use of asset-based solution-oriented thinking to motivate residents of their communities to inventively address and resolve the challenges they face organically. 
  2. Talking Truth at UMass Amherst: Talking Truth is developing community on campus to learn and explore solutions for climate change via speaker series, workshops and contemplative practices.
  3. Ask a Muslim Anything: Robert Azzi, a Lebanese-American Muslim who lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, is hoping to clear up misunderstanding about his faith by encouraging dialogue with an invitation to series of conversations that he’s been leading at community centers, churches and town halls across New Hampshire.
  4. Leadership-Lab: The Leadership LAB organizes and empowers communities to defeat anti-LGBT prejudice locally, on the ground in campaigns across the US, and through hands-on mentorship with activists from around the world.
  5. Hands Across the Hills:  Hands Across the Hills is a cultural exchange/dialogue project that has brought together two rural  communities with differing cultural, social, and political profiles – Leverett in western Massachusetts and Letcher County in southeastern Kentucky coal country.

To explore how mindfulness can benefit you try a free intro mindfulness class at Downtown Mindfulness or if you want to explore how mindfulness can benefit your campus or organization, please email me at shalini@remindingproject.com