When I clicked on the video, immediately I felt anger welling up. The woman, Amy Cooper, was living up to every stereotype in the book for an entitled white woman. No commentary or explanation was required to see her privilege and racism on full display. An African American man and avid bird watcher, Christian Cooper, had politely asked her to put her dog on a leash in a part of Central Park that requires it. She refused. Mr. Cooper began videoing the encounter, remaining calm as Ms. Cooper (no relation) became increasingly agitated. She walked up to him, breaching social distancing boundaries and pointed to the camera, ordering him to turn it off. When he didn’t she threatened him, yelling, “I’m going to call the police and tell them an African American man is threatening my life.” She put a strong emphasis on “African American.” He answered, “please do.” She stepped away and followed through on her threat, escalating her pleas to the police as though her life was truly in danger when obviously it wasn’t.
Even as she called the police, her dog still wasn’t leashed; she was holding it by the collar as it squirmed and choked. Finally, as she hung up she leased the dog. Mr. Cooper calmly thanked her and turned the video off. When the police arrived, they were both gone and thankfully no physical harm came to Mr. Cooper.
Tragically, on this same day, another video emerged, this one of a cop in Minneapolis with his knee on a black man, George Floyd’s neck. He pleaded to be released from this strangle hold, he couldn’t breathe. After 10 minutes he went still and was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after. Mr. Floyd’s only offense was allegedly trying to spend a counterfeit $20 bill.
Anger gripped our nation along with an outpouring of grief. I personally felt horrified that the moral foundation we build our practice on in Buddhism, sila, was so fully breached in this moment, even knowing that it has been for centuries. So little has changed. My heart broke and I wept. More tragic loss of life, almost more than my heart could hold.
Grief and rage swept through social media as this video was viewed again and again. A strong public response can work to put pressure on federal and state officials regarding specific incidents and in some cases pave the way to justice. But this alone isn’t enough to bring about desperately needed systemic change. Our hearts and minds also need a deep reset; there’s real work to do.
The woman in the first video, Amy Cooper was certainly aware that her actions could have put Mr. Cooper in grave danger. Her apology indicated she was conscious of the peril that false accusations can lead to. “I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause and would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred with Chris.”
While I don’t know her politics, the truth is that liberals and conservatives alike are capable of behaving as Amy did. Why? Because even if we believe we personally have no bias, this is usually far from the case. Amy Cooper, in her apology even asserted, “I am not a racist.” But embedded in our culture are deeply held biases and there’s no use pretending they don’t permeate much of our conditioning and actions, even if they’re mostly unconscious. This underlying conditioning can and does lead to grave harm when unchecked.
When we only expend energy vilifying the Amy Coopers of the world, we turn them into the “other” and fail to consider how such actions could be carried out by many of us who consider ourselves beyond such behavior. Instead, can we let this be a wake up call to investigate how racism and bias exist, not only in our in our culture, but in ourselves? This quote from Ijeoma Olus speaks to this point, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including yourself. And that’s the only way forward.”
So what will bring about change? Here’s what Ruth King, an African American Buddhist teacher and author of Mindful of Race said, “Racism is a heart disease that’s curable. Cultivating a heart (through mindfulness practice) that is wise and open can be the medicine that is needed in moments of conflict.”
Those of us who are white can support this much needed awakening by undertaking the hard work of mindfully unpacking our own cultural conditioning about race and our own privilege. Some people are initially offended when they hear the phrase “white privilege.” I was at first. But when I attended a Buddhist teacher’s conference in 2014, we undertook challenging awareness exercises that uncovered our unconscious privilege. My own privilege became crystal clear for the first time.
In 2018 I began a white privilege program with some senior teachers from InsightLA. Their white teachers are all requited to complete this program to continue teaching there. The program template we used came from Spirit Rock and it included a monthly meeting, homework and time to explore our biases and privilege together. Honestly exploring our blind spots, bias and privilege was vulnerable and hard work, but ultimately very rewarding and eye opening. It was a start. If you’re white and you’ve never done this work, I highly recommend it.
In our practice, we can do a deep and sincere inquiry, “how can my practice and my actions lead to a more just, less biased world?
Last year the program director for an international corporation asked me to give a presentation to their staff about how mindfulness can help uncover and reduce unconscious bias. At first I was skeptical. Sometimes our culture sees mindfulness as a cure all for everything and only skims the surface of this practice. But the truth is that mindful awareness is an vital step in uncovering hidden bias and this has been verified scientifically. As I delved deeper, I concluded that right intention is also an essential ingredient. Ideally, if we start with an ethical foundation of non- harming and cultivate right intention and mindfulness, we have a recipe to begin to uncover and overcome deeply held biases. Then if we add right action to the mix, we have some hope for true change.
How could mindfulness practice have helped Amy Cooper in the split seconds before she went into full reactive/racist mode? When Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog, instead of becoming agitated and vindictive, perhaps she could have noticed anger and tension arising in her body. She may have had enough space in her mind to perceive how she was reacting, mentally and physically, to entrenched biases about the skin color of Christian Cooper, then she might have seen a human being asking her to follow the leash laws. Most of all, perhaps a deeply embedded sense of “self against other” would not have taken full force and instead, a moment of awareness could open her to listening and taking right action. Then all she had to do was leash the dog and continue on her way.
May this moment be a deep wake up call for our hearts and minds. May we look beneath the surface and find the place where we are all connected and touch this truth. May we be kind and compassionate, may we remember we are not separate and act out of this understanding to benefit all beings.