Guided meditations that confront racism head-on allow for users to look inward and gain clarity before responding to hurtful acts, says Ruth King, who has several meditations on Liberate and is the author of “Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism From the Inside Out.” “Otherwise we just run ourselves crazy and we’re in a perpetual state of reactivity, which wears us down and robs us of our spiritual wealth.”
In one meditation, teacher Kaira Jewel Lingo has listeners direct their awareness to a triggering experience by channeling the emotions and feelings that it ignited — from sadness and anger to fear and jealousy. During a breathing exercise, she instructs them to inhale these feelings and exhale acceptance and acknowledgment of their existence. “Notice what happens as you begin to offer genuine friendliness, acceptance and tenderness to this hurting part of yourself,” she says, beckoning the listener to question what arises as they commune with their emotions.
Over the past year, Liberate has had tens of thousands of downloads, with a few thousand people using it each day, says Rivera. Tenesha Duncan is one of them. She had been using Headspace and Shine, meditation apps geared toward a general audience, and discovered Liberate at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, Calif. “There’s this instant [sense] of accessibility when we have teachers who look like and support us, even from a distance or through an app,” she tells me.
Duncan, 33, who works for a social-justice-focused nonprofit, says she’s usually the only black woman in professional spaces. “It’s a daily practice of feeling like the only one who’s come from a grass-roots space or who has experienced poverty, racism, discrimination and prejudice,” she explains. She uses the meditations on Liberate to help “figure out how to not let [these feelings] take over my body, energy and spirit.”
Tyneshia Griffin, 23, learned about Liberate in an article posted to Facebook. “I found meditations that were made by people of color specifically for them, but a whole entire app was something I hadn’t heard of,” she says. One of her favorite meditations on Liberate is called “Unveiling Your Deepest Goodness” by Pamela Ayo Yetunde. “She makes you think of all the women and people who support and care for you,” Griffin explains. “That helps generate a sense of interconnectedness and pushback from a sense that you’re alone and people don’t care about you.”
Another reason the app is appealing, users say, is that the instructors’ tone and rhythms can resonate as familial. One user told Rivera that a teacher sounded like her mother. Then there is the teachers’ vernacular. “There are some things that white teachers who are not as familiar with the experiences of people of color can’t really address or speak to,” says Sebene Selassie, a featured instructor on the app who has been studying Buddhism for more than 30 years. “It can also show up in ways that can even be offensive or really off-putting to people.”
When speaking to users, especially black women, Rivera found that microaggressions in the workplace were a persistent source of stress and anxiety for them. They recalled white colleagues commenting on their hair, how they dressed and the way they spoke. “Being an empath, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that people have to experience this on a day-to-day basis.’ I got so angry. ... I kind of consider that the beginning of my racial awakening,” says Rivera.
Anyone is welcome to use the app, of course. But black women make up the largest percentage of his users, and Rivera has consciously chosen to target them, partly for practical reasons. After seeing growing demand for teachers from the Latino, South Asian and indigenous communities, he realized he would not be able to meet those demands with his mostly volunteer staff and decided to narrow Liberate’s focus to people of the African diaspora.
Liberate is not for everyone by design. And that has sparked some criticism. “I can just imagine the outrage there would be if this app targeted only white people. Try to be a little more inclusive next time, this is the very definition of racism,” reads one comment on the app. But Rivera notes those kinds of comments are rare and “there are white folks [who are] actually pretty thankful that there’s this resource because a lot of them are raising their awareness and trying to do the inner work of undoing racism and white supremacy in their own minds.”
Rivera has more plans for Liberate. He hopes to cultivate a circle of support through the app that allows users to comment on talks and share their experiences. “The worst feeling is being in a state of suffering and wondering, ‘Am I the only one?’ ” he says. “I want Liberate to be a community of folks who validate you. Like, yes, you are enough. Yes, you belong. Yes, you are loved. Yes, you have the credentials. Yes, you deserve to be in that space with all of those other folks and you’re going to perform even better than them because that’s what we do.”
Christina Sturdivant Sani is a writer in Washington.