2015 brought us #OscarsSoWhite shedding light on the absence of BIPOC voices and representation in the Academy Awards; “an award given for artistic and technical merit in the film industry”. 2018 brought us another hashtag: #WellnessSoWhite.
#WellnessSoWhite began making its way into the discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in health and wellness via popular social media platforms and has resulted in small, albeit marked changes in the United States’ multi-trillion dollar industry.
“Wellness is about making healthy lifestyle choices and maintaining one’s wellbeing both physically and mentally. In recent years, more people around the world have begun to recognize the importance of wellness – a trend which has seen the value of the industry increase year-on-year. The health and wellness market size worldwide was estimated at over 4.4 trillion U.S. dollars in 2019, a figure which is set to increase to over six trillion U.S. dollars by 2025.-Statista
What are some products, images, and services that come to mind when you think of wellness and the wellness industry?
A perfunctory Google search yields an accurate indication of the problem with the wellness industry. The images, infographics, and illustrations are predominately that of thin, cis, white, able-bodied women of seemingly moderate financial means participating in, co-opting, and capitalizing on the culture and labor of BIPOC in settings where they are underrepresented and/or excluded. This representation, and simultaneous lack thereof, deliberately ignores the presence and needs of the global majority.
Meeting the capitalist demand for on-trend optics like energy-healing crystals, and the dramatically increased consumption of quinoa have had a destabilizing impact on some of the most underserved countries and people in the world. Additionally,
“The wellness world has embraced the benefits of ancient practices like Ayurveda, breathwork, yoga and healing ceremonies but so often have stripped out the cultures, races and religions that created them. People want to sage bad energy away, but conveniently ignore that it’s a complex Indigenous practice and that the commodification of sage is leading to its overharvesting and shortage.”-Elle.com.au
This raises the question, “What is wellness; who is entitled to such wellness, and at what cost?”
Naaya Wellness, “a well-being company that lies at the intersection of social justice and wellness…” founded by Sinikiwe Dhliwayo defines wellness as, “agency in a world where Black women are constantly up against medical racism, pay inequity, standards of professionalism, and so many other forms of injustice.”
Prinita Thevarajah, multidisciplinary artist, and founder of Studio Ānanda, “an organization and a resource for global, post-capitalist healing.” defined her wellness organization as, “committing to a decolonial path […]one of the most radical expressions of love for oneself, the community, and the Earth.”
In a system meant to coddle and uphold white supremacy, change demands additional labor of the oppressed, and a commitment to carrying it out whilst trying to meet a moving goalpost. Cue: spiritual bypassing, the term coined by American psychologist and psychotherapist John Welwood. Welwood described spiritual bypassing as using, “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business’.”
Monica Cadena, an Afro-Latinx artist, writer and yogi explains: “Yes, we are all one.” But the bodies we inhabit undeniably affect our realities: “For Black people, our experiences are radically different than white-bodied folks. For us, the simple act of breath is a political act.”Elle.com.au
When spiritual bypassing intersects the issues of race, gender, and class, this kind of “wellness” becomes a contributing factor in the oppressive dis-ease already experienced by marginalized communities at the hands of white supremacy.
Have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt uncomfortable? Like something about the energy was just off? I have, many times. Especially in the wellness space.Lestraundra “Les” Alfred, Emilie Eats
Lestraundra “Les” Alfred is the founder of Black Girl Balanced, “a safe space for women of color to have candid conversations about wellness, self-care, and self-love.” Les attributed the changed trajectory of her previous career path, to one of a diverse, holistic wellness model to a message she received from a Latinx woman mirroring the discomfort and isolation she, too, felt in mainstream wellness spaces.
As painstaking as it is to read and revisit accounts of the senseless murder of George Floyd as the precipice for vital re-examination of the ubiquity of systemic racism, it remains one of the most frequently cited incidents to serve as a catalyst for real and immediate change. Amidst the BLM protests, general global unrest, and the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic many BIPOC—for the first time— sought out alternative modalities to cope with stress and intense emotions. Yet, another endeavor thwarted by the racism, classism, and lack of adequate representation that initially sent them on their wellness journey.
It’s a trite oversimplification to simply assert, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Moreover, when it seems the odds are stacked against us, but it’s precisely what BIWOC are doing time after time. It bears asking, yet again,