By Aryenish Birdie | September 14, 2017

Those who know me know that I always strive to hold a strong meditation practice in my life. Sometimes I’m consistent, and sometimes I’m not––but it’s all part of my process and I try to be compassionate with myself.

Last night, as part of my weekly routine, I attended the Insight Meditation Community of Washingtons meditation and I was honored to hear the words of the ever-incredible Ruth King. She’s an author, mindfulness coach, and fierce lesbian of color.

Her topic was appropriately titled Mindful of Race: Understanding & Transforming Habits of Harm, the same title of her forthcoming book.

Her talk spoke to me in such a deep way, not only because I think about these issues every day, but because she explained how racism is a heart disease and how mindfulness can be the medicine.

Ruth found six ways to look at and deepen our understanding of race, and how to help us figure out the shape of oppression, including:

1) Understanding that we’re all good individuals

2) Understanding how we’re all part of racial identity groups

3) Understanding when we’re in a dominant group

4) Understanding when we’re in a subordinate group

5) Understanding how mindfulness can help us heal

6) Joining racial affinity groups

In general, white people come to conversations about race as good individuals. People of color come from a place of collective racial identity. It is this positioning that allows us to walk past each other.

When white people don’t acknowledge the history of people of color it hurts us. But even more, when dominant groups come to these conversations from a place of individuality, it changes the script.

People of color and subordinate groups on the whole tend to be more community/group oriented. Race is a group identity character trait and we want that to be seen. We don’t want to live in a “colorblind” society where people don’t see our race, that’s as unrealistic as living in a gender-blind society. We want to live in a color brave society where we see race but judgement isn’t assigned to it.

Part of the issue is that whiteness hasn’t been examined as a group. It often isn’t acknowledged as a racial identity by it’s members or society at large—but it is. And without this nuance, healing can’t happen.

One of the most beautiful analogies she gave was of stars and constellations. She said when racial flare ups happen in our world (see: police shootings of unarmed Black men, Charlottesville, Trump’s victory, etc.) white people tend to see these from their own condition, which makes sense. It’s hard to see something from someone else’s perspective. But that condition is individual-minded: “I don’t condone that,” “I’m glad I’m not like one of those white people,” “I’m nothing like my racist uncle.” This frames the situation as a star, in isolation––a one-off moment. People of color see these experiences and moments in time as a constellation, as patterns that reoccur.

While white people focus more on intent, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings or exclude you,” people of color tend to focus more on impact, “but that did hurt my feelings.” For example, see the discussion in a recent blog post about a person of color’s experience at the National Animal Rights Conference. Again, this is a way we talk past each other.

Ruth shifted gears and said something that spoke to many Black folks, as evidenced by the outburst of cheers in an otherwise quiet room. She said when we add people of color to mostly white institutions and we don’t accommodate them, we’re tokenizing them. This is something many people of color in our movement have expressed frustration to me about and is something our movement can do a better job of reflecting on and rectifying.

Are we wanting Black and brown bodies but not Black and brown ideas? (This definition of diversity is borrowed from Aphro-ism). If so, then let’s work on that. Let’s examine why. People of color are brilliant organizers, campaigners, fundraisers, spokespeople and more. Let’s make sure we’re equipping everyone with equal opportunities and allowing their ideas to shape and shift how we do activism for animals.

Ruth concluded with a discussion on white privilege. She again shared how white folks tend to take a more individual approach with comments such as, “I don’t feel privileged,” rather than looking at systems of oppression with a macro lens. It’s important as white allies to know when to take a step back and see issues with greater context. Here’s a good intro to the topic if you’re white and feel uneasy about this paragraph.

Perceptions feed our thoughts and then those thoughts feed our emotions. This is a loop that’s reinforced regularly by society and our individual interactions. This might be a good place to start to examining our conditions.

Racism is a habit in our society, but the good news is we can break old habits and form new ones —so let’s get to work.