Words: Elaine Quinn (August 2020)
Image Credits: Rhonda V Magee; Aaron Blanco (Unsplash); Hans Vivek (Unsplash); Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona (Unsplash); Open Source
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Rhonda V. Magee is a trailblazer in the field of integrating contemplative practice with legal education and law practice. Her recently published book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice – Healing Ourselves and Our Communities Through Mindfulness’ invites us into a challenging but deeply transformative personal journey on understanding race and racism as they exist in contemporary society.

The book is available at time when these issues are flaming up around the world, and seeking recognition and healing, more than ever. Magee’s book is a great place to start or to deepen any journey of understanding. A book review is available here. Below is an edited version of an interview with Rhonda that took place on 20 July 2020 via Zoom.

Could you unpack what justice, social justice and racial justice mean for you?

To begin, in defining justice, I am inspired by advocates like King and Ghandi. Martin Luther King Jr said “Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” We find this power of love through recognising that we are all, without exception, vulnerable to suffering and all part of one human family. As a family, we each have responsibility for minimising that suffering and for attending to each other’s wellbeing. When they saw organised power standing against the wellbeing of other people, King and other advocates for justice throughout human history, sought to raise our consciousness about the responsibility we all have to try to oppose this, and to minimise this unnecessary suffering.

The social justice movements of all of our cultures seek to help us see that, in addition to this common suffering, there are also people among us systematically suffering, and more vulnerable, because of the way we have organised ourselves. For example, women because of the way we have arranged marriage law or people with disabilities because of the way we have arranged the accessibility or not of buildings and workplaces.

Social justice work is about looking then at what surplus suffering is flowing from the way we have organised our society for the distribution of re- sources. The answers will be unique to each culture and society but we must ask: Where in our culture are the marginalised populations? How are theresources organised? Who is benefitting from the patterns of organisation and who is suffering? How have we embedded in our laws and policies a sense of who matters more and who matters less? Where are we “othering” as opposed to “including”?

Social justice work and racial justice work are inextricably linked. There is no social justice without racial justice. With racial justice, we are examining the racial inputs and outputs through these patterns of maldistribution of resources. In the U.S. and other Westernised cultures we will see that, through a vast and intersecting set of policies, laws and practices (official and unofficial) from immigration to education to hospitalisation, white racialised people have been long preferred. This is the deep legacy of white supremacy. We must ask the difficult questions about why we are still seeing the same outcomes in the officially non-racist societies of today as we saw in the explicitly racist societies of the past. These enquiries can, of course, get uncomfortable in part because often we may have another narrative or explanation – for example it’s about nationalism, or it’s about protecting our culture. If we want to advocate for racial justice, we must be willing to sit in hard conversations about this.

ColorInsight is your approach to racial justice using mindfulness and compassion practices – could you tell us more?

ColorInsight is shorthand for the opposite to color-blindness. It is an approach that is about being curious and deepening ones capacity to think, reflect and discuss how notions of race and racism might be showing up in our midst. As promulgated in the U.S., colorblindness came in some ways from a well-meaning idea that the way we demonstrate that we are no longer racist is by not noticing race, by not having race as a feature of our public lives, by acting as if we are beyond race.

We all, however, have embedded within us deep notions of this thing called race. In the U.S., we are each given a race on our birth certificate. We arerecognising race and factoring it into our decisions all the time – where to send our children to school, how to select our marriage partners, the neighbourhoods we want to live in. Our notions of certain environ- ments are influenced by the racial demographics.

The idea then that, on the one hand, we all have a race and know something about our country’s historical legacies and that, on the other hand, we are told not to talk about it creates unhealthy patterns. ColorInsight is leaning into mindfulness practice to deepen our awareness that the legacies of race and racism are with us. We do this with compassion, because we are human beings in a world we did not create who are trying to navigate our way with cues and rules we did not create either. The only right response is deep compassion. We begin to under- stand how our lives have been impacted by race, how our inability to be aware of that may actually be part of what is causing the suffering, and we heed the call to be actively engaged in noticing the thoughts, emotions and sensations that travel with racial experience in the world. We do this all as a means of disrupting unconscious behaviour. ColorInsight is a touchstone then for the capacities that can arise when mindfulness is brought to bear on our relationship to race.

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This work feels particularly relevant and important for the legal community?

Racial bias exists within the legal profession, and we have been trying to hold ourselves accountable to this in the U.S for some time. Because of the deep historical trainings about race that pervade our social worlds, we must recognise, as lawyers and lawmakers, that there are subtle and unconscious ways we may be presuming and predicting outcomes, and making assumptions and decisions that rely, in often subtle ways, on these trainings in racism and other forms of bias.

When I was practising law, I would go to court to represent some large, wealthy insurance companies. It would be a surprise to everybody present that I was the lawyer acting on behalf of the insurer. The assumption of those present was that if I was not the actual person charged with some criminal offense, then at most, I could only be representing the person charged with a crime, someone, presumably, who would also be black. This is all because of the way black racialised people are so very often charged, and brought into the criminal process, in the U.S. There have been many great books (for example, ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander) about how criminal law in the U.S. has taken the place of segregation and explicit white supremacy in maintaining racial hierarchy, and has become the vehicle for dispossessing people of their civil and human rights.

There is much to look at in the intersection of mindfulness, law and racism. Mindfulness can be a support for becoming more present to how these may be running through even ‘neutral’ processes and practices like the charging decisions of a prosecutor or decisions a law firm makes about the kind of lawyers they want to hire because of the clients they want to attract. All of these hidden, subtle or not-so-subtle assumptions, trainings and biases keep replicating a society of “have and have-nots” that, in many ways, looked the same fifty or even one hundred years ago.

It is important to look at the role of law in contributing to this persistent racial spread in who is on the top and who is on the bottom, and to have the courage to see how we have been trained to be colorblind but at the same time, we have allowed these colorblind practices and policies to replicate a society in which Latinos, Native Americans and black racialised people continue to find themselves disproportionately under the threat of race-based oppression.

BLM movement

We, of course, saw this very vividly, visually, physically and violently with the video of the George Floyd killing this summer. We were reminded in a very visceral way that there can be subtleties in what we are talking about but that this is not always the case. Sometimes the legacies of racism are explicit and obvious, even today.

These patterns of bias can also show up in law through police interactions that are infused with a contempt for black life or for native indigenous American Indian life. Because of the legacy of the deep training of white supremacy, there can be a contempt for some of these traditionally marginalised people. Turning toward this is challenging, not least because often our brothers and sisters maybe police officers, our friends and family members may be the lawyers, law enforcement officers or judges that hold the biases embedded in our culture.

This is why a compassionate approach to healing helps. It is though a courageous compassion, like Martin Luther King Jr. had, a fierce, courageous engaged awareness that says we do this, even though it is difficult, out of the love we feel for all of us. Because we all deserve better.

You speak in your book about the importance of speaking out, and taking action, acknowledging that this is not always easy and can come with a cost. Can you speak more about this?

The circumstances we find ourselves in inevitably impact how much freedom we feel, and our ability to speak up, raise questions, enquire and challenge. For example, we may not be in a workplace setting where anybody welcomes us raising questions about the racial patterns of our hires and why some backgrounds are unrepresented or ignored. How do we face the vulnerability, and sometimes cost, to our livelihood that can come with speaking the truth when it goes against the grain? This is timely as we are all struggling to find ways to survive and thrive in the pandemic and post-pandemic world. It has left all of us feeling more vulnerable.

This is why politically-engaged mindfulness matters. Because it is about how our societal, economic, institutional, work place structures and settings can either impinge upon our sense of freedom or enable us to deploy our talents and skills in a way that feels meaningful, purposeful and consistent with our values. These structures and settings can sometimes represent ‘a knee on someone’s neck’, and engaged mindfulness can assist us in figuring out how to remove it.

Racism, and other forms of oppression, are not necessarily about hatred. Often, they are more about power dynamics, and how we try to maintain power and its perceived social bases. We must ask: “What is happening with power around here?”. How is the system constantly promoting the same kind of voice and making these other voices more marginal? Why is that voice more important? Whether it is about race, gender, sex orientation, immigration – if we care about democratic principles, we need to look for and question these patterns of elevated and privileged voices and marginalised voices. We do not often have sophisticated conversations in the U.S. about this, and we are suffering as a nation because of it.

These are the critical reasons that I and others continue to build coalitions for a broad human-rights based, access to the means of basic thriving and surviving for all of us. We must move from our particular identity-based, or experience-based, political work and see the importance of building broad coalitions that include marginalised and vulnerable people across the board. We may enter the door by looking at racism but, in the end, this is as a broad human rights struggle through which we are trying maximise the basic conditions for dignity and thriving for all of us.

We want to increase the likelihood that traditionally marginalised people in particular but all of us can live with safety, security and enough resources to thrive on this rich and generous planet where there actually is enough for all of us.

Mindful lawyering does not always lead to progressive lawyering or lawyering for social change. There are people who want to be mindful lawyers, and who are not particularly interested in disrupting the status quo. I do think though that because mindfulness can support us in seeing our radical interconnectedness, seeing the unnecessary suffering in our midst, and in developing our commitment to minimising the harm we do, it can also move us in the direction of wanting to see a world where all of us can thrive, and towards engaging in progressive politics that may support it.

How can we remain patient and stay inspired while working to bring a new world into being?

These practices are helping to change our cultures, and cultures do not change overnight. They may sometimes appear to but, generally speaking, any sudden cultural change has had generations and generations of people working on it.

We need then a deep commitment to the challenges we face and have inherited over hundreds of years. It is going to take some time for our cultures to reflect these deeper and different commitments we are developing. Can we sit, can we stay in the work together, despite what looks like not so much impact at times? Can we trust that, in some way, we are doing the part that we can?

Some argue that mindfulness can make us pacified but it is also about being realistic and pragmatic.

On the one hand, I would like everything to change now. On the other hand, I recognise we are talking about human beings and even the best of us struggle. And I personally don’t want to engage in change-making in ways that enact even subtle forms of violence. Recognising that individually we all struggle when called to change a long-engrained habit or pattern, we are better able to bring patience and compassion to the collective process for genuine change. We are not interested in revolution or change that creates undue suffering in the process.

This is also about how we transform together. This is about trying to deepen our ability to thrive together. This is not about winning for “our side” in a way that humiliates and leaves somebody else as the outsider.

This is about disrupting our outmoded notions of separation, and envisioning ways we can together, once again, find common ground and ways of thriving on this one big precious planet we call home.

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