By Shelly Tochluk


[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the book “Living in the Tension: The Quest for a Spiritualized Racial Justice” by Shelly Tochluk. Reprinted here with permission.]

There is a tension between the need to focus on one’s personal psycho-spiritual growth process and the importance of political action to support societal change. Many spiritually oriented people face this tension when asked to address issues of race. People oriented toward psycho-spiritual healing often express:

I am working to heal from the disconnections of the modern world. Since we are all interconnected, I contribute to the world positively when I am centered and can balance the needs of self and other, feminine and masculine principles, body and mind, and spirit and earth. Working on my personal growth is how I do the most good.

The message is “I am the change I want to see in the world.”

This is in contrast to people focused on racial justice who tend to state:

Working together to change the unjust policies and practices in effect today is essential. To do this, we need to know how institutional racism affects people’s lives. This requires moving beyond a focus on personal consciousness-raising to taking action to change the systems that negatively impact people’s lives.

Living-in-the-Tension-300px-wideThe message is, “political action and institutional change efforts are needed because personal consciousness-raising does not create sufficient policy shifts.”

Balancing this tension requires a both/and approach. Both sides offer important contributions. On one hand, concentrating on personal psycho-spiritual development may increase the ability to withstand the emotional struggles inherent in racial justice work. Even minor personal gains in the right direction can help maintain one’s striving and active investment over time. Without this sense of personal agency, one can feel lost under the weight and complexity of the collective work needed to alter entrenched, unjust systems. At the same time, actively working in alliance with many others for a common goal is powerful and strengthening in and of itself. Joining with others who are mutually invested in both a sense of personal healing/growth and a dedication toward action allows for the lived experience of interdependence.


How Spirituality Can Reinforce Disconnection

The personalized approach to spirituality often prioritizes what is perceived to be positive and connecting but which, unwittingly, reinforces disconnection. How and why does this occur? A self-focused spirituality does not generally inspire participation in collective action. Although spiritual and social reform movements in the U.S. during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often aligned, most people currently influenced by the concepts described above are not politically engaged. This is true even though the vast majority of people internalizing these beliefs are politically liberal or progressive. One reason for the lack of political engagement is that spiritual seekers often emphasize that positive thinking is a necessary way to avoid negativity from getting in the way of the healing of self and the planet. Giving attention to societal problems, aligning with political movements, and dealing with messy attempts at political action and collaboration are often interpreted as focusing on negativity.

Resistance to entering the “negativity” found within the political fray is understandable. Engaging with the politics of difference, access, power, and privilege can be unpleasant and may involve interacting with people who are very angry. There are social justice activists who are suspicious of people who focus on personal healing efforts. Many believe that changing the system should be the sole concern and work toward structural change is the surest route to creating healthy communities. For this reason, some activists may not see psycho-spiritual efforts as valuable for either themselves or others. A spiritually oriented person will undoubtedly feel alienated by a group dedicated to a “politics-only” approach. But that does not mean spiritual people should allow this to avert them from engaging in advocacy. In fact, maintaining a positive perspective while engaged in these efforts can be considered powerful spiritual work.

The second way a self-based spirituality can unwittingly engender disconnection involves how it prioritizes actions that feel positive over actions in service of the common good. Hanegraaff wonders how the set of beliefs that are a part of a self-oriented spirituality allow for common moral values. Others also question how the freedom to pick and choose what feels comfortable might affect ethical decision-making.

A significant contribution to the tendency to turn toward the Self as the primary guide is that rituals and practices are often conducted in isolation. For example, a study of neopagans found that only 5% said working with other people was centrally important to maintaining either their involvement in, or commitment to, their paganism. The study’s authors conclude that, although people feel an immediate sense of belonging to an imagined, large group with common beliefs, the notion of community is “more diffuse and abstract.” This diffused sense of community can significantly reduce one’s sense of obligation to another person or group.

This made me stop and think about my own actions. If I am my own ultimate source of truth and solely committed to feeling good, what will hold me accountable for my behavior? Accountability to one’s Self alone may be no accountability at all. It is exceedingly hard to change, take on a new task, or give up something that feels right. With my Self as my primary guide, how can I be sure I do not dismiss meaningful, challenging messages too quickly out of attachment, fear, or the individualism that remains embedded within? How can I be sure I am accessing my higher Self when making decisions? The consequences of this current trend of individualism continue to affect many spiritual people in ways that frustrate activists and efforts for justice.


Political Action

It must be acknowledged at the outset that people who focus exclusively on political action contribute meaningfully to racial justice efforts every day. Yet, it is also true that considering the psycho-social dimension as undermining political organizing can lead to a limited diversity of approaches to systemic change, a weakening of their effectiveness, and a turning away of some interested people who simultaneously value spiritual principles.

It is common knowledge that people first need to know about unjust policies before taking the necessary action to rectify them. Therefore, educational workshops on unjust policies are valued. What needs consideration, however, is how data illustrating racial disparities is presented and the meaning made of that data.

It is important to note that most people in the U.S. interpret data using an individual analysis. This is due to the fact that U.S. society is based on the belief that individuals are responsible for their circumstances. The focus on personal responsibility underlies the U.S.’s vision of itself as a meritocracy, a society in which all people have an equal chance for success. The consequence of this belief, particularly for white people, is a default perspective that people attain their level of education based on their efforts, live wherever they would like, and enter the criminal justice system when they do bad things. In this individualistic way of perceiving the world, people make personal choices and are exclusively responsible for the results.

An individual analysis is very different than a systemic analysis. Most social justice advocates learn to use a systemic analysis that recognizes how the historical and contemporary policies and procedures of a society (via its institutions) shape people’s experiences and life outcomes. A systemic analysis can reveal, for example, how schools offer differential access to advanced placement courses or arts programs, historic lending policies resulted in certain groups living in concentrated areas in the inner cities, and targeted police sweeps and gang injunction policies result in youth being criminalized. The systemic lens reveals how policies and practices of people within institutions make a difference in where people live, find employment, and how likely they are to complete their education or get arrested or incarcerated.

In a society focused on the autonomy and responsibility of the individual, people are not encouraged or educated to perceive how systems affect people. Learning to apply a systemic or structural analysis is generally a difficult, skill to learn, one that contrasts with long-held beliefs and values. For this reason, unless a person is exposed to hard evidence or personal experience verifying the accuracy of a systemic analysis, data presented intended to reveal racial disparities (and demonstrate how systemic practices are injurious and discriminatory) are usually challenged or rejected outright.

Part of the problem is that when activists’ workshops identify institutional racism as responsible for society’s racial disparities, the data presented does not offer proof that racism is the cause. Unless the data comes from controlled or experimental studies, it is only correlational or descriptive. One group has a rate of X on some measure (like poverty, incarceration, or college attendance rates), while another group has a Y rate on that particular measure. Nothing inherent in the statistics suggests why the disparity exists.

This opens the door for interpretations and challenges: Are institutional problems really the root cause of the disparity, and how do we know for sure? For those accustomed to perceiving the world through an individual lens, every potential explanation is brought to bear. “What about…? How do you know it’s not because…? Couldn’t it be that…?” These questions are predictable because they arise from of a lifetime of having been influenced to see the world with an individual analysis.

For activists who offer a systemic analysis, this can be extremely frustrating. Contributing to the frustration is the fact that in these situations, the data simply cannot answer the question of causation.

Activists have generally studied the history of an issue and multiple streams of evidence have convinced them that the current disparities are based on historical and current policies and practices which continue to exacerbate the issue. Theirs is a cry for an urgent response. Getting people accustomed to seeing the world through an individualistic lens to accept the historical and systemic analysis and respond to the call for action often depends on the degree to which activists are able to string together a compelling circumstantial case for their position. This means justice advocates seeking to expand their support base need to formulate a case that offers additional evidence, historical facts, psychological theory, contemporary anecdotes, and compelling personal testimony.


There is no doubt that resistance to a systemic analysis is firmly embedded within U.S. culture. Hearing that U.S. society is still marked by institutional inequality is not what most liberal, spiritual white people want to believe. If true, it means there is more work to do, which can feel overwhelming and prompt emotional reactivity. This is one reason why psycho-spiritual healing is so necessary. It can encourage people to investigate and resolve some of the emotional responses that result in denial and inaction.


Spiritual Healing and Racial Justice Advocacy

Combining psycho-spiritual healing and growth with racial justice advocacy requires confrontation of the various ways one’s psyche has been conditioned to experience fear, separation, and otherness. [Michelle] Alexander notes that, in order to return to the incarceration level the U.S. had in the 1970’s, 80% of those currently in prison would have to be released. Take a moment to imagine. What image arises when you consider every 4 out of 5 prisoners released? What fears and concerns come with that image? Do these questions provoke discomfort? Why?

New-Jim-CrowI was not conditioned to see the current situation as undermining society. Instead, as a white woman, I was conditioned by media and societal structures to experience feelings ranging from discomfort to terror when considering the prison population. Social conditioning led me to see all incarcerated persons as dangerous, instead of seeing that a vast number of non-violent drug users and their families are deserving of respect and help, not punishment. Providing drug counseling and access to jobs, as well as revising our drug policies, would be a healthier and more effective solution.

It is also essential to consider how this conditioning affects white people’s sense of self. It is easy for me to judge people from past decades or centuries for their complicity in racial oppression. I’d like to believe that my moral and spiritual sensibilities would have led me to be an abolitionist if I had lived during the 1800’s. Noel Ignatiev recognizes this as a common perspective among white people. He asks white people to consider our current U.S. situation in terms of mass incarceration in order to realistically judge one’s level of concern about those living at that time in history. His questions require me, as one who believes that it is wrong to imprison people for non-violent, drug-related offenses, to consider what it would take for me to advocate for the release of 80% of those incarcerated today. After reading Alexander’s book, I see how the historical work on abolishing slavery is in some ways comparable to contemporary organizing that advocates for prison reduction.

Considering these questions brings me face to face with my fears, disconnection, and conditioned stereotypes. I know people who have spent time in prison. They are dedicated to their families, work hard, and are trustworthy and dependable. Yet, my image of the prison population remains informed by media messages that lead me to believe that all those currently locked up are dangerous. I know this is not accurate. My fears regarding personal safety are understandable, but overblown, and I have been influenced by political rhetoric, corporations, and other interests who are making huge amounts of money from the expansion and privatization of prisons.55 I am challenged to spend even more time with people directly affected by these issues to help my head, heart, and hands become more fully engaged.

Taking up an engaged presence is part of taking responsibility to recover from modern disconnections and the individualism that continues to lie at the very core of mass incarceration. For Parker too, “social action is an incarnational event. It mends the split of mind and body, individual from community, neighbor from neighbor.” The capacity to recognize what is going on in society, how one is participating (or not) and why, and then choose to engage differently is a mark of interdependence. This recognition allows one to play a role in disrupting the racism and oppression that continues to perpetuate a racial caste system within the U.S.

I have heard it said that a movement is built individual by individual. Every person is a potential ally, and there are some issues so dire we need every mind clear, every voice loud, and every body actively engaged. However one chooses to contribute, all are welcome and all are necessary in our collective recovery from individualism.


About Shelly Tochluk

Shelly-Tochluk2An educator, with a background in psychology, I spent ten years as a researcher, counselor, and teacher in California’s public schools. I now train teachers to work with Los Angeles’ diverse school population as Chair of the Education Department at Mount Saint Mary’s University. My personal dedication to confront issues of race developed first through my participation with UCLA’s NCAA Division-1 All-American Track and Field 4X400 meter relay team and later through my inner city teaching experiences. I currently work with AWARE-LA (Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles). With this group, I co-created a workshop series that leads white people into a deeper understanding of their personal relationship to race, white privilege, and systemic racism. My website:



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