Intentional Compassion, the Other Piece of Racial Justice
Intentional Compassion, the Other Piece of Racial Justice
by Stefani Cox
Oakland’s Millions March happened on December 13, 2014, a miraculous day of sunshine sandwiched between two weeks of rain. Bay Area residents of every color, background, and shape filled the Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland (also known as Frank Ogawa Plaza) to the bursting point. Hundreds of different banners flourished everywhere, from a long list of black people killed by police to signs depicting the faces of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Rekia Boyd.
Well-prepared organizers drew black and brown voices and bodies to the front of the movement and led the march to the City courthouse, with youth at the vanguard. When we arrived, black and brown people were invited up on the steps to face out toward the rest of the crowd and to the breathtaking beauty that is Lake Merritt and the hills of the Bay Area.
A set of speakers brought gravity and immediacy to the issue of black deaths through stories of their own children taken at far too young an age. The action felt powerful. It felt healing and healthy. It provided a taste of what justice and equality for all bodies regardless of skin color could look like.
I say all this to convey how #BlackLivesMatter is real.
#BlackLivesMatter is Real
The movement is big and it is here, hopefully to stay. The advocacy community has awoken to the abominable frequency of black deaths by police violence in the United States. The movement’s key statistic is that in 2012 a black person was killed by a police officer, security guard, or “self-appointed vigilante” every 28 hours. We are finally recognizing the deep racism that remains alive in this country, despite the gains we made during the Civil Rights Movement.
… in 2012 a black person was killed by a police officer, security guard, or “self-appointed vigilante” every 28 hours.
Yet despite the thousands who are mobilized and activated toward bringing awareness to racist policing and community surveillance, there are many of others who don’t see what the big deal is all about. Though the unsupportive and apathetic come from different ideologies and wear a variety of faces, they have in common one burning question… What do you want?
Mass awareness itself is no small feat, and one which I would argue the #BlackLivesMatter movement has achieved quite swimmingly. However, that accomplishment aside, I can in some ways understand the source of this question. Some activists are trying for bigger and better policy fixes. Others are calling for entirely getting rid of the traditional institution of a police force. There is no consensus on a solution, and while the search for one may prove motivating to activists, it may also be disheartening to members of the community who see the lack of consensus as a reason not to invest time or energy into the movement.
One reason we can’t agree on a unifying answer across the worlds of policy, programs, organizing, and revolution is because each of these things can only ever be part of the picture. At its heart, the problem with police violence – with perhaps all racially-based community violence – goes down to the root of psychology and the base of our human compassion for one another. The straight truth is that most of us don’t see black and brown people as human in the same way we see white people as human. Nothing we do on the surface alone will end racism; we need to also get at those human roots.
At its heart, the problem with police violence… goes down to the root of psychology and the base of our human compassion for one another… Nothing we do on the surface alone will end racism; we need to also get at those human roots.
The Roots of Racism Run Deep
Last year, I was in a classroom where the issue of implicit bias came up. My white instructor introduced the concept as something we all have, but that we ultimately can’t do anything about. She described tests like the famous and ongoing Harvard study Project Implicit showing how most of us are more likely to associate black people with negative words or imagery. My instructor stressed that it was important not to feel bad about the biases we have, that having them does not make us “bad people”, it’s just a part of who we are. In her opinion, the most important thing was just to be aware of these biases.
At the time I didn’t have the words to interpret my strong emotional reaction against her framing. I too believe that no one is “bad” because of his or her own implicit biases, which have much to do with what and who we were exposed to throughout life and how we were raised. But I am extremely averse to the idea that there is “nothing we can do about it”. I now understand that what I was reacting against in my instructor’s words was the white absolution of responsibility to push ourselves to become better people.
We are not stuck with our biases, even though they may not be easy to change. For instance, the Kirwan Institute in a 2014 report on implicit bias says that “debiasing is a challenging task that relies on the construction of new mental associations, requiring ‘intention, attention, and time.’” We require self-monitoring and the repetition of debiasing practices at the time when we might otherwise fall back on stereotypes or biased thinking. The important point is that debiasing is a feasible endeavor.
We may feel that radical policy change or a mass social movement combined with people consciously ignoring their learned biases will be enough. But interestingly, Kirwan finds that suppressing a bias may actually be counter-effective, making the negative bias more accessible to the mind. To really change ourselves, to make our society – whatever form safety monitoring or “policing” may take in it – less afraid and suspicious of black people, we will all need to do much more than suppress our thoughts.
We are not stuck with our biases… We require self-monitoring and the repetition of debiasing practices at the time when we might otherwise fall back on stereotypes or biased thinking. The important point is that debiasing is a feasible endeavor.
Intentional self-monitoring and debiasing practices then, especially at the point of an encounter with a black person, seem to be activities of which we are all sorely in need. This is not a policy in any normal sense of the word. You can’t force someone to do that work. But it is effective.
Debiasing and Lovingkindness Meditation
I see ties between debiasing work and lovingkindness meditation – a practice I’ve fostered in my own life over the past few years. Lovingkindness meditation focuses on cultivating thoughts of peace and well-being for others and oneself. In my practice I alternate daily the subject of my lovingkindness, focusing one day, for instance, on cultivating well-wishes for myself exactly as I am, another day on a benefactor, and yet another on someone for whom I have strong negative emotions (described in some texts as “the enemy.”)
I always feel greater positivity toward my “enemy” figure after a meditation session, and often this feeling carries through with me to the next time I encounter that person. This is a genuine change, not a masking of negative feelings underneath. I actually notice at times a warmth for those with which I have a history of negativity, or at the very least a greater sensitivity to the factors that may have contributed to the person’s becoming of who they are.
I describe my practice to shed light on the power of positive intentionality, not to try and equate all negative feelings with racial bias or to promote one spiritual practice over others (or none). Nor do I point to lovingkindness because I think meditation will solve racism. But lovingkindness practice is an example of an intentionality that points us back toward the shared humanity that we’ve turned away from. Compassion research backs me up, showing a positive correlation between lovingkindness meditation and improved automatic “implicit attitudes toward stigmatized social groups.”
… lovingkindness practice is an example of an intentionality that points us back toward the shared humanity that we’ve turned away from.
Towards a More Holistic Response
So perhaps each of us stopping for some time each day to practice lovingkindness, or another intentional form of compassion, for black and brown people could be a place to start. While I’ve never been inside a police academy, I would guess that compassion practice is currently a tiny piece, if any part, of official training on how to be a “good” police officer. I believe that if police academies and departments embraced compassion and lovingkindnesss as an integral thread of training and day-to-day routine – meaning if they actually took it seriously and incorporated it into police culture and practice –we would see far fewer instances of police violence.
Mass, intentional cultivation of compassion is a very important, under explored piece of the equation. We need to become neighbors in the truest sense of the word with everyone in our lives.
Of course, we will always need policy too. Even more so, we will always need radical, ground up change. And there is still an important argument to be made in favor of eliminating the institution of policing in its current form. But none of that will be enough alone. Mass, intentional cultivation of compassion is a very important, under explored piece of the equation. We need to become neighbors in the truest sense of the word with everyone in our lives. We need to rebuild our reserves of empathy and employ them even when – especially when – we don’t feel like it. To build real, lasting racial justice we have to love each other enough that our collective unconscious bias cannot continue to destroy us.
Stefani Cox is a writer and urban planner with a passion for racial justice who lives in Oakland, California. She can be found on Twitter and on her website, where she blogs about literature and social equity.