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Reckoning, $5: How I used mindfulness to interrupt my own unconscicous bias

Take a minute to sit with this idea.


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Jen Patterson

3 years ago | 6 min read

Once I stopped at an intersection and gave $5 to a white man holding a sign. As I rolled up my window, I had a flash of a few months before.

A Black woman had approached me asking for money as I left Walgreens. I looked in my car for change but didn’t have any $1 bills where I normally keep them. I didn’t open my wallet to give her $5. Or $20. Instead, I asked her if she was okay.

I felt my face flush with the memory. There it was. I had caught myself, a liberal white (in fact, ethnically mixed) person, in the tangled wiring of racism. I was someone with many close friends of color including Black women. I had spent years at the office advocating for hiring BIPOC. I had worked in multicultural marketing. I gave money to the Equal Justice Initiative and Color of Change.

I had been in a decade-long long relationship to a brown, immigrant man and had many undocumented friends. In college, I had opted to not report an assault near campus because I worried what my vague, possibly inaccurate recollection of the perpetrators might mean for my Black friends and fellow students.

I also knew I had given money, even in $5 increments, to men of color — I could remember their faces. Why didn’t I do the same for her?

Here at the freeway offramp, something uglier than the trash-littered asphalt had revealed itself: My own unconscious bias on who is “worthy” of money.

Mindfulness is about gaining awareness of our thoughts and belief systems. It’s about retraining our brains to think in a conscious way, a way of our own choosing rather than blindly sliding along on the culture’s rails. This ugly reveal made me ashamed.

I flipped defensively through a mental rolodex of a million other moments to prove to myself that what had happened was not true. But there was no escape — the only way around it was through it.

So I sat with it. For days.

Consciously or unconsciously, we as white people have all been participants in the social structure of racism. We have sold ourselves on the concept that life is a zero sum game — that we have to seize and protect what is “ours” or there will not be enough.

This corrupted thinking, perpetuated by our white male supremacist culture, is that our safety as white people depends on domination. We cling to occluding narratives — that we have individually earned our place, for example — that obscure the truth of our origins: That our wealth is built on stolen bodies and stolen land, perpetuated by a culture that works for our race. We feel threatened by even the slightest poke at “our” resource and power. In this binary paradigm, there are winners (white people) and losers (people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people).

These thought patterns are rooted in racism. Even deeper, they are rooted in scarcity thinking — that there is not enough for ME and MINE.

Here is an alternative to this thinking: There IS enough. We are worthy of enough.

See back to being a newborn. We hadn’t “done” anything, we hadn’t proved anything about ourselves. We had no resumes. We were not “better than.”

Binary thinking did not yet exist for us. This was our true worthiness. We were in balance. We were simply worthy of receiving. This is our contract with the universe — white, Black, Brown. We ARE, therefore, there is ENOUGH.

Take a minute to sit with this idea.

Imagine this feeling of worthiness, of having enough, stretching all the way back to the first moment white people set foot on Indian land. How would that sense of worthiness THEN have changed who we are as a country, as a planet, NOW?

When we as white people see others as less worthy, consciously or unconsciously, these thoughts are a mirror of our own beliefs of unworthiness. Our own unworthiness is what makes us hoard power, control, credit, resource. We attempt to fill our own spiritual void through overcompensation.

When I unconsciously gave a white man more money than a woman of color, I was perpetrating racism. In addition, I was actually shorting myself. I was saying, “I — as a woman — am less worthy.” I was saying, “I — as a white person — don’t have enough.”

This cringeworthy moment was a gift to me. A chance to rewire my own biased thinking. A chance to put my consciousness in full, clear alignment with my values. As I sat in my discomfort, as I breathed, I told myself, “I AM WORTHY.” I told myself, “I AM ENOUGH.”

I heard a podcast once about unconscious bias. Our minds are like the bored dog who finds a shoe or a table leg to gnaw on. We have to catch ourselves in the act to correct the behavior. As white people, we are trained by the culture and often by our families to uphold racism.

This is why racism sticks. It is already the dominant culture. Then for every negative thought about a person of color that we don’t correct then and there, that neural pathway gets a little bit deeper. This goes for racism and bias, but really for everything negative that inner voice says, whether it’s “Today I look fat” or “Why speak up, who’s going to listen to me?” Mindfulness helps us retrain our negative thought habits into ones that serve us.

As white people, we should give money to Black causes. We should patronize Black businesses. We should cultivate Black friendships. We should listen to Black voices. And, as important, we need to ask ourselves, “Why didn’t I…?” Why didn’t I advocate for more candidates of color? Why didn’t I give that Black candidate the job? Why didn’t I feel she was ready for the promotion? Why didn’t I feel safe? Why didn’t I give her $5?

And then, “Why didn’t I feel enough? What is it about ME that feels deficient?”

Feeling our own true worth is not a magic antidote to our deeply ingrained racism. Instead, worthiness creates SPACIOUSNESS for what is here FOR US TO LEARN. It allows us to loosen the grip on our personal and cultural concepts of a zero sum game, of domination as the only route to prosperity, of a binary system where we are either winners or losers.

It allows us the humility to accept our own role in racism and to begin the work of anti-racism. We have to be willing to steep in our own discomfort, our own unworthiness, to invite real change. In finding worthiness, we are able to see others as worthy. Worthiness is created out in the world.

It is the week after the death of George Floyd and protests are raging in the streets of America. I see a news clip about a man who lives near Lafayette Square in Washington DC who opened his door to harbor dozens of protestors fleeing police tear gas.

They stayed hours. In the morning, volunteers who had heard the story came to help clean the man’s house. This is the cycle of enough-ness. It does not exhaust itself. It does not take. It creates more enough-ness in the world.

Recently, at the grocery store a Black woman asked me for change. I told her, my son in my arms and no free hands, I would get her on the way out. When we left, he said, “Where’s the lady?” She was no longer at her spot. “We’ll drive around and see if we can find her,” I told him.

After circling the parking lot, we were about to pull into the street when she came down the block. I waited and waved. I gave her a $20. She took it without looking at it. I thought, with a little smile, what a perfect punctuation.

The universe was reminding me that $20 wasn’t about getting credit. There is no celebration, no special acknowledgment in treating someone the way they should always be treated. It is simply how it should be. She sat on her milk crate and looked away.

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Jen Patterson

Worklife coach, adoptive parent, aspiring gardener. Writer on coaching and work for The Fold Mag.


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