How to Reduce Prejudice: Mindful and Spiritual Tools of Change

Mindfulness and spirituality have been shown to increase empathy, compassion, and loving-kindness which helps us see others as equal. This is the first and most critical step towards change.

I know you desperate for a change at the pen glide
But the only real change come from inside…” – J. Cole

The historical oppression we see of marginalized communities who are subject to death at the hands of police, arbitrary criminal justice (ex: Black prisoners are subject to the death penalty at much higher rates), and persistent harassment are systematic issues which need addressing, but also individual changes which necessitate a conscious override of unconscious biases we all hold.

Amidst the current call for societal change, it is equally important that we endeavor towards individual change. Mindfulness and spirituality have been shown to reduce our biases in 4 distinct ways:

1. Self-awareness

Our minds are subject to many unconscious biases; practicing mindfulness (even for 10 minutes!) has been shown to reduce negativity bias (tendency to remain fixated on negative aspects of ourselves and others), sunk-cost bias (tendency to remain in endeavors that are detrimental in the long-term because we have already put time/resources into it like a bad relationship), the correspondence bias (i.e., we judge ourselves based on positive traits and judge others by negative behaviors) and the self-positivity bias (need to elevate ourselves at the behest of putting others down).

Mindfulness and spirituality have been shown to increase empathy, compassion, and loving-kindness which helps us see others as equal. This is the first and most critical step towards change.

2. Practicing mindfulness and spirituality changes our brain patterns

The reduced activity in the amygdala (associated with emotional reactivity) and enhanced activity in the prefrontal cortex (associated with executive planning) from practicing mindfulness and spirituality has been demonstrated in a number of studies.

Researchers say that this helps us better situate ourselves in novel, anxiety-provoking situations (i.e., why police should have mindfulness training to better allow for clarity and judgment in tense situations).

3. Conscious tools to reduce unconscious prejudice

Many studies have found that our psyches implicitly (existing at a subconscious or unconscious level) operate with the help of mental shortcuts such as schemas and stereotypes. Kang et al., (2012) cites a study that had participants engage in a video game in which they had to shoot individuals who were either holding a weapon or an object. Participants were much quicker to shoot Black targets under normal conditions and under time pressure, as well as miss armed White targets more than armed Black targets. Normal participants of all demographic variabilities unconsciously associated ‘Blackness’ with carrying weapons.

Bridging this to relevant examples, police often have to act in high-stress situations; their quick decisions have to utilize schemas that are based on prior conditioning and stereotypes (i.e., have not created enough new neural pathways to de-condition their brains in un-associating Black individuals with danger). As Harris (2017) succinctly states: “Simply put, mindfulness practice will allow police to think about their actions before reacting to the situation” (p. 121).

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4. Focusing on communal healing

Conscientization, a term shared from Latin American liberation processes, is when there is a radical shift in consciousness by tending to the soul wounds that communities share. The focus of mindfulness and spirituality are seen as individualistic gratifications of increasing calm, serenity, and peace in the West, whereas in Indigenous communities these are collective responses to trauma and suffering at a societal and communal level.

At a practical level, this means meaningful engagement with our community so that the trials and tribulations which are contextualized as individual-level ailments in the West are shared as collective responses with a focus on healing as they are in collectivist societies. Calls for systematic change are thus not neutral or indecisive issues by organizations that purport to stand for Islam, but ones which call for active collaboration, spearheading, innovation and organization. As the Qur’an states, “help one another in acts of piety and righteousness” (5: 2).

My video below delves deeper into meaningful tools we must incorporate into our spiritual and emotional selves so that we are able to hold ourselves accountable, recognize our biases, elevate our responsibility from bystanders to productive agents of change and recognize that external change is a deeper projection of the internal change we aspire for.


Three Ways Mindfulness Can Make You Less Biased

Kang, J., Bennett, M., Carbado, D., Casey, P., & Levinson, J. (2011). Implicit bias in the courtroom. UCLa L. rev., 59, 1124.

Harris, C. (2017). Dark innocence: retraining police with mindfulness practices to aid in squelching implicit bias. USFL Rev., 51, 103.

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