By Michelle C. Chatman, Ph.D.
As a native Black Washingtonian, I grew up just blocks away from the Capitol building, our nation’s “seat of government.” It always held a veneer of historical distinction and what felt like an air of holy sacrament. As a child, my family would occasionally take evening walks to the US postal branch on North Capitol Street and Union Station. I remember walking through the wide hallways and marveling at the milky white walls and marble columns, intrigued and slightly afraid of the statues of Roman legionnaires that lined the ceiling in the Main Hall. Yet, I adored the regal and vast feeling of all. We would sometimes walk near the Capitol and other government buildings and as we did it seemed we were a bit quieter, a tad more reverent. We seemed to approach the land as almost hallowed ground. My parents would offer a nonthreatening good evening to the police officer on duty. We kept a safe distance.
My father, Kenneth I. Jordan, Sr., worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and we spent countless hours touring museums during summer break. Sometimes, with our mom, we’d stop by his building and have lunch as a family. Dad started as a part-time custodian in 1975 and progressively worked his way up the ranks before retiring as General Manager in 2003. I’ll forever remember the lavish holiday parties the museum held each year which felt like a tiny UN with people and delicacies from around the world. From a young age my siblings and I were taught how to “act” in spaces like these; a critical lesson in a heavily segregated city where Black and White realities rarely mingled. It was important to my mom that we knew how to comport ourselves with dignity so as not to reinforce the White imagination of Black savagery and expose White peoples’ fear of Black folks. Mrs. Barbara C. Jordan was not to be played with! In a country where white supremacy is encoded into our social norms, Black bodies are hyperaware of our movements and vulnerability in society. Every venture with my mom to downtown DC, or anywhere beyond our all-Black neighborhood, was a lesson on moving, adjusting, and restricting yourself for the sake of White comfort.
The events of January 6th exemplify what is disturbingly possible when White comfort is centered above all else. The images have been seared into our memory — a mob of White men and women storming into the US Capitol building, scaling walls, bogarting past police officers, smashing windows, parading confederate flags through the US Capitol building and performing various other unimaginable indignities. The events revealed, yet again, an unavoidable truth that America has yet to fully acknowledge which is the vastly different ways that Black and White bodies are surveilled and protected in this country. As I watched the chaos unfold I knew what every other Black person viewing knew — had the mob been a group of Black, Latino or Indigenous folks, they would have been met with batons, riot gear, dogs, tear gas, and tasers. We would have witnessed a blood bath on hallowed ground and soon after, a narrative spun to justify it. We don’t have to imagine it. We’ve seen it played out in Standing Rock, South Dakota; Flint, Michigan; Ferguson, Missouri; Washington, D.C., and at numerous Black Lives Matter marches and protests turned violent by law enforcement, the military and antagonistic White mobs. January 6 was yet another demonstration of the sanctity of Whiteness. And I am tired of it.
As an associate professor of criminal justice and a critical contemplative scholar-practitioner, my teaching and research examine the devaluation and criminalization of Black bodies in America, particularly youth. For the past two summers, I’ve taught mindfulness and restorative practices to mostly Black DC youth in a violence prevention program. These young people expressed how they felt constantly surveilled by police, watched like outsiders in their home town. They shared their fear that officers were around every corner waiting for them to make a wrong move, a fear that is justified. The ideology of White superiority that allowed domestic terrorists to overtake the Capitol on January 6 is the same false ideology that adultifies and criminalizes their behavior, kicks them out of schools, and into jails and detention centers at disproportionate rates. Yet, in perhaps the most heavily policed city in the nation, with roughly 27 law enforcement units with overlapping jurisdictions, D.C. was grossly unprepared for the attempted coup on January 6. Ongoing investigations are now exposing the layers of collusion that allowed such an atrocity to take place resulting in the destruction of property, threat to national security, and loss of life. Only thirteen arrests were made on the day of the siege. Insurrectionists were allowed to literally walk away without immediate consequence. Black lives have been killed for far less — while sleeping, while jogging, with hands up while surrendering, while going through emotional distress.
I also research how mindfulness and critical contemplative approaches can serve as a means of protecting Black humanity and bring equity and compassion into educational spaces. As board president of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, I support a global community of academic professionals transforming higher education, and other fields, through a range of contemplative approaches that advance deep learning, compassion, justice, and belonging. I’ve lectured broadly on the use of these approaches in helping to dismantle the hierarchy of human value based on race, class, gender, sex, and ability that has been deeply embedded into every system in our society. What can mindfulness and contemplative approaches offer us at this moment? They can offer us individual and collective respite as we dig deeply into unexamined national and family histories to excavate the roots of racism. They can offer us the courage and audacity needed to stand in our full humanity as we work to end racism and oppression. They can offer us a route back to our integrity. Last semester my faculty learning community read and discussed Rhonda Magee’s book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming our Communities through Mindfulness (2019). We were a racially and culturally diverse group of twenty-four educators who, together, examined our personal racial narratives and had candid conversations about internalized oppression, bias, assimilation, and whiteness. We supported our engagement with mindful pauses, gentle movement, and space to listen, feel, and breathe. This is just part of the work required if we are to pursue a broad dismantling of our racial legacy.
Now mainstream, mindfulness and meditation are being used in corporations, school systems, and law enforcement agencies. Even parts of the US military are now using mindfulness to support the mental well-being of their constituents. Yet we must remember that mindfulness is born of a radical heritage and a deep tradition. The practices are not intended to appease our pain or justify our suffering. Rather, they serve to cultivate our capacity to hold the paradoxes of life and buttress our righteous fight for justice. In order to do the sustained anti-racist work that this moment requires, we must become astute in the ways that white supremacy is deeply embedded into our legal, political, medical, social, and educational systems. We must also develop the courage and inner fortitude to examine and challenge how we teach, lead, create, and serve in every sector of society.
Do not despair. For we have within and among us, all that we need. Mindfulness and contemplative approaches can also be instrumental in helping us imagine and invent new worlds and ways of being and this, my friends, is exactly what we must do now. Right now, my city is on lockdown. Military trucks and personnel flank downtown D.C. and up to 25,000 troops are expected in anticipation of armed rioters and protestors. In just a matter of hours, we will witness the historic inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman and first woman of color (Black and South Asian American and born of immigrant parents) to hold the office. She will be sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only Hispanic and Latina member of the United States Supreme Court. Let us savor the significance and impetus of this moment as we recommit to our activist efforts. Let us lean more deeply into our practices and expand our virtual communities. May our practices continue to provide the grounding needed to stand in the truth of what this moment is revealing and the conviction that this moment requires. The work ahead requires our full breath, presence, and power. Our children deserve to be respected as the fully human and beautiful beings they are. They deserve to be safe and nurtured in this dystopian time of COVID, endless virtual schooling, racial tension, isolation, economic instability, and political unrest. Most of all, our children deserve to live in an anti-racist and just world where their bodies are truly free.
Dr. Michelle C. Chatman serves as CMind board president. She is also the founder and convener of The Black Mindfulness Summit (healingjusticejoy.com). Comments and questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.