Remembering the Gold

How to Release Negative Self-Beliefs

Magazine Issue
November/December 2019
A painting of a gold swirl

We all get lost in the dense forest of our lives, entangled in incessant worry and planning, in judgments of others, and in our busy striving to meet demands and solve problems. When we’re caught in that thicket, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters most. We forget how much we long to be kind and openhearted. We forget our ties to this sacred earth and to all living beings. And in a deep way, we forget who we are.

This forgetting is a part of being in trance—a partially unconscious state that, like a dream, is disconnected from the whole of reality. When we’re in trance, our minds are narrowed, fixated, and usually immersed in thought. Our hearts are often defended, anxious, or numb. Once you recognize the signs of trance, you will begin to see it everywhere, in yourself and others. You are in trance when you are living on autopilot, when you feel walled off and separate from those around you, when you are caught up in feeling fearful, angry, victimized, or deficient.

The good news is that we all have the capacity to free ourselves.

When we are lost in the forest, we can create a clearing simply by pausing and turning from our clamoring thoughts to become aware of our moment-to-moment experience. I call this wakeful and immediate awareness “presence.” It is also referred to as consciousness, spirit, Buddha nature, true nature, the awakened heartmind, and many other names. When we’ve reconnected fully to presence, we can open to what is going on inside us—the changing flow of sensations, feelings, and thoughts—without any resistance. This allows us to live our life moments with clarity and compassion. The shift from being lost in unconscious mental and emotional reactivity to inhabiting our full presence is an awakening from trance.

RAIN Creates a Clearing

My dense forest hums with a background mantra—there’s not enough time. I know I’m not alone; many of us speed through the day, anxiously crossing tasks off the list. This often comes hand in hand with feeling beleaguered, annoyed at interruptions, and worried about what’s around the corner.

My anxiety escalates when I’m preparing for an upcoming teaching event. At these times I’m in a trance that can block any real presence with others. I remember one afternoon some years ago racing the clock getting ready to give a talk on loving presence. Ironically, when my mother (who lives with us) came into my office to show me something, I was so fixated on my computer screen, I didn’t even look up. A few minutes after she quietly retreated I realized with real angst, my insensitivity. The trance of anxiety was closing me down, distancing me from dear ones.

I decided to take a timeout for RAIN—a meditation that awakens mindfulness and compassion, and applies them to the places where we are emotionally stuck. My intention was to gain more freedom from my anxiety about being prepared. I left my desk, went to a comfortable chair, and took a few moments to settle myself before beginning.

The first step was simply to Recognize (R) what was going on inside me—the circling of anxious thoughts and guilty feelings about distancing from a loved one.

The second step was to Allow (A) what was happening by breathing and letting be. Even though I didn’t like what I was feeling, my intention was not to fix or change anything and, just as important, not to judge myself for feeling anxious or guilty.

Allowing made it possible to collect and deepen my attention before starting the third step: to Investigate (I) what felt most difficult. Now, with interest, I directed my attention to the feelings of anxiety in my body—physical tightness, pulling and pressure around my heart. I asked the anxious part of me what it was believing, and the answer was deeply familiar. It believed I was going to fail. If I didn’t have every teaching and story fleshed out in advance, I’d do a bad job and let people down. But that same anxiety made me unavailable to my mother, so I was also failing someone I loved dearly.

As I became conscious of these pulls of guilt and fear, I continued to Investigate. Contacting that torn, anxious part of myself, I asked, “What do you most need right now?” I could immediately sense that it needed care and reassurance that I was not going to fail in any real way. It needed to trust that the teachings would flow through me, and to trust the love that flows between my mother and me.

I’d arrived at the fourth step of RAIN, Nurture (N), and I sent a gentle message inward, directly to that anxious part: “It’s okay, sweetheart. You’ll be all right; we’ve been through this so many times before . . . trying to come through on all fronts.” In response to the kindness behind the message, I could feel a warm, comforting energy spreading through my body. Then there was a distinct shift: my heart softened a bit, my shoulders relaxed, and my mind felt more clear and open.

I sat still for another minute or two and let myself rest in this clearing, rather than quickly jumping back into work.

My pause for RAIN took only a few minutes, but it made a big difference. When I returned to my desk, I was no longer caught inside the story line that something bad was around the corner. Now that I wasn’t tight with anxiety, my thoughts and notes began to flow, and I remembered a story that was perfect for the talk. Pausing for RAIN had enabled me to reengage with the clarity and openheartedness that I hoped to talk about that evening.

Since then, I’ve done a brief version of RAIN with anxiety countless times. My anxiety hasn’t gone away, but something fundamental has changed. The anxiety doesn’t take over. I don’t get lost in the dense forest of trance. Instead, when I pause and then shift my attention from my story about getting things done to my actual experience in my body and heart, there’s a spontaneous shift to increased presence and kindness. Often I’ll keep working, but sometimes I decide to change gears, to step outside and play with my pup, make some tea, or water the plants. That afternoon, I went for a walk with my mom by the river. There’s more choice.

When I’m in the trance of busily speeding through the day, I’m typically lost in thoughts, disconnected from my body, and cut off from my heart. RAIN provides a way out of trance through what I call a “U-turn” in attention.

We are taking a U-turn whenever we shift our attention from an outward fixation—another person, our thoughts, or our emotionally driven stories about what’s going on—to the real, living experience in our body. It’s like being at a scary movie where we’re totally gripped by the story on the screen and then suddenly become aware: Okay, it’s just a movie. I’m watching it with hundreds of other people. I can feel the seat under me, feel myself breathing. And we’re back again, aware of our own presence, grounded in our real life.

Only by purposefully bringing attention to our inner experience can we move from trance toward healing. We need to become aware of the circling anxious thoughts, the habitual tightness in our shoulders, the pressure from being in a rush. Then we can begin to turn from our stories—about someone else’s wrongness, about our own deficiencies, about trouble around the corner—to directly feel our fears, hurts, and vulnerability, and ultimately the tender wakefulness of our heart.

Releasing Negative Self-Beliefs

In the mid-1950s, a new highway in Bangkok was routed through an ancient temple, and the monks were forced to relocate a massive clay statue of the Buddha that had been loved and venerated for many generations. A crane was brought in, but as they began to lift the Buddha, its huge weight shifted, and the clay began to crack. They quickly lowered the statue to the ground and, knowing a storm was coming, covered it with a tarp.

Later that evening, the abbot went to inspect the damage and make sure the statue wasn’t getting wet. As he shone his flashlight under the tarp, he noticed a gleam of reflected light coming from the largest crack. When he looked more closely, he wondered if there was something underneath the thick clay. He ran to wake the other monks, and together, with chisels and hammers, they began chipping along the cracks. The gleam became brighter and brighter, until finally, after long hours of work, the monks stepped back and stared in awe at the sight before them: a Buddha of solid gold.

Historians believe that several hundred years earlier, the temple monks themselves had covered the statue with clay. Anticipating an attack by a neighboring army, they hoped to protect their precious Buddha from being looted or destroyed. The monks were all killed in the ensuing battle, but the Buddha survived intact.

When monks today share this story, they say that in the face of threats or challenges, each of us has a habitual way of covering the gold. Our suffering comes when we identify with our protective covering and forget the loving awareness that is intrinsic to our being.

One of the great blocks to realizing the gold of who we are is our conviction that “something is wrong with me.” When I teach about the trance of unworthiness, I’m often asked, “Why do we hold on so tightly to our belief in our own deficiency? Why are we so loyal to our suffering, so addicted to our self-judgment?”

While we might long to accept and trust ourselves, trying to release our negative self-beliefs can feel as if we’re trying to exorcise something buried deep inside our body. And in a way we are.

Our beliefs live not only in our mind but in a constellation of feelings and emotions embedded in our bodies. As a favorite saying goes, “Our issues are in our tissues.” They are deeply familiar. They feel like “me.” Most are rooted in interpretations of reality we formed in early childhood, and we rely on them for guidance and protection. They tell us who we are and what we can expect from ourselves, from others, and from the world.

Our most potent negative self-beliefs arise from early experiences of fear and wounding. Due to a survival-driven negativity bias, we remember painful events much more readily than pleasant ones. We remember the critical comment more than something affirming, the dog bite more than the beautiful sunset. As the psychologist Rick Hanson puts it, “The brain is Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”

This fixation on what might be threatening is compounded by another tendency, called the confirmation bias, which leads us to focus on information that matches or reinforces our existing beliefs—particularly in the case of charged issues like our value as a person. The upshot: We make an airtight case for our belief in personal deficiency. For many of us, this is what solidifies the thick ego-covering, and obscures the gold—our basic goodness.

We keep the feelings of deficiency alive in daily life through our incessant inner dialogue. If you watch your thoughts, you may discover the Judge in the background, continually asking, “How am I doing?” and condemning the gap between some ideal standard and what is. You may also notice worry thoughts about how falling short is right around the corner, or how you’ll be rejected for your flaws.

As long as we continue our fear-based thinking, our beliefs will maintain their potency, and we will be disconnected from the larger truth of who we are. Writer Carlos Castaneda says that we maintain our world with our inner dialogue and that our world will change as soon as we stop talking to ourselves.

A traditional story from Polynesia captures the ultimate cost of obeying our fears and self-doubt. In ancient times, a revered tribal leader went regularly to the river to shed her skin, each time returning to her village renewed and invigorated. But one day things changed. Instead of floating away, her old skin got caught in a bit of driftwood. And when she returned home, her daughter ran away from her in fear, because this raw-skinned new person no longer looked like her familiar self.

Finally, unable to comfort her daughter, the woman went back to the river, found her old skin, and put it back on. And from that time on, the story tells us, humans lost their power to rejuvenate, to live and love fully. They became mere mortals, entangled in fears of failure and the need to cover over their flaws.

Awakening From the Trance of Unworthiness

The old skin that is most difficult to shed is our core belief that something is wrong with us—that we are deficient or flawed. In my work with meditation students and clients over the last decades, I’ve seen how this belief has stopped people from having intimate relationships, generated ongoing anxiety and depression, fueled addictive behavior, and caused harm to their loved ones. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes, “The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes.” To flourish, we need to release the belief that something is wrong with us.

To examine the hook of negative self-beliefs, scan an arena in your life where you are down on yourself. Take a few moments to focus on what about the situation feels so bad. Now ask yourself:

What am I believing about myself? Is it that you’re falling short? That you’re bad for being hurtful to others? That you will be rejected? That you’ll never get the intimacy or success you long for? That you are unlovable?

Now ask yourself this: What is wrong with letting go of this belief? Or What bad might happen if I let go of this self-judgment? When I ask this question in workshops or with individuals, I hear answers like these: “I’ll never change and become who I want to be.” “I’m afraid I’d be even worse.” “I’d be powerless; there’d be no way to watch out for myself, protect myself.” “Others would judge me more, and I wouldn’t be prepared for their criticism.” “I wouldn’t know who I am.” “I wouldn’t know how to live.”

As we continue to investigate these beliefs together, some people also mention their fear of how others would react if they changed. Like the woman who went back to the river to soothe her daughter’s upset, we keep our old skin to fit others’ expectations. The experience of a flawed self can be comfortable in its familiarity. Often we build relationships with others around our shared insecurity. We develop dependent relationships from the role of the “deficient” or weak one. The youngest child in the family is always “the baby,” the one who has struggled with drug abuse is “the addict,” the domineering and aggressive one, “the alpha.” Our self-identity is reinforced by what others believe about us, and we collude by staying the same. We’d rather protect the current relationship than risk rocking the boat.

Students often tell me that they need their self-judgments, that if they don’t remember what’s wrong with them, others will remind them. They tell me, “I’m not the only one who thinks I’m falling short; everyone else tells me that too.” And for them, it feels dangerous to shed the protective skin of old beliefs; they don’t want to be caught unawares.

So our negative self-beliefs, even when deeply painful, often give us a sense of certainty, orientation, and control. We can easily stay entranced for years and decades, perpetuating our sense of unworthiness with a habitual narrative of self-judgment and fear-based thinking. It’s only when we directly open ourselves to the suffering of this trance—how it cuts us off from others and from our own heart and spirit, how we don’t have to believe we’re flawed—that we begin to intuit the freedom possible in shedding old skin.

Real But Not True

Janice, a single mom, was a friend who’d started coming to my weekly meditation class. In addition to having a demanding job, she felt caught between the needs of Bruce, her 15-year-old son, who was struggling with social anxiety, and the needs of her dad, who lived for her visits. Twice a week, she’d leave work early and spend 45 minutes navigating the evening rush hour to get to her dad’s assisted-living facility. He always lit up when she arrived, and then, when she got up to leave, he’d anxiously ask when she was coming back. She resented him for making her feel guilty, resented the time away from work and her son, and, most deeply, resented herself for not being more openhearted and gracious.

Janice had begun to practice RAIN, but so far this tangle of resentment hadn’t budged. Then, during one of our walks, she asked for my help. So I put on my meditation-teacher hat and asked her what she was believing about herself. She responded immediately, “I’m falling short on the most important fronts.” Then, shaking her head with resignation, she went on: “You know, Tara, I’m failing them and . . . this is awful to say . . . but I’m just not a loving person.”

When we hear such painful self- judgments from a friend, it’s tempting to jump in with reassurance. “Of course you’re a loving person. . . . Remember the time . . . ?” But instead I asked Janice something she didn’t expect, a question the author Byron Katie uses in her work: “Is it true? Is it true that you’re failing, and that you’re not a loving person?”

She responded impatiently, “All the evidence points that way.”

I asked again, “Are you certain that you’re failing, that you’re not a loving enough person? Is it really true?” This time she slowed down before replying.

“Okay, it really feels true, Tara. I’m not liking myself very much these days . . . but no . . . I guess I’m not certain.” We walked in silence for a bit, and when I glanced at her, Janice looked thoughtful and sad but not so grim.

Then I shared a phrase I’d learned from one of my teachers: “real but not true.” Yes, our beliefs and the feelings under them are real; they exist in our body and mind and have tremendous power over us. But we need to ask ourselves this: Do they match the actual, living, changing stuff of our experience in the world? In other words, are they true?

Our thoughts are sound bites and/or images that form a map of reality in our mind. Some maps are useful. For instance, I may have a thought that if I drink too much caffeine, I won’t be present with others. This can help guide my behavior. Other maps are harmful: for instance, the belief that if I say no to a friend, it proves that I’m a bad person.

In either case, we need to realize that these thoughts or beliefs are, as the Zen teachings say, like the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself.

In the following week’s meditation class (without mentioning Janice), I came back to this idea. Our beliefs are real because we experience them mentally, emotionally, and physically. And they have real impact on our lives! As Gandhi put it, they lead to action, create our character, and shape our destiny. But these beliefs—even the ones that feel most true—are only mental representations or symbols of our experience.

It can be life changing to realize “I don’t have to believe my thoughts . . . they are just thoughts!” Any story you have about yourself is not the same as the unfolding reality of what you are: the ongoing life of your senses, the tenderness of your heart, the consciousness that right now is seeing or hearing these words. Yet because our beliefs are continuously filtering and interpreting reality, we mistake our stories about ourselves and the world for reality itself. Understanding “real but not true” can free us from this prison.

In the weeks to come, these teachings created a tiny but important opening for Janice. She became more hopeful, more willing to deepen her attention. I’ve seen this over and over. When we have enough perspective to realize “I’m not my thoughts” or “This is just a belief,” we are unhooking from the inner dialogue. This gives us choice. It enables us to wake up to a larger awareness.

Releasing Beliefs with RAIN

RAIN is a crucial help at this point, because it offers us a systematic way to loosen the grip of fear-based beliefs. Janice and I met again to go over the steps of RAIN together, and she began to practice daily, sometimes for only a few minutes, sometimes longer. Several weeks later, she shared an experience with me.

One afternoon, after she’d parked her car at her father’s nursing home, she decided to do RAIN before going inside to visit. She reclined her seat, closed her eyes, and asked herself, “What is happening inside me?” A familiar voice in her head said, “This is the last thing I want to be doing right now. I just don’t have the time.” Her jaw was clenched. When she thought of her father, she felt dutiful, resentful, guilty, tight.

Janice was making the U-turn, turning her attention inward, and this was her starting place. She Recognized that cluster of feelings, and instead of judging herself for them, she simply Allowed herself to feel how painful they were without pushing them away. Then, after a few breaths, she leaned in, beginning to Investigate with interest, trying to get a better sense of what was going on. She gently asked herself, “What is the worst part about this?” and her attention went right to her chest. She felt heat, tightness, and pressure. “Ah,” she said to herself, “I’m angry.” And as she let the anger be there, it began to change shape. It morphed into a sense of powerlessness. There was no way she could live up to what was expected of her—with her father, with her son, at work. She was falling short; she would always fail. And now, along with that feeling of helplessness came self-condemnation: “I just don’t like who I am. I don’t like this grim, angry, closed-hearted, helpless self.”

Investigating had connected her with what she had been running away from: the deep belief that she was failing and was an unloving person. She then recalled the question we had explored together: “Is it possible these beliefs are real but not true?” Asking this gave her enough space to stay present with what was unfolding.

She then asked, “When I’m believing this, what is my experience inside?” Her heart felt raw, tightly bound, and filled with a very childlike sense of helplessness and shame. She also felt an oppressive wave of fatigue. As she contacted this deep emotional pain in her body, she realized that these feelings had been buried within her for as long as she could remember. A natural response of sorrow and self-compassion arose.

Janice had reached the N of RAIN, Nurture, and with tears and tenderness she began to whisper to herself, just as she would to a young child: “This is really difficult, and you’re doing your best. You love Dad; you love Bruce. Now that you’re here, you can relax. It’s enough just to be with Dad now, love him now. It’s okay.”

She did relax, as if letting go into the arms of a wise, kind parent. She sat still for another five minutes or so, letting in and resting in the warmth and openness of this new space before she went inside. And when she peeked into her father’s room, he was just waking from a nap.

He beamed at her and said, “I just had a dream about you as a little girl trying to ride Rosie.” They laughed and began to share memories of Rosie, a much-loved dog, which led to more memories of good times. As she was leaving, Janice promised that for her next visit she’d bring some childhood pictures she had digitized. And when she got to her car, she realized that her father hadn’t asked when she was coming back. She was back, and he wasn’t so lonely.

RAIN had enabled Janice to reconnect with a very natural, openhearted sense of herself, but this didn’t mean that her resentments, guilt, and negative beliefs magically disappeared. RAIN is rarely a one-shot experience; well-grooved beliefs and feelings continue to arise. The difference was, after weeks of practicing RAIN, Janice could see clearly that her beliefs weren’t reality; they didn’t have to confine her life experience and her sense of her own being.

Before Janice drifted off to sleep on the night of that visit, she reflected on how long she’d been hounded by a sense of her own deficiency. Then she asked herself one of the inquiries we’d discussed that can deepen the experience of After the RAIN: “Who would I be if I didn’t believe this about myself?” The response was a spontaneous feeling of spaciousness, buoyancy, and warmth. Her spirit, she realized, was beyond any thought or belief. Trusting this gave Janice a true taste of peace.

Judging Ourselves, Judging Others

Bruce was changing along with his mom. For several years, Janice had been worried that her son’s anxiety kept him from finding friends and doing well in school. But as she began to relax her sense of personal failure, she started relaxing about Bruce too. Now, at dinnertime, she found herself enjoying his wry humor and quick observations, and listening from her office later in the evenings, she was impressed with his guitar playing. She became more confident he’d find his way, and something rubbed off. He began playing music with two boys in his class and seemed more at ease with himself.

One day during spring break, he asked to go with her to visit Granddad and play him a few songs on his new guitar. This was a major shift; he’d always refused. From then on, until her dad’s death a year later, they’d go together every few weeks—a ritual of strumming, singing, and chatting enjoyed by all three. Releasing the grip of her own beliefs directly increased the well-being of the dear ones in Janice’s life.

When we’re convinced we’re selfish, we’re inclined to suspect the same of others. If we hate ourselves for being needy, we may feel repelled or frightened by neediness in others. And if we feel we’re failing, we may look for signs of failure in those we’re close to. Our negative self-beliefs become a powerful lens that shapes our experience of others; we can’t see who’s really there.

Stepping out of our old skin gives us a fresh and clear view. Not only are we able to sense the sincerity and benevolence of our own heart and being, but we are more able to see the gold shining through others. This growing trust in basic goodness is one of the gifts of the practice of RAIN.

At this point you may be thinking, “Yes, I’d love to drop my judgments and feelings of failure . . . but they’re so persistent!”

True, and it’s important to respect how deeply rooted that sense of “something is wrong with me” can be. I used to despair of just how deep! It helped when I began to think in evolutionary terms. The fear of falling short is rooted in our survival brain, which has been shaping our existence for millions of years. This ancient fear keeps us holding on to the defensive skin of negative beliefs. Yet there’s also a powerful urge toward our full potential—an urge to emerge as a more integrated, intelligent, compassionate being.

Because RAIN offers an attentive care to the fears arising from our survival brain, it allows us to rest in a more conscious, loving and spacious field of awareness. Yet these conflicting pulls continue to create a very natural tension in each of us.

When we shed our old skin, when we loosen the protective covering of our convictions and step free from our negative beliefs about ourselves and others, we are taking what the poet Mark Nepo calls “the exquisite risk.” It’s a risk because, as with all growth, we are exposing ourselves to the unknown, to danger, and to loss. It’s exquisite because the natural beauty, sensitivity, and responsiveness of our being are awakened and revealed.

All individual and collective transformation requires willingly engaging with this risk. Our negative self- beliefs can keep us identified with the covering of the golden Buddha: constricted, small-minded, disconnected from our heart, and suffering. Or we can consider these beliefs as a call to Investigate, a call to take the exquisite risk with the mindfulness and radical compassion of RAIN. When we do, we begin to discover who we are beyond any thoughts or beliefs. And we begin to manifest our unlimited capacity for openhearted awareness.

Uprooting Painful Beliefs with RAIN

Sitting comfortably, collect your attention with a few long, deep breaths. Take some moments to scan your body and relax any obvious areas of tension.

Bring to mind a belief that causes suffering in your life. Or if you’re suffering right now, ask yourself, “What am I believing?” Is it something about yourself—that you’re undeserving, a failure, too damaged to ever be happy or loved, always falling short? Do you hear someone else’s voice—“weird,” “loser,” “you can never trust anybody”?

To connect fully with this belief, you might remind yourself of a particular situation that brought it up—or one that is likely to. Visualize the situation as clearly as possible. What do you see around you? Who else is there? What were you thinking and feeling?

Recognize: Your thoughts and feelings express a belief. What are you believing right now?

Allow: Pause for a few moments, and simply let the belief and accompanying feelings be there.

Investigate: Begin by asking, “Is this really true?” or “Am I certain this is true?”

Then ask, “What is it like to live with this belief?” You can deepen your Investigation by making the U-turn, turning from your thoughts to bring your attention to your body. What feelings and sensations are strong? Are particular emotions associated with this belief? Do you sense fear or shame, anger or self-hatred?

Widen the investigation by asking, “How has living with this belief affected my life?” Can you see its impact on how you relate to yourself and others, on your creativity, your capacity to serve, your ability to enjoy experience, your inner growth?

At this point, you might pause and ask yourself, “What is it like to honestly see and feel how this belief has shaped my life?”

Now turn your attention back to your body. Investigate the hurts and fears that live under the belief and drive it. And connecting with whatever feels most vulnerable right now, ask, “What do you most need?”

Nurture: Now bring your wisest and most loving self—your future self, your awake heart—to witness and feel your vulnerability. What message, touch, energy, or image might bring the most healing to the wounds inside you? Offer that, and let the place of vulnerability receive and be bathed in that nurturing energy.

After the RAIN: Notice the quality of presence that has unfolded, and rest in this space of awareness. After some moments, ask yourself, “What would my life be like without this belief?” and/or “Who would I become if I no longer lived with this belief?”

Whatever arises, rest in that experience. Let it fill you and get familiar with it.


From Radical Compassion by Tara Brach, to be published on December 31, 2019 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Tara Brach.

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Tara Brach

Tara Brach, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, an internationally known teacher of mindfulness meditation, and the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. She is author of bestselling Radical Acceptance and True Refuge, and leads accredited workshops for mental health professionals interested in integrating meditation into the practice of psychotherapy. Tara offers meditation retreats at centers in the United States and in Europe. Her podcasted talks and meditations are downloaded about a million times each month. In addition to her public teaching, Tara is active in bringing meditation into DC area schools, prisons and to underserved populations, and in activities that promote racial justice.