Neurodecolonization was originally a method used for Indigenous Peoples to replace their negative thoughts and emotions caused by colonization with more productive thoughts through mindfulness training.¹ This method could be extended to other oppressed groups.
It should not fall on the shoulders of those experiencing oppression to learn ways to cope with their anger and frustration. That being said, it is much easier to change one’s own way of thinking than to rely on the people and institutional systems around you to change.
As many people already know, mindfulness is the best way to change your relationship with your thoughts. However, it is not common knowledge that mindfulness is a useful tool when it comes to those struggling with the stressors of oppression due to race or ethnicity.
Neurodecolonization was originally a method used for Indigenous Peoples to replace their negative thoughts and emotions caused by colonization with more productive thoughts through mindfulness training.¹ This method could be extended to other oppressed groups, specifically black people.
Mindfulness should also be used by those in the majority, privileged groups who are looking to better understand the experience of oppressed peoples and join them in their fight to end systemic racism.
What is Neurodecolonization?
Neurodecolonization is a term that many people are unfamiliar with. Most of us think of decolonization as reparations paid or land given back to Indigenous Peoples. However, the effects of colonization are much more profound and can not be reversed through these acts.
The oppression and traumas that Indigenous People are faced with activates brain regions connected with feeling helpless and fear.² The more networks in the brain associated with fear and negativity towards colonialism are used, the more they are strengthened.³
The part of the brain responsible for survival and feeling fear is 30 times older and stronger than the part of our brain that is responsible for empathy and compassion.⁴
In addition, negative thoughts have a greater influence on the brain than positive thoughts and prevent creativity and optimism.⁵ This is why it is difficult for oppressed peoples to overcome the fear and negativity that has become embedded in their thinking patterns.
Mindfulness is the key to changing the narrative from fear to empowerment. Just as parts of the brain associated with helplessness are activated and strengthened when they are used, the same is true for networks associated with positive and empowering thoughts.
Practicing mindfulness engages brain networks that promote optimism, resilience and creative ways to overcome the harmful effects of colonialism.⁶
The change in strength and connectivity of networks in your brain is known as plasticity. Train a Better Brain: the Neuroscience of Mindfulness focuses on all of the impacts mindfulness has on rewiring the brain.
To sum it all up, neurodecolonization is a method that aims to understand how stressors of colonialism affect neural networks, and how the use of mindfulness practices can help individuals overcome the negative effects they have suffered due to oppression.⁷
Extending the Practice of Mindfulness
It is clear that systemic institutions in the United States discriminate against and fail to protect minority groups, specifically people of color. Stressors such as racism, hate crimes, poverty, and disregard of one’s rights can shape how an individual’s brain functions, as we discussed in the section about neurodecolonization.⁸
However, we do not fully understand all of the cognitive effects that stressors and oppression can have on an individual.⁹ In one study, Black and Hispanic participants who observed racial discrimination showed deficits in a working memory updating task.¹⁰
Racism and oppression not only impact brain function, but also impact education, employment, health care, and many other aspects of the lives of people of color.¹¹
Therefore, the same mindfulness methods used in neurodecolonization for Indigenous Peoples can be very useful for people of color. Mindfulness has the ability to help people separate discrimination they experience from self-worth, become more resilient, and create a buffer between discrimination and mood.¹²
Martin Luther King once said that “the best tool I know of to transform our relationship to racial suffering is mindfulness meditation.”¹³
Although mindfulness is not a way to change systemic injustices, it is a way to change one’s reaction to them. It allows individuals to become more resilient, focused, and creative in the ways that they can address these injustices.
Mindfulness for the Privileged
As I briefly discussed, the thought that we should be colorblind is outdated. It is important to acknowledge and be aware of everyone’s experiences due to their race instead of pretending that race does not affect everyone’s daily life.
Being “mindless” is deeply set in the neural networks of those that disregard the rights of people of color, the struggles that they have faced, and their traditions.¹⁴
It is necessary for white people to stop trying to impose their beliefs onto people of color, and instead work to understand and accept their culture and practices.¹⁵
For those groups of people who have not experienced oppression, mindfulness is also an essential tool. This tool can be used to inform people of racism at the systemic level, become aware of the interdependence between all people, and help ourselves and others see how our actions and words (whether intentional or unintentional), have the ability to affect those around us.¹⁶
Ways to Practice Race Mindfulness
You have probably done some form of mediation, yoga, or mindfulness in their life. However, you have probably not focused on race at all. Why not? Race shapes everyone’s daily interactions, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions their entire lives, yet people act like race no longer exists.¹⁷
Below are some questions you can use in a guided meditation to help you become aware of your own experience with race, as well as the experience of others:
When was my first experience of race?
What emotions arise when I think about my race and racial experiences?
How can mindfulness help me to become more aware of my own experiences and the experiences of others?¹⁸
Systemic racism is an unfortunate reality that people of color face in the United States. As protests occur in the wake of George Floyd’s death, mindfulness can be used to channel the frustration and anger felt to keep the movement and fight towards justice alive.
Yellow Bird, M. (2013). Ch. 15: Neurodecolonization: Applying Mindfulness Research to Decolonizing Social Work. In M. Gray, J. Coates, M. Yellow Bird, & T. Hetherington (Authors), Decolonizing social work (pp. 293–310). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Miller, A.L., Stern, C., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Introduction to the special issue on race and racism. Journal of Social Issues, 75(4), 992–1001. http://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.1111/josi.12359
Anālayo, B. (2020). Confronting Racism with Mindfulness. Mindfulness. doi:10.1007/s12671–020–01432–4
Magee, R. V. (2016). Teaching mindfulness with mindfulness of race and other forms of diversity. In D. McCown, D. Reibel, & M. S. Micozzi (Eds.), Resources for teaching mindfulness: An international handbook. (pp. 225–246). Springer International Publishing. https://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.1007/978-3-319-30100-6_12
Yellow Bird et al. 2013