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.

“Minding” Dani Shapiro

Dani and me

My good friend Lynn Rosen asked me if I would be a “minder” for author Dani Shapiro during an Open Book event at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.  Author and fellow podcaster Gretchen Rubin interviewed her about Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love for an episode of Shapiro’s podcast Family Secrets.

As a minder, my job was to take care of the author, making sure no one monopolized her time or approached her when she wasn’t signing books.

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Marie Kondo teaches people to listen to their bodies

Perhaps you listen to your body when it tells you that you’ve overdone it at the gym or that you shouldn’t have binge watched all of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel the day it dropped. Maybe there were times you ignored the subtle messages of your body until they got louder, fighting hard to get your attention, and you found yourself with the flu or a pulled muscle in your back. Your body had to shout, take care of me!

But do you listen to your body when it’s not in distress? When it’s happy?

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Taking time to be grateful

This past year I spent much of my time developing mindful writing curriculum and leading workshops and retreats. I love this work, not only because it brings me joy and purpose, but because of the people it has brought into my life. I looked back on how I came to develop this work and found that there were a lot of people to be grateful for.

I am grateful to have discovered mindfulness all those years ago by reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

I am grateful to the Penn Program for Mindfulness. It was there when I needed it after my husband’s death, giving me a way to structure my grief and a new way to live my life moving forward. The MBSR foundational 8-week program really did change my life.

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Facebook is stalking me

I spend a lot of time on Facebook. Too much time. Usually I justify it by saying it’s my main mode of communication. It’s where I post my book reviews, readings, essays, blog posts, and where I advertise my upcoming workshops and retreats.

I justify it by saying this is how I stay engaged with my community. I follow other writers and learn about their upcoming publications. I read their essays and articles and blog posts.

I justify it by saying this is where I get my news. I follow reliable new sources. My friends follow other reliable new sources and share articles. So I am informed about the latest news and the state of our nation.

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