Filling in the Blanks, Sitting with Racism

In the early 1990s I worked for a management consulting firm owned and operated by an African-American man. We taught Diversity Training in Corporate America. For the most part, he was the only Black person in the room. Often, I was the only woman, the only white woman. Our clientele was not diversified, hence the training. 

At the beginning of class I would distribute an icebreaker handout, asking participants to write their names at the top. They were to complete the one-page worksheet with about twenty fill-in-the-blank statements as quickly as possible with the first thing that popped into their heads. Some of the sentences were:

All Southerners are ______________________________ .

All bad drivers are _______________________________.

All hairdressers are _______________________________.

All lazy people are _______________________________. 

The majority would scribble down their answers, others didn’t fill them out, but there was usually one man who would protest. “What is this?! I’m not filling this out!” Once a man threw the paper at my boss and me, and for a moment I thought he might flip the table, but he just stomped out of the conference room. It made you wonder what kind of things popped into his head. 

Diversity training handout

And that was precisely the point of the exercise. 

That man was not alone in hearing ugly words and ideas leap into his consciousness and that was why we never asked participants to share what words came to mind. All of us were fed stereotypes, bigotry, misogyny, and racism from the moment we were born. We might not have been aware of them, but they were there, and they were influencing how we interacted with people, especially those who were different than us.

This still holds true in the 21st century. We are not a post-racism nation. Today, Americans in all 50 states are marching for Black Lives Matter. To move forward, white Americans need to face racism not only in our country, but in our own minds. Closing our eyes, saying we don’t see color, isn’t helpful. Saying we are not racist, because we don’t use the n-word, or we voted for Obama is not enough.

While that Diversity exercise showed me how our minds fill in the blanks, it was mindfulness that taught me how to see and to be with my mind’s activity – good and bad. How to recognize these thoughts when they arise (not just when prompted in a training class) and how to sit with them, investigate where they come from, and understand how they affect the way I move through the world.

In my Mindful Writing classes, I remind students that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spirits having a human experience. Now, we, in particular white Americans, must see that Blacks in America are having a different human experience. 

It is incredibly uncomfortable to recognize our privilege and own our role in systemic racism, but as practitioners of mindfulness we are trained to sit with our discomfort, to acknowledge how our brains automatically fill in the blanks, and to see the truth, treating ourselves with compassion and patience. We need to recognize that our silence, our unwillingness to break those thought patterns, is costing Black lives. Once we do this difficult inner work, we can begin to have these difficult conversations with others, treating them with compassion and patience. Through our mindfulness practices, we have the tools we need to be actively engaged anti-racists.

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