We’re all conditioned by and subject to a host of impressions from our culture, family and society, as well as from the vast tapestry of our personal experience. Such influences inevitably affect the ways we see the world and one another.

Mindfulness practice teaches us to see more clearly the reality of experience. This means becoming cognizant of the various filters that can occlude our perception. These filters are like glasses we don’t realize we’re wearing that colour the world and make it seem a certain way. Filters are the implicit bias we develop, and this affects our understanding, perceptions and decisions.

How do we become aware of such biases, particularly if they’re unconscious and implanted at an impressionable age?

One answer is by simply being aware that everyone develops bias, and then, through mindfulness practice, paying attention to how we’re influenced by such predispositions. This is an ongoing process, one that never fully ends, since distortions of perception will always arise.

For instance, in a well-known study by Daniel Simons, participants were asked to watch a video of a basketball game and focus on how often players in white shirts passed the ball. Participants became so engrossed in the task that over 50 percent of viewers failed to see a large gorilla walk across the field of play in the centre of the screen!

We see what we either want to see or are conditioned or told to see. I watched the same video and was amazed that I also didn’t see the gorilla on first view. Only after I knew to look for the gorilla did I actually see it.

Racial and ethnic bias

Four people of different ethnicities

While bias develops with all sorts of things—age, gender, social status, fear of strangers and people from different cultures, and so on—one of the more insidious distortions is conditioning around race and ethnicity. Becoming aware of our own racial bias is a necessary part of practice and essential for avoiding unconscious racism, unintended discrimination and the immense pain this can cause.

For example, I’ve been conditioned to see race from the perspective of my upbringing as a white male in northern England. Growing up, white Anglo-Saxon culture was considered the norm against which all other ethnicities were unconsciously measured, often negatively. Because of my conditioning, even when I moved to London, which is a very multicultural city, I was barely self-conscious of my race and my identity as a white person.

On the other hand, in the 1980s, I was in a relationship with Yvon, a black woman of Caribbean descent who wore a large Afro. Her experience was almost the opposite of mine. Travelling around London, she was constantly aware of race, as barely a day went by when someone didn’t look at her in a derogatory way or express some insulting racial remark or gesture.

Though today there is more awareness and education in regard to these issues, people of colour still experience the negative bias and racism inherent in white-dominant cultures.

The Black Lives Matter movement

In America, the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how such racist conditioning negatively influences the way the police and the courts treat men and women of colour.

In 2012, while black people made up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 31 percent of people killed by police.

For example, minorities and black people are killed by police at disproportionate rates. In 2012, while black people made up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 31 percent of people killed by police; meanwhile, racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population, but they accounted for 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.

Similarly, African-American men are more likely than white men to suffer mistreatment by police, and innocent black men are far more likely to be selected for committing a crime by witnesses. These are just a few of the innumerable ways racial bias continues to distort perception and thus influence actions, with grave consequences.

Waking up to such bias means paying attention to how our perceptions are influenced by conditioning. In America, long-standing cultural and media stereotypes persist that black men are more violent and more likely to commit criminal acts, and this can condition people to discriminate, even when such stereotypes are proven false.

Unearthing these distortions can be like trying to see one’s own shadow or like a fish trying to see the water it swims in. It takes ongoing work, study and help from others, since the roots of such prejudice run deep, but the negative effects of unconscious bias are real.

For instance, an African-American acquaintance of mine was on a silent retreat at a meditation centre in the U.S. state of Oregon, and he decided to take a walk in the nearby forest. When he returned, a staff member confronted him and asked what he was doing at the retreat centre. The man said he was attending the meditation course and wished to not have his silence interrupted.

The woman apologized, but after the course, the man confronted the staff person and asked whether she would’ve accosted him if he’d been white. She admitted it was unlikely, and in fact, the staff person had recently undergone training about undoing bias. This is just a small example of how our filters can influence us, even after we become aware of them or have been educated about them.

Undoing internalized racism, bias and conditioning is an ongoing process. We must be vigilant and maintain awareness of how it emerges in small and insidious ways.

Bias isn’t limited to race

Old, homeless white man

Of course, our personal bias depends on our particular conditioning and circumstances. Such bias is not limited to how we perceive race. It affects how we perceive gender and gender identification, sexual orientation, age, physical ability and economic status. It also impacts how we perceive others who may have a different mother tongue, a lower level of education, a different body shape, a different home country or a different religion.

For instance, when you go for a medical exam, do you doubt the competence of your physician if they’re not the gender you expect? If you walk past a group of people from a different socioeconomic class, do you relate to them differently? What assumptions do you make when you see people of different physical ability? What arises when you see two men or two women holding hands in the street, or when a transgender person is elected to public office? If someone trains you who is twice your age, or half your age, what thoughts or feelings arise?

How we think, feel, and react to such circumstances indicates how much conditioning or bias is alive within us.

Undoing bias with mindfulness

From a mindfulness perspective, the key isn’t to judge our conditioned responses, but to become aware of them and see how they affect our perceptions, thoughts and actions.

With awareness, we have the power to choose to act differently. We can recognize our own bias and the distortion it creates and avoid causing unintended harm. And we can start to educate ourselves about our own conditioning and the limitations it places on our perceptions.

We can also learn to become an advocate and ally for those groups and people who are routinely discriminated against or marginalized because of their differences, and who may not have had the privilege of being part of a society’s predominant cultural group. This is the beginning of undoing the suffering of bias in ourselves and in the world.

An 11-question exercise for you to try

City street with apartment building, bike and carBeing mindful of what we don’t ordinarily see isn’t easy. This practice asks you to look at your life as you’re living it right now and identify how your conditioning creates implicit bias in all sorts of ways.

Consider the people in your life, the places you feel safe or comfortable, the place of worship you attend, the type of neighborhood you live in, the kind of school your kids go to and the activities you like or engage in. Reflect on the following questions and observe what they bring up for you:

  • Are your closest friends of the same ethnicity as you?
  • What is the racial makeup of your neighbourhood or your kids’ schools, and do particular populations make you comfortable or uncomfortable?
  • If you’re followed in a store by security, what assumptions might you make about why you’re being targeted?
  • Does race factor into your thinking when it comes to who to befriend, date or hire?
  • Does the gender or race of a doctor, teacher or lawyer make any difference to you when you seek their help?
  • How would you feel if your new next-door neighbours were a gay couple, if you were to work under a manager who was transgender, or if one of your children or grandchildren told you they were gay?
  • How do you feel towards a child who feels they’re a different gender than that of their own physical body?
  • Do you ever consider how someone who is less physically able may navigate the obstacles, stairs or other challenges in your office or home?
  • What effect does it have on you when you hear that one in five children lives in poverty in the United States?
  • When you buy Band-Aids or bandages, do you ever think about whose skin color they’re most likely to match?
  • If a traffic cop pulls you over, do you ever wonder if you’ve been singled out because of your race?

Reflecting on these and similar questions can help unearth our unconscious bias towards people. Once you discover possible bias, reflect on what steps you can take to understand the limitation or distortion of this perception or conditioning.

In what ways can you educate yourself so that these distortions can be uprooted? Commit to learning about the perspectives of people who aren’t part of the dominant culture or who don’t fit the cultural norms and stereotypes of the society you live in.

Front cover of From Suffering to PeaceMark Coleman is the author of From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness, Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic and Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery. He’s the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an M.A. in clinical psychology. Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counsellor, meditation teacher and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California (U.S.) Visit him online at MarkColeman.org.

Excerpted from the book From Suffering to Peace. Copyright ©2019 by Mark Coleman. Printed with permission from New World Library—www.newworldlibrary.com.

image 1: pxhere; image 2: Libreshot; image 3: Pixabay