Rachel Ricketts on Spiritual Bypassing & Why We Need To Quit It

Image by mbg creative / Rachel Ricketts

In the world of wellness, we're often looking to focus on the positive, on prioritizing what feels good, on the brighter things. But sometimes our desire to stay in the light stems from a fear of facing our shadow.

That's a core teaching of racial justice activist, healer, and former lawyer Rachel Ricketts, who runs "spiritual activism" workshops primarily aimed at white folks to help them become more comfortable acknowledging their racism (which we all have inside us) so they can make an earnest commitment to do better. Her powerful, heart-centered approach to activism is all about doing the inner work. She's brought her healing-oriented anti-racism workshops to huge businesses like Google, Lululemon, and WeWork as well as many yoga studios and wellness brands. Here Ricketts talks to us about "spiritual bypassing" and why "focusing on what unites us” may not be enough.

What is spiritual activism?

Spiritual activism to me is my take on how you call folks of all shades and hues into the work of activating for racial justice. I always explain this in my workshops that the name "spiritual activism" is actually more about me (laughs) than it is about other people. It's the work that I do. I feel called by spirit to use the tools and mechanisms, guides, and offerings of spirit and consciousness to help other folks get called into the work, specifically white folks because they have the most work to do. They're the most behind, and they cause the most harm. It's racial justice work that is entrenched in connection, plus soul, spirit, and consciousness. It's an embodied approach to activism, which is, I think, one that is often missing.

I think it's really important to have an analytical left-brain approach to justice, based in facts and statistics and reason. There's certainly a time and place for that. I also think it's equally if not more important to have a heart-centered, embodied approach because if we are not going about this work in a way that resonates with every cell of our body, then we're never going to actually commit. … A lot of us are used to learning in a white heteropatriarchal way, which would require facts, statistics, and reason, and that's just not where I come from. This is a divine, feminine, intuitive, emotional approach to being, to learning, to processing, to healing, because that's what it is. If you're really committed to racial justice, then you're committed to healing yourself and collective healing. That's really the root and the basis for what I do.

There's education involved, of course, and there are facts and statistics involved because that helps us get where we need to be in terms of being able to get embodied into our heart space, but then there's always breathwork, meditation, and other healing modalities that I infuse into the work to really help us clear our trauma—because that's what we're doing. Clear our trauma so we can actually get into our heart space and do the internal work that is required first to get to the collective, external work.

That's an amazing approach. I feel like people don't often think about all the inner work that is really involved in doing activism. Why do you choose to focus on this part of the work?

Activism starts within. And so if we haven't done our own work to face our shadow, to expand past our limitations of discomfort, then the work that we're doing out in the world can, despite our best intentions, and I talk about this all the time, impact over intention … then you can be causing more harm despite what your intentions are because you're not right with yourself. You haven't gotten clear with what needs change within you.

This notion that spirituality means things are light, and we stay positive, and we don’t get dragged down in the negative... That is not spirituality. That is the opposite of spiritual.

We're in a hyper time right now of performative activism, of "diversity and inclusion" being the "it" movement. It's a trend. It's a fad. ... Everyone and their dog is out there trying to align themselves with this mission, but not in a wholehearted, substantial way—in a stereotypical, "let's make sure that we're being seen to be doing the work" kind of way. And you can get really caught in thinking that you're doing the work.

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What is performative activism?

Predominantly I mean white people thinking they're doing the work when they're not doing the work. Because this is cellular level. I'm talking about white supremacy, racism, heteropatriarchy—these are systems of oppression that have existed through all of our lifetimes and affected every single one of our ancestors, and so we've all been raised and entrenched in them, and they're in our cellular DNA. From birth. And so to overcome them requires a complete overhaul of everything we have ever known—and that is no easy task. This is the hardest task you will ever encounter because you have to face everything you've ever known about yourself, irrespective of your color. ... This is a complete overhaul of everything you've ever known and requires an ability to face your shadow. Most people are really ill-equipped to face their shadow. Truly. Truly.

There's a lot of spiritual bypassing going on, which is using spirit as a means to skirt around issues to stay in the light. Right? I talk about "love and light supremacy" a lot. It's this notion that spirituality means that things are light, and we stay positive, and we don't get dragged down in the negative. We don't talk about the hard stuff. And that is not spirituality. That is the opposite of spiritual. That's spiritual bypassing. That's using spiritual tools or offerings as a means to bypass the reality of people's lived experience, to bypass human emotions, to bypass discomfort.

So really if you're invoking spirit as a means to stay "in the light" or to stay positive or—I hear this a lot—"we're all one race, the human race" or "I don't see color," all of these things deny the lived experiences and realities of people of color. And so [for] the person who's spiritual bypassing, it's about keeping their comfort prioritized. It's about their inability to face their shadow, and that's it. There's nothing spiritual about it.

We often hear, "Of course everyone is welcome here—we're all the same." But that’s not enough.

I believe that we are all souls having human experiences. We are all intricately connected. I'm a very spiritual person, so there is a larger purpose. We are all energetic beings comprised of stars. We are all on this planet at this time for a reason. I believe all those things.

And if you truly believe that we are all souls having a human experience, then we are all having a human experience, and we are all in skin sacks that are hued, and we are all having different experiences based on the color of our skin, and that's the reality. Period. So to deny my reality is to deny the lived experience of the majority of humans. The majority of humans on this planet are people of color. They're people of the global majority. So you are limiting yourself from an understanding of the majority of humans on this planet, and you are disconnecting.

How can well-meaning white people get more comfortable sticking their neck out in spaces where they will not be received well for bringing up race?

That's why spiritual activism to me is so, so critical. If you are doing your own internal work to face your prejudices and biases and unpack your racism or internalized oppression, it makes speaking up in those spaces easier because there's no other option. That is your work. ... You use all of that privilege. You have no other choice.

Your discomfort is just discomfort. You’re not at risk in the way people of color are. That’s it. It’s just your discomfort. Period.

I'm by no means suggesting that you're bad because you're white or that you just need to sit around being like, "I have all this privilege. I'm an asshole." (Laughs.) No. You have all that privilege; that's great. I have a lot of privileges. I'm a black woman, so I'm oppressed and discriminated against in many ways, but I also have a lot of privileges, and so my job—everyone's job—is to utilize those privileges and spend them in spaces whenever possible. ... So if you hear people who are saying oppressive or discriminatory stuff, you say something. Because if you are doing your internalized work, you will not stand for it. Period. It's unacceptable for you.

Because your discomfort is just discomfort. You're not at risk in the way people of color are. That's it. It's just your discomfort. Period.

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What’s your message for the white, spiritual folks of the wellness space?

It's imperative that we are prioritizing the comfort, well-being, voices, education, wisdom of black and indigenous women—women inclusive of trans, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, intersex women. And that obviously means that more white folks have to get out of the way. ... Not saying that you're wrong or bad. It's not saying that you can't lead in particular ways. But it's saying that the status quo has allowed you to move through the world with ease and freedom and priority and comfort in a way that the folks of the global majority, people of color, have never been able to.

If you believe that we are all connected and if you are a spiritual person who is linked into a higher being, then that is part of how we all get free. Because until black and indigenous women, who are the most oppressed people on the planet, are free, none of us are free. Period. That's the piece. That's the work. So creating more spaces for folks of color, especially black and indigenous women, is creating more space for all. For all.

A society, a community, can only ever run as fast as the slowest runner. And right now black and indigenous women are the slowest runners, not because we can't run fast but because we have a million additional obstacles in our way. And so as a collective community, it is our collective role and responsibility to remove those obstacles so we can all actually breathe easy and have access to freedoms.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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