'Microaggressions silence women of colour': BFFs tackle racism in wellnessby Faima Bakar
Being mistaken for the only other woman of colour in the office. Constantly having your name mispronounced. Being told you’re ‘articulate’ for speaking English. Having your hair touched without permission.
These are examples of microaggressions – subtle discrimination and othering of marginalised groups – towards women of colour, with some aimed specifically at Black women.
Constant microaggressions – which are a form of racism – can heighten feelings of alienation and affect women of colour who are more likely to have mental health issues (with Black women most at risk)
And according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, racism is a risk factor for developing a mental illness.
In response to the perpetual microaggressions faced by women of Black, Asian, and other minority ethnicities, two best friends have come up with an enterprise that hopes to lift people up.
Regina Zheng and Calah Singleton realised that women of colour like them were being left out of the wellness industry, with therapy being highly stigmatised in their communities and inaccessible for many.
Together, they started Mendü, a social enterprise aiming to change mental healthcare and include womxn of colour.
Mendü encourages people to engage in therapeutic exercises to work through the toll that everyday injustices take.
Regina and Calah hope to take away factors that make therapy unappealing and allow its users to meet like-minded women, chat about their lives, meet up, or work privately through journaling.
At its core, Mendü hopes to show its users that they aren’t alone in experiencing microaggressions.
Regina tells Metro.co.uk: ‘To us, microaggressions are constantly being bombarded by subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages that are discriminating, derogatory and prejudiced – but are hard to respond to because they’re worded or acted upon in ways that are not easy to pin down and are, to a large extent, socially accepted and common.
‘But they have the insidious effect of silencing, invalidating and humiliating the identity and/or voices of those who are oppressed.
‘Microaggressions can vary a lot based on which underrepresented group you belong to.’
Regina is Norwegian of Chinese heritage, while Calah is African American, and both have their respective struggles.
As an East Asian person, Regina was subject to looks and comments on public transport. A few months ago, a woman blamed her for the coronavirus outbreak and told her to stay home.
This stigma was felt by many East and South-East Asians around the world, with some being physically abused.
Regina explains: ‘I saw a small smile form at the edge of the woman’s lips as she swiftly turned around and walked away. That little smile suggesting joy got to me more than anything else and stayed in my head with my heart in my throat during the rest of the journey home.’
While this was more of an overt racist experience, Regina has had her fair share of microaggressions, whether it’s extra scrutiny on public transport or behaviours in the workplace.
For Calah, being a Black woman means she has also experienced plenty of blatant racism as well as microaggressions.
Some of these include being told she’s ‘pretty for a Black girl’, or that she sounds ‘like a white person’.
Calah adds: ‘The underlying message here is that Black people are normally not beautiful and not usually well-spoken. You should enjoy being seen as an exception – or “whiter” – when in fact, you are Black and will always be Black.’
She points out that what separates this from obvious racism is the fact that the people saying these may be well-intentioned.
‘The person who says this almost always means well. It’s a genuine compliment in their eyes.
‘I’m not afraid to speak up to them, but there are obviously a million thoughts racing through my head. Will they go on the defensive? How will this impact our relationship? Will I be labeled as an “angry Black woman”? Will there be consequences for this?
‘While these incidents might seem small and without ill-intent or as isolated events, the truth is that they are the constant, everyday experience for anyone belonging to a marginalised group.’
Multiple studies reveal that a lifetime of microaggressions takes a major toll on the psychological health and functioning of marginalised groups in society.
They can contribute to elevated heart rate, hypertension, and be detrimental to long-term health.
In essence, microaggressions can cause much more than hurt feelings.
While simply talking about the prevalence of these issues among women of colour won’t solve the millennia-long history of institutional bias, Mendü hopes to prop WOC up in a way that gives them the confidence to speak up, and equip them with tools and resources to change their situation.
Calah and Regina started the enterprise to make wellness more inclusive, as popular self-care care methods – including yoga, acupuncture, using incense – have all become somewhat whitewashed.
Regina adds: ‘After years of super deep conversations (often over wine and cheese) we started wondering: where are the wellness messages that are targeted towards women who look like us?
‘We started taking a long look at self-care messaging and targeting and began to notice how there was a huge gap in who these products and services were targeted to and created for in the first place.
‘The most important part of what we do is our community. When we started out, there weren’t a lot of initiatives that made taking care of our mind and wellbeing fun.
‘We really wanted to create that space and meet like-minded people. It’s important to have people around you who share your experience, especially when it comes to topics such as subtle microaggressions and as sensitive as mental health.’
Before the pandemic, Mendü hosted monthly events users could sign up for but since lockdown, it has had to go virtual.
The space is for people to speak openly about the experience of being a person of colour, guided by fun exercises.
‘As much as we love meeting people at our community events, we started to get feedback that people need access to tools to think over stressful experiences as they happen,’ adds Regina.
‘That’s why we’re working on putting more of our materials and tools online, so that it’s more accessible to more people all the time.
‘We’re gearing up to release a full library in the next couple of months. We want people like us to have the tools to feel well.
‘Our goal is to empower our users to change their environments in impactful ways. In their journey, users should be able to decompress from difficult situations as opposed to just settle for feeling less well, or alien.
‘They should be able to analyse what is happening and strategise how to move forward as opposed to settling for feeling unsure about what to do. They should be able to have frameworks that help them communicate what is difficult in their environments in impactful ways, rather than just living with the uncomfortable emotions.
‘Basically, we aim to become the Headspace for people of colour, with exercises for non-PoC allies too!’
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