The Dharma of Racial Justice
By Rhonda V. Magee
No matter who you are, there’s a leader in all of us, and one with great agency and power to make a difference. How might we make a difference in such a way that our very being might help dismantle white supremacy and promote healing of ourselves and others as we go? What in this moment might be in the way of our liberation together? What gets in the way of our feeling free? And how might the legacies of white supremacy be a part of the suffering that we all experience?
As a Buddhist practitioner, I have found that embodied mindfulness can be a support for this liberation—and that the practices of Buddhism relate to the specific work of racial justice. It is important to center the particular practices of mindfulness within a broader commitment to an ethical way of being in the world grounded in the fullness of the teachings and practices of Buddhism. But there is something to this concept of mindfulness in particular, this notion of being present or being aware in such a way, that holds the potential to open up space for possibility and freedom for all of us—whether in the social mind we appear as Black, brown, white, indigenous, Asian-heritage, and more. For each and all of us. In my experience, mindfulness practice offers particular support in engaging in the social world and in working with experiences of race and racism as a part of that world.
In my work, I engage not only as a longtime student of Buddhist traditions; I’m also a law professor. I teach at a traditional U.S. law school, where I have offered classes on personal injury law, immigration law, and racism and law. Drawing on a contemplative approach, I’ve also helped evolve the curriculum of U.S. legal education and the substance of traditional law classes to develop ways of teaching and learning that recognize the different dimensions of how we study and learn. Such a contemplative pedagogy honors the personal, subjective, and experiential dimensions of learning, applying what we know in the world.
In traditional philosophies of learning, our first-person experience can sometimes be relegated to the side. We’re concerned it might be too biased, or it might be not reliable enough as a guide for the further development of our intellect and our capacities. These concerns are valid, to some extent. They counsel us to bring a critical perspective to our subjective, first-person experience. And I think mindfulness is such a beautiful technology for bringing the perspective that rich learning requires. That is to say, rich learning invites us into a wise relationship with our own experience, in relationship to that which we’re trying to know, and mindfulness can support us in entering such a relationship.
In the context of contemplative education for social justice, mindfulness can help us lean into subjective, embodied experiences, including reflections on our experiences of race, racism, and white supremacy. With a mindfulness approach, we can deepen our understanding about race and racism and look at how we can more effectively disrupt white supremacy—how we as people of all colors and backgrounds may begin to heal in the face of the legacies of racism and racialized harm and its intersections with the other hierarchies that are rife in our time, including gender, sexual orientation, ability and disability, class, immigration status, and age.1 We can begin to move toward a deeper sense of justice.
Within legal studies, we have many formal ways of thinking about justice. In recent decades, we’ve elaborated different types of critical legal thought—critical race theory, Latinx critical theory (“LatCrit”), Asian critical studies—informed by the lived experiences that flow from our racial embodiments and the meanings our world attaches to them. Our particular racialized identities and affinities have helped support the proliferation of ways of understanding what justice in legal institutions might look like, as well as what injustice has looked like.
Racial injustice is something we need to explore, not only cognitively or intellectually—it’s also an experiential, body-based reality. It’s about how we are together.
But racial injustice is something we need to explore, not only cognitively or intellectually—it’s also an experiential, body-based reality. It’s about how we are together. As a law professor, I teach classes that draw on critical race theory and storytelling. It was in teaching those classes that I began to draw on my own mindfulness practice to support me in both exploring and writing about racial injustice and its legacies in more holistic ways.
It’s essential for folks who are involved in law and policy to learn more about the history of U.S. racism than the vast majority of us are conventionally taught—to know about its embeddedness in our law and policies from the colonial era, with consequences that shape our experiences and outlooks to the present day. If we’re going to advocate for justice in law and policy, we have to engage with this history.
But looking at this history is difficult. As I began teaching courses on race and the law, I started to rely more and more on my own practices of meditation as a means to survive turning toward that ugly, harsh, and painful history again and again, often with students who are still encountering this information for the first time. Even today, I encounter law students who are just now learning about many aspects of the historical embeddedness of white supremacy in our law and policy. Teaching this material demands that I figure out how to create and hold space for transformative learning among students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.
Yes: doing this work is hard. And so I’ve been leaning on practices of mindfulness and awareness, not only drawing on the traditions of Buddhism, but also interweaving liberationist interpretations of Christianity and practices that my own ancestors took up to survive enslavement and segregation. My own ancestors, like many of yours, lived through and experienced some of the ways in which white supremacy reorganized itself and reemerged as virulent, violently enforced segregation in the South. For example, my grandmother, Nan Suggs, was born in 1906 in North Carolina and was raised during a period rife with the constant threat of the violence necessary to voting rights suppression and the restoration of white supremacy in the guise of segregation.
When I was born in 1967, my grandmother Nan was there as a guide for me. She had been drawn to a Christian ministry, and to the practice of centering prayer in particular. As a child, I witnessed her rise before dawn each day and spend the first hour of the day in her own period of “coming home”: in prayer, in Bible study, in reflection on the meaning and opportunity presented by a new day. Only then would she proceed to the work of preparing breakfast and getting the rest of the household up and ready for work, school, and so forth. This practice helped her ground herself in her own dignity and worth in the face of the oppressive reality of segregation and impoverishment structures determined to keep her poor and disempowered.
My grandmother was born into these systems in a way that I wasn’t. And yet I saw her grounding herself every day in practices that I came to see as equally important to me in my own life, to this very day.
These practices form a fundamental piece of a broad, international movement for a deep justice that seeks to disrupt all patterns by which human beings of any background are systematically subordinated based on their identities in the social realm. In the context of critical race theory, we use the term “antisubordination” to talk about freeing all those subjected to systemic, identity-based suffering. And antiracism is, of course, an important part of that.
The idea of antisubordination is a way of thinking of justice in terms of a publicly available nontransactional love. As the contemporary South African teacher Baba Mandaza Kandemwa says, the work of justice is about healing all separations. In this moment of reckoning with racism, we’re highlighting the antiracism and specifically the anti-Black racist themes of this work. But for me, this work is about a broad call to see how a love-in-action model of justice might be deployed in service of alleviating the harms of racism against particularly targeted groups, people who are marked as racial others in the United States and around the world.
When we think about racial justice as love in action for alleviating suffering, we can begin to think about this suffering with complexity, to see the various ways that we find ourselves experiencing the legacies of these deep trainings of disconnection from each other, as well as from aspects of ourselves.
When we think about racial justice as love in action for alleviating suffering, we can begin to think about this suffering with complexity, to see the various ways that we find ourselves experiencing the legacies of these deep trainings of disconnection from each other, as well as from aspects of ourselves. This is one way we see the legacies of oppression: we get disconnected not only from others and from the complexity within our sense of self, but also from the sense of the preciousness of our own lives, the sense of belongingness of our own bodies in different spaces.
One aspect of my work with engaged, embodied mindfulness has been to identify how we can bring this love-in-action model into personal, interpersonal, and institutional domains of inquiry and practice. For instance, what’s the personal project or personal curriculum that I might engage in to minimize the legacies of white supremacy in my own life? What are some of the interpersonal practices that we might engage in, that I might engage in with others, to minimize the legacies of oppression? And what are the systemic, institutional practices that we might engage in together?
In the personal domain, I have found that the practice of mindfulness can help us be present to the ebb and flow of race as a feature of our lived experience. It can support us in exploring the internal and external dimensions of race and racism, the subtle ways that we feel it in our bodies as we get caught in fears or assumptions about who belongs and who doesn’t—assumptions based on deep trainings we have in our society and in our communities.
We can notice these trainings and patterns of socialization not only through cognitive reflection, but also in our bodies: if we pause and pay attention, we’ll feel ourselves reacting subtly to shifts in what faces we see, what languages we hear spoken, and what voices or accents we believe we hear. We are constantly sifting through this information, and we are, in ways that are obvious and not obvious, deeply embedded and immersed in contexts in which race matters.
And yet so much of what we know about race is governed by hidden codes of silence. As a result, bringing awareness to the inner and outer dimensions of the ways we are racialized and the ways we racialize others is really important. Creating spaces where we can acknowledge this helps. Mindfulness can help us to do both of these things. In the process, it can also help us heal. I think of healing as an ongoing way of becoming freer of the ways that we have been wounded due to our embeddedness in systems of racism and white supremacy and the disrespect and outright violence they enact. We carry this woundedness in our bodies. For communities of color and people who have experienced racism and the harms of white supremacy, I offer these practices to assist us in doing our own work of healing.
We can learn from our own experience how it is that by turning toward the things that pain us, we can begin to heal. And we can deepen our ability to work with what we’re struggling with and move through the barriers to our freedom.
Part of this comes from the very nature of embodied mindfulness as a support for recognizing what’s right here, right now, and turning toward it. As a practice, it helps us find the stamina and the capacity to stay with these difficult dimensions of our experience, the things we might wish to bypass, the things we might wish would go away. We can learn from our own experience how it is that by turning toward the things that pain us, we can begin to heal. And we can deepen our ability to work with what we’re struggling with and move through the barriers to our freedom.
Drawing on embodied mindfulness by pausing and thinking about race and white supremacy within our culture and lives, we can ask: How do I get stuck? What gets in the way of our liberation? How might race and racism be a part of that in subtle ways? Exploring this with the support of mindfulness may assist us not only in becoming more present to the legacies of white supremacy and racism in our own experience, but also in beginning to disrupt these legacies and make change where we are from a place of deeper awareness.
I call this part of the work “colorinsight” as a contrast to color blindness: rather than trying to ignore race, these practices can help deepen our ability to understand the relevance of race and racism and how it’s showing up in our time. As much as we understand the well-intentioned aspiration behind it, color blindness can actually get in the way of our engaging with race and racism. It presents real challenges as we seek to address racism and to name it in our own communities and institutions. We must start with where we are and discern what we can do together from here, both brokenheartedly and bravely.
As we turn toward these aspects of addressing race and racism and create space to examine how race is causing harm, we need more than merely goodwill. We need the deepening ability to stay with difficulty while cultivating compassion for ourselves and for all others—white, Black, brown, indigenous, Asian American Pacific Islander, and beyond—which can be a gift of a deeper kind of mindfulness practice.
I think of colorinsight as having five aspects: grounding, seeing, being, doing, and liberating. Mindfulness and the commitments we bring to it can help us as we explore grounding in practices for living with awareness with compassion.
This is where cultivating colorinsight comes in. I think of colorinsight as having five aspects: grounding, seeing, being, doing, and liberating. Mindfulness and the commitments we bring to it can help us as we explore grounding in practices for living with awareness with compassion. They help us to see more of what there is to see, including the things we have been trained not to see. They assist us in deepening our ability simply to be with what it is that we see and not move away from it, avoid it, try to deny or minimize it, or render ourselves silent when we need to speak up about what we are coming to see and understand.
And we examine ways of engaging with fresh awareness and with the goal of alleviating racial suffering. We cultivate the courage to do the things that we need to do, all in service of a liberation that includes each of us. And although I present them here in a linear way, all of these aspects of the work interrelate and suffuse one another. They are aspects of the work of self-care for and through social transformation.
Let me share an example. Many mindfulness teachers and practitioners use the acronym of RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Nonattachment. We recognize, for example, when privilege is in the room and when we feel like it might be disrupting the opportunity for voices that are not often privileged to take the center. We pause and notice, seeing and naming this dynamic and accepting it for what it is: certain voices predominate in society and are dominating in this space as well.
We might then move to investigate: What voices are absent? Where are those voices, whether voices of color or otherwise, and what are we missing when those voices are marginalized or left out in this conversation? Rather than resisting this, we can pause and create space to notice an insight or an observation, a perspective we hadn’t seen. Can we accept this long enough to deepen our understanding of the wisdom that’s being introduced? Can we open even further to investigation and explore more of how and why a particular point of view might be claiming the center here, resisting the perspectives of others, and refusing to let go when the time for that arises? What would decentering dominant voices and letting other perspectives into the room and into the work look like here and now? We investigate this with the willingness to be uncomfortable, to learn, to see what might be possible together from there.
We do so as best we can with nonattachment, with nonidentification and with the commitment to let go, being mindful of the temptation to solidify a new identity—perhaps being “the one who now gets it” about white privilege, or “the one who gets it” around colorinsight. We want to keep opening up and noticing the egotistical—and very human—temptation to fixate on these things. When we do so, we can deepen our insight about the impermanent nature of even our most powerful (or painful) experiences. And that’s where I think the contemplative social justice project stands most promisingly to differ from a more secular social justice project. When we bring mindfulness in, we inevitably bring in a practice with the potential to awaken not only awareness and compassion but also the felt sense of possibility inherent in every moment. In the process, we invite inquiry into the insight that may arise from exploring these experiences from within, understanding how we are composed of constituent elements and how we construct a sense of self around our racial identities. And we invite inquiry into the ways that we are tempted or pushed to think of ourselves within the limits and confines of the language of race.
We are embedded in a social world, so we can’t avoid engagement around race. As much as we might like to be free from ever having to think about race, all we have to do is reengage in the world just a little bit, and there it is. I think what mindfulness deeply understood—or mindfulness deeply engaged—can offer us is the capacity not only to pay attention to the ways that race and racism might be operating, but also to deepen our insight about our activist work. We can recognize the rising and falling of all of the temptations to create a sense of self that’s infused with the legacies of white supremacy, colonialism, and genocide. And we can also recognize the temptations that lead to solidification of a hardened sense of ourselves, as in what we may see as righteous opposition to these forces.
Some of this work builds on what I view as the “inner dimension” of the critical legal studies tradition that gave rise to critical race theory within the legal academy in the late twentieth century. Though it is seldom explored these days, there was within critical legal studies a critique of law that sought to shine a light on the spiritual dimension of how conventional legal thought and notions of justice, including the law of antidiscrimination and antiracism, actually harmed folks. Scholars referred to this critique as “the alienation critique.” We who wrote in this tradition were saying not only that law embeds hierarchy—racial hierarchy and all of the other hierarchies in our society, most often in nonobvious but devastatingly effective ways. But more importantly, we were also arguing that in so doing, law alienates us from ourselves and from each other, and from the moral longing we have for justice and a sense of connection within ourselves, among each other, with the planet, and beyond.2
Part of my own project is about the work of repairing: bringing together critical legal scholarship and embodied mindfulness to develop a new way of thinking about justice that will advance the repair—to use an archaic term with a modern ring to it, the reparation—of the wounds of racialization and alienation in our lives and communities today.
Part of my own project is about the work of repairing: bringing together critical legal scholarship and embodied mindfulness to develop a new way of thinking about justice that will advance the repair—to use an archaic term with a modern ring to it, the reparation—of the wounds of racialization and alienation in our lives and communities today. We want repair to be not merely a cognitive project—we don’t want to just think and argue about ways of changing the world in terms of written laws and policies, although these do matter. What we’re actually after is the reparation of our hearts and minds, of our souls and our spirits. We’re trying to bring forth a new way of being together that makes real in law, policies, and our everyday lived experiences a deeper commitment to the magnificence of our being alive together.
In this work, questions often arise: How can we maintain mindfulness and detachment within the scope of protest, confrontation, and engagement with agents of injustice? Where can we find the perfect balance?
The quest to “get it right,” to not make any mistakes along the way, to always appear competent—these are some of the ways we have been trained to know what success in the world looks like, but they are also legacies of dominator culture. For me, this work invites us to understand this and to work on letting go of the idea of a perfect balance, of not making mistakes, of appearing to “get it” before we really get it. And yet, we are certainly trying to seek some balance, some equanimity as we do this work. Just how each of us finds that balance is—if we are lucky—the subject of our lifelong awareness and compassion practice.
I use the phrase “personal justice” to talk about the ongoing practices through which we find a way of being as balanced as we might, despite the waves of pain, horror, sadness, despair, and woe that we feel as we look into the face of racism and the harm it causes in our lives, our communities, and our institutions and take the risk of acting against it. In my scholarship, I build on findings and practices that instill confidence that mindfulness actually can support us in waking up to this aspect of our lives and in healing from the wounds of the oppression we experience.
And why is a commitment to healing essential? It’s because the suffering is real, and it is getting in the way of thriving, flourishing, and well-being for all of us. Ultimately, we want to create a world that supports a felt sense of thriving, healing, and belonging for everybody. As we do that, however, it’s important to pause and ask how certain communities are suffering disproportionately because of the legacies of socially mediated harm, the surplus suffering that comes with othering. We have to encounter these harms, not as abstractions that are affecting people “out there,” but instead as real issues that are embedded within us and therefore within the very systems and institutions in which we learn, teach, work, and live.
As we engage in these practices of healing for ourselves, we can open up the potential for new ways of being human together. We can step up to the challenge of asking how we can continue to experience ourselves through lenses of race and identity and to examine the call for justice and to relax those lenses when something more is called for here and now. This is the gift of ethically grounded mindfulness practices: we can engage in the work so as to see more clearly how racism and whiteness might be structuring our world, but we can also deepen our ability to let go and see what else is here, with love. We can expand our sense of spaciousness and open up our hearts as much as is wise and skillful under the circumstances. And from that place, we just might be able to remake the world together in the image of real-justice-for-all that already exists within us.
When I present on these matters in live engagements, I often close with an invitation to continue reflecting on the themes: What are some of the daily practices that might assist you in deepening your own colorinsight? How can you expand your ability to do this work faithfully, not as a side intervention into your otherwise untrammeled spiritual life, but as a core part of your practice that helps you show up in a world in which race and racism are still painfully relevant? And how can you draw on what works—on what is good and right within each of us already—to make things even better, not only for yourself, but for those suffering most in our midst, and for the generations who will inherit the workplaces and communities that we’re running right now?
And so I’ll leave you with these questions, and with a broader invitation to open up to the spiritual longings that animate so much of what we call racial justice work. Whether through mindfulness inspired by Buddhism or through other means, may we access and find ways of manifesting in our lives today, together, the fierce love at the heart of the struggle.
- I use the term “racialized” to underscore that race is not innate, but rather that it is constructed in the broadly sociopolitical and economic world. I see race as a socially constructed category in which we have been placed and which we often embrace as a means of navigating a world in which race matters. Through racial identification, victims of racial subordination may find some meaning in our own experience, as well as some assistance in organizing to exert collective voice and power as a means to confront and dismantle structures of accumulated power in the world. Mindfully holding the notion of race as just a concept, however, helps minimize the temptation of reifying it.
- See, e.g., Peter Gabel, “Critical Legal Studies as Spiritual Practice,” Pepperdine Law Review 36, no. 5 (2009): 515–33; the “alienation critique” is discussed on pp. 524–33, but the whole, short essay is a tour de force (at least for those of us who love critical legal studies). See also one of my earlier essays, “Racial Suffering as Human Suffering: An Existentially-Grounded Humanity Consciousness as a Guide to a Fourteenth Amendment Reborn,” Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review 13 (2004): 891–926.
Rhonda V. Magee is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. She is a leading innovator in the integration of mindfulness practices, multicultural education, and social justice advocacy. Her most recent book is The Inner Work of Racial Justice (Random House, 2019). This is an edited version of a lecture she delivered on February 18, 2021, as part of the Buddhism and Race Speaker Series sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School Buddhist Community.