Michael Yellow Bird, University of Manitoba; Maria Gehl, ZERO TO THREE, Washington, DC; Holly Hatton-Bowers, University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Laurel M. Hicks, University of Colorado–Boulder; and Debbie Reno-Smith, Victor, Inc., Riverside County, California
Dismantling systemic racism and white supremacy culture, so prevalent in our society, requires more than thoughtful commitment. While practicing mindfulness has shown promise in reducing implicit bias and stereotyping (Lueke & Gibson, 2016), sustained activism and intentional decolonization practices are needed for impactful and meaningful change. This article offers an introduction and context to decolonized mindfulness, perspectives on the importance of taking on this work, and how early childhood professionals can begin to engage in activist mindfulness practices.
“The difference between the way Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse have been treated speaks volumes about how deeply embedded racism and white supremacy are in every aspect of our society.” —Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator, 2020
Many people come to the practice of mindfulness in the hopes of becoming more present, more compassionate, and less judgmental. Some join to heal their traumas, fears, and stress, while others use mindfulness to enhance their personal potential, become mindfulness teachers, or to make a living. Fewer use the practice to challenge one’s own racism or as a means to dismantle the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in America (see Box 1. Glossary for definitions of commonly used terms in this article). Western mindfulness has been much more about healing the individual than the healing of society. However, to support Jon Kabat Zinn’s idea that mindfulness is practiced “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom,” (Mindful Staff, 2017) it is important to engage in decolonized mindfulness practices that help develop the insight to confront and subvert systemic racism and white supremacy. It is crucial to challenge the colonized western beliefs and values that support changing the person to fit society rather than changing society to fit all individuals. Indeed, mindfulness practitioner and law professor Rhonda Magee says that western mindfulness has not prepared us to confront racism, sexism, and all the other isms because of our “hyper-focus on individualism” (Boyce, 2018).
Box 1. Glossary
A History of Systemic Racism
When people live in a bubble, it is easy to forget that the United States was born of a long history of internal conquest, genocide, hatred, white supremacy, slavery, and land theft. American values such as wealth, whiteness, ethnic antagonism (Bartels, 2020), and individualism have created a world of contradictions: While some enjoy a life of privilege others are embroiled in struggles that range from daily microaggressions to life-threatening circumstances that include gender, sexual, religious, and racial violence (Clarke & Yellow Bird, in press). American social, political, and economic systems are constructed by ruling elites and their obedient middle classes and serve to undermine healthy relationships, divide people into fearful and conflict-ridden factions, and make them sick (Clarke & Yellow Bird, in press). How do people deal with this dysfunctional system? A good number retreat into themselves. Some turn their eyes from the injustices. And some remain at a socially safe distance to righteously issue clever condemnations on social media or quietly express their outrage in inaudible backroom conversations. All the while, the indifference authorizes a racist system to act on its hate.
Addressing Police Brutality
On May 25, 2020, the world watched as White police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a Black man, who had been arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Floyd was forced to the ground, face down, handcuffed, and was begging for his life saying “I can’t breathe” and calling for his mother, while Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes before he died. On May 26, 2020, demonstrations began to protest Floyd’s murder along with the murder of other People of Color by the police. The protests have transformed into direct action aiming to topple systemic racism and white supremacy. Streets have been flooded with protesters, which has led to racist monuments and statues of white supremacists being torn down or removed; the Confederate flag is no longer allowed in car racing sports or in the U.S. military; the names of white supremacist leaders and donors are being removed from school and university buildings; and professional sports teams have begun reversing their opposition to players, such as Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the U.S. national anthem to end police brutality against Black and Brown people. Has this been enough? Just to give a reality check: On August 25, 2020, Newsweek magazine reported that “There have been only 3 days since George Floyd’s death where the police have not killed someone” (Palmer, 2020). So, let’s start with the police. Can this institution be reformed? Can the police be prevented from continuing their unrestrained murder and abuse of People of Color? Not unless there is dramatic systemic change. Changing police behavior means changing how the system works, which is presently the challenge of our lifetime. Easier said than done—and here’s why: American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges sums it up this way:
Police unions, often little more than white hate groups, continue to have the unassailable power to brush aside would-be reformers, including community review boards, mayors and police chiefs. These unions generously bankroll the campaigns of elected officials, including public prosecutors, who do their bidding. Police unions and associations have contributed $7 million to candidates running for office in New York state alone, including $600,000 to Andrew Cuomo during his gubernatorial campaigns. (Hedges, June 15, 2020)
Contradictions regarding systemic change are widespread. For instance,
The mayor of Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser, had the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted in 35-foot-tall letters on a street near the White House but has also proposed a $45 million increase in the police budget and the construction of a $500 million new jail. (Hedges, 2020).
Is one step forward and one step back systemic change?
The Role of the Mindfulness Movement
Meanwhile, where has the mindfulness movement been? What has been done to directly confront systemic racism and white supremacy? A subtle indignation begs the question: should the present mindfulness movement be declared a failure and another pillar of white privilege and supremacy? Is it necessary to start all over by fiercely interrogating, abandoning, and declaring dead, concepts such as compassion, self-awareness, and the right intention? This time in history is a period of decolonization, pressing toward a postcolonial and post settler future with the goal of eliminating systemic racism and white supremacy. But, the struggle is far from over and will surely require people to engage in radical actions to expel the racist status quo. In his ground-breaking book, The Wretched of the Earth, French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher, Frantz Fanon (2004), declared that “National liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people of the Commonwealth, whatever the name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonization is always a violent event” and “The need for this change exists in a raw, repressed, and reckless state in the lives and consciousness of colonized men and women” (p. 1). But then again, violence does not only mean to use physical force to injure, damage, or destroy. It also refers to “great force or strength of feeling, conduct, or expression” (yourdictionary.com/violence). There are options for action: for one, become an ally of great force, of strength and positive expression to be mindfully prepared to engage in the fight against systemic racism; and two, accept the role of mindful instigator willing to work tirelessly to envision a new mindfulness, a decolonized mindfulness, that will not only create liberation from the meditation cushion, but will bring a more radical, activist mindfulness to all participants who seek positive, loving, and radical change.
Reflections, Awareness, Action
The impacts of systemic racism begin before birth. The State of Babies Yearbook: 2020 (ZERO TO THREE, 2020) demonstrated that mothers of color and their babies more frequently experience significant adverse health conditions, and that these inequities begin before birth. For early childhood professionals working with children and families, anti-racist work is fundamental to realizing the intention for every child to have a strong start in life. It is simply impossible to meet that goal with the current system that promotes white privilege and culture. The foundations of infant mental health convey that how we and other professionals are in our work is the greatest tool we have to do our work well. How we are includes how we show up, how present we can be, how aware we are of what we are bringing within our relationships with children and families. What we bring to our work includes our implicit biases and unexamined beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. It is imperative that we bring awareness to the ways racism shows up in our work with children and families and take action to make change. In the following section, we reflect on our respective experiences with using mindfulness to support antiracism work.
Who Am I To Do This Work? “Actually, Who Am I Not To” Do This Work?
Debbie: I have been working in the world of infant and early childhood mental health for more than 25 years. My passion is working with children, families, professionals, community partners, and people from broad and diverse backgrounds. Identities I have used to describe myself include middle-aged cisgender White woman, mom, grandmother, partner, daughter, sister, mental health provider, mindfulness practitioner, reflective mentor and supervisor, teacher, advocate, and ally. This being said, I humbly acknowledge my own contributions to racism. Dr. Ruth King stated “racism occurs when dominant group culture, whether knowingly or unknowingly, both now and in the past imposes its values and beliefs on other races as the social norm and standard” (King, 2018, p. 38).
I am committed to an open-minded and contemplative approach to my own work as part of the dominant cultural group. Behind all of my identities there are stories that have been carried throughout my life. To do this work I need to be present in a much different story from the ones I’ve become accustomed to or comfortable with. I am in the midst of creating a new story of anti-racism, which takes me deep into the places where I must first have awareness of my own embedded racist behaviors. Beginning with the fact that I was born into white privilege, grew up in primarily white communities, seeing through the lenses of history that have fostered systematic racism, behaving in ways that have contributed to segregation and assimilation, benefiting from privilege, and supporting systems and policies that have kept my status and power in place. I must look at how I have been comfortable, have remained quiet, fearful of doing “more harm,” have been complacent, and have avoided difficult questions.
As a professional, I cannot be silent or wait any longer. It is my duty and responsibility as a leader, teacher, mentor, supervisor, and human being to look inward first and foremost. The learning and reflection do not ever end, and I cannot do the inner work without external gauges, feedback from those who are impacted the most, pausing to listen and holding space for difficult conversations. I cannot expect to do the work in the infant and early childhood field, the helping field, and to be a catalyst for mental health and wellness in the lives of those I serve without contributing to this imperative movement toward equity, social and political transformation, and the deeply important work of reparation.
How Do I Use Mindfulness and Compassion Practices in My Own Anti-Racism Work?
Holly: For me, mindfulness and compassion have supported my journey to look inward at my own conditioning in being racist, at my interpersonal relationships, and to engage with others to change systems for racial justice. As a White woman, I was awarded certain privileges and was socialized to believe in capitalist, individualistic ways of thinking. Mindfulness and compassion have given me resources and tools to engage in collective anti-racist work. What does that mean? Mindfulness provides me a way to pause in the moment and become aware, without judgement and with curiosity, of my own racist beliefs and actions. I have used mindfulness to become aware of my own automatic way of labeling and seeing others, such as acknowledging my implicit biases. Engaging in mindfulness practices has allowed me the space to ask myself difficult questions, such as “When have I said comments or statements as a microaggression that were hurtful or harmful? Have I heard someone make a racist joke and didn’t speak up? Do I expose myself to diverse thoughts and beliefs? How does my white privilege benefit me?” Asking these questions has brought up difficult feelings, like anger, shame, and confusion. Engaging in this work has also elicited feelings of fear that I might say or do the wrong thing. I remember feeling worried that I would make a mistake and cause more harm. These feelings can then lead to silence or avoidance. Instead, when I pause mindfully and with compassion, I find that I can take a wiser approach. I can recognize and be with difficult feelings and am more likely to move along my continuum of anti-racist work for social justice. I have found that real sustaining change comes from engaging in mindfulness and compassion in community and doing this alongside historical analysis. It is not enough to “sit on our cushions.” “When all we do is focus our self-awareness without a concomitant emphasis on social consciousness and action, what remains is a self-serving, individual blindness to world needs” (Rendón, 2009, p. 9). In community, I have learned to hear different perspectives, ways of relating to my thoughts, and have been empowered to understand what it means to be anti-racist. I have begun to honestly critique my own privilege, beliefs, and our nation’s failures and use mindfulness and compassion to decolonize my own beliefs. I am learning why we need to restore the cultural practices, beliefs, and values that have been taken away during colonization. I make mistakes and with mindfulness and compassion I have found ways to show up, address racial inequity in my workplace, fight racism in my family and neighborhoods, and continue to walk forward in developing my capacities to be anti-racist. For me there is no other way to move forward.
How Do I Use Mindfulness and Compassion Practices to Empower, and Are There Times When It Is Used to Pacify Myself and Others?
Laurel: When I think of mindfulness and compassion practices as a way to empower, the images of some great leaders come to mind, for example Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were somehow able to move toward and lead people in great change through being nonviolent, and compassionate. I personally aspire to empower change through my own actions as well as through supporting others in their work for change. Specifically, change that works toward eliminating racism and becoming an anti-racist global community. There are times when I read a comment on social media, or hear another person say something about race that is steeped in racism. Sometimes I even notice my own learned white supremacy come through in my words and actions. Sometimes the Families of Color I work with bring up their frustration with racism and how it affects them. These are all places where my mindfulness and compassion practices come in. It is difficult to see racism in one’s own self, recognizing it can feel painful. My mindfulness practice has taught me how to sit with these emotions, notice the waves of guilt, shame, sadness, anger arise, and then the compassion practice allows me to hold myself in a way that allows me to continue to face difficulty. Mindfulness has also been criticized for pacifying people. For example, teaching employees ways to deal with stressful work environments, instead of changing the environment itself. Changing systemic oppression cannot be done through pacifying. Similarly, mindfulness in schools may aspire to teach children to be still and quiet instead of invoking curiosity and mindful presence. Historically, colonizers thought they were doing a good thing and took Indigenous children away from their families to teach them to be civilized, instead of the “savages” the colonizers believed they were. I see some parallels here. Mindfulness has been disseminated in the west by predominantly White people, and thereby has been introduced in ways that perpetuate colonizing values. I think it is important to think about how a practice of mindfulness can be used in a decolonized way, in a way that connects to traditional mindfulness practices that are in many cultures. I use mindfulness and compassion practices to notice all emotions, to feel them, to be with them, even to savor them and then to move forward in action in a way that comes from a grounded place. This is the power that I see in the leaders mentioned above. It is responding with strength, instead of being reactive. It is the power to speak up instead of blending into a culture of silence. This is the power that I hope to invoke in myself and the people I work with.
How Could a Mindfulness and Compassion Practice Support Sustained Activism?
Maria: The mindfulness movement in the US often focuses on the personal benefits and well-being that can be fostered through mindful practices, and these benefits have certainly helped me manage stress and find strength to do anti-racist work. But I believe there are other, more impactful ways mindfulness practice can support anti-racist activism. The most helpful ways that mindfulness has sustained my anti-racist work are through supporting my commitment and discipline, fostering continual awareness of my intention and values, and by showing me that transformation is possible. Focused attention and emotion regulation that are cultivated in mindfulness practice have helped me work with the fear, vulnerability, and anger that inevitably arise when doing anti-racist work. Mindfulness has helped me wake up and consider the implications of every decision I make and every action I take in the context of the white supremacy culture, in which I have a position of privilege. I am aware that when I’m tired and want to tune out and turn off the fear, stress, and guilt of witnessing devastating social injustice—my whiteness has granted me the privilege to have that choice. I am aware that if I do shut down to our racist reality, that turning away is perpetuating the status quo. My awareness helps me make a different choice. Mindfulness also sustains my activism by helping me see more clearly when I am out of integrity with my commitment to do anti-racist work. In this way, mindfulness has helped me align my values and my actions. My practice of turning inward, noticing thoughts and feelings, has also allowed for deep exploration of how my actions may be perpetuating racism in unseen and insidious ways. Through mindfulness and compassion, I am better able to face the ways I continue to harm and grapple with what it means to do it differently. Mindfulness has also taught me to question—to go toward things that are difficult—to accept that this is not going to be a nice or pleasant journey, that working with the discomfort can lead to new understanding and clarity. Turning inward through my mindfulness practice has also helped me recognize that my own experience of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm are intrinsically linked to the oppressive societal values that prevail. And perhaps most important, my practice has helped me see the ways we are deeply connected to each other. This sense of interconnectedness is by far the most nourishing and sustaining fuel for activism that I have found.
- Discuss: Dr. Yellow Bird’s ZERO TO THREE Annual Conference 2020 Plenary with colleagues. Available here
- Explore the Diversity Informed Tenets for Work with Infants, Children and Families https://diversityinformedtenets.org
- Read one of the following books on mindfulness and race and start a small group discussion to absorb the content and open pathways for real change.
- Decolonizing Pathways Towards Integrative Healing in Social Work by Kris Clarke and Michael Yellow Bird
- Mindful of Race; Transforming Racism From the Inside Out by Ruth King
- The Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda Magee
- My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem
- Meditate or journal with the following questions:
- When have I said comments or statements as a microaggression that were hurtful or harmful?
- Have I heard someone make a racist joke and didn’t speak up?
- Do I expose myself to diverse thoughts and beliefs?
- How does my white privilege benefit me?
- What piece of my white privilege am I most afraid to let go of?
- What anti-racism action can I take in my early childhood work?
- How can I engage in a community of practice aiming to further anti-racist work in my own organization or community?
Michael Yellow Bird, PhD, is professor and dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Yellow Bird is a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes, (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara). He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and the co-editor of four books: For Indigenous Eyes Only: The Decolonization Handbook (2005), For Indigenous Minds Only (2012), Indigenous Social Work Around the World: Towards Culturally Relevant Education and Practice (2008), and Decolonizing Social Work (2013; winner of a Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award for 2014). He is the co-author of two books: Arikara (Sahnish) Ethnobotany (in press) and Decolonizing Holistic Pathways Towards Integrative Healing in Social Work (in press). His teaching, writing, research, and community work focus on Indigenous Peoples’ health, leadership, and cultural rights; the effects of colonization and methods of decolonization; decolonizing social work approaches; decolonizing war and military service; neurodecolonization and mind–body approaches; neuroscience and Indigenous Peoples; traditional mindfulness and contemplative practices; ancestral and paleo eating and lifestyle; and the Rights of Mother Earth.
Maria Gehl, MSW, is director, Mindfulness in Early Childhood Project, ZERO TO THREE. Ms. Gehl’s current work focuses on increasing understanding and use of mindful awareness and self-compassion strategies in early childhood settings and parenting. She does this through developing resources and offering presentations, training, and coaching to early childhood organizations on integrating contemplative practice in their work. She is co-author of the publication, Getting Started with Mindfulness: A Toolkit for Early Childhood Organizations. Ms. Gehl, a trained mindfulness instructor, also works directly with families through the Community of Mindful Parenting in Seattle. At ZERO TO THREE, she has provided leadership to two national home visiting technical assistance centers, focused on bringing capacity-building supports to tribal communities and state systems.
Holly Hatton-Bowers, PhD, is an assistant professor in child, youth, and family studies and an early childhood extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Hatton-Bowers’ primary areas of interest and scholarly activity include creating and implementing programs designed to enhance the quality of early childhood development and early care and education and to use strategies that cultivate resilience, compassion, and kindness among caregivers and families. Her work focuses on contemplative practices, such as reflection and mindfulness, to promote child, teacher, and family well-being. Specifically, these practices are examined for how they improve parent and teacher capacity for sensitive and responsive caregiving, particularly in the context of stress, and with vulnerable populations of children. As an extension early childhood specialist, she is active in translating and disseminating current research findings in the areas of caregiving and health in early childhood using an interdisciplinary approach.
Laurel Hicks, LCSW, PhD, is a researcher at University of Colorado in Boulder as part of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute and a clinical practitioner. Dr. Hicks specializes in perinatal and infant mental health, and she specifically focuses on mindfulness and compassion interventions that may improve well-being during pregnancy and postpartum for the whole family system. She is passionate about supporting ways to integrate evidence-based methods into behavioral health settings, ensuring that no family is left behind. This not only includes transdisciplinary collaboration, but also promoting interventions that are culturally competent, trauma-informed, and most of all useful and effective to all parents and their children. Dr. Hicks is currently working with Sona Dimidjian, PhD, Zindel Segal, PhD, and Lee Cohen, MD, on a study that investigates whether a web-based mindfulness intervention (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for pregnancy) can improve depressive relapse in pregnant women.
Debbie Reno-Smith, IFECMH-SP/RPFIII, LMFT, has been working in the field of addiction and mental health for 25 years. Ms. Reno-Smith has developed expertise in the areas of specialized services in addiction, domestic violence, child welfare, children’s mental health, and infant mental health. She has specialty training as an Irving Harris Fellow in Infant Mental Health and is Expert Faculty for ZERO TO THREE DC:0–5TM training. Ms. Reno-Smith has been conducting early childhood training and instructing advanced degree students in the areas of risk and resiliency, social–emotional development, reflective practice, and diagnosis for more than 20 years. She is trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness based self-compassion, and implements a reflective practice facilitation strategy with early childhood providers that integrates mindfulness in the workplace practices. She is passionate about supporting providers, teaching, learning, and continuously growing as a human being. Ms. Reno-Smith is committed to having a strong voice, taking action, and being an ally in the pursuit of social justice, anti-racism, and equity.
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