Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been scrolling past both harrowing stories of Black death and uplifting images of resistance on Instagram, every now and then I’ll stumble upon a message urging Black people — women especially — to take care of ourselves. Poet and activist Audre Lorde’s famous quote stares back at me often: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." This is a radical feminist statement for Black women. But Lorde’s words have been turned into a catchall phrase used by wealthy white wellness influencers.
The mainstream wellness industry as a whole is dominated by these same white faces. This co-opting of the self-care business is why two Black women, Montreal-based Kim Knight and Toronto-based Shanelle McKenzie, decided in 2017 to start The Villij, an inclusive wellness community for women of color. Out of their respective cities, they run everything from yoga classes to meditation sessions to inspirational talks, all offered on a sliding fee scale so clients pay what they can. The reality that many Black women are feeling at the moment — barely sleeping and eating; our mental health taking a backseat to fighting the pandemic of anti-Black racism — is why Knight and McKenzie have kept The Villij going virtually.
Here, Knight and McKenzie talk about why practicing self care with other Black women is so important, how the mainstream wellness industry got so white, and how they really feel about white people checking in on their mental health.
Why is it important to have wellness spaces that are by and for Black people?
Shanelle McKenzie: We’re not seeing ourselves represented in these spaces. Kim and I are not yogis by any means, but we did enjoy going to yoga practices or meditation practices here and there. We realized that we were one of the few people of color in the room — if not the only ones. We knew that it wasn't right.
I think it's a beautiful thing to be vulnerable in these spaces and have people understand your point of view, your struggle, and your difficulty to even be vulnerable in the first place. Whether you are from a West Indian background or a Filipino background, we have these shared experiences within our families and cultures. We’ve had people say, "I came for yoga, and left in tears after talking to so many beautiful women of color about mental health."
Kim Knight: Our space can be the first time that people talk about their experience with sexual assault or childhood trauma. Sometimes, at home or within our friend circles are not always the safest spaces to talk about mental health. For example, if you’re from a Caribbean background, certain topics can be taboo. You want to talk about depression but it's like, "Oh, you know Black people don't get depressed.” We knew we needed to create a space where people could talk about these things without fear of repercussions or not being understood. Unfortunately, due to the whiteness of the wellness industry, that was a struggle. Finding a therapist of color is a struggle, especially here in Canada. A lot of yoga studios, they make these claims, "Oh, well, we can't find instructors of color." No, you can, you just need to work a little extra harder to find them.
There are Black women in the wellness space, but it's been co-opted by white women who are at the forefront. Why do you think that is?
SM: Wellness is so expensive and unattainable for a lot of communities. If you look at the average yoga subscription per month, it's upwards of $100. Now, I know a lot of women of color who are successful and are doing well, but many of them are first-generation [Canadians], so their money's going to their families or towards building wealth and building a future. For us, it was really important to make it attainable and accessible and down to earth. We have a sliding pay scale that ranges anywhere from $18 to $30 [a session]. If this is something that they cannot afford at all, we've created a scholarship program, which provides free access for all of our wellness experiences.
KK: A lot of Black people have echoed the sentiment of feeling sick and tired. That's where our focus is. How do we get past this and heal? Even though we still have a long way to go, we need to ensure that our mental health is preserved and improved. We still need to maintain Black joy. One of the ways we’re doing that is we just launched Trap Soul Yoga at home, a live virtual yoga class. We curate playlists that feature artists of color. We really just redefined the yoga experience for ourselves.
Whether you are from a West Indian background or a Filipino background, we have these shared experiences within our families and cultures. We’ve had people say, 'I came for yoga, and left in tears after talking to so many beautiful women of color about mental health.'
SM: Through our Villij Talks, we've focused on making sure people have spaces to learn to cope. For example, when COVID-19 first started, we had a registered therapist speak to us about ways we can deal with anxiety. Another therapist spoke to us about emotional wellness. And we're speaking to another therapist about healing racial trauma. We’re teaching how to start meditative practices. Also tips on learning how to begin a healthy eating journey by talking to a holistic nutritionist. We're really trying to hit every avenue of wellness.
My mental health has not been great. Earlier today, I just gave myself some time to cry. Even as two people who've made their work mental health and self care, I'm sure you're also going through it as Black women right now. So, how are you doing?
SM: It's a loaded question for sure. It depends. I have waves where I'm angry. I have waves where it drags me down to see people who look like me treated like animals — worse than animals, really. Seeing them shot in the face with rubber bullets during protests. I feel like I'm dealing with secondhand trauma when I look at the news. I choose to step away from that for my own wellbeing. It's not easy to raise a Black teen in this environment and to have to talk to her about why this is happening and what we can do about it. I’m just trying to protect my energy and stay informed in order to serve our community.
KK: It's day by day. I have my days where I don't want to get out of bed. I have my days where I have to literally force myself to not watch the news, or not go on social media. I have my days where I'm in the shower and I weep, but then I have other days where I make it a conscious decision to indulge in something that's going to bring me joy, listening to music, or watching Insecure.
KK: Amen to that. It's always on time. The thing is, this trauma is nothing new for us. We have developed coping mechanisms over the years, whether we want to realize it or not. We have some people burying themselves in work right now. I have friends that are participating in protests, and others who choose not to go. For me, it's just about being able to support myself first, and then support the others around me.
Some of the same wellness brands that have excluded women of color have been posting Black Lives Matter posts. How does that make you feel?
KK: It's about time. Where y'all been? We've been out here. We've been yoga teachers. We've done the training. It took this for you guys to wake up, so let's see what you do with it. Let's move beyond words. It's not just about saying. It's about doing. Let's get more women of color and men of color as instructors in your spaces. Let's hire them. Let's uplift them. Let's share them. Let's love on them because they deserve it as well.
My issue is with the lack of accountability. Even if, moving forward, companies add more Black people to their rosters, but there is no acknowledgement of the past blind spots, it feels disingenuous. Do you feel the same way?
SM: Absolutely. I think the first step should be saying, "Listen, we missed this. We were ignorant.” A lot of it has to do with people really looking into themselves. People will say, "We're all in this together." No, we're not. That's been very clear. We're all in this together when it's convenient for you. Sure, let's sit and meditate together. And yet when you go to the grocery store, you are rude and you're condescending to people of color. How does that work? You really need to sit with yourself and question how you have been racist and where that came from and why? If you’re only now welcoming instructors of color into your studio, there's a high chance that you're going to repeat those racist actions in some shape or form. It’s about really getting to the root of who you are and understanding what it takes to not only not be racist, but to be anti-racist.
Are more non-Black people reaching out to check in on your mental health? How do you feel about that?
KK: We are receiving tons of DMs that we can't keep up with; people saying, "We support your work.” We have a fund that helps us to create our sliding pay scale and we've seen a huge increase in people donating. But sometimes, when it comes to reaching out, people are doing too much. [Laughs.]
SM: People will be texting me, “I saw some racism the other day," and I'm like, Okay, girl, you don't have to tell me. I promise you I don't think you're racist. In those instances I’m like, Oh my god. Let me roll my eyes real quick. On the other hand, I'm not sure what I want. Do I want you to say something, or do I not want you to say something? I know that I don't need you to apologize because if I felt like you were part of the problem, I probably wouldn't be talking to you anyway.
My daughter and I were walking down the road the other day and this older white lady was staring at us, and we're like, Okay, what's her problem? Then she puts up her fist and she says, "Black Lives Matter.”
KK: They need to be stopped. We may not know what exactly we need, but we don't need that.
Finally, what was the last self-care thing that each of you did that brought you joy?
SM: Long walks. Really taking the time to take in the little urban nature pockets that we have in the city and to just be with myself.
KK: For the past two days, I've been bingeing on Black joy through storytelling, through music, through movies. We’ve been through enough. Don’t forget your joy.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.