Recently, the US media has focused on violence against African Americans – specifically by various police departments. The focus has lead to a lot of anger and a lot of opinions – but what is the TRUTH of these situations? Maybe we’ll never know for sure, but a leading suggestion is that there’s some kind of bias against African Americans that is leading to unjustified violence against them.
Before anyone stops reading, this article isn’t about asserting one position or another on any of these incidents. It’s about asking a question:
Could there be a bias against African Americans that is causing unjust violence against them?
When asked this question, most Euro-Americans (i.e. “White” Americans) respond by thinking that if the answer is yes, then there must be a significant group of people (including police) who actively think horrible things about African Americans and then go out and do horrible things to them. They then extend this to thinking that they themselves are being accused of such things. Repulsed, they become defensive and reject the entire idea. Case closed.
While there are some people who do actively think and do horrible things to African Americans, the vast majority of people DO NOT. As for the question itself, while some people may think differently and ask it as a form of “accusation,” many DO NOT. I certainly do not. Instead, I think about the large body of scientific studies1 2 that have shown that people of ALL races (yes, even African Americans) seem to have a bias for lighter skinned (European) people and/or against darker skinned (African) people. So, this bias is basically a scientific fact, yet you could ask any halfway normal American, and they would (in absolute honesty) say that they aren’t racist. Therefore, it’s more than reasonable to ask yourself just how this could be.
What many scientists and thinkers have concluded is that we all have a certain amount of subconscious bias. We don’t actively think or do anything really horrible, but we all make some assumptions (completely without realizing it) that affect our decisions and reactions to African Americans. (For example, if we subconsciously fear that “Black” = dangerous or bad, we might jump to the conclusion that an African American is more dangerous or guilty than s/he actually is and make bad decisions on how to act towards that person.) If this is true, then I, for one, don’t want to have those kinds of assumptions running around in my mind getting me to act badly. I want to find them and then get rid of them. And I honestly believe that the vast majority of Americans feel the same way. The question then becomes:
How can I figure out if I have some kind of subconscious bias?
Well, as a mindfulness meditation practitioner, I know that mindfulness meditation is an effective tool3 for setting aside time to just figure out what you’re really thinking and feeling about something. Once you know, you have the power to better your thoughts and reactions. For example, think of a time you got angry at a cashier or phone representative only to later realize that you were just angry at the situation. Mindfulness meditation training allows you to take a moment to recognize that you are angry, the real reasons why you are angry, and then to let go of some of that anger so that you can react in the best way possible – like not screaming at the poor cashier. With daily practice, you develop the ability to act better habitually.
Like so many Americans, I’ve been watching this current wave of violence and hate and feeling powerless to stop it. Instead of just talking about it, I wanted to DO something that would have a positive, tangible, long term impact. As I thought about potential causes and solutions, I came to a realization: If a sizeable number of people – including police officers – attempted to seek out and fix any subconscious biases that they may have, then slowly, but surely, we would all make better assumptions and decisions as we interact with African Americans. Over time, this would lead to fewer incidents of unjustified harm coming to African Americans and increased trust of police from African American communities. The tricky part seemed to be finding a way to find those subconscious biases since we are all unaware of them. But mindfulness meditation is a tool that could effectively do that – if only a sizeable number of people knew about it and were willing to give it a try. So I’ve written this article in hopes that readers will accept my challenge:
Try mindfulness meditation
Use it to find any biases that you may have that could impact your reactions to African Americans – and work on them. Then share this technique with others.
Ok, it can’t hurt to try it… How do I do Mindfulness Meditation?
What is it that we do during meditation? Simply put, we’re doing a few basic things:
We’re bringing our attention to the present moment. By doing this, we start to loosen our tendency to lose focus on what’s going on around us and spend time in a past we can’t change, or a future that we can’t reliably depend on.
We observe what’s happening in that moment.This starts to weaken our habit of mistakenly identifying ourselves as our body, feelings, thoughts, or that which is going on around us.
We set aside judgment about what we observe.This helps us disengage from the narratives which often guide our actions, instead of us guiding our actions.
We can then narrow the focus of our attention to a single object, or widen it to encompass a variety of phenomenon, all still in the present moment. Whatever particular technique we use, we’re developing skills that help us respond better during the challenges of daily living, rather than reacting out of the usual habit patterns, likes, aversions, emotions, or train of thoughts.
Where and When
Set aside a location and time, perhaps somewhere quiet in your home, where you won’t be disturbed while you’re meditating. If you can find a spot that’s going to allow you to be physically comfortable, calm, where you can set aside the stresses of the day, that might be a good place to consider. Turn off your cell phone, and try to arrange with others in the house to let you have a little uninterrupted time to yourself. If folks can be quiet, too, it can help to have as few distractions as possible. You may want to have a timer, so something else can keep track of how long you meditate and you can focus on present moment awareness. Pick one that has a gentle, rather than jarring tone when the set time is up, to let you know this session’s set time is complete without startling you, and one that doesn’t tick or make any noise while you’re practicing.
Once you’ve got an understanding of the ideas of what you’re doing in meditation, your location is picked out, and you have a time when you can meditate undisturbed, the next step is to give it a try.
You don’t have to sit on a cushion, you can sit in a chair. If you do, it can help you remain alert by sitting forward, not leaning on the back rest, but fully alert, attentive, maintaining an upright posture. You can rest your hands in your lap, in a position that won’t cause tension in your shoulders or neck. Be sure to set your timer for whatever is a manageable, but reaching goal, and start it. If it’s your first time, ten minutes is a reasonable starting point.
It may be helpful for you to start with two things. First, set an intention for this session (e.g. how do I feel about African Americans). That intention may be to put aside your stresses from the day, it may be to keep your attention on the object of your meditation, or to move your awareness through various places on your body. Second, relax and attend to the present moment, perhaps by taking three very slow, deep breaths, inviting your awareness to the sensation of the breath.
The breath is what you can start with. It is always there for you, even when you’re not meditating, and is a very useful way to develop attention in this simple activity in the present moment. You can direct your awareness to the sensation of air passing at the tip of your nose, or the expansion of your belly, whichever is easiest for you to notice and follow. Having an open and relaxed, inquisitive attitude about this simple physical process, being aware of the starting of the in-breath, through the entire duration of the inhale, up to the end, then switching to the out-breath, its arising, its duration, and completion. Then invite the attention afresh with the next breath, and the one after that, just observing the sensation.
At first we can easily get distracted by what seems like a new and increased number of thoughts, but they’re not new, we’re simply stepping back and noticing them perhaps for the first time in our lives. It’s not a problem, they’ve always been there, and they not only lack substance, but each one arises and falls, just like the breath. They’re impermanent, coming and going, and you can start to build a skill in your meditation of just letting them be thoughts instead of powerful ideas upon which you have to act. Every moment, you have a choice, and meditation helps you begin to notice that and make the best choice you can.
If you lose track of the breath, that’s okay, and is in fact very normal and expected. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath. You’ll do this again and again, throughout the entire meditation session. This is what we mean by the practice.
It’s a simple idea that can be hard to implement, it’s a practice, not a perfect!
There are many ways to help apply your attention and sustain it. One way to do this is to count with each exhale, starting with one, put your full attention on the inhale, then count silently two to yourself on the next exhale, put your full attention on the next inhale… all the way to ten. After reaching ten, start again at one. Again, it’s perfectly normal and expected to lose count! Just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath, and start again at one.
As you continue with a regular meditation practice, over time you may be able to maintain an unbroken count to ten for the entire meditation session of ten minutes. If you can do that consistenly, consider increasing the amount of time you meditate to fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes. Even if you can’t maintain the count to ten, if you can meditate for longer than ten minutes, try increasing the amount of time.
You can then consider challenging your attention by just counting to one. That may sound easy, but can be even harder than counting to ten! And eventually, drop the counting entirely from your meditation — it’s not about the count, it’s about developing your ability to apply and maintain your attention. Eventually your awareness of the breath can come more easily, and instead of having to continually bring it back, the thoughts can settle more quickly and consistently, so your attention is maintained without putting forth as much effort.
Meditation isn’t about the meditation itself, it’s about building a skill that we can take out into the world. We develop both concentration and awareness so we’re able to more frequently recognize what’s happening right now, make more intentional decisions about where our attention should be, and respond to daily situations in a more skillful way.
Sustaining a Meditation Practice — Keep It Going
One of the hardest things to do with meditation isn’t starting, it’s continuing to do the practice on a regular basis so you see the benefits mature. Even if you really like meditation while you’re doing it, the distractions and activities of managing our lives can derail our most sincere intention to practice. Here are some of the common reasons our daily meditation tends to fall away:
Forgetting. The day gets busy, we have a very active life, and the thought of meditating doesn’t come to mind.
Busyness. The day gets busy, we have a very active life, and though we thought about meditating, we didn’t have time.
Aversion. We don’t like to meditate, so we stop.
Boredom. There’s nothing interesting going on, so we stop.
Discouragement. We didn’t get the expected results, so we stop.
Doubt. We’re just not convinced this meditation stuff works.
The simple fact is that most of us will miss a day now and again, even if we have a pretty regular practice. That’s okay, it happens. In another page we’ll look at some ways you can more firmly establish your meditation practice and consistently maintain it, despite some of the challenges that arise.
As an experiment, I recently focused my meditation on how I felt about African Americans (I’m African and German American) every day for a week. I also had my sister-in-law (Euro-American) do something similar. I would sit and visualize various African Americans. Then I would ask myself what thoughts or feelings came up when I focused on their bodies, on their words, on their actions. I also explored what thoughts or feelings came up when I recalled interactions that I’d had with African Americans.
I found that I don’t usually notice the attractiveness of darker-skinned people. When I encounter other African Americans, I usually fear that they will reject/make fun of me because I’m relatively quiet, into geeky TV shows and gaming, and am not good at “popular” things like dance. I am also repelled by “thug” culture (i.e. less educated people who often engage in violence and unsafe sex) which is most strongly associated with African Americans. I am likewise repelled by the “rural Southern” African American culture. (For those not familiar with this, it is a culture that remembers the horrors of Segregation and does not believe that anything has changed. Members of this culture may say things like, “They’ll never let a Black woman do ‘x, y, or z!’”) I cringe to even write these words, but they are true.
I won’t go into as much detail with my sister-in-law (because she would cringe at the words even more than I have), but she noted how a type of bias influenced her popularity at school (she went to schools that were predominantly African American), that she’s “…not terribly attracted to Black men…,” and that she is “…extremely turned away from thug culture….” Her “…mind is blown…” to find that she had some bias and it was a struggle to “…not recoil…” from the realization. Going in, she did not think she had any bias and felt an incredible shame and guilt when she found some.
As both my sister-in-law and I can attest, if you meditate and find some kind of bias, you will feel ashamed and want to deny what you have found because you will fear that it makes you some kind of horrible racist. However, this reaction is the biggest hurdle to good people being able to find and fix their biases (whatever they are):
A SINGLE THOUGHT OR FEELING DOES NOT DEFINE YOU. WHAT YOU DO ABOUT YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS DEFINES YOU.
There’s no need to continually feel guilty or ashamed if you find a bias that most people have. (And no one should try to make you feel guilty or ashamed either.) Instead, you should be proud that you took the time to look and then to try to change your thinking / reactions for the better. That isn’t an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do. Simply acknowledge what you are feeling, then let it go and get to work.
Quote by Tim Minchin. Illustration by Zen Pencils: http://zenpencils.com/comic/135-tim-minchin-be-hard-on-your-opinions/
I tried meditation out and found some biases like you did. What do I do about them?
I wish I had a bunch of research-supported solutions, but I’m just getting started on working on my biases. So far, I’ve found that two things have worked for me:
Seeing the flaws in my logic. For example, I’m an African American geek, so clearly they exist. Also, there’s been more than one instance in which another African American (geeky or not) has accepted me as I am. Just realizing this, I’ve found a bit more courage to go and try to make friends with other African Americans when I meet them. The trick was sitting down, being honest with myself, and making the realization.
Fighting negative thoughts with positive thoughts. For example, I’ve gone and looked for examples of really attractive dark-skinned people. I spent a little bit of time meditating on their attractiveness so that my mind would unlearn the habit of not considering the potential attractiveness of a darker-skinned person. I’ve come to be a big fan of Doctor Who’s Samuel Anderson (i.e. the British character, “Danny Pink”).
As readers explore mindfulness meditation, biases, and what to do about those biases, I believe the best thing to do is to share your experiences and realizations. This way, we can “crowd-source” even more solutions until everyone finds something that works for them. I encourage readers to talk to their family/friends/church groups/therapists for support and ideas. I also encourage you all to post your comments, questions and suggestions at:
where this article was originally published. I will be able to see your responses there and may be able to respond myself.
Finally, if any readers don’t have many (or any) memories of interacting with African Americans, it’s important that you go out and meet some. You’d be amazed at how your feelings about someone can change when you take the time to get to know their story and to have a simple conversation with them. How readers can go about this will vary with their individual situations, but some ideas could be:
Visiting an online group with a significant number of African Americans
Visiting an African American church or other social group
I’m fortunate to live in an area with a good police department (Name omitted here to protect myself online, but they know who they are). (They have not only helped me personally, but have an excellent track record and have recently volunteered for extra training on how to interact with mentally ill people so they already are committed to doing their best to protect our community.) However, there’s still a lot of concern about them. I plan on sharing this article with each of my local police officers – not just to ease community concerns or to get those officers thinking – but also because mindfulness meditation can be used to combat the stresses that all first responders suffer. It’s my hope that this information can help both police and our community in multiple ways.
I’ve also encountered many other Buddhists online who are struggling with the question of, “How can my Dharma Practice help me and the world around me with these questions of bias and justice?” I plan on sharing this article with them in hopes that it can help them personally and possibly other people that they encounter both inside and outside of their Sanghas (i.e. Buddhist groups).
Maybe this isn’t a quick, flashy solution, but it’s one that gets to the roots of these problems and solves them over the long term. Try this idea, then spread this idea:
“How Mindfulness Can Defeat Racial Bias” (one of the inspirations for this article) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/19/mindfulness-race_n_7310156.html
“Racism and Sexism Could Be ‘Unlearnt’ During Sleep” http://www.iflscience.com/brain/gender-and-racial-bias-can-be-reduced-during-sleep
“Should Secular Buddhist be Engaged Buddhists Too” by Secular Buddhist Association http://secularbuddhism.org/2015/04/07/should-secular-buddhists-be-engaged-buddhists-too/
“Waking Up to White Supremacy” by Buddhist Peace Fellowship https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUNcJYsHu0U
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship article series on race: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/category/race/
TED Article, “The Data Shows We Want to End Inequality… Here’s How to Start” http://ideas.ted.com/the-data-shows-we-want-to-end-inequality-heres-how-to-start/
The Greater Good Science Center article series on race http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/tag/racism
- “In 1959, Texas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and lived for six weeks as a black man in the segregated South. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe his harrowing story and what it showed about the true state of race relations in America” http://boingboing.net/2015/11/02/in-1959-a-white-journalist-tr.html