From Knee-Jerk Reactions to Thoughtful Discussion: Using Mindfulness to Address Privilege, by Nina Frank

I consider myself a pretty skeptical person. I’m also a lawyer, a profession that values a healthy dose of skepticism. So when I first heard about mindfulness meditation and its supposed benefits in almost every area of life, I was wary. Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword lately, dumped into the same bucket as yoga, quinoa, and kale in terms of its supposed benefits. It’s understandable that people are just tired of hearing about it, and that some have even begun to criticize mindfulness, which is how you know it’s a big deal.

But the science keeps rolling in, showing that mindfulness (or mindfulness meditation) has been proven to alleviate stress, improve communication, creativity, concentration, and empathy. Mindfulness is the name given to one or more of a set of practices aimed at increasing awareness of the present moment and of broader reality, as well as the awareness that results from paying attention in a particular way, with the attitude of nonjudgmental, compassionate friendliness for what is arising in the present moment. Sounds pretty wishy-washy, right? More simply, it involves slowing down one’s mental processes enough to allow one to notice as much as possible about a given moment or situation, and then to act thoughtfully based on what one has noticed.

So I’ve been trying it. I’ve found that not only has it helped me (and, as a result, my loved ones) in terms of stress relief, it also has huge implications for society and the way we interact with each other. Most interestingly, studies have shown that mindfulness-based trainings can actually combat some of the most insidious biases that prevent us from effectively working with, connecting with, and communicating with each other.

A few recent studies have reflected that anti-bias training and sexual harassment awareness training can be not only ineffective in changing behaviors, but can actually backfire: when done poorly, they may result in defensiveness and a solidification of discriminatory beliefs.

One researcher at UC Berkeley has found that sexual harassment training may make it less likely that males will recognize situations that are harassing, and can create a backlash in males who are forced to attend the training. One study found that male university employees who participated in sexual harassment awareness training were significantly less likely to consider coercive behaviors toward a subordinate or student as sexual harassment, compared to a control group of men who had not done the training. They were also found to be significantly less likely to report harassment. The authors of the study wrote that the men’s responses might have been an “effort at self-preservation intended to defend and protect against a perceived attack on them.” Other studies have found that sexual harassment policy training can activate traditional gender stereotypes and biases, reinforcing men’s feelings that women are “emotional and duplicitous in the way that they both want sexual attention, but don’t want sexual harassment.”

Implicit bias awareness and diversity trainings have also come under fire, mostly for being purportedly ineffective. One study even found that some of these trainings can have the negative effect of validating individual biases and therefore perpetuating them.

While individual, unreplicated studies like these should be met with a healthy dose of, yes, skepticism, I have personally witnessed (and experienced) the defensiveness and cognitive dissonance that comes with people being confronted with their own privilege. Because what is privilege, if not the ability and societal allowance to not have to know. To be blissfully (or not so blissfully) unaware, to be able to walk through life not knowing what it’s like to be racially profiled, or sexually harassed, or assumed to have secured your job or your place in the room only because of your non-white, non-male status. And most everyone has some type of privilege; there are very few people out there who are not a part of any dominant or “in-group,” especially when you take into account gender identity or disability status.

And what you do with that new awareness of privilege says a lot. Do you immediately reject it, and search for a reason why it doesn’t apply to you? Maybe instead you blame yourself or feel pity for those without the privileges you just learned you had. Both of these automatic reactions are common, but it is important to understand that they are detrimental to meaningful dialogue and therefore, meaningful change.

In the racial context, the defensiveness displayed by some white people when the subject of race arises has been named by Professor Robin DiAngelo as “white fragility.” It’s the idea that the white identity is so inherently fragile that it cannot take even a small bit of awareness or criticism. It’s what leads to defensive comments like, “Well, my family never owned slaves, so it’s not my fault.” Or, “Why do we have to talk about race all the time? I don’t see color, so if people just stopped focusing on race, our problems would be solved.” Or, of course, “All Lives Matter,” the ultimate knee-jerk response to a valid critique of police violence against black people. White fragility is an inherent failure to confront privilege when it is presented to you, and this unwillingness to engage results in stasis.

White fragility’s gender-based allegory, male fragility (or toxic masculinity, as it is also called) is a similar sort of defensive reaction to awareness of male privilege, demonstrated perfectly by the results of the sexual harassment training studies discussed above, as well as manifesting in phenomena such as #NotAllMen, the go-to protestation of every self-professed “nice guy” who wants to prove he’s one of the good ones.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this post is just a critique of white men! After all, white fragility shows up just as often in women as men, and male fragility affects all races.

What if you do the opposite, and instead of avoidance, you ruminate and self-flagellate? What if, when confronted with the knowledge that you may hold a privilege you didn’t know about before, you automatically feel guilty? Or you begin to pity those that are not in your dominant group? This is a common reaction of people who think they are doing the “right” thing (in the racial context, exemplified in the phenomenon white guilt). Interestingly, this reaction can be just as detrimental to meaningful dialogue as the defensive reaction mentioned before.

These guilt and pity reactions can lead to a fetishization of the non-privileged culture, a purportedly positive but ultimately toxic reaction, as it involves the same type of “othering” as more overtly discriminatory attitudes. Pity, which inherently involves the absence of empathy, can also result in a perpetuation of discrimination, when it causes people to believe that the members of an out-group, simply because of their non-privileged status, are stronger and less sensitive than those of the in-group. This may seem like a compliment, but it manifests in a belief that those in the out-group are therefore in need of less help or resources, continuing the cycle of discrimination.

How can we counter the defensiveness and guilt that comes with discussing these fraught topics? It turns out that mindfulness can help with both recognizing the implicit biases we all hold, as well as guarding against the tendency to become defensive, or, on the other end of the reactive spectrum, engage in pitying behavior. Both reactions inevitably lead to avoidance and aversion, two things that mindfulness seeks to remedy. As humans we understandably want to avoid discomfort, but mindfulness practice can help us to live with and not fight the emotions that inevitably come from being made aware of privilege. This acceptance, coupled with mindful listening of other perspectives and experiences, has the potential to turn defensiveness into thoughtful awareness, and pity and guilt into compassion and empathy.

And study after study has borne this out: even a brief introduction to mindfulness meditation practice can reduce implicit age and race bias, can improve automatically-activated, implicit attitudes towards stigmatized social groups, and can reduce implicit prejudice towards people with disabilities. Thus, anti-bias and sexual harassment awareness trainings that have incorporated aspects of mindfulness by using tools to trigger empathy and personal reflection have had much more success.

Mindfulness is not a panacea; it cannot “solve” racism and sexism and it does not promise to automatically change hearts and minds. However, what it can do is make it easier for people to regulate their emotions when dealing with potentially stressful and uncomfortable situations, thus reducing automatic reactions that can derail progress. As we know, this has real-world consequences: implicit attitudes have been shown to be predictive of hiring practices, levels of trust between black and white interaction partners, and willingness to shoot unarmed black suspects in a simulation.

We cannot afford to brush off mindfulness as a selfish diversion or a passing fad when it has this many proven benefits. Let us drop our knee-jerk skepticism, and explore all the ways in which it can help bring about a more just society.



Picture Credit: By flickr – from flickr non-licensed, CC0,

Nina Frank

Nina Frank is an attorney in New York, representing individual employees in litigation and negotiation in all areas of employment law.