Systemic Racism and the Courage to Look Within

Vincent Thibault
Jun 12 · 8 min read
A man walking alone some distance away, in a quiet and foggy park.
A man walking alone some distance away, in a quiet and foggy park.
Photo credit: Lina Kivaka (via Pexels)

We are all part of the system. Universal responsibility does not leave out that specific people are responsible for specific actions; it means that as global citizens, we should be brutally honest in assessing how we contribute to shaping the world we live in. Now is not the time to shy away from uneasiness and complexity. We need to recognize that whether we are blatantly racist or truly humanist, to some extent we all harbor within ourselves the very causes of racism: confusion, dualistic thinking, fear and self-cherishing. To recognize this is to show courage; and courage we all need.

This is a time to think and act — not just one or the other. We need to listen, and we need to make serious changes at all levels. Some of the things that we can do are obvious; others, less so. In this piece, I would like to examine an element that is often overlooked, and which seems crucial. It is a contemplative practice that we may call self-reflection. The following is but my perspective as a Buddhist practitioner, and I could certainly put it in the “advice from me to myself” category; but perhaps it will inspire others who want to cultivate genuine honesty and understanding.

Life is filled with awkwardness, frustrations and complications. The true nature of love to which we all aspire is utterly simple, but as we learn to open our heart and pay attention to the different forms of suffering in the world, we may go through stages in which everything feels sticky, odd, complex or extremely uneasy; at times we may find ourselves feeling rabid, disdainful, cold, arrogant, incapable or downright horrible. But according to the Buddhist teachings, all of this is also part of the meditative training. In fact, it is essential to develop the courage to open up to all forms of uneasiness. Were we to have any shot at solving social issues and inequalities, we need to understand their causes, and a careful examination shows that the root causes — ignorance, hatred, obsessions and egoism — come from the mind.

Let’s take the example of systemic racism. At the time of writing these lines, there are protests all over America, and in fact in many countries, ignited in part by the dreadful murder of Mr. George Floyd by a police officer. As we all know, that specific event was just the tip of the iceberg — a gruesome occurrence that shook up the masses. Every day for the past centuries — not years, not decades, centuries — countless other Black Americans have been suffering in one way or another from repression, prejudice, exploitation, neglect, fear and hatred. Thankfully, we are finally starting to shed light on systemic racism, and we can only hope that this is a pivotal moment in our collective history. But as we watch the news and scroll down on social media, our attention goes from one thing to the next, and we go from outrage to angst to bewilderment to a whole other bunch of painful emotions. When it gets too intense, we may feel like we need a break. But a break from what, exactly?

Or perhaps we have a tendency to oversimplify things. Although racism can be boiled down to ignorance, the global situation is extremely complex when we take into account the interrelated elements of politics, economics, public health, civil rights, education. . . When we feel overwhelmed by this complexity, we are at risk of falling prey to muddy thinking: in an attempt to deal with the unfathomable vastness of the problem, our mind clings to a narrow view, and tries to come up with a “quick fix.” For example, we may find ourselves channeling all our anger towards one specific person, or changing the focus of the discussion, or feeling powerless and disheartened, or perhaps blaming ourselves for not being able to empathize and cry.

It’s all human. We may resort to any or all of these mechanisms — avoidance, oversimplification, desensitization, polarization, you name it — and some may last mere seconds while others constantly reoccur for months and years. But oftentimes, as we go through these various reactions, we do so with little or no self-awareness. We’re well aware that we are ill-at-ease, but we desperately want to escape from the discomfort. That is very much part of the problem, especially if we are not the ones being discriminated against.

True courage implies that we fully open up to what we feel, no matter how disconcerting it may be. Kindness and honesty should go hand in hand. Thus our practice is to be fully present: we acknowledge what’s going on within us, without judging. To be clear, the “not judging” part doesn’t mean that we tolerate the unacceptable, or that we should flush our capacity of discernment and leadership down the drain; we simply suspend our inner monologue for the time being, in the context of our meditation, so that when we look at what comes up, our view is not distorted by our usual racket and habitual patterns. That’s how we familiarize ourselves with the material. The fact is, systemic racism does not come from any single person; it is rooted in ignorance, hatred and attachment; and unless we are fully enlightened beings, we all have these three poisons within us. We ourselves may not embody any flagrant form of racism, and perhaps the usual objects of our ignorance, hatred and attachment have very little to do with race; nonetheless, it is important for us to get to know these three poisons, and see what they feel like, how they manifest, evolve, appear and dissolve, be it in our mental landscape. Unlike other traditions that believe humans are fundamentally tainted, the Buddhist view is that these counterproductive emotions are not inherent to our true nature; still, they are very much present in our lives and they deserve careful consideration.

Our inner racket might pull us in one direction or another — some kind of magical thinking or nihilistic defeatism or blind rage — but when we meditate, we try to refrain from commenting on whatever we feel. We acknowledge thought, but we don’t compound it. We take a step back, open up, and witness the whole process as it unfolds on the spot. If we never learn by repeated experience how one thought leads to the next and how we immediately and continuously get carried away by our subjective concepts, emotional responses, hopes and fears, we will never be able to cut the roots of bewilderment and anger within ourselves. Again, I am not saying that we are all racist, insensitive and violent; the point is that we should be brutally honest in assessing — day after day and year after year — how our own thoughts, words and deeds contribute to the world we live in.

The exercise may be particularly demanding for the people who are discriminated against, and perhaps all the more urgent for the oppressors, but I am convinced that everyone can benefit from this. Besides, we don’t always have the luxury of sitting on a meditation cushion in a quiet environment; but most days present opportunities for short contemplations.

Needless to say, in addition to contemplation, we also need to take action in the world, and contribute whatever particular talents, skills or resources we have. But without meditation, without awareness, without the wisdom and understanding that come from genuine openness, and without some loving-kindness towards ourselves, there’s simply no way enlightened action and true healing can come about.

So if we put a knee on the ground in remembrance of the murder of George Floyd, we should think of a man who died and of a man who killed and we should look at the systems that have let down and oppressed millions of brothers and sisters time and time again, but we should also look within.

This may sound challenging, and it is. But we can apply the same principle at any scale. For example, say we approach a homeless person to give them some money, and suddenly smell a strong odor of urine; the smell may or may not come from them, but it triggers a form of disdain within us, then one thought leads to the next, and the first thing we know, we’re worried about catching fleas. Acknowledging this prejudicial tendency, no matter how shameful we may feel at first, is a practice of courage. That is not everything, but it is a start: we cannot surpass obstacles unless we first recognize them for what they are.

Currently, we may feel overwhelmed by the task ahead, or strangely numb when we’re supposed to feel compassion, or foggy when we’re presented thorny concepts and a new vocabulary. Welcoming all these experiences, with a loving and impartial attitude, should be an integral part of our spiritual training. It is not by any means the only step towards reform and healing, but it is definitely one, and it is all too often overlooked.

We can and should demand change, but if it is not reinforced by true understanding, change is not likely to last. (Of course, that’s just the thing with change: it is constant. Let us not forget that these are not the first civil rights protests. Still, the more we cultivate clarity, tenderness and integrity, the more we are likely to move in a positive direction.)

At the moment, a lot of work needs to be done at a macro level, but let us not neglect the subtler, rampant causes of social inequalities. Our own personal hang-ups and neurosis and aversions may seem remote from the main issue, and we may feel like we have nothing in common with people who abuse and kill others just because they can, but the basic mechanisms of confusion, dislike, fear and obsession are still at play within us at some level, and we can learn a lot from observing them.

We are part of the global system. We each have a role to play in how we vote, how we buy products, how we think, speak, act, teach, share and grow. If we want to understand racism in America, we can talk with friends in a safe environment and ask questions, humbly; we can read Toni Morrison, and rewatch Do the Right Thing, and reopen Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and listen to Trevor Noah’s humane and timely analysis. We should make a point of doing such things, for understanding won’t just bloom in our mind with no effort whatsoever. But as we do all these things, let’s not forget to touch base every now and then, and look within.

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