Many people react with skepticism—or resist altogether—the idea of microaggressions: subtle insults or assaults that dismiss or degrade based on race or other identities. Critical of efforts taken to reduce their occurrence in our schools, workplaces, and other public spaces, people raise a number of objections. They claim that people are being too sensitive. The word itself is off-putting and aggressive, they say.
I have been told that being accused of a microaggression, like being asked to “check” one’s white or male privilege, makes whites and men more likely to feel aggrieved and less likely to be sympathetic. I’ve witnessed whites retreating into safer, whiter spaces as a result. And more than one white person has shared with me that, when faced with such criticisms, they are more likely to take their own bruised feelings to those who are more sympathetic to them—advocates of white nationalism.
I have seen myself the tendency some have simply to move away from or avoid dealing with race in mixed company. They carry stories of their own woundedness and feel defensive at the slightest effort to name the realities of racism in its subtle and not-so-subtle varieties. Fragility as it relates to race and racism, especially the inability of whites to bear even a small amount of the distress that comes with a racial challenge, is very, very real.
But ask a person who suffers from microaggressions regularly, if not daily, and they will confirm what research tells us: a lifetime of exposure to such slights and related discriminations takes a serious toll on psychological health and material well-being, with implications that extend far and wide.
Whiteness—not as individual identity but as a generally invisible, virtually transparent way of describing the “normal,” standard human experience and worldview—continues to hold unacknowledged sway in the systems of power that shape our life chances.
Even when we consciously believe otherwise, research has shown that implicit bias is pervasive. Most of us hold biases based on perceptions associated with racial identities. And because whiteness has been the dominant and most valued of racial identities, a majority of us hold biases favorable to white or lighter-skinned people (a dynamic that operates by degrees in what social scientists call “colorism”).
When stressed out, or when operating on automatic pilot, we often retreat into the ways in which we have been trained. We read cues that we have associated with race, cues that intersect race with gender, sexual orientation, and other forms of identification. In ways that range from unconscious to subtle to blatantly obvious, we all read and rely on such cues. It’s worth noting that without these racial preconceptions, predilections, and ingrained ways of understanding our place in the world, some of us may feel our lives are, in some sense, less meaningful. This is so because many of us have learned to define ourselves, our heritage, and our sense of community by the concept of race (or ethnicity) as it has been given to us. Joining together with racial “familiars” is often a subtle part of how and why we feel safe in the world.
We are each and all engaged, to one degree or another, in race-making or “doing” race—the processes and practices by and through which racialization happens. In many and various ways, we each participate in the activities by which the idea of race remains strong, and the practices of racism remain rational. We do this in subtle, fleeting moments—in decisions such as where we will live, from whom we will learn, and so on—that set us on one road and all but foreclose others. Whether we are black, white, brown, yellow, or red, we are caught up in racecraft.
And yet, if we can see more clearly through the lens of awareness, we recognize that while we are trained for division in so many ways, we are also inherently capable of experiencing connection with one another. Becoming more aware of our own racecraft, our own subtle racial predispositions and predilections, is a step toward increasing our capacity for doing just that. Noticing that we are sometimes guilty of microaggressions is another step in the right direction. Practicing mindful awareness of these aspects of our conditioning and habits of the mind helps us to know what we are up against within ourselves as we seek to make change in the world.The capacity to recognize and accept where we are and to investigate what must be changed to minimize the harm that our own views and blindspots cause others is essential to the work of racial justice. And the capacity to do all of this with as little attachment and identification to the outcome is essential to true liberation.
Mindfulness of Racecraft in Your Life
Allow your attention to settle on the sensations of breathing.
Sense the support of the ground beneath and within you.
Reflect on the following:
Think of a time when you were interacting with someone of another race, a time when the fact of racial difference became apparent to you somehow.
What were some of the thoughts running through your mind?
What notions of race do you recall being a part of this experience?
What sensations arise in your body as you recall this interaction?
What emotions come up for you now?
As best you can, describe these sensations, thoughts, and any accompanying emotions. Then ask: what was underneath these? Dig deeper. After your investigations, let all of these fall away and come back to the sensations of breathing and sitting.
Take a few moments to jot down what insights arose for you during this reflective practice.
Mindfulness of Microaggressions and Internalized Bias
Take a moment to focus on the sensations of breathing in and out.
Resolve to feel the support of the ground beneath you, the nurturance of what is well within the breath and body itself.
Now call to mind the term “microaggression.”
Breathe in and out. Allow the reactions (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations) inside you to come to the surface.
What images, moments, snaps, or snapshots are coming up for you?
What feelings are arising in you?
How much of what is coming up seems to echo what you have been taught, or what you have witnessed or inherited from the culture? From your family? From your community?
Now, let those thoughts go. Bring your awareness back to the sensations of breathing and sitting.
When you are ready, reflect on these questions:
When you hear about different outcomes by race, what are some of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise?
What are some of the things you would say account for these differences? Allow as much as possible to arise and note the gist of your explanations.
What feelings come up for you when you reflect on these explanations?
Again, release what has come up and settle back into your sensations of breathing and sitting.
And now, reflect on these questions:
How have these explanations touched your own life and work? How have they left traces in personal thoughts and stories? How are they showing up now in your life today, in your thoughts, sensations, and emotions?
Finally, reflect on this: How does race show up in your mind in ways that seem beyond or contrary to your own choosing?
Again now, release the thoughts.
Notice whatever feelings are present. Allow the feelings that have arisen simply to be, without judgment, without, for the moment, trying to change them.
Sense into your appreciation for the part of you that has the motivation and the will to be with your experience in ways that make the world a safer, better place for all. As you breathe, sense your interconnectedness with all that there is.
From The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness, by Rhonda V. Magee © 2019. Reprinted with permission of TarcherPerigee (tarcherbooks.com).
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