Words: Elaine Quinn (August 2020)
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Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Inner Work of Racial Justice – Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness

Author: Rhonda V. Magee

More information and purchase/supporthttps://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/The-Inner-Work-of-Racial-Justice-by-Rhonda-V-Magee-author/9780593083925

I approached the reading of this book with some apprehension about whether or not I would have enough life experience and understanding to truly resonate with, and understand, its central theme let alone be able to write an informed book review.

I recognised, at the same time, that this resistance suggested it was a project I should undertake and I am glad I did. For the first half of my life I have understood, or perhaps chosen to understand, the subject of racism in a simplistic way – deliberate acts of bias against people of a different race or colour.

I was aware that the legacies of colonialism and oppression of indigenous peoples are still with us around the world today and palpable in societal structures, cultures and practices. In the Republic of Ireland, where I come from, the legacies of British rule can still be felt in different subtle ways as is poignantly captured in the song COLONY, BY IRISH SINGER, DAMIEN DEMPSEY. Yet the naming of this as part of the wider phenomenon that is racism and the wake-up call that we are all, those of us with white skin in particular, contributing to it in subtle and unconscious ways, I understand in a new way.

Author, Rhonda V. Magee says: “Most of us have, after all, been taught to think of racism as personalized, individualised, and intentional, rather than deperson- alised, systemic and often unconscious. But we are starting to see – and are becoming willing to admit – just how racism and racial bias are part of the struc- tures underlying our upbringing.” For me, it is the depersonalised, systemic and unconscious racism that this book performs the radical act of helping us uncover, encounter and ultimately begin to transform.

Speaking about the presence of systemic racism in the United States in an interview for this issue, Magee says that there is a persistent racial spread to who is on top and who is on the bottom. We have been trained to be color blind and yet that has enabled the replication of a society in which Latinos, Native Americans and Black racialised people continue to find themselves disproportionately under the threat of race-based oppression she says. We need to ask ourselves then how assumptions, trainings and biases – both subtle and explicit – keep replicating a status quo of “have and have-nots” that looks the same as it did fifty or even one hundred years ago?

Although the The Inner Work of Racial Justice mainly looks at how these issues are manifesting in lived experience in the U.S. “racism and colorism, in forms both implicit and explicit, along with additional forms of Othering and disrespecting people who are “not our kind,” exist in many parts, if not virtually every part of the world.” The practices and reflections it offers will be a welcome support for anyone, any- where interested in this work.

The book has been published at a time when it is needed more than ever in the advent of the massive renewed uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. That was sparked by the violent murder of George Floyd, a black man whose life was taken in a very public and violent way by white police officer, Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. His death is preceded by countless others caused by police brutality and racism. Any of us wanting to sit with and feel, rather than numb out, the painful emotions that the imagery of the George Floyd murder has caused whether from watching the widely publicised video of his death (if we have chosen to do that) or associated imagery will find support in Magee’s book and meditations.

With a foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the book is composed of five parts each representing a key dimension of Magee’s approach to racial justice work. It is an approach she calls ColorInsight, the opposite to color-blindness – a practice of getting over racism by looking beyond race and, in doing so, by-passing the suffering it causes. The approach combines practices of mindfulness and compassion with community engagement and sharing our stories around these issues.

In Part 1 we are Grounding ourselves in the courage and desire to turn toward, rather than away from, enquiries about race and racism; in Part 2 we are Seeing in a deeper and more nuanced way how race and racism operate in our lives today; in Part 3 we are Being with the realities of race more effectively and practising the way of awareness with others; in Part 4 we are Doing what needs to be done, healing, standing up, speaking out; and finally, in Part 5, we are Liberating and working towards “opening the door of transformation that benefits us all.”

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“The practice of mindfulness is pivotal and offers a unique and ground-breaking way of seeing not only the work of racial justice, but also the work of social justice (inextricably linked and inseparable from the work of racial justice), and the work of justice and law more generally.”

The practice of mindfulness is pivotal and offers a unique and ground-breaking way of seeing not only the work of racial justice, but also the work of social justice (inextricably linked and inseparable from the work of racial justice), and the work of justice and law more generally. Magee has for some years been at the forefront of integrating the practices and benefits of mindfulness into legal education and practice.

Throughout the journey of the book, we are continuously invited to pause, to breathe and to become present to our bodies as we digest the often-challenging material it presents. Space and breath in fact infuse the book in a way rarely, if ever, found in a book dealing with the subject of justice. Almost every chapter includes a meditation rich with invitations to both relax, pause and breathe and to reflect more deeply on our personal experiences of race and racism. For me, this had the effect of allowing the historical facts, the poignant stories of racial experience, and the accompanying contemplations to descend into a deeper level of my experience and to become a living enquiry that stayed with me throughout the day. This speaks, I think, to the transformative power of bringing a mindful perspective to our most difficult questions about law and justice.

One of the fundamental questions we are asked to consider at the outset of the book is “What is race?” I sense many of us have not stopped to think deeply about this question. Unfortunately, it is not often a feature of our history or science lessons as children. Race itself has no scientific backing, but is a mere “matter of social imagination and construction”.

A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARTICLE strikingly tells us: “Science today tells us that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history. They reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, and not much else.” Magee asks: “Might a closer look at your own history, going back several generations on both of your parents’ sides, reveal intersections with cultures or races previously unknown to you or your family members, whether from heritage groups here or abroad?” While many of us may embrace the idea of a common humanity, understanding the (lack of) science and the history of race can strengthen our conviction because, abstract ideals aside, we really are – one human family.

Racism, then, in one of the many definitions and explanations that Magee offers us, “is a complex of behaviour and explanatory stories that enable some human beings to assert power over other human beings.” We uproot and examine how racism touches our own lives on a journey through the parts, chapters and meditations of the book where we are invited into intimate, embodied contact with our reactions to questions like:

Q. What do your skin and skin tone mean to you?

Q. How have you been wounded or how have you benefited as a result of the particular skin that you live in?

Q. What do you know about your ancestral heritage? What do you not know?

Q. What were you taught to believe about bodies like yours? About different racialised bodies?

Q. Are there ways that this identity has been a source of comfort or discomfort to you? A source of advantage or disadvantage?

Q. If most of your suffering involves witnessing, at some distance, the suffering of Others – consider how this kind of privileged position has affectedyou?

Q. Why are you reading this book? What really draws you to this work?

Q. What ideas about race did you pick up from your family or neighbourhood?

Q. What was the racial makeup of the neighbour- hoods in which you grew up?

Q. How did this community come to be that way?

Q. What laws, public policies, or private policies with racially disparate intentions or outcomes were in place? What were their effects on your predeces- sors? Your parents? On you?

Q. How are the legacies of these structural conditions shaping your life experiences – your opportunities, your challenges – now?

Q. What choices do you make on a daily basis to ally with others in the fight for equity and transformative justice?

Q. What do you need to turn toward, to see more clearly, to enable you to get actively involved in the work of racial justice?

These questions are shared to give a sense of the span of enquiries the book invites us to. They are best answered though with the use of the meditations in which they appear as this lends itself to deeper enquiry and deeper transformation.

 

Magee is also clear that this work cannot successfully be achieved without community engagement. In our related interview, she spoke of the sometimes individualised, “put it on an app,” approach to mindfulness our culture can encourage despite it originating in centuries-old, traditional Asian cultures where its embeddedness in community was key. Sharing our experiences in community often can demand of us more authentic responses, can expose our blind-spots, and can trigger our insecurities, vulnerabilities and all myriad of emotions. It is where the emotional and social intelligence that this work calls for will really be tested and strengthened. It is also though where “we work on creating safer spaces for getting it wrong so that we may get it wrong less frequently elsewhere. And we work to build the will to repair, to reconcile, and to keep coming back to one another in hopes of building resilient relationships and robust community together.” The existence of these types of community spaces may be something we have to seek out or begin ourselves.

The Inner Work of Racial Justice will have a different impact on all of us depending on our skin colour, social identities and other myriad factors from our upbringing and location in the world. Its transformative potential for me lies in its simultaneous skilful grappling of the difficult reality of racism today, and in its consistent holding of a vision of us all as one Beloved Community – a community that recognises the immeasurable uniqueness and beauty in each one of us. As Magee puts it: “I have known since I was a child that the ways in which I had been trained to see myself were not reflective of who I really was. I somehow knew, at an early age, that the identity given to me by the social world was not nearly big or deep enough to hold the mystery-in-plain-sight that I was – that we all are. We have a sense of ourselves as racialised and gendered beings in specific cultural contexts, living as convention demands, but at the same time, some of us know, instinctively, that there is something much more to who we are. And yet, we have not been trained, for the most part, to talk a bout ourselves and our “labels” as both real-and- fixed-and limited and not-real-and-relative-and-vast- beyond-words.”

We are all generously invited – even, and perhaps most strongly, those of us who may feel we have not had to think about race much at all in our lives – into this book’s deep, rich and thought-provoking material and contemplations. Accepting that invitation, and willingly engaging with it, is likely to mobilise a transformation that will continue long after we put it back on the shelf. For those of us keenly interested in revolutionising the legal system and infusing it with a sense of justice that is more about love than fear, this book is a powerful affirmation of what is possible.

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RHONDA V. MAGEE (M.A. Sociology, J.D.) is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco and an internationally-recognized thought and practice leader focused on integrating mindfulness into higher education, law and social change work. A prolific author, she draws on law and legal history to weave storytelling, poetry, analysis and practices into inspiration for changing how we think, act and live better together in a rapidly changing world. Read more at: RHONDAVMAGGEE.COM

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