Unconscious, implicit racial bias—rather than individual, White supremacist action—plays a role in nearly every stage of a person’s life. Americans, including people of color themselves, hold a range of unconscious biases against people of color. However, research on mindfulness-based interventions provides grounds for optimism and potential long-term solutions.
Mindfulness Provides Grounds for Optimism
Mindfulness can play a key role in recognizing one’s own biases, how they harm others, and how to work with compassion towards racial justice. Mindfulness involves focusing on being intensely aware of what you are sensing and feeling in the moment. It involves breathing exercises, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and reduce stress. Generally, mindfulness can be practiced by paying attention, living in the moment, accepting yourself, and focusing on breathing.
The unconscious is quite malleable. Just 27 minutes of mindfulness a day can make a difference. A 2011 Harvard study confirmed that a half-hour of daily meditation resulted in positive changes to the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness. Research indicates that mindfulness can reduce implicit bias in individuals, reduce negative outcomes of implicit bias, and sustain these effects over time. The key is to become aware of one’s implicit bias, be concerned about the consequences of bias, and learn to replace the biased response with a non-prejudiced response—a response that is likely more matched to one’s public position of racial equality.
When applied through a racial-equity lens, mindfulness-based interventions can effectively address implicit racial bias, racial inequities, and health inequities. Subtle cues triggered by mindfulness can change brain activity to react to Black faces with less fear and less bias than they previously would have.
In equity workshops, mindfulness promoted empathy, connected participants to their own emotional involvement with prejudice, and helped participants become more self-reflective and self-aware. Educators can incorporate mindfulness to better understand the impact of race, minimize implicit racial bias, improve student performance, and promote racial justice.
In clinical trials, mindfulness has also been effective in treating stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure—many of which disproportionally affect people of color. The field of integrative medicine incorporates mindfulness into therapies because of its beneficial impact on brain health and cognitive impairment. One study found that mindfulness helped disadvantaged and minority college students implement lasting, healthy habits. It concluded that mindfulness is a low-cost, accessible way to curb the effect of racial health disparities.
The St. Pete Youth Farm is a youth development program that holistically supports the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs through an urban farm project. The program is offered to high school students residing in South St. Pete’s Community Redevelopment Area. Thus, it primarily impacts young, often socioeconomically disadvantaged, people of color. The students learn everything from agricultural skills to financial literacy. Carla Bristol, the program’s Collaboration Manager, emphasized the importance of developing the “whole child,” saying that “we start dealing with areas in their [personal] life that they need to unpack and do wellness, do yoga, do mental health Mondays.” The program incorporates mindfulness enabling the youth to reflect on racial injustice, the effect of COVID-19 on their school-life, and their own mental health.
Anyone and Everyone Can Grow Through Mindfulness
As a human, it is impossible to be completely without prejudice or implicit racial bias. But the potential of mindfulness is immense and can help us address the negative outcomes of such biases. Mindfulness creates a judgment-free space for the self-compassion necessary to face the painful thoughts and feelings that arise when confronting implicit racial bias both within ourselves and others.
Any individual can practice free, simple, and brief mindfulness exercises from the comfort of their home or office. Mindfulness-based interventions can be feasibly incorporated into equity training, leadership training, classroom settings, and any other diverse, conflict-laden setting or scenario. As opposed to seeing themselves as racist or not, people and institutions must begin by seeing themselves as capable of growth.
- Harvard University offers a virtual laboratory for educating the public about hidden biases. You can test your own bias here.
- The Mayo Clinic offers an overview of free, simple, and short mindfulness exercises you can do from anywhere.
- Law professor, mindfulness teacher, and social justice advocate Rhonda Magee provides a set of ColorInsight Practices that provide guidelines and exercises for teaching and learning about race primarily in classrooms and in any setting where racial issues may arise.
- Through a Framework for Systemic Racial Equity Transformation, Courageous Conversations help individuals and organizations address persistent racial disparities intentionally, explicitly, and comprehensively.