Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreamwork & Race

Whenever a participant in one of my groups brings a dream that includes BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, or People of Color] dream figures, I inwardly cringe. My dream group members are mostly white, and their racially-inflected dreams can be a minefield of stereotypes and projections. I wish I could write about this from some moral high ground, but I can’t. As a white person in the United States, my own unconscious mind is also filled with buried racial bombs, and though I’d love to claim that I’m not the one who buried them, I’ve been living happily in a land shielded by the presence of these deadly munitions all my life. 

When recounting racially-inflected—in fact, racist—dreams, many group members are sensitive to the unconscious biases that these dreams reveal, and they acknowledge this with regret and sometimes shame. I hope I have the courage to expose myself as they do, in the interests of learning and changing at the deepest level, but the fact that we can see our own racism doesn’t make us less racist, and sometimes exposing ourselves can be a preemptive tactic to keep others from exposing us. Still, it’s less excruciating to work with these dreams if the racist implications can be openly discussed with the dreamer. Some dreamers, however, are oblivious to any implicit racism or, perhaps worse, sense that the “wrong conclusions” might be drawn from their dreams and hedge with justifications and denials. I’m afraid that my own dread as we tiptoe around our minefields doesn’t just come from the unpleasantness of hearing people I like say things that appall me, it’s also from a fear of dealing with any of this at all. Like most white people, I can avoid dealing with racism just by surrounding myself with the safety zones of whiteness—and it is those white zones of privileged obtuseness that make racism such a clear and present danger to the BIPOC community, while corrupting and corroding our collective humanity.

White people can easily take fundamentals like safety for granted, which is why I’m addressing a “we” in this article that refers particularly to white people. Although dreamers of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds can enjoy reading about meaningful dreamwork issues, BIPOC dreamworkers probably won’t be particularly surprised or enlightened by anything I have to say about white people’s racially-inflected dreams (though I’m grateful if you do choose to read on). On the other hand, I hope that all white dreamworkers will choose to reflect on issues that may cause us discomfort, letting an awareness of potential racist implications inform our work. I’ve learned a lot by overcoming my desire to avoid this subject, and dreamwork has been an excellent way to do some of that essential learning. 

While white people’s dreams with BIPOC dream figures inevitably reflect the societal racism (and sexism, and cultural assumptions of all kinds) that we have absorbed, it’s helpful to remember that dreams reflect unconscious attitudes that are not necessarily congruent with our conscious intentions. Talking about our racist dreams should not become an exercise in blaming ourselves and one another, but should instead expose the ugly psychological and sociological scaffolding that has structured some of our fundamental beliefs and behaviors. We do this hard work so that we’ll be better able to refuse to perpetuate harmful and shameful systems even when they benefit us personally.

The presence of a person of a different race in your dream isn’t automatically racist—our waking world is populated by people of differing ethnicities and so is our dreaming world. However, all dream figures have stereotypical elements (representing categories or types, not just personal qualities), so they exhibit our prejudices. BIPOC characters in white people’s dreams often end up being cast in roles that are blatantly racist: lacking individuality, and emphasizing reductionist stereotypes. Working with such dreams, do we accept these stereotypes, or do we face and challenge them? It is essential that our ways of working with our own or others’ dreams focus on the uniqueness and humanity of every dream figure, while simultaneously acknowledging the roles that our dreams have assigned to them. Our dreams can exhibit a caste system—ranking figures according to our own scale of values. This is not accidental, and we must commit ourselves to questioning the demeaning systems within our dreamworlds that reflect similar systems in the waking world.

A white person’s dream of a BIPOC dream figure can be both racist and anti-racist, since that figure’s presence and our response gives us an opportunity to see what we are assuming, and opens up the possibility of seeing something more. Dream figures aren’t just there to reinforce and represent our prejudices, they are uniquely created and creative beings with the capacity to surprise us and change us. The more we recognize our stereotypical beliefs and how they are reflected in a particular dream figure, the more we discover how much we don’t know. This individual figure appears in my dream or your dream for a reason, and when we see them in their wholeness, we expand ourselves as well. Paradoxically, any dream figure (even blatantly stereotypical ones) can teach us to see our own blind spots, confronting our prejudices with humor or deadly seriousness; subtlety or shocking crudeness; compassion, or a gut punch.

I am not an expert on racially-inflected dreams, but perhaps my clumsy “beginner’s mind” is more useful than expertise in working with such dreams. Racially-inflected dreams make me uncomfortable—and they should make me uncomfortable. Racist social structures have allowed too many white people to be too comfortable for too long, at the expense of others who can never let their guard down without their vulnerability being exploited. When a white dreamer brings me a racially-inflected dream, my discomfort is a flashing red light that says, “Stop. Pay attention. This is important. Don’t respond by rote, because your knee-jerk response will probably be an attempt to escape.” The alert message I get from my discomfort gives me good advice for any kind of dreamwork: don’t take your expertise for granted, don’t trust your own assumptions (assumptions are the opposite of insights), don’t make excuses or try to prove anything, just listen to the dream and what it says, and invite others to do this with you. 

Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color have been insufficiently heard and seen as full human beings by white people like myself, no matter how anti-racist we believe ourselves to be and want to be. That’s an essential thing to know. So, at the very least, when a figure in my dream is BIPOC, I know immediately that this dream figure is someone who should be fully seen and heard by the white dreamer (me) and by other white dreamers who might explore the dream with me. When white people dream up BIPOC characters, it’s likely that those characters, more than any white dream figures, will be carrying the information or insight that we most need to receive from this particular dream. 

White dreamworkers do not need to smother our BIPOC peers with questions and concerns as we try to prove our “wokeness” or genuinely wake ourselves up—instead we can turn to our own dreams, question ourselves and our dream figures, and let them teach us what we still need to learn. BIPOC dreamworkers can learn from one another and from their own dreams about the needs and challenges they face in their own lives—and white people need to take responsibility for doing likewise, so that our lives are not being lived at the expense of theirs. Most of us share a hope that if we (all people) do our personal homework we’ll overcome our fears and assumptions about each other, demolish the power structures of white supremacy, and finally let our individual dreams invite us into an authentic understanding of our common humanity, our common dream. We’re not there yet. In the meantime, let’s learn to endure our mutual discomfort , integrate our real pain, and do the hard work even as we dream big.

[This article was originally published in in the Spring, 2022 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]


  1. Royce Fitts

    Kirsten, this article is one of the best I have read about this topic! I appreciate your honesty and how this invites me/us/all to look at the structures of our unconscious and conscious selves. We/I “always” want to white-wash our waking and sleeping dreams. I have deep sorrow that I have racism deeply imbedded in me, in my uncounsious — and in my waking world, often times it is invisible to me. I appreciate that my dreams call me to discomfort, to reveal my unconscious support of racism — even as I try to be an ally of all humans. Such contradictions I am made up of! Dream Work can help confront and heal me. Thank you!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for your thoughts/feelings on this, Royce—I appreciate your courage in accepting the “confront” that dreams offer in order to benefit from the “heal.” I want to do the same! And of course this (often painful) personal dreamwork process is not just for our own healing, but has a much larger significance for humanity as a whole.

  2. Karen Deora

    Great topic, Kirsten! I could go on and on about it, because of my varied experiences, but one thought that just appeared was the title of Gabor Maté’s book: the Myth of Normal. Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. Since we, and I mean all of us in all our diversity in this country, have been indoctrinated and usually raised in a toxic culture, opening this topic of dreams with race implications is almost so complex as to be indecipherable, imo. And right now especially, I think identity groups are being overly emphasized and manipulated to keep us separated. As a young non-bonded adopted child, I knew almost instinctively that there was something terribly wrong, and gradually through my early life, decided it had to be related to “whiteness”, so I was strongly attracted to anyone who seemed “different”, including social class differences. Many decades later, when I attended an educational conference in southern CA with mostly BIPOC people from all over the country, we were assigned an identity group. Mine was called NPOC. There were only about 4 of us, and it was a strange experience, because we had nothing in common except color of our skin. But it was a good lesson for me. So, I think we have to be careful not to overly generalize about any grouping of humans. [like I said, I can go on and on…lol]

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Asha—yes, this is just such a complex subject that it is almost impossible to talk about it without getting into a state of overwhelm and confusion. However, I do think dreams sometimes provide opportunities to approach overwhelmingly complex issues through direct emotions and authentic responses if we’re willing to be vulnerable and not overthink. While the narrative of the dream might reflect society’s messed up assumptions and our learned attitudes, the felt experience, images and sensations can give us guidance at a deeper level. That visceral experience is also the place we all have in common, regardless of race, class, gender, etc. So perhaps when we can attend to how the dreams make us feel rather than what they make us think, we’ll find openings even in the midst of discomfort, grief, rage, shame, etc. Anyway, it’s what I’m trying to do with my own dreams, and what I’d like to bring more into our dream groups—not just with racially-inflected dreams but with all dreams.

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