Political Issues

Why Nicole Cardoza Says Racism in the Wellness Industry Is Particularly Egregious—And the Time To Change Is Now

Abbey Stone

Thumbnail for Why Nicole Cardoza Says Racism in the Wellness Industry Is Particularly Egregious—And the Time To Change Is Now
Pin It
Graphic: W+G Creative

Just a day after announcing that she’d created the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter, Nicole Cardoza was thrilled to see that 8,500 people had signed up. “I see so many of you are doing the work—this is just the beginning,” she posted on Instagram. Three days after that, her newsletter—which she calls “your daily reminder to dismantle white supremacy”—had a subscriber base of over 20,000. Clearly, she had struck a chord. But while the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others may have only recently opened the eyes of many white people to the urgent need for anti-racist work, Cardoza has been in the business of fighting racism, particularly within the wellness industry, for years.

Six years ago, she founded Yoga Foster, a nonprofit that makes yoga and mindfulness accessible to lower income public schools across the country. And in 2019, she launched Reclamation Ventures, an impact investing fund dedicated to the development of “people that are usually not seen, heard, or celebrated” in wellness—a group Cardoza calls “underestimated entrepreneurs.” “We invest in them so that they can create more spaces for their own communities and hopefully open more doors to this practice,” she says.

A week after Anti-Racism Daily launched, Cardoza and I chatted by phone about the newsletter, the danger of “well-meaning” white people, and why racism is particularly insidious within the wellness industry.

Well+Good: For those who haven’t signed up yet, can you share a little bit about the newsletter you launched on June 3?

Nicole Cardoza: Sure. I started a daily newsletter called the Anti-Racism Daily that offers people tactical tips to be able to combat racism in their own lives. We know that racism happens at a bunch of different levels, from an interpersonal level all the way up to the institutionalized, systemic level. And the idea is to give people tactical actions every single day to keep actively working to change the status quo.

I feel like whenever we see a large movement around Black lives and the protection of Black lives, my work becomes a little bit more urgent and I get a lot of questions from people who are interested in learning what they can do, or if they’re doing enough. It’s difficult to be able to answer all of those, one by one. And it’s difficult for some people to hear the information and then take it and put it into action.

“I wanted to create something that felt like a practice that people can commit to doing every single day, because that’s how we actually dismantle systemic oppression and white supremacy.”

For me, the newsletter was a way to organize everybody around an issue that has a lot of attention right now, and get people to commit to doing this practice after the protests end. Because we know a lot of people become really interested in changing things when tensions are flaring, but are not necessarily doing enough between these blatant acts of violence, or terror, that happen upon communities of color. I wanted to create something that felt like a practice that people can commit to doing every single day, because that’s how we actually dismantle systemic oppression and white supremacy. It’s consistent actions that we take as a collective over time, on top of the outreach that we have in moments like these.

This idea of daily actions makes me think of Dr. Laurie Santos, who created the Science of Well-Being course for Yale, which went viral and is now available to take online. In the syllabus for the course, she writes, “psychological science shows that merely learning about the empirical findings and theories is not enough to achieve real behavior change.” She’s talking about happiness, but it now seems applicable to anti-racist work. 

We can’t dismantle racism by just thinking about it. And I think a lot of people, especially white people with significant amounts of privilege, haven’t had to put this work into action. They haven’t had to live it. For me, as a Black woman, racism is a lived experience in my body every single day. I can’t walk away from that.

View this post on Instagram

I feel it’s important to re-introduce myself because before I became your new person to follow on IG, or that non-profit leader, or a yoga teacher, your friend, your ex-girlfriend, I was a black woman. I am a black woman. And a black woman is also who I am becoming.⁣ ⁣ What I do is simple: I create more space in the wellness industry for those that have been left out. At @yogafoster, we offer free and low-cost yoga and mindfulness content for schools. At @reclamationventures, we invest in underestimated leaders making wellness more accessible in their communities. I helped start @mentalhealthleague which makes sure no one suffers alone. And now I send daily emails on practicing anti-racism to thousands of you 🙋🏾‍♀️⁣ ⁣ But why I do this is all the more simple. Because I am a black woman. I deserve to be here. My breath belongs in my body. My body belongs on this soil. And I deserve to thrive. All of us do. ⁣ ⁣ Black lives don’t just matter. We are this country’s heart, lungs and blood. We were forced to breathe life into this nation and this nation consistently tries to take it away. Protecting our right to be well starts with dismantling this system while we imagine a new one where no one can take our breath away. ⁣ ⁣ I’m not telling a single black person to do anything right now because we’ve been told enough. For everyone else, I need you to join this fight like your breath depended on it. Because mine does. So does the breath of my ancestors and my generations to come.⁣ ⁣ Here’s me and my black joy. 📸 by @ericaelan the QUEEN 👑

A post shared by Nicole Cardoza (@nicoleacardoza) on

Day two of Anti-Racism Daily focuses on policing Black people’s behavior, and how these actions can be obvious, like racial profiling, but they can also be what you call “micro actions.” These micro actions, or microaggressions, are so often perpetrated by “well-meaning” people. People—particularly white women—who would be very quick to say, “I’m not racist. I’m liberal. I hate Trump,” etc. And yet, they too are guilty of racist actions. Can you speak to that?

I think the first thing to remember is that we all subscribe to racism as the default state. We didn’t choose that. We’re in America; if you’re participating in most systems in America, you’re actively subscribing to racist practices. To say that you’re not racist is almost avoiding what is actually inevitable in all of us. This is where we are.

There’s a really great diagram that’s gone viral of all of the racist statements, and the very tip of it is what we consider to be actively racist, which is like saying the n-word or causing bodily harm. But there’s all of these things that go underneath that help perpetuate racism, which is what we were talking about in the newsletter. These kinds of micro actions are ways that white privilege and white people can establish dominance and try to control or unfairly judge how Black people and other people of color show up.

Microaggressions such as asking Black people about their hair or questioning whether or not they know how to do yoga because they don’t look like the white yoga teachers who appear if you Google “yoga student”—these little things might not feel like they’re harmful, but they are the same actions of excluding people, of discrediting people, of diminishing people just at different levels of bodily harm. And just because you might not be holding a gun or you might not be a police officer who is pinning a Black man to the ground does not mean that you’re not still contributing to the system that makes doing so okay.

View this post on Instagram

White supremacy is a system of structural and societal racism which privileges white people over everyone else, regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. White racial advantages occur at both a collective and an individual level. We just updated this chart, which presents *some* of the ways people practice and reinforce white supremacy that they may not be aware of, or even think of as “white supremacy”. If you are unsure of what any of these terms mean, please feel free to look them up. There is an abundance of scholarship and research on each of these things. Image Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (@jewelspewels) (2019); The Conscious Kid (2020). #AntiRacism #AntiRacist #TeachersOfInstagram #WhitePrivilege

A post shared by The Conscious Kid (@theconsciouskid) on

I’d love to bring some of these ideas back to the wellness industry, in particular, since that’s the space we both work in. What role did a desire to make wellness more inclusive play in your creation of Yoga Foster and Reclamation Ventures?

I mean, honestly, [I created Yoga Foster] because I didn’t know other Black people who were doing yoga. It came from my own direct experience. I went to a yoga studio—it was a pretty diverse group, it was a donation-based class—and I thought it was pretty cool. I decided I wanted to quote-unquote “be a Yogi.” But when I went to other studios, I felt like there were a lot of weird looks from people.

So I started Googling about yoga and for Black yoga teachers. I found Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts, who is a rock star and, at the time, had a blog about representation and yoga. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, so it’s not just me. I’m not the only person seeing this.’

And at the same time, I was teaching yoga at a school where most of the kids in my class looked like me and had a similar upbringing. And I was like, ‘Okay, my classroom is really diverse, but what’s happening in the world around us that makes people like me feel like they can’t be on the mat?’ I wanted these kids, who have been practicing yoga every day in their classroom, to walk into a yoga studio one day like it’s no big deal. Whereas, if things persist as they currently are, they will be looked at oddly or asked if they’re lost. And that’s just one example of how this industry can feel.

Do you feel like the issues we’re seeing with inclusivity and racism in the wellness industry are a microcosm of the greater society and culture? Or does it feel like there are specific, individual issues within the wellness industry? 

I think the answer is both. I think that we are seeing these conversations play out on a broad social level and [there are also differences in] how they play out in specific industries, for sure. The wellness industry, to me, is particularly insidious because it is championing our right to breathe, our right to move, our right to have our ideal bodies and be in utmost health. And when you think about how those things are so directly stripped from so many communities of color, it just becomes more amplified. The idea that there’s been Black men for years telling police that they can’t breathe in the last moments of their lives is such a stark contrast from what we practice. Sit down, focus on your breath, take deep breaths in, long, slow exhales. It’s just so jarring and glaring.

“The wellness industry, to me, is particularly insidious because it is championing our right to breathe, our right to move, our right to have our ideal bodies and be in utmost health. And when you think about how those things are so directly stripped from so many communities of color, it just becomes more amplified.”

There’s a lot of conversation around cultural appropriation because that’s just so rampant in the wellness industry. Since the New Age movement, much of what wellness is based on has been stolen away from people who have also been systemically oppressed.

[The lack of inclusion] is just amplified in our space and you can see it and feel it when you’re in a room. So much of what we practice is in person, in close proximity. So much of what we do is focused on our bodies and how our bodies move through space. That’s a part of my core experience and how I move through space; whether that’s walking down the street or how I move through space in a yoga studio, I face a lot of the similar threats. But, if I’m walking down the street, I know that I’m not safe, while [in wellness] we preach this idea of being able to be safe, being able to let go in a yoga studio. And that might be more harmful, as a result.

I think that’s a great point. That for an industry that purports to be healing, it feels that much more egregious to turn a blind eye to the pain other people are experiencing.

Egregious is the word, it’s exactly that. It’s really shitty. I can only speak to my own experience with like, I’m the Black woman and I’m walking into an office. I know that there’s going to be a lot of white men, and I know that it’s going to be a pain in the ass. I know all the things, right? They’re going to comment on my hair—whatever is going to happen there. But I’m walking into that space consciously. I’m walking into that space, and I’m putting on my armor. I shouldn’t have to, but I know that’s what I’m doing.

If I want to walk into a space where I can let go, where I want to be able to breathe deeply, where I want to be able to de-stress and unwind…that’s when I walk into the wellness industry. And the fact that this space can’t hold that is more harmful. This industry wants everybody to feel like they can breathe, but it’s more suffocating than anything.

Right. And for the white women and men in wellness, you largely feel like it’s a safe space, right? They can walk into any room and breathe and feel safe and supported. That, to me, just throws into such stark contrast the experience between white and BIPOC in this industry.

Exactly. Yeah. I don’t know if you had said this, but we were kind of touching on it. How do we get everybody in a practice that doesn’t have to feel that way? It’s so necessary because if I feel like I can’t breathe, I can’t act or respond in the way that I need to in that moment to advocate for myself and for the people around me. And what I really need is for everybody else in that room to see that suffering, to acknowledge that suffering, and also acknowledge their privilege that they have to do something about it.

Yes.

Ooh. This is big stuff.

I know, thank you. Thank you for going there with me.

No problem.

Sign up for Anti-Racism Daily here. It’s free, but if you’d like to support Cardoza and her work (which, you know you do!), you can make a monthly or one-time contribution. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Loading More Posts...