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Someone You Should Know: Angela Rose Black, Ph.D.

One woman’s mission to rethink what mindfulness means

Published on: August 29, 2017

angela rose black
Photo:
Angela Rose Black, Ph.D. | Credit: Duke Virginia

Editor Note:

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I was looking for a seat at a local conference about meditation when I saw it: “‘In a racially unjust world, what good is mindfulness?” read the t-shirt. The quote was from civil rights activist and author Angela Davis, in conversation with mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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Intrigued by the shirt, I soon learned that the woman wearing it had given a presentation at the conference. Her name: Angela Rose Black.

Black, who has a Ph.D., recently left a 15-year academic career in which she researched health and stress in the lives of black women. She is now the founder and CEO of a Wisconsin-based organization called Mindfulness for the People.

Black describes Mindfulness for the People as a “for-profit, Black-owned social impact entity that is radically re-imagining the mindfulness movement.” Judging from the reaction she got at the conference we both attended, Black is well on her way to just that kind of radical reimagining.

It was during her own search for mindfulness practices that Black, who is African-American, says she realized how inaccessible mindfulness practices can be for people of color. The question, she says, is “Who gets to be well?”

“Showing up in this body, asking the question, ‘Who gets to be well?’ became a way to disrupt the universal bliss and current narrative of the mindfulness movement,” says Black, who often uses the hashtag #WhoGets2BeWell when attending mindfulness conferences, retreats and teacher trainings.

The current narrative about mindfulness “asserts ‘universal’ access for all without ever having to ask access for whom, based on what or for how long,” says Black. A crop of recent studies in Mindfulness, the Journal of Holistic Nursing and by Northwestern University have sought to address this dearth of research available on diversity and mindfulness.

In her own experience with mindfulness, Black says she’s felt “alternately unwelcomed and curiously hyperfocused on, unseen yet aggressively overdirected by White practitioners and teachers.”

“So, while trying to ‘pay attention with intention’ to my breath, I felt like my presence — my very embodiment of Blackness — was both triggering and intoxicating for the White folks there,” she adds.

Enter Mindfulness for the People, an organization born from Black’s desire to center the voices and wisdom of people of color in mindfulness research, teaching and practice. To do this, Mindfulness for the People offers trainings, presentations and consultations for businesses.

ParentMap recently talked with Black about her work and what families of all backgrounds can learn from it.

Why did you create Mindfulness for the People?

Mindfulness for the People came from feeling the impact of the omission of People Of Color in the spaces and places where mindfulness is practiced, researched and taught. So, along the lines of “nothing about us, without us, is for us,” it was critical that my Black body and mind needed to be at the forefront of the voices that were leading the conversation on mindfulness research, teaching and practice.

I’ve learned that making room for the insights of People Of Color hinges on disrupting the systemic Whiteness directing the movement. Re-imagining a mindfulness movement that actually meets the needs of our racialized world IS a radical act because in doing so, we are collectively saying that although our oppressions may be connected, the way in which we arrive at suffering can look very different.

We no longer have to be blissed out by the universality that unites us — our family stress, work stress, relational stress — because we have the right to feel distinct differences in our life experiences as a function of our racial identities. So, if we cannot live un-racialized lives in a racialized world, when, then, will the mindfulness movement respond in kind? 

Can you explain more about how the mindfulness movement felt grounded in Whiteness?

As I shared my frustrations with other practitioners of color in my life — the microaggressions, the vacillation between over and under engagement by White community members, the sense of isolation intensified by curricula steeped in Whiteness — my experiences mirrored their experiences. Many of us had been repeatedly yet unintentionally harmed by White students and White instructors teaching curricula grounded in Whiteness.

Mindfulness curricula grounded in Whiteness means that there is an overt assumption that the content presented is universally beneficial to EVERYbody. That the empirical evidence driving the curricula is “robust and rigorous” so of course its application is relevant to EVERYbody. And all of this universality is assumed while never explaining that decades of evidence-based, well-funded, highly visible and industry standard findings that support mindfulness curricula and practices are predominantly normed on the lived experiences of White people.

And quite honestly, that lack of inquiry — not having to ask which bodies receive benefit and which ones don’t; which ones were included in research studies and which ones weren’t, all the while garnering major dollars to further the development of this blind spot — is not only an oversight, but a demonstration of how capitalism, White privilege and White supremacy are driving the mindfulness movement.

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