Practicing mindfulness of racism

NOT CAUSING HARM to ourselves or others is a basic Buddhist teaching. The process of mindful awareness–of seeing things clearly–creates the ground for not causing harm. Our racially stratified culture makes it difficult to see clearly on racial matters. We are all impacted by stereotypical thinking that distorts how we see others and ourselves.

On a recent Sunday morning I sat outside a restaurant, waiting for a friend. Across the street was a bar. A car, driven by a middle-aged black woman, pulled over to the curb. A well-dressed older black man, using a cane to steady himself, rose from the passenger seat. The woman drove away. As I watched I half-consciously began making interpretations about what was going on. I noticed myself thinking that the woman had dropped the man off, and that it was early in the day to go to the bar. Moments later I observed the man greet and hug a young interracial couple, and then enter the restaurant.

I don’t feel good about my interpretation that this man was headed to the bar rather than to the restaurant. This thought does not fit my values and my desire to be a “conscious white person.” I’d prefer not to have other people know I made this interpretation. My intent in sharing this story is to illustrate ways that Buddhist teachings help me to stay present, with compassion, to myself and to others, in the face of racial realities.

Because whiteness is constant as “the norm” or “American” way of life, it is often transparent to those of us who are white. We tend to see ourselves as racially neutral, and to practice racial mindlessness. This avoidance of seeing clearly, this unconsciousness, is a racial act that maintains the status quo.
I can challenge this unconsciousness by practicing mindfulness. In meditation I practice sitting upright with whatever arises, without repressing or indulging. Thoughts and feelings come and thoughts and feelings go. I attempt to simply acknowledge them, without judgment, and then return my attention to the present moment. This is easier said than done. Some thoughts I like and want to cling to, and some I’d prefer to avoid. Some thoughts trigger emotional reactivity, and I spin off, disconnected from the present.

Beyond thought and persona
Buddhism teaches that we are not our passing thoughts. Nor are we the fixed selves who have coalesced around particular identities, which we then tend to judge as good or bad. In meditation practice we enter into the process of investigating our thoughts, not so that we will get rid of our “bad thoughts” and replace them with “good thoughts,” but as means of seeing through them, to connect with our true nature, our basic goodness.
With racial issues there are often powerful polarities, like “good white person” versus “bad racist person.” Like most white people I know, I tend to be attached to thoughts that affirm that I am a ‘good white person,” and I want to distance from thoughts that imply that I am a “bad racist person.” Ironically, this very attachment and avoidance makes it difficult to actually connect with real people of my own and other races. When I am busy protecting my image, I am not present and available. I may start looking for approval from non-whites around race-related matters. I may judge other whites who have thoughts and feelings like those that I am trying to avoid within myself. If I notice a thought that seems to put me in the “bad racist person” category, I may spin off, caught up in feeling bad or guilty.
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes, “To the degree that we are willing to see our indulging and our repressing clearly, they begin to wear themselves out. Wearing out is not exactly the same as going away. Instead, a wider, more generous, more enlightened perspective arises.” I occasionally get glimmers of this more generous perspective. The compassionate space of basic goodness is big enough to contain the contradictory aspects of myself: shame and guilt and racial ignorance, my longing for connection, and my heartfelt desire for and commitment to racial justice. Learning to stay present provides a foundation from which I can translate my good intentions into skillful action–in my relationships and in the world–to address racism.

Terri Karis is passionately interested in the topic of race and racial identities. She is the white mother of black sons, a psychologist, Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at the University Of Wisconsin-Stout and co-author of the book, Multiracial Couples: Black and White Voices. On Saturday, July 14, Terri will present a workshop on Race and Connection at Clouds in Water Zen Center, where she is a member. For more information, contact Clouds in Water Zen Center at 651-222-6968, e-mail to, or write to 308 Prince St., St. Paul, MN 55101.