Creating Racial Justice through Compassion and Self-Awareness

Creating Racial Justice through Compassion and Self-Awareness

I read the article “What We Say, Not What We Do” in the most recent Wise Brain Bulletin and immediately contacted the author, Shakil Choudhury, requesting permission to reprint the article here. (see Reflections below) A subsequent delightful phone conversation confirmed, yes, this is everything I teach applied to racial justice and using our tools of emotional intelligence to overcome the implicit biases inherent in every human being that lead, unconsciously, to discrimination and oppression. The article is drawn from Choudhury’s book Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us v. Them; it’s a fabulous insight into the power of compassion and self-awareness to change even the most deeply embedded habits of our brains, and using brain science to understand Us v. Them.

So this newsletter is a bit different. The Reflections section is entirely written by Shakil Choudhury. The Poetry and Quotes to Inspire section is mine. The Stories to Learn From section is embedded in the Reflections. The Exercises to Practice come from Rick Hanson in the same issue of the Wise Brain Bulletin. The Resources section are links to the work of Shakil Choudhury.

May these insights and tools be thought-provoking as well as useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Deep Diversity

What We Say, Not What We Do © Shakil Choudhury

In the current political context of Black Lives Matter, rising Islamaphobia and antiimmigration sentiment as well as mass shootings, racial tensions are at a peak not seen in decades. We are all vulnerable to becoming polarized into Us versus Them positions by such intense inter-group friction. Compassion and self-awareness is needed more than ever to create racial justice. Yet we must overcome not just the structures of history that perpetuate inequality but the structures of the mind that exert a hidden influence on our interactions with people who are different from us, especially racially. The following excerpt from my book will help explain what I mean…

A university student, Nina, sits patiently in the waiting area of a nondescript office. Two other students, one black and one white, are also waiting to be called in. After a few moments, the black student notices his cell phone is missing and heads to the adjacent hallway to retrieve it. On his way out, he accidentally bumps the white student’s leg. No words are exchanged, but once the black student has left the waiting room, the white student mutters: “Clumsy nigger.”

Nina has arrived at this office to be part of a research project. She doesn’t realize, though, that the study has already begun in the waiting room. What’s happening is part of a Canada-U.S. study conducted by researchers from York University, the University of British Columbia, and Yale University. The black and white students are actors, and the focus of the study is on Nina’s response.

Subjects were divided into three research groups. One group saw this exchange happen on a video (Watchers). A second group only read about it (Readers). The third group (Experiencers) actually experienced the interaction directly with live black and white actors.

Unsurprisingly, when asked to imagine themselves in this situation, the Readers and Watchers indicated that they would be outraged. When asked which student they would choose to work with in a follow-up activity, more than 80 per cent of the Watchers said that they would choose to work with the black student over the white student. Similarly, about 75 per cent of the Readers said that they, too, would choose the black student as a partner.

None of these results should be surprising. After all, they took place in 2009 in a university setting in Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. But what were the results from the Experiencers group? How did Nina and others like her respond? How many of the Experiencers said or did anything in response to the racist comment?

We would expect the numbers to be a little bit lower. For most of us, responding in real time is more difficult than an imagined intervention. Maybe 50 per cent of the study group would have stepped in? But perhaps that still sounds too high. A conservative guess might be that 30 per cent – three out of every ten students – would have said or done something in response. Or sceptics in the crowd might suggest that only one out of ten students would step in.

The actual results? According to study co-author Kerry Kawakami, of those who experienced the racist event first-hand, no one intervened or said anything.iii Nor, when interviewed later, did anyone report being upset by the comment. And disturbingly, most of the students chose the white person who made the racist comment as their partner for a later assignment.

Excuse me? Yes – you read that correctly. The vast majority of the students – over 70 per cent – chose the white student rather than the black student as a partner, despite having witnessed the incident first-hand.

Here’s another twist – all of the students who participated in the study were non-black. Some were white; some came from a variety of ethnocultural racial backgrounds. They were well educated, young, and living in a profoundly multiracial city. A diverse bunch of university students – the odds don’t get much better for a group we would expect to have empathy for their peers and potentially intervene in such a situation.

The researchers concluded that this study is an example of our inability to accurately predict how we will feel – and therefore react – in future situations, especially regarding bias and discrimination. The study investigated emotions and behaviours in the context of racial difference.

So why are emotions important? This is the first insight about issues of diversity and inclusion. How we feel directly influences how we act.

Our emotions are invisible and controlling. Whether we’re aware of them or not, they significantly influence our choices and behaviours. Some scientists even argue that we feel rather than think our way through the world. Further, social pain (for example, being excluded) and physical pain (such as being hit) share overlapping neural regions in the brain. This helps shed light on why angry expressions or words of rejection can hurt so much.

To tackle contemporary discrimination and racism, we need to connect what we feel with what we think, the choices we make with how we behave. Developing emotional literacy, therefore, is key to focal point of the framework called Deep Diversity.

A Compassionate Approach for Tackling Contemporary Racism

Once you know why change is so hard, you can drop the brute force method and take a more psychologically sophisticated approach.
– Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, NYU Stern School of Business

For twenty years now, I’ve been an educator and consultant on issues of diversity and inclusion. I help organizations work through their differences, to nurture environments where all people feel like they matter and belong. Our team at Anima Leadership is called in to train staff and students when a school has a racist incident. We are consulted when a human rights settlement requires an intervention. We have developed trainings, curricula, and measurement tools for federal and provincial governments in Canada and assisted private and public sector organizations to improve their diversity outcomes. Internationally, I’ve led intercultural dialogue projects for communities in conflict, specifically in Europe and South America.

For a long time, I believed that issues of racism and discrimination were simply a matter of ignorance. I thought that if we, as good citizens in egalitarian, democratic societies had the “right” information, we would make better, more thoughtful and fair choices. Gradually I discovered that this appeal-to-the-head-and-behavior-will-change strategy – a cognitive approach to social change – works only in a limited manner.

As the opening vignette indicates, the problem is much more complex than being misinformed. The Yale-York-British Columbia study demonstrated that even young, educated, and ethnoculturally diverse students have a significant discrepancy between what they think and feel about discrimination, and what they actually do in the face of a racist event. Other studies in this book will suggest that we have greater empathy for those who are racially most like ourselves.

Compared to 50 years ago, when state sanctioned segregation, deliberate persecution and violence was normal, there are fewer examples of humanity’s old villain, overt racism, today. Yet the Yale-York-British Columbia study is a manifestation of its slyer yet still toxic twin, subtle racism- also referred to as systemic discrimination. This form of racism is hard to see and therefore even harder to discuss. As exemplified by the public conversations about racial profiling following the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, it can easily fracture groups along racial lines of Us/Them.

And this is what’s holding us back collectively. I will argue that overcoming systemic discrimination is the next part of the incomplete historical social project towards racial justice. The Deep Diversity framework offers a non-judgmental, comprehensive approach to nurturing inclusion in both organizations and communities.

In short, Deep Diversity exposes some hard-to-see intergroup dynamics that perpetuate the Us/Them dynamic. It makes both our brain (cognition) and heart (emotions) vulnerable to constructive change.

Using Brain Science to Understand Us/Them

At the heart of the Us versus Them dynamic is our tendency to see a person as a symbol of a group, especially of a racial or ethnic group, rather than as an individual. When we do this, our empathy is reduced and we may dehumanize the person in some small or big way. Research described as “robust” demonstrates our tendency to see those who are racially different in simplistic, primitive stereotypes – more like animals or objects than people. This tendency, called infrahumanization or objectification, shows itself whenever we make generalizations about a sub-set of people, especially so-called minority groups. (For example, associating blacks with apes and violence, or seeing East Asians as hard-working, expressionless, almost robotically efficient.)

Fundamental to this discussion is understanding that our unconscious mind – automatic, reactive, emotional, and intuitive – easily dominates the conscious mind, the realm of logic, language, reason, and abstraction. In the words of a respected researcher, Joseph Ledoux of New York University, “Consciousness get all the focus . . . but consciousness is a small part of what the brain does, and it’s a slave to everything that works beneath it.”

As Deep Diversity shows, our unconscious biases and automatic brain processes frequently favour those most “like us,” creating racial blind spots and hard-to-see discrimination that become systemic against “them.” This causes many hard-working individuals and groups to be hurt or prevented from moving forward in society because of their ethnocultural or racial background. It also explores how power dynamics and group status make things more complicated. Many minority group members also dehumanize themselves, while favouring the dominant racial group’s members, characteristics, and values.

Turning inwards to the level of gut feelings and emotions will offer a greater appreciation of the problem, as well as possible solutions. As we appreciate the depth of what we collectively face and are able to generate some compassion for why we get stuck, we may be better positioned to progress towards racial equality in new, more helpful directions. In brain science terms, we have to disrupt and alter the neural pathways that result in biases that do not serve us collectively. In plain language, we have to break some bad habits regarding issues of racial difference.

Inner Skill 1: Self-Awareness

To manage rather than be controlled by our feelings, and break our prejudice habits, we need to develop an early-warning system to the emotions bubbling below the surface of awareness. Self-awareness is the tool required for such advanced detection, the foundation of all inner skills.

According the Michael Inzlicht, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto Scarborough: “There is substantial evidence that those with more executive control are able to regulate their prejudiced responses. . . . People who are better able to focus their attention and manage their emotions tend to be people who are able to regulate their stereotyped associations.”

Executive control refers to the work of the prefrontal cortex, including planning, evaluating, thinking about ourselves, and impulse control. And executive control is premised on selfawareness, the starting point for inner skill development.

Self-awareness starts with attentiveness to our own emotions and needs. It includes knowing our strengths and weaknesses, and having a strong sense of our worth and capabilities. It is the ability to self-reflect, follow our instincts and gut reactions, and be aware of the impact we have on others and the world around us (and of their impact on us).

Even with a good handle on our conscious selves, it’s the elusive unconscious parts that behave as personal blind spots. Learning to direct our focused attention to the internal workings of our mind is critical to living a life where our actions and choices are aligned with our values. Especially regarding issues of racial difference and diversity.

Researcher and psychiatrist Dan Siegel argues that developing such inner knowledge – what he calls mindsight – helps us “name and tame” our emotions, so that we know how and when to constructively process and express them. It also helps us counter the sweeping emotional charges that underlie intergroup interactions, especially when there is competition or conflict.

The most extensive process for developing self-awareness that I’m aware of also happens to be the second inner skill, mindfulness meditation. This technique offers simple exercises for the brain that include attention to breathing, body sensations, and relaxation.

Prejudice and stereotypes are simply neural habits. As such, they are subject to neuroplasticity: they are flexible and can be altered through conscious attention. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help change negative habits of the mind. It is the tried and true method of over two millennia for improving our focused concentration. It’s a specific form of attention that emphasizes our here-and-now experience. Mindfulness meditation is about being aware of what is happening in both the mind and the body, without reacting or judging.

This Eastern contemplative tradition has spread across the Western world over the last several decades. It has been modified for use in a variety of non-religious settings, including health care, personal growth, general stress relief, and leadership development.

Many strategies besides meditation can also help us develop self-awareness, especially regarding racial difference. Questions to spark personal reflection can also be supportive. The following sample questions are adapted from cultural proficiency educator Randall Lindsay and his colleagues:

* To what social identity groups (including race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability) do I belong?

* How are institutions and organizations in this country influenced by the dominant ethno-racial culture?

* How has my race and identity helped or hindered my progress in society, in small or big ways?

* How does race and social identity help or hinder people in my organization?

* How does my perceived status based on social identity in an organization (or society at large) affect my behavior and motivation to achieve? In general, how might perceived status affect behavior and motivation to achieve?

It’s not easy to confront parts of ourselves that we are less aware of or that are contradictory to our espoused values. It can fuel painful emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, or defensiveness. This is where Deep Diversity’s compassionate approach becomes important. Self-compassion helps us observe ourselves with curiosity rather than judgment. It’s the salve to lessen the painful sting of our mistakes so we don’t beat ourselves up. Yet it still holds us accountable. Compassion is essential; without it, we may not be able to focus our attention long enough to learn about and unlearn some bad habits about relating to others.

Finally, the key to developing any skill is practice and repetition. Although this may seem obvious, it’s still worth mentioning. Persevering is the hardest part of any habit breaking and forming process. If you’re like me, it’s an imperfect series of forward and backward steps. So, practice noticing your body language and breathing, even if there’s a stretch of days in which you don’t. Continue to ask yourself about the impact of your social identity on each situation, even if it’s an afterthought. Practice. Rinse. Repeat. Do this until it becomes automatic.

Acknowledging this challenge from the onset may help us push through periods of inconsistency without getting demoralized. In this case, “fake it till you make it” is a completely acceptable principle. It may also be the most realistic path of learning for most of us.

Bias Reduction Strategies

In 2007, I completed the Implicit Association Test on race – a highly respected on-line bias assessment tool – that revealed I had a moderate preference for white people over black. I felt embarrassed and devastated. As someone who works in the field of diversity and prejudice reduction, this was a significant result that led to some profound reflection. Part of me wondered if I should quit my day job. I sat with the results for many months, thinking about their implications for my work.

My results, however, did make some kind of sense. On a personal level, they fit my earlier life story. I am of South Asian ethnicity, and I grew up in small-town Canada. Part of me wanted to be white. I worked hard to assimilate and “fit in.” On a broader, societal level, pro-white preference is part of the collective North American story. As Project Implicit research demonstrates, the majority of both white and non-white people have pro-white bias. We’ve all drunk from the same cultural punch bowl, and our tongues are stained similar colors.

So, what to do? I started by doing what I knew best – I asked questions, I read, I sought out new research and revisited studies addressing implicit bias. I found evidence that although implicit bias is consistent over time and rooted in unconscious processes, it is not completely fixed. That means we can change it. I was struck by the simplicity of one particular approach developed by researcher Brandon Stewart. He instructed study participants to use a counter-stereotype – specifically, the word “safe” – whenever they encountered a black person, and found a reduction in anti-black prejudice.

Given what I was learning about how the brain works, Stewart’s strategy made sense. If stereotypes are simply an overused neural pathway – with the association between black people and danger being particularly entrenched in our minds – then just telling myself to not make the association would likely fail. Stewart’s strategy suggested that I needed to build a new neural pathway by creating a new association between black and positive qualities.

Over the next few years, I began a simple experiment with myself, usually when I was riding the subway. Public transit allows natural time and space to people-watch. Taking advantage of the opportunity, whenever I saw black people in the subway car, I would close my eyes and intentionally make a positive association: kind, generous, philosophical, hardworking, engineer. I repeated the words to myself several times while trying to picture the person’s face with my eyes closed. Tackling my own anti-black bias became a mini-habit, a regular way to pass a minute or three of my time.

In November 2012, five years after I took my first IAT, I repeated the process. This time, the results indicated that I had “little to no automatic preference between white people and black people,” the lowest level of the IAT. Although it’s far from a scientific conclusion, I credit the method inspired by Stewart’s research for helping reduce my anti-black bias.

While I adopted this method, I was also conscious of three things. First, that I was attempting to broaden the number of overall possible categories of black people in my mind, with an emphasis on increasing my list of positive, non-stereotypical associations. (There are also positive stereotypes of blacks: athletic, cool, good dancers, and so on).

Second, that black people are just another human group and so should not be romanticized as possessing only “good” qualities. (I did not, however, actively work to increase my negative list of qualities – society has done that adequately for us all.) But the awareness is important that within all our groups – within all individuals, really – exist the range and potential for a multitude of positive and negative human qualities.

And finally, that this process is awful to describe and may be painful for many of us to read. For that I am deeply sorry. I find it beyond deplorable that, in this day and age, members of our human tribe would be described as “unsafe,” as somehow “less than,” because of an arbitrary measure such as skin color or ethnicity.

The criticism may also be levelled that to “gaze” at another person for our own learning in this manner is distasteful, perhaps even dehumanizing. And there is validity to such a critique. The thing is, it’s happening all the time regardless. Recall that our unconscious mind absorbs information from our surroundings, tracking information that reinforces bias and stereotypes. So, do we want to do it unconsciously with a negative collective outcome or positively for a mutually beneficial outcome? It’s a less-than-ideal choice, but choose we must. By guiding our conscious attention, we may be able to undo the unconscious habits of mind that hinder fairness between individuals and groups.

This strategy, known as counter-stereotypes, is one of many promising prejudice reduction strategies that researchers have shown can reduce bias. A complete list of strategies is included in my book.


Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means, to them, you are invisible.
– Nayyirah Waheed

* * * * *

We have made enormous progress in teaching everyone that racism is bad. Where we seem to have dropped the ball…is in teaching people what racism actually IS.
– Jon Stewart

* * * * *

In this country, American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.
– Toni Morrison

* * * * *

Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.
– Scott Woods

* * * * *

People of color, women, and gays – who now have greater access to the centers of influence than ever before – are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, by misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in American have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
– Teju Cole

* * * * *

The police can go to downtown Harlem and pick up a kid with a joint in the streets. But they can’t go into the elegant apartments and get a stockbroker who’s sniffing cocaine.
– Noam Chomsky

* * * * *

The new racism: Racism without ‘racists’. Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will. It’s common to have racism without racists.
– Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

* * * * *

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
– Desmond Tutu


[See Reflections above for Shakil Choudhury’s own story of “waking up” to his own biases about race and ethnicity, even though a member of an ethnic minority himself.]


[This exercise by Rick Hanson is excerpted from the same Wise Brain Bulletin that published Shakil Choudhury’s article in Reflections.]

Emotional Awareness Meditation Purpose/Effects

* This meditation brings about a great deal of equanimity with emotions. They will not seem to affect us as deeply or adversely.

* Many people have trouble contacting their emotions directly. Even if we feel that we know what emotion we are having, that does not necessarily mean that we are contacting it directly.

* To contact an emotion directly means to feel it in the body. This is the opposite of most people’s experience, which is to related ideas about the emotion.

* Here is an example. A person asks you how you are feeling. You respond by saying, “I am angry, because…” You then go on to tell the person all the reasons you are angry.

* In this example, only the first three words, “I am angry” have anything to do with contacting emotion. All the rest of the explanation is about concepts.

* A fuller example of contacting emotions directly, that is somatically, would be to say, “I am angry. A can feel a sort of gripping tension in my belly that is uncomfortable. The tense area feels kind of twisted and sharp. Parts of it are throbbing. It also feels like it is radiating heat outwards.”

* Notice that the cause of the anger is irrelevant. The practice here is to feel the physical expression of the anger as completely as possible.

* Extended practice of this meditation will bring about “skill at feeling,” that is, a tremendous amount of clarity in the emotional world. Emotional intelligence.

* It will also help emotions to process and release much more quickly and completely, because we are not holding on to ideas about the emotions. The body processes emotion quickly, naturally, and fully.



Feel the physical expression of an emotion as completely as possible.

Long Version

1. Settle into a comfortable meditation posture.

2. Breathing normally, bring your attention to your emotions. Notice if you are feeling any emotions, no matter how faintly. It is not necessary to know precisely which emotion you are having, or why you are having it. Just knowing that you are feeling something emotional is enough. Guessing is OK.

3. Once you detect an emotion, see if you can find its expression in your body. Maybe there is a feeling of tension, gripping, tightening, burning, twisting, throbbing, pressure, lightness, openness, etc.

4. If you like, you can mentally make the label “feel” when you detect a body sensation of emotion. Other labels are possible (“emotion” for example).

5. Each time you detect an emotional body sensation, try to actually feel the sensation in your body, as completely as possible. Feel it through and through.

6. Completely let go of any ideas you have about the emotion, or self talk you might have about why the emotion is arising. Return to the body sensation of the emotion.

7. Continue contacting these emotional body sensations for as long as you wish.


Meditating on emotions is a traditional part of Vipassana practice in Buddhism. It is, for example, one of the four main techniques covered in the Vissudhimagga (The Path to Purity), an important Buddhist text.

The version presented here is a summary of a practice given by American Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young. Fare Well May you and all beings be happy, loving, and wise.


* At first, practicing this meditation may make it seem as if the emotions are getting bigger. If they are negative emotions, this may seem overwhelming for a while. This is natural. It is occurring not because the emotions are actually getting bigger, but for two interesting reasons. The first is because we are no longer suppressing them. We are allowing them to actually express themselves fully. The second is because we are observing them (actually feeling them) very closely. Just as a microscope makes small things look bigger, the “microscope” of attention makes the emotional body sensations seem larger than they really are.

* The good news here is that as the emotions express themselves freely in the body, they are being processed. Usually this means that they will pass much more quickly.

* If we are feeling a positive emotion in this way, it may pass quickly, but we will also derive much more satisfaction from it, because our experience of it is so rich and complete.

* If we are feeling a negative emotion in this way, we will experience much less suffering from it, because we are not resisting and suppressing it.


Shakil Choudhury is an award-winning educator and consultant with more than 20 years experience in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion. Co-founder of Anima Leadership, he has trained senior leaders across sectors and developed measurement tools for organizations, helping improve their diversity outcomes. Internationally, Shakil has designed and led peacebuilding projects for communities in conflict, specifically in Europe and South America. His new book Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them is a practical, scientific and compassionate approach to tackling systemic discrimination. Written in a Gladwell-meets-racial-justice style, many are calling it a “breakthrough” book on racism and social identity. He lives in Toronto and is currently experiencing his most challenging and rewarding management experience: his two toddlers teaching him about fatherhood.

Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us v. Them by Shakil Choudhury, Between the Lines, CA, 2015.