Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism
Due to the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, discussions of racism in America have been flooding the media and social newsfeeds. While most would agree that racism is a serious problem, how many of us have considered the impact of racism on health? What's more, have you considered the importance of the wellness industry's responsibility to be part of the conversation on racism?
In his 2016 TED Talk, David R. Williams, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health, stated, "America has recently awakened to a steady drumbeat of unarmed black men being shot by the police. What is even a bigger story is that every seven minutes a black person dies prematurely in the United States. That means over 200 black people die every single day who would not die if the health of blacks and white were equal."
In this talk, he goes on to discuss a myriad of health implications caused by experiencing discrimination and racism, including increased levels of stress hormones, high blood pressure, increased instances of heart disease and breast cancer, and even premature mortality. In addition, Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women and COVID-19 deaths among Black Americans are substantially higher (92.3 deaths per 100,000 people) than white Americans (45.2 deaths per 100,000 people), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While there are many things that factor into these statistics, implicit bias, often a result of unconscious racism, plays a role in the medical treatment that BIPOC receive. "Implicit bias is unconscious and it's impacting how doctors treat black patients," says Tyna Moore, N.D., a Portland-based naturopathic physician. "When people are in denial about their own privilege and the ideals they hold about a certain group of people, it bleeds over into the way they provide care. Ultimately, it goes back to systemic racism. Additionally, racial bias in pain perception is also associated with racial bias in pain treatment recommendations. We aren't empowering people to have autonomy over their bodies because of our own implicit bias."
FYI, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. When left unchecked and unexamined, it affects the way individuals engage with people, even if they have the best of intentions. When it comes to health and wellness, it's important to remember that mental, emotional, and spiritual health are equally important to a person's wellbeing. All of these aspects of wellness have a direct impact on physical health and wellness. You can't adequately take a holistic approach to wellness without addressing racism and how it affects wellbeing and prevents some people from feeling safe in their bodies. (More here: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
It's clear that racism is a public health issue. As such, it's imperative that wellness practitioners join the conversation about racism, both in America and globally. One of the most common rationales I hear from members of the wellness community about why they have yet to join the conversation about the intersection of racism and wellness is that they don't know what to say or they're worried about getting it wrong.
While I completely understand the sentiment, the reality of the situation is that, unless your goal as a wellness practitioner is to only help your clients with a fragmented aspect of their wellness, you can't ignore the impact of racism on health. Staying out of the conversation doesn't create change. In order to combat the health disparities of racism, the wellness industry needs to be part of the solution.
Here are five steps you can take a trainer or wellness professional to be better equipped to engage in the conversation about the intersection of racism and wellness:
1. Educate yourself.
Perhaps a lot of the information I'm sharing is new to you or maybe you're just beginning to broaden your understanding of racism and white supremacy and how it shows up in all areas of life, even the wellness industry. If you haven't been having these conversations or even considering the intersection of racism and wellness, this can all feel a bit overwhelming. But the wonderful thing is, there are so many ways you can begin to educate yourself independently.
In her book, Me and White Supremacy, author Layla Saad, encourages everyone to "create the change the world needs by creating change within yourself." As a wellness practitioner, to truly understand the implication of racism and health, you also need to examine the ways in which you're engaging in racism or being complicit within the system of white supremacy. Purchasing this book is a great place to begin the education process. Two other books that are really helpful are So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
2. Lean into the discomfort.
Discussing racism, in general, may feel uncomfortable for many people; however, it's important to remember that any new practice involves discomfort, whether it's strength training, beginning a meditation practice, or training for your first 5K. (See: The Fitness Benefits of Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone)
Life coach Shirin Eskandani wrote a powerful Instagram post about this very topic, saying, "If you can understand why the discomfort of a yoga pose is beneficial to your healing and growth, then you can understand that the discomfort of anti-racism work is one of the same. Discomfort is where the growth is, it is where the medicine is, it is where the liberation is."
Discomfort is a necessary part of the process and experiencing discomfort which results from talking about race and racism is substantially easier than experiencing racism.
3. Recognize the privilege of staying out of the conversation.
BIPOC individuals experience discrimination and racism in our daily lives—we don't have the opportunity to opt-out. If you can choose not to discuss racism and other forms of oppression, and it doesn't affect your life or your well-being, that's a form of privilege. You have the ability to ignore or remain silent on important issues because there is no direct negative impact on you. (Related: Halsey Spoke Out About Her Privilege As a "White-Passing" Biracial Woman)
Staying out of the conversation about racism is a form of complicity. Choosing to remain silent on issues of racism upholds the systems already in place, and is an example of privilege in action. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Even if no one ever tells you about the impact of your silence, they feel it. (Instead of staying silent, learn How to Talk to White Family Members About Racism.)
Start with things such as: Calling other people out for unconscious (and conscious) racist behaviors and microagressions, pushing for adequate representation in your clients and staff, and speaking up about these issues, whether you usually make your voice heard on social media or within your immediate professional circle.
4. Seek to diversify your social and professional circles.
If the majority of the people in your social and professional circles look like you, I encourage you to diversify your life. Without the power of a diverse circle, you can fall into the trap of groupthink, wherein everyone you know holds similar belief systems. In addition, you can fail to see the harmful effects of racism if those in your circle don't have the lived experience of dealing with it.
While you seek to widen your circle, I urge you to be mindful of tokenism, the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality. Instead, seek to develop genuine relationships with BIPOC, not as an attempt to check the diversity box. Most importantly, don't enter these new relationships with expectations for anyone to explain racism or share their experience with you. Enter the relationship because you have a genuine interest in making new connections. (Related: What It's Like Being a Black, Body-Positive Female Trainer In an Industry That's Predominantly Thin and White)
In the words of writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences." Engage with individuals different from yourself with a genuine appreciation and celebration, without expecting anything other than human connection in return. Even if you live in a homogenous area of the country, social media allows for connection and engagement with all different types of people, all over the world.
6. Be willing to mess up.
Here's the hard truth: You're going to mess up. We all do. It's part of the process. However, if you attempt to wait until you can guarantee that you will get it perfect, you'll never take action.
The important part is how you respond when you mess up. That's the part that people will remember. When you inevitably mess up, the best thing you can do is acknowledge fault, take responsibility, apologize without centering yourself, rectify the situation to the best of your ability, and learn from it.
The best way to avoid centering yourself in an apology is to simply accept responsibility for your actions while acknowledging that you understand the impact of your actions. It also involves steering away from sentiments about how bad you feel, eluding to the fact that you just made a mistake, or explaining that you had good intentions. The impact of your actions matters more than your intentions. Most importantly, don't let the mess up be the reason you stop having difficult conversations.
Chrissy King is a writer, speaker, powerlifter, fitness and strength coach, creator of the #BodyLiberationProject, VP of the Women's Strength Coalition, and an advocate for anti-Racism, diversity, inclusion, and equity in the wellness industry. Check out her course on Anti-Racism for Wellness Professionals to learn more.