Addressing racism in higher education: some suggestions from contemplative pedagogy

It has only been in the last few years that I have come see the need to engage in discussions about race and racism and understand the implications of my whiteness. I am thankful to colleagues, friends and writers, particularly people of colour, who have showed great patience in helping me, and others, finally acknowledge this.

It has particularly been people working with contemplative pedagogy and social mindfulness (see Mindfulness and Social Change Network) who have made me appreciate the necessity of exploring racism within my own experience. This quote from bell hooks (2003: 29) illustrates the need to move from intellectual exploration of race to an embodied, experiential approach:

‘a well-meaning liberal white female professor might write a useful book on the intersections of race and gender yet continue to allow racist biases to shape the manner in which she responds personally to women of color. . . She may have a “grandiose” sense of herself, that is, a confidence that she is anti-racist and not at all vigilant about making the connections that would transform her behavior and not just her thinking.’

(hooks 2003)

Educators have a crucial role to play in addressing racism. Education teaches us about our society both implicitly and explicitly. As we move through the education system we learn what we should value and the ideals to which we should aspire. To address racism all levels of education need to be mobilised. This is not just about educating students and educators about race but helping us all to explore racism in our lived experience, to appreciate the interplay of privilege and oppression of which we are part. Yet, simultaneously, individual exploration needs to be supported by understanding racism in educational institutions which typically uphold dominant ways of understanding and knowing. Exploring racism in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) Bhopal (2014) notes that:

The internal cultures of HEIs often present a picture of themselves to the world that highlights liberal sentiments, progressive values and a commitment to meritocracy. Almost instinctively we regard our ‘seats of learning’ as institutions that rise above the inequalities and injustices of society at large. However, this is clearly too rosy a picture.

(Bhopal 2014: 18)

I now go on to suggest some ways contemplative pedagogy may support anti-racism work in higher education. This is the first time I have written about this and I share it as a working through of my ideas rather than a definitive account. I’d welcome comments, questions and suggestions below.

Understanding our world view

McGee (2015) points out that the idea sometimes expressed by white people, that they do not ‘see colour’ actually impinges upon our ability to engage in much needed conversations about race and how it impacts our view of the world. It prevents us from seeing that whether we like it or not our experience in the world is influenced by race. Reflecting honestly on our views and actions and being open to hearing stories of the world that may not fit our view of it is a necessary starting point. I have become conscious that I have been privileged enough to grow up in a world that has felt quite hospitable most of the time, that seems to value me and reward me for my efforts. My inability to hear, really hear, stories to the contrary has been made painfully obvious to me since I started taking this work seriously.

So, recognising views and the lens through which we look at the world is fundamental in understanding and addressing racism. Although attempts to address this with unconscious bias training in many HEIs have been made, these tend to be tokenistic and superficial. Contemplative practice can help us recognise our views and create the mental space to appreciate the experience and views of others. Whilst contemplative practices are diverse they typically involve stopping, stillness and inner reflection on our embodied experience. They balance the tendency to over value the cognitive domain in education by making space for the complex emotional reality we inhabit which is crucial in anti-racism work.

Holding Discomfort

Along with exploring our views, contemplative pedagogy can also help with coping with the discomfort of discussing racism and facing up to the fear of making mistakes. Fusco summarises how fear of discomfort can undermine our intentions:

“The socialization I and many other affirmative action babies received to identify racism as the property only of ignorant, reactionary people, preferably from the past, functioned to deflect our attention from how whiteness operated in the present…’

Coco Fusco cited in hooks. b. 2003.

Contemplative practices can help to reduce the emotional reactivity and emotional suppression which may hinder the progress of this work. They can support individuals as well as groups in coming together to communicate meaningfully. The growing interest in social mindfulness emphasises the importance of inner change for outer change and the benefits of self-care activities even in the midst of the pursuit of social justice (see Open Democracy 2020).

Embracing different ways of knowing

The valuing of subjective experience as a way of knowing the world is an important aspect of contemplative pedagogy. Roth (2014: 98) described how the ‘critical first person’ perspective developed by contemplative practice encouraged deeper understanding of the significance and meaning of what was being studied compared to objective, ‘third person’ study alone. Contemplative pedagogy therefore embraces different ways of knowing that take into account our embodied, emotional nature.

When considering how to address racism in higher education this is important. For Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students to feel heard, seen and appreciated in a learning context there must be space for them. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020) refers to the importance of epistemic freedom in addressing racism in education:

‘A noncolonial way [of learning] underscores that all human beings were born into valid & legitimate knowledge systems & recognizes the various & diverse ways of knowing, which restores epistemic freedom & cognitive justice.’

(Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2020)

Contemplative pedagogy, in my experience in any case, has helped me to see the epistemic assumptions much of my teaching makes. It has helped me develop ways of teaching in which the student is centred and explores learning through their own experience. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020), in the interview referenced above, goes on to say that whilst the physical processes of colonisation might have unravelled the epistemic project is on going because colonisation ‘invades the mental universe of a people, destabilising them from what they used to know’. It is crucial to take this into account if we are to address racism in higher education.

What does this look like in practice?

These claims now leave an important question. How do we integrate contemplative pedagogy in teaching and learning? This is a huge question, these are only suggestions.

Magee (2015) has developed a range of practices she refers to as Mindfulness-Based ColorInsight Practices. These include using mindfulness practices, reflection and dialogue to explore race with students. In this video she explores mindfulness in relation to the responses to the murder of George Floyd:

I would also suggest looking at Beth Berila’s website on Anti-oppression pedagogy and particularly the examples on injustice and privilege outlined by Susal Stebbins Collins.

Ruth King, who has written and taught about mindfulness and race, also presents relevant ideas on her blog and in her book Mindful of Race.

The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education also has some very useful ideas in their seminar series including:

Cultivating Hope in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous World with Dr Éliane Ubalijoro

Exploring Interdependence through the Lens of Blackness with Ruth King and Kamilah Majied

From my experience of contemplative pedagogy its key contribution is creating space in the learning environment, whether through short periods of silence, written reflection or mindfulness practices, during which students touch into their own experience.

It is important to remember that contemplative practices are not something we should be asking our students to do without taking the time to engage in them ourselves. As educators we need to ensure we have the emotional resources to engage in anti-racism work in constructive and compassionate ways. We need to be clear about our intentions and the values sustain us. Finding contemplative practices that are meaningful to us can help with this.

Care, co-production and participatory research

Before finishing there is one more thing to emphasise – the importance of care. I am very conscious that as a white woman talking about anti-racism work that I have not experienced serious trauma within the institution I am trying to change, nor am I worn down by the micro-aggressions my BME students and colleagues face daily. It is crucial to recognise the differential burden carried in the work of addressing racism.

As such, any engagement with contemplative pedagogy, particularly in addressing racism, needs to be done with great thought and care and follow up support where necessary. I am particularly conscious that I do not know what these exercises might bring up for BME students or colleagues. Bringing a compassionate, flexible approach that allows individuals to opt out and provide feedback is important.

Co-creating different practices with BME students and staff could be a valuable way of developing the use of contemplative practices in this context. Innovations should be the subject of participatory pedagogical research to inform the use of contemplative pedagogy in addressing racism in higher education.

There is so much more to write on this!

But I am out of space, so I will leave you with Prof. Magee (2015) who summarises the point of this blog very beautifully:

While they won’t end racism, mindfulness and other contemplative practices do support ways of being in the world that reflect less of the biases that each of us holds, whether we are deliverymen, students, teachers—or men and women with badges, authorized to shoot to kill. 

And that is truly good news.

(Magee 2015)


Bhopal, K. 2014. The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

hooks, b. 2003. Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge

Magee, R. 2015. How mindfulness can defeat racial bias.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J. 2020. Decolonization, decoloniality, and the future of African Studies: a conversation with Dr. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni

Open Democracy. 2020. Can mindfulness help us in the midst of COVID-19 – and beyond?

Roth, H. 2014. A pedagogy for the new field of contemplative studies. In Gunnlaugson, O., Sarath, E., Scott, C., Ba, H. Contemplative learning and inquiry across disciplines. State University of New York Press, Albany

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s