Self-Compassion and Waking Up to Racial Injustice

I believe that self-compassion will be key in the fight against racial injustice. We already know that compassion plays a key role, making the fight against racism more effective and sustainable. Great social justice leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi taught us the need to have compassion for oppressors, to recognize their humanity as well as that of the oppressed. Otherwise we just continue the cycle of dehumanization. But self-compassion is especially needed when acknowledging our own role in the oppression of others. I know that I, as a white cis-gendered heterosexual woman, have needed tremendous self-compassion to look at my own role in a racist system.

Like many, I consider myself a moral person who abhors racism and feel the resistance that arises when I am asked to examine my own privilege. “But I’m not a racist!” my ego cries. Being kind and understanding toward myself has helped me to see that, like most of us, I don’t oppress consciously. I have unconsciously internalized racist stereotypes that impact my interactions with others simply by virtue of growing up in a racist society.

I didn’t create the unjust system of white supremacy we live in. Rather, it is the legacy of slavery and segregation that existed long before I was born.

Self-compassion has allowed me to feel safe enough to recognize all the benefits I have by being white. I assume I will be protected by the police. I have never received suspicious looks when hanging out in a store or coffee shop. In the process of writing this blog I realized a benefit of being white that I never even considered before. I grew up without a lot of money. My mother was a secretary who raised two kids on her own without any financial help from my absent father. This experience was similar to those of many Black children. When I was 11, however, my mother moved us to an inexpensive apartment on the far edges of a wealthy neighborhood with an amazing school district so that my brother and I could get a good education. I got straight A’s, allowing me to go to UCLA on scholarship and eventually get my PhD at UC Berkeley. I was fully accepted in middle and high school and had many friends. If I had been Black — one of the lone Black faces in a sea of white ones — would my mother have felt comfortable isolating her children in that way? Would I have had the same friendship network? Would teachers have supported me the same way? It’s hard to know for certain, but I never even had to spend a moment thinking about the color of my skin, a luxury a Black child would not have had. 

As Paul Gilbert likes to say, “It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.” By participating in and benefitting from an unjust system, we perpetuate racism. We need to have self-compassion to see our role in racism clearly, holding this uncomfortable truth with love and acceptance, so we can wake up and commit to do things differently.

As we navigate these troubled times, whatever our position in the system of injustice — oppressor or oppressed, sometimes both — we can take a self-compassion break in moments of racial pain. First, we need to become mindfully aware of our feelings — grief, shame, anger, hopelessness — and validate the pain. Next, we need to recognize our common humanity, understanding that we all suffer due to racism. Some suffer much more than others, but it harms all of us because we are interconnected. If you are white, you may want to remind yourself that your pain is shared by many others waking up to their unconscious complicity in racism. If you are Black, Indigenous or a person of color, you may want to remind yourself of others like you who also suffer due to racism. Finally, we can put a fist on our heart with the other hand gently resting upon it, symbolizing strength with love, and be encouraging and supportive to ourselves as we commit to taking decisive action. This will help us undertake the courageous work of personal, interpersonal and systemic change with the grit and determination needed. 

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