ADDING COLOR TO WELLNESS
By Tonia Callender
Your wellness is not my wellness
Like many Black women, I mostly see wellness as a luxury that others pursue. I have the time, resources and interest to pursue wellness activities, but misconceptions and entrenched racial bias hinder my options. To me, wellness spaces, spas, studios and resorts seem designed for white people. When I do visit these spaces, instead of rejuvenated and relaxed, I often feel stressed and annoyed.
During my 50+ years, I have been repeatedly kicked out of pools, discouraged or openly barred from joining sports teams and classes, harassed by gym staff, faced frosty receptions from teachers and classmates, and had reservations suddenly disappear. I know that an approaching employee will more likely be challenging my right to be there than asking if there is anything I need. Over the years, the phrases have changed from “You can’t be here!” to “I’m sorry, but…” These encounters cause anxiety and stress that my white friends and neighbors cannot comprehend. For a Black woman pursuing wellness in white spaces, my experiences are unremarkable. We all endure it. But because of such micro-aggressions, it is not surprising that those of us who can find wellness spaces that support Black wellness will happily travel further and pay more to visit them.
Black people would greatly benefit from wellness techniques and practices. In fact, the wellness industry keeps telling me there are a wide range of wellness opportunities I should pursue, including nurturing my mental wellness, being out in nature, eating more nutritious foods, and becoming more physically active. However, for Black people, these wellness pathways can be strewn with unique obstacles, forcing us to navigate an alternative wellness landscape. If the wellness industry wants to showcase Black wellness, it needs to do so honestly, acknowledging that many of us face additional barriers to pursuing our wellness.
When it comes to mental wellbeing, we have more stress and fewer options
Black people endure similar stresses to other Americans, but layered on top of these are the extra stress, anxiety and depression associated with racism. This takes its toll, and we are more likely than white people to be sad or feel overwhelmed, but we get less mental health care.[i]
Moreover, the techniques and practices that can support our mental wellness often are not as accessible. Ironically, some strategies for improving wellbeing will actually add to our stress; others are not an option. We often must think twice before performing stress-relieving tasks others take for granted. Going for a walk, taking a class, or getting a massage can increase anxiety and stress. Long before jogger Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia, my son, a long-distance runner, followed some basic rules: run in groups or in very public areas in broad daylight and wear his school paraphernalia—all to decrease the chance that he would be harmed. Home from school due to COVID and unable to follow his rules in our suburban neighborhood, he stopped running.
Some mental wellness practices present even greater peril. I chuckle when I remember the well-intentioned advice of a white acquaintance who swore by cannabis to handle her stress and suggested I drive to neighboring Washington, D.C. to “buy some weed.” I am still wondering how she could be so oblivious to the danger that would place me in. Black people are over three-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite comparable levels of use and the decriminalization of the drug, and while African Americans make up 45% of D.C.’s population, almost 90% of the people arrested in the city are Black.[ii] [iii]
We know “birdwatching-while-black” can be a dangerous pastime, but just experiencing nature can be a daunting endeavor.
Getting the physical, emotional and mental benefits of nature can be difficult for us. While almost 75% of people who participate moderately in outdoor recreation are white, only 8% are Black.[iv] Although programs and organizations such as Diversity Outdoors and Outdoor Thrive support African Americans who want to get more involved in outdoor recreation and experience nature, we are not perceived as nature enthusiasts. This misconception ignores how racial segregation and discriminatory housing policies have kept us out of parks and given us limited access to green areas.[v] Black people, most notably those with children, are more likely to live in areas that have little or no access to green spaces. In the United States, 23% of white people and 68% of Black people live in urban, nature-deprived areas.[vi]
Even when we have access to green spaces, racial hostility and harassment can keep us at home. Two weeks ago, I sent my son to visit a local park to walk on the trails and relieve his stress and anxiety. He returned earlier than expected to relate how a park ranger had followed him and harassed him, asking why he was there. Even more distressing for me, I didn’t sense any anger in his voice, only sad resignation.
This is an excerpt from the “Adding Color to Wellness” trend in the 2021 Global Wellness Trends Report.
 Jenny Rowland-Shea, Sahir Doshi, Shanna Edberg, and Robert Fanger, “Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America,” Center for American Progress, July 21, 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2020/07/21/487787/the-nature-gap/.
[i] “Mental and Behavioral Health – African Americans,” Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=24.
[ii] “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” ACLU Research Report, 2020, https://www.aclu.org/report/tale-two-countries-racially-targeted-arrests-era-marijuana-reform.
[iii] Paul Schwartzman and John D. Harden, “D.C. Legalized Marijuana, But One Thing Didn’t Change: Almost Everyone Arrested on Pot Charges Is Black,” Washington Post, September 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/dc-marijuana-arrest-legal/2020/09/15/65c20348-d01b-11ea-9038-af089b63ac21_story.html.
[iv] “2019 Outdoor Participation Report,” Outdoor Foundation, 2019, https://outdoorindustry.org/resource/2019-outdoor-participation-report/.
[v] J. Grove, D. Locke, B. Hall, and S. Pickett, “Residential Housing Segregation and Urban Tree Canopy in 37 US Cities,” Preprint, January 2020.
[vi] Jenny Rowland-Shea, Sahir Doshi, Shanna Edberg, and Robert Fanger, “Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America,” Center for American Progress, July 21, 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2020/07/21/487787/the-nature-gap/.