Wellness Doesn’t Belong to White Women

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images

The wellness industry has a racism problem. While that’s true of most major industries, there’s something particularly egregious — and dangerous — about the institutions promising to support your well-being being rife with racist stereotypes, exclusionary pricing, and willful ignorance about how race factors into our physical and mental health.

These days, it would seem on the surface that the wellness industry has started to wake up to its overwhelming whiteness — demonstrated most notably by the many brands, from Lululemon to Goop to your run-of-the-mill fitness influencer, springing to announce their support of Black Lives Matter and to spotlight Black practitioners. But despite the outward displays of allyship, Black professionals working in this space have a much darker story to tell about what’s really happening behind closed doors in the wellness world.

We spoke to nine Black women working across the industry, from yoga to medicine to diversity consulting. Their stories reveal a disturbing culture of anti-Blackness and white supremacy in wellness, all while proponents continue to peddle messages of care, community, and light. 

The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity, and some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

“Black women are brought on to support diversity only to be shut down.” — Sara Clark, 36, mindfulness and yoga teacher in New York

My biggest challenge has been the exploitation of my work and image.  A very white publication is still circulating photos from a photoshoot I did with them in 2014  to sell a false sense of diversity. Once these companies own your work, they will utilize it for their profit only and for as long as possible.

As an international yoga and meditation teacher, I have mostly taught in white spaces. My intention has always been to treat everyone equally in my classes, on my retreats, and at my workshops. Those who practice with me have always been kind and gracious in return. However, the companies and corporations that I have been under contract with have been incredibly harmful. They have utilized me as a product even after claiming that they have brought me on as someone whose work they admire. I have had to fight for the same essentials my white counterparts have access to. For instance, a colleague confirmed that a teacher on the same platform that I was on was able to buy a house with the money [they] earned. My salary was nowhere close to allowing me to buy property, let alone rent a decent apartment in NYC.

Companies bring in one or two of us, and more often than not, we are overqualified for the jobs, yet treated poorly. There is a concept called Pet to Threat: Black women are hired, treated as a novelty in the beginning, and as soon as we advocate for ourselves or question anything, we quickly become a threat. Black women are brought on to support diversity only to be shut down. There is a price to pay for being a part of inclusive spaces, and I no longer think that it’s worth it.

As Black people, our worth outweighs any offer that a major brand or company can put on the table. If only we collectively knew our power! My hope is that we no longer have to entertain the dollar amounts thrown our way and instead create our own brands and our platforms. We are priceless and, as soon as we realize this, we can change the entire system.

“I’ll never forget the first time I was called the N-word by a patient.” — Tanya*, physician in California

I’ll never forget the first time I was called the N-word by a patient. I was working at the VA hospital and taking care of an elderly man with dementia who was admitted for a complicated UTI. I entered the room on morning rounds with my team, who were all white, and stood there as he hurled insults and racial slurs at me because he didn’t want me in the room. I froze. I was in disbelief that this man had the audacity to be so blatantly racist. My team members shrugged it off as an episode of delirium, and we went about our rounds. No one said anything to me about it.

When I finally had a moment to myself three hours later, I locked myself in the bathroom stall and cried. I cried out of anger, out of hurt, out of frustration that this is still the country I live in. That, despite our “progress,” at any given time I can be verbally assaulted simply for being Black. I later spoke to my attending physician and requested that I no longer be the medical student who rounds on this patient every morning. While he did reassign me, looking back … that was the very least he could have done. There was no advocacy on my behalf for the trauma I had just experienced.

The racist foundation that our country was built upon is never more present than it is in the medical system. What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of a doctor? An older white male is the most common answer. That is even my own answer as I work through my own internalized oppression, to be completely honest. I can’t even count how many times someone has said to me, “You don’t look like a doctor! You are so [insert young, fashionable, pretty, etc.].” Sometimes I laugh it off, sometimes I challenge their assumptions, and sometimes I allow it to sit heavy in my spirit for the rest of the day.

Currently, I continue to be one of the “only” in wellness. I continue to feel like a Black unicorn that no one believes really exists until they meet me. I am the only person of color speaking on a panel, at a wellness event that caters toward whiteness, or at my local yoga studio. And because there are so few of us in this space, the pressure to show up and be excellent is exceedingly high.

I have even been subject to ridicule by other Black people, specifically in intimate partner relationships. I love a green juice, hot yoga class, and luxurious adaptogenic latte. I’ve been told those things are for white people and that somehow me enjoying them makes me less Black. While I recognize that these type of “wellness” modalities are not accessible to all for various reasons, does that mean I should not partake if I can afford to? Does it have to be so binary? Can I both believe that wellness doesn’t lie in a $20 green smoothie and enjoy nourishing myself in that way?

“I get asked to do things for free all the time and am ignored when I ask to be compensated.” — Maryam Ajayi, 34, energy healer and diversity consultant in Los Angeles

I get asked to do things for free all the time and am ignored most of the time, and in some instances retaliated against, when I ask to be compensated. It’s nothing new.

I’d like to say these are isolated incidents, but this happens all the time, even with people I consider close friends and allies. It comes down to power dynamics. The moment I dare to stand in my power or speak out against harm that white womxn cause, I am met with resistance. This kind of thing happens sometimes more than once in a week. All because I was trying to hold people accountable to acknowledge my worth as a human.

However jarring, these moments don’t deter me from my purpose and what I ultimately founded my company to do, which is ensure that we may all be well by making space for conversation, community, and change. I chose to absorb these experiences as moments of growth and resilience. In the wake of several violent events, I was able to hold an event that brought together over 20 thought leaders and healers for hundreds of Black folx during Juneteenth, launch a course for over 200 leaders in wellness who are committed to doing the work of creating a more diverse industry, and will be launching a breathwork course for healing — all work that I refuse to be distracted from as other brands continue to grapple with this moment that we’re meeting.

“They hired a white woman to lead them through anti-racism work instead of me.” — Rachel Ricketts, 35, racial justice educator and author in Toronto

A classic experience in the wellness world is wanting to be seen to be good and right and wanting to do racial justice work in a superficial way that allows white and white-passing folx to “do something” without actually making the major shifts required for authentic anti-racism.

For example: A few years ago, a very large yoga-apparel company brought me in after I wrote them a letter addressing a string of racist actions. At the time, they had someone working on “Diversity and Inclusion” off the side of their desk (for a multibillion-dollar company!). I was told they understood that they had work that needed to be done and that they wanted to engage me to support anti-racism throughout the company. When I followed up a few weeks later, they acted as though they had never made such an offer and repeatedly brushed me off. Then I entered discussions with the charitable arm of their company and was informed they had engaged a white woman to lead them through anti-racism work instead of hiring me.

This happens to Black women and femme racial-justice educators a lot because white women leading this work are more palatable. Mainly because they’ve never experienced racism, they have absolutely ZERO right to lead this work, let alone make a penny of profit from it — which is in and of itself an act of white supremacy. The yoga company advised me that they didn’t feel the company was “ready” for my work (i.e. actual racial-justice work led by a Black person who will absolutely challenge the company and its team on their racism), and when I pressed them as to why, they once again stopped responding. Months later, I received an apology from one of the team leaders along with a donation to support my workshops outside of the company. I also received an invitation to attend the anti-racism workshops led by the white woman in question (and her Black colleague) — which very much felt like an invitation to attend the “right kind of racial justice” work so I could learn how to lead it in a way that would work for the company (a.k.a. in a way that is more comfortable for white people). Needless to say, I declined that invitation.

“When I spoke up, I was called too intense, aggressive, negative, not of the ‘light.’” — Aja Daashuur, 40, spiritual guide in Los Angeles

The number of times I’ve had to call or email wellness spaces, resorts, and leaders and walk them through why promoting my work with an image of a blonde white woman was offensive and disrespectful, is embarrassing. The number of times I have walked into these spaces and been the only BIPOC person in sight is telling of what truly matters to their infrastructures.

When I have called some of these white spaces into a conversation about what I had experienced or seen, I was called too intense, aggressive, negative, not of the “light.”

The fact that these organizations haven’t noticed or don’t care to notice what is absent from their spaces taught me that I would either have to get used to feeling uncomfortable, disrespected, and isolated, or create my own community if I wanted to feel welcome in a wellness space. So I did. I created Spirit House because I felt so isolated and alone. I refused for that to be a future narrative.

If someone comes to me and wishes to discuss how they can shift or change, my door is open because I believe that communication is key — but on my own time and in my own way. There have been many white wellness individuals who reached out after George Floyd was murdered and the protests began — asking for guidance, asking for information on how to be better, do better, change. My first response is always: “Take some time to do your own research, and then we can talk.” I’m not here to be your Black or brown Magic 8 Ball or encyclopedia on the history of systemic racism, but I am open to talking once you have begun diving into your own work.

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images

“They greeted me with, ‘Hi, are you the new cleaning person? The supply closet is in the back.’” — Tonie Warner, yoga teacher in Brooklyn, NY

Teaching yoga can be a wonderful connection and energy exchange between teachers and students. However, as a Black woman, I find often that the exchange can be one-sided. Whether I’m teaching a posture, offering dharma, or guiding meditation, I’m sharing knowledge as I’ve lived it as a Black woman with a community that is mostly not like me, who will benefit from my struggles — which have formed my teachings — without having to face them. There is nothing in return to match that offering. Over time, as a full-time teacher, this constant one-sided exchange can become an exhausting withdrawal of energy.

There have been moments I haven’t been proud of, where I didn’t speak up for myself as a teacher because I didn’t want to be stereotyped as angry — or worse, face retaliation — and I’ve carried the pain of that with me. These moments are so commonplace that, at times, I even question my own assessment of a situation: Is this happening to me because I’m Black?

The first time I remember experiencing a microaggression, I was working at a gym. That day, I decided to wear my hair curly and loose in a “wash ‘n go” and I was told by a manager that my hair is much nicer and more professional looking when worn straight or pulled back. In that moment, I remember this sinking feeling of knowing that however I responded would be used against me.

There would be many times I would feel this particular powerlessness. Some moments are as subtle as assuming that I’ve never done yoga if it’s my first time in a space, or being told that I’m not star quality after an audition. Some are more overt. I’ve had a former co-worker suggest that I forget the idea of being a trainer or fitness instructor based on my body-type, stating that no one wanted to “look like a Black girl.” I recall the day I went to substitute teach a class at a yoga studio. Upon entering, the teacher who taught before me, having never met me, greeted me with, “Hi, are you the new cleaning person? The supply closet is in the back.”

“It is impossible to heal in a space that will not acknowledge or discuss racism.” — Chauna Bryant, 38, pilates instructor and breathwork guide in Washington, D.C.

As a Pilates instructor, I was really lucky to have a Black woman as a teacher trainer, and after being self-employed for ten years, I accepted a position at a studio that is owned by a Black woman. I know my experience is unique. I know so many stories about studios refusing to give Black women regular classes, only using them as substitute teachers. I have heard horror stories of teacher trainers critiquing Black bodies — as if having a shapely figure is somehow indicative of bad form.

In my work as a breathwork instructor, my experience was different. My teacher (a white man) avoided any conversations about race, explaining that he wanted to “stay out of politics.” It is impossible to heal and feel supported in a space that will not acknowledge or discuss racism.

As a Black woman leading private sessions to a mainly non-Black population, I would guess that I endure more emotional labor than my white peers. Especially when I was younger and less willing to stand up for myself. Once, a client commented on the FedEx delivery man: “Look at him. Look at his hair. You can just tell he does drugs.” I have the exact same hairstyle as the delivery guy.

These incidents make me work harder to create spaces for Black people to feel seen and valued. We exercise, we meditate, and our bodies are beautiful. If we are not invited in as teachers, experts, and participants, then we need to build our own platforms to thrive.

“It sucks seeing your work mimicked’.” — Jimanekia Eborn, 33, sex educator and trauma specialist in Los Angeles

Being a black woman, in general, feels like constantly sharing something and people going, “Hmm, cool.” Then seeing someone else that is (nine times out of ten) white doing the same exact thing, and folks getting super-excited about it as if it’s brand new and original — as if it doesn’t already exist.

Simply said: It sucks seeing your work mimicked. I have had my work stolen a few times, which is so many levels of screwed up. Recently, I got a text from a friend who said they saw me in a commercial on Facebook. I immediately was like, “Um, what now?” Because I didn’t recall shooting anything. Fun fact: I had not. I did film a video for a contest four years ago about a product that was gifted to me. But it wasn’t for said company to use years later to make a commercial. They literally stole it from my YouTube page.

Some of the theft can be even backhanded … “Can I just get your opinion?” “Can I just pick your brain?” All for the fee of free? Which is something a lot of folks fall into when they are just starting out because they want to get their name out there. But oftentimes, in turn, their words get stolen and they are not credited for what they have shared.

I have seen this happen to myself, as well as other Black women that work in wellness. When we do call out folks for stealing our work, we are given a half-assed apology and folks expect us to just receive it and go on our merry way. No! People have to be held accountable for their actions, especially if they are making money off of our work, our backs, or our likeness.

“I have had to shrink myself and my tone so as not to be perceived as the ‘angry Black female.’” — Rebeckah Price, 40, yoga teacher in Toronto

Being a Black woman in wellness, is like being a Black woman in any other space that I occupy. Meaning that, I am reminded how much anti-Blackness permeates all aspects of society.

There are moments when I have had to shrink myself and my tone so as not to be perceived as the “angry Black female,” moments when I’ve had to hold my breath because the discomfort of these spaces that made me know I wasn’t welcome was suffocating, moments where I surrendered to tears of frustration because no matter how strong, smart, or hard I worked, there were always reminders that it would never be enough.

There are so many ways that racism has shown up for me in wellness — subtle microaggressions of people moving their mats away when they see me coming, confusion at the front desk when I’ve showed up to practice and the girl [telling me that] the “karma class isn’t until Friday.” But, for me, the most triggering kind of racism has been the silence that I encounter when I highlight an injustice or talk about making wellness more diverse and inclusive. I call it the “wall of fragility” silence. It’s dangerous and makes those who erect it comfortable in their compliance in perpetuating systems of oppression and racism.

But these experiences have taught me so much about myself and my ability to thrive and grow and blossom in the most arduous of situations. Without these experiences, I would not have been able to show up for my community the way that I have. Without these experiences, I would not have been able to use my voice to talk about the importance of shifting wellness beyond whiteness. My wellness is sustained when I see Black women meeting me on the mat, collectively breathing, and holding space for themselves and each other.

Wellness Doesn’t Belong To White Women