Racism 101


What I like most about getting older is getting wiser. What if white people in America could admit that we are racist? It’s very hard to not be racist if you are a white person raised in the U.S.  Can we be honest? I have spent much of my life trying to find my truth. This morning, with racism on my mind and with that very important topic being exposed on the front page in all of the major U.S news outlets, I remembered that I wrote a short piece about racism that I will share below. First I want to ask you to imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.

Another brief comment before I share my thoughts on racism 101. There are many similarities between mental health oppression (which is an umbrella terms for what this blog/web site is about) and racism. I invite readers to contemplate the similarities and differences in these pernicious forms of oppressions. Sera Davidow has begun a wonderful MIA blog-discussion on this. (Thank you, Sera.) In the mean time let me admit to my own racism. Here is what I wrote previously. I offer it as an invitation to racism 101.

A book excerpt:

… I had to be informed about racism (my own white racism) and institutionalized racism. In working on my racism, it became clear that I did not agree to be racist – it was installed from the outside and it left me damaged, as is the case with all people in oppressor roles. The minds and spirits of those conditioned by society to act as the agents of racism are corrupted. The damage done to individuals targeted by racism — the hurts from being treated as inferior, denied basic material needs, denied a fair share of resources, demeaned, attacked, threatened with destruction and much more — is done to individuals through their contact with society’s institutions and by the actions of individuals….

Cycles of unhealed hurt perpetuate misunderstanding and miscommunication that may lead to further conflicts, intolerance and violence. The damage from oppression clouds thinking… dissemination of information about internalized oppression has the potential of healing painful wounds and stopping the cycles of hurts that have continued for generations.

This excerpt is from the chapter on Forgiveness, Living for Two: A Daughter’s Journey from Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace, in which I write about how I came to forgive the seventeen year old who murdered my father.

In previous blogs I have written about the importance of dialogue, healing from trauma,  facing the unfaceable and other related topics. All forms of oppression are intrinsically linked and interact with one another. You can’t heal from one oppression without it impacting healing from another. It makes sense to me that the opposite is true as well – that is, as we form judgments and close our minds in one area (be it racism, sexism, able-bodyism, etc)  it increases judgments and occludes our clear thinking in other areas.

What happened that caused us individually and collectively to begin to lose our humanity, our sense of connection with ourselves and with others? I am happy to share what I have learned about my own process and perhaps it will be useful to you and your process. I go early in my search for my truth. At the time of my birth and soon after that I find many answers to some of my core struggles. I don’t think I am alone in these struggles, I think they are pervasive human struggles.

When I was born I was looking for connection – the same connection and sense of belonging and safely I felt in the womb. I eventually learned as a very young child that no one was really there, consistently present to protect me, hold me, and keep me safe from an unsafe world. In that early hurt where disconnect begins, the seeds of separation were planted. If I can’t trust a person who looks like me, how can I trust anyone?

I learned to disconnect from others and from myself – it was the best way I could figure out to survive. These seeds form early beliefs that allow the development of all forms of oppression. I began believing in the illusion of separation – that I am a separate entity from you.  My socialization process reinforced the sense of separation and the vital importance of protecting this illusion.  That created a trap wherein more and more judgments were created to justify my illusions such as beliefs like – I am right, you are wrong or you are right and I am wrong. All of this led to inner war which then got projected onto others which in turn sets up relationships based on separation and war. And I come to believe that war is necessary in order to hold on to what I came to believe was true and mine – whether it be protecting my property, my family, my political or religious beliefs.

For me, healing has meant transcending my social conditioning. How can we see other ways of thinking and being in the world as valid and good? As we approach that more possibilities and relationships open up. Our heart and mind expand, our perceptual barriers dissolve.

How do we free ourselves from racism, mental health oppression and all forms of human beings harming human beings? How do we create peace? Can we be with another person without judgment, holding multiple truths, standing firmly grounded in another persons moccasins? This is not easy but I think it is the work we need to do to embody inner peace. For me, it is the most important and very dynamic process I am involved in. It affects everything in my life – every relationship, how I view myself, every step I take. At least that is the bar I would like to hold myself to.

Can we hold Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in synchronistic harmony, holding both as correct? Why is it seemingly impossible to do this? Why do I keep forgetting to try? Those are the edges of oppression, where I get a taste of the work I need to do in order to find peace and healing.

What steps are you willing to take to end racism? I plan to continue to work to be more deeply aware of my own racism. I will also continue to build close relationships with people from my own culture as well as people from cultures different than my own.

I believe that we can end racism in our lifetime. It is worth repeating, imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Lauren Spiro
Lauren’s vision of social justice and mental health liberation focuses on developing our capacity for feeling deeply connected, appreciating the vast creative intelligence of the human heart and mind, and inspiring compassionate action. Her life’s mission is to embody inner peace to co-create global peace, thus she curates transformative learning experiences. She co-founded two non-profit corporations and Emotional CPR (www.emotional-cpr.org) a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a multi-media artist, a 20+ year practitioner of yoga and meditation, the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, has been featured on national media, and consulted on numerous federal projects. Her memoir paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home. She has an M.A. in clinical/community psychology. For more information see www.Laurenspiro.com


  1. Lauren: What MIA provides me with is a sense of community from like minded souls who have experienced similar forms of oppression. I work with at-risk and foster youth to gain a paycheck, and I interface with many left-leaning and anti-imperialistic groups. Ferguson is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it is heartening to see a multi-cultural protest movement spring up in its wake. As for the particular’s to the case, I direct readers to Sonali’s broadcast on Uprising on Pacific Radio yesterday in the second half of the broadcast. The proceedings of the Grand Jury were highly irregular in Ferguson, even if this is not the clearest case of over policing and discrimination in the criminal justice system.

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    • Thank you for writing chrisreed. I am deeply touched and hopeful that many people continue to demonstrate and get arrested for doing so one week after the verdict. People’s heart-strings are touched and their righteous indignation is spilling onto the streets and the news media. Yeah!! Let the cries for rationality and humanity be heard, let us end these oppressive and clearly racist actions. Thank you for the reference to Sonali’s broadcasts, I have not yet seen them. The Grand Jury (per Rachel Maddow) was given inaccurate and confusing instructions. They were using law that many decades ago was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s call it what it is – oppression, racism and yes the understatement of the decade – over policing.

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      • Yes B, the world does need a civil rights overhaul and that change begins with us. Each and every one of us make choices every day. I dream of approaching the tipping point where we see that every person is treated with respect and dignity and included in the entire life flow of community- all levels, always.

        I see the day when our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren will look back on history and say – Can you imagine a world where events such as Ferguson occur and a world where police officers get away with murdering people who are in acute emotional distress and when homeless people are left to freeze to death on the streets? And the resounding answer is “NO!!! It’s unimaginable”. The world must change and we are the ones to change it. I am grateful that we have this opportunity on MIA to share our thoughts and inspire one another to reach higher. I continue to imagine a peaceful world where everyone is included and concepts such as ignorance and fear-based oppression are far behind us.

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  2. Lauren, I appreciate your bringing attention to racism at Mad In America. The fact that we are having these conversations in any form is so much better than not having them at all, which is what happens in most white-centered spaces! I appreciate that you have thought and struggled a lot with your experience of Racism, and I agree this is something we ought to be looking at closely.

    I want to express some confusion and concern about your repeated suggestion that we “imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.”

    To my eyes, this could be taken as support for liberal “colorblindness” where we pretend racism does not exist and think that merely by working to treat people of color with respect on an individual basis, we are contributing to ending racism.

    My understanding is that racism is endemic in our institutions, our culture, our power structures, our economy. Racism does exist in this country, in its particular form of white supremacy. It is a pattern that is killing people and destroying lives every day. I would suggest that to end racism, we first need to openly acknowledge this fact, rather than live as though it were not true. I can imagine my friends who are anti-racist activists and people of color feeling very marginalized and hurt hearing a white person telling other white people to live as though racism does not exist in a “Racism 101” article.

    From what I hear, I think they want, above all:

    *Accomplices and support in direct action
    *White people to initiate dialogues with other white people. (Thank you, again!)
    *Our willingness to take leadership and direction from people of color who are organizing for change.
    *A commitment from white people to do whatever we can to change systems (with direct accountability to what people of color in those systems actually want).

    Here is a related article that I think might shine some further light:

    “12 Things White People Can Actually Do After the Ferguson Decision”

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Matthew and in particular for pointing out – and I agree with you – what can easily be interpreted as my being naïve, ignorant and colorblind- which I don’t think I am but words and context matter. I offer a bit more context and explanation below and I have copied your comments of concern for ease of following this discussion.
      Matthew wrote “I want to express some confusion and concern about your repeated suggestion that we “imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.”
      To my eyes, this could be taken as support for liberal “colorblindness” where we pretend racism does not exist and think that merely by working to treat people of color with respect on an individual basis, we are contributing to ending racism”.
      I would like to explain that quite a few years ago I was so concerned about the rampant racism I saw operating in “mental health” settings (and elsewhere) that I wanted to create opportunities to address this head on. One action step I took was to provide training in cultural competency/attunement with an African American partner and we created this phrase “imagine a world without racism and live your life that way” as a means of inviting people to transcend their social conditioning and think and act differently – in non-racist ways. Our interactive trainings addressed racism head-on particularly on a personal and interpersonal level and at this level and in the manner we did the training there were always clear implications for both policy and systems level change that was needed.
      The intent of the invitation is to take the time to ‘be’ different. Our trainings created a safe space to explore racism. Each participant shared rich information including their cultural heritage, who they are, what they think, how their family came to North America, etc. The space that was opened was one in which everyone could show their caring for each other. Typically the trainings were provided to organizations or programs within organizations so people knew each other to varying extents. The process involved engaging our innate curious inquiry and heart-felt compassion to reach for a deep connection, for deeper understanding. In this way we experienced individually and collectively an opening up of our minds which allowed for more honestly, cultural sensitivity and authenticity in our professional and personal relationships.
      What I see pervasively practiced in our culture is people wearing a protective perceptual lens based on their illusion of fear and separation. Racism is one part of the multi-oppression based fear and separation. That learned (not innate) perceptual lens gets fueled by our increasing out-of-control capitalism including the exploitation of all things human and environmental which contributes to the increased violence and disrespect for humanity that currently exists. Sadly and ironically I find that much of my work in the world is about re-learning how to be human and humane and I often do this by facilitating dialogues of discovery. Dialogues create opportunities to evolve our consciousness forward by creating a space where our hearts and minds are open, there is no application of judgment and everyone’s thinking is accurate based on the individual’s perception. Ideally what is created is a synchronistic and harmonious coming together which is hard to describe unless you have been there. The ideal outcome of dialogue is that it lifts us to transcend our cultural conditioning and become aware of the following processes:

      – Sometimes (probably more often that we like to admit) we notice that our thinking gets stuck on a particular belief (e.g., based on racism, mental health oppression, etc.) or ideology that we have not thoroughly examined and let go. It may indicate that more reflection may deepen our awareness or self-knowledge.
      – We see other ways of thinking and being in the world as valid and good – and that means that more possibilities and relationships open up. Our heart and mind expand, our perceptual barriers dissolve. We see life more clearly.
      – When we transcend our social conditioning we become more open to co-creating a new paradigm. In this fertile ground of openness, we think more creatively and therefore can more effectively co-create the communities we want. When the war in our mind ends, peace emerges. And yes, racism in one of the ways we wage war in our mind.
      Practicing this process (opening my heart and mind in a process of liberation) allows me to envision a world without racism – or any oppression for that matter. Embodying hope, I can see a world made up of culturally rich and inclusive communities where every one is respected and valued and given the dignity they deserve.
      On a separate note, I think the excellent article which you cited has many important actions that people can take and should select some of these actions to take if they want to work towards racial justice and perhaps to begin to work on the edges of their own white racism.
      There was one action step in the article you cited that I thought was particularly interesting and relatively easy to do so I copied it below. Can you imagine how we might contribute to ending racist police policies and actions if a lot of white people started filming these injustices?
      8. If You See Injustice Occurring, Do Not Stand Silently or Walk on By. Do you see police officers engaging in a stop-and-frisk interaction? It turns out that it is entirely legal to film police interactions without interfering. Hold police accountable. Watch them. They may be less likely to engage in outright violence if they are being filmed. If not, the video can be critical evidence as police can claim that they were being assaulted, or charge disorderly conduct, when video evidence clearly refutes these claims. There are apps and organizations that accumulate these videos and data. Use them.

      What the article did not mention, however, was the internal work – the emotional and perceptual work we can do to embody justice not only in our minds but in our hearts. How do we genuinely heal from the damage of racism and internalized racism, as well as mental health oppression, adultism and all form of oppression? We can change all the laws in the land – and we have changed many laws (civil rights laws, employment laws via the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Americans with Disability Act laws) but that doesn’t change attitudes. I hope I have sufficiently planted a seed for future conversation that will address the emotional and perceptual or attitudinal issues and how we can come to truly embody justice for all – in our laws and in our hearts. It is good that we have opened this conversation to speak more honestly about oppression and particularly racism. All oppressions are linked so as we clean up the damage done by the internalization of one form of oppression we are cleaning up or freeing ourselves from the damage from other forms of oppression.

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