Racism In Spiritual And Wellbeing Communities

Why is it that the majority of people in these spaces are white and middle class?

Whenever I enter a new spiritual space I always do a room check. I’m looking for anyone who isn’t white. I usually find about one or two other people, and quietly sigh to myself. The lack of people of colour in spiritual spaces is truly shocking and just plain racist. What I used to consider “normal” I now know is anything but. Especially in a place that is meant to promote healing, enlightenment and promises of a higher conciousness. The hypocrisy is unbelievable. For a long time I just accepted that I’d probably be the only non-white face at these types of events; but the more I delve into books about racism and white supremacy and the way it shapes our everyday lives, the more uncomfortable I am with this phenomenon. It had gotten to the point where I just expected to see or hear something racist, as if it was perfectly normal- just an everyday part of spiritual practice. As if skinny, white, middle class people were the gatekeepers of all things spiritual.

Spirituality has always been a part of my life. I’ve frequently meditated, had psychic experiences and researched different religions, beliefs, and spiritual practices since as far back as I can remember. It was always a solitary activity for me; I didn’t feel like I needed to share it with anyone else. It has only been in the past few years that I felt the call to find a community in which I could practice my spirituality.

My first introduction to any kind of spiritual community were local Women’s Circles (sometimes called red tents). An ancient tradition where women come together to meditate, share and socialise- usually during a full moon or new moon. The particular women’s circles I started going to seemed to be more of a business than an actual community. Most would charge a fee to attend; usually £15 or £20. In the beginning I thought the price was what made me uncomfortable (I don’t think you should charge for women’s circles), but then I slowly started to realise it was more than that. It was the type of people hosting them — and attending.

If I ask you to visualize a typical yoga teacher, or “spiritual woman” what image comes into your mind? I imagine a skinny, white, blonde woman in a crop top and colourful leggings, probably around 30 and definitely middle class. Why do I imagine that? Because that’s what I see around me. That was the exact type of woman who was running the circles I was going to. The trend in every different circle, class or event I went to was that the majority of people attending were white and middle class (and skinny and able-bodied to boot). Admittedly, at the time I couldn’t see a problem with this. I was so used to seeing white people represented everywhere that I viewed them as the norm- even in physical spaces. I felt like I vaguely blended in because of my light skin, body type and straight hair (I had relaxed hair at the time). I did wonder why I was usually the only woman of colour there but I brushed off those thoughts as quickly as they arose.

The first time I really started to delve into these thoughts was when I was walking back from a singing bowl meditation class with my boyfriend. It was hosted in the typical “trendy” holisitic space, and almost everyone there was white and middle class. I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was very wrong with these spaces. Spirituality is supposed to be about changing yourself and the world for better; so why were all these spaces excluding more than half of the population? London is the most ethnically diverse city in England and Wales, with only 45% of Londoners being white British. Why aren’t these spaces reflecting the population? When I would ask people these questions I’d often get the reply that maybe people of colour just “aren’t into these things”. I know so many women of colour who love astrology, meditation, crystal healing and anything else you could think of- yet I saw no representation of them in any of these places.

I find it ridiculous that people say “maybe they aren’t into these things” when literally all of the practices being used come from indigenous cultures. To suggest that only white, rich people can be interested in spirituality is a racist form of othering. It reinforces the “they aren’t like us” mentality which is the complete opposite of what true spirituality should be about.

Not only do many white leaders of spiritual communities seem unphased by the lack of diversity in their groups; many will also use images from indigenous cultures to try and make their group/community/business seem more “exotic” and exciting. They want to use other cultures as a marketing tool and to make their Instagram feeds look more appealing but they don’t want to include people from these cultures in their communities.

This image is from The Goddess Space Instagram. It was one of the very first women’s circles I attended. When I saw this image I knew I couldn’t go back. The fact that the only women who attended were white (bar one or two on occasion), and that she didn’t teach the history or culture behind certain practices (such as smudging or the history of red tents) was bad enough, but this? The tipi in the background, the caption, the hashtags. I have Native American/Indian ancestry, Cherokee and Creek, and I have done a lot of research on the different tribes. I’ve also researched the issues that still surround these tribes. Native American/Indian women are at risk of sexual assault because of their overly sexualized and fetishised representations in the media; the photo posted on The Goddess Space perpetuates that narrative. She is presenting herself as “exotic” and “other” by dressing up as a woman from another culture. You may be thinking she is just appreciating the culture but she clearly isn’t as she doesn’t seem to know much about it. The caption reads “I was a Navajo in my past life” but she has tagged it with #Pocahontas, and she has a tipi in the background. Pocahontas was from the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, who lived in longhouses called Yehakins, not Tipis. She also posted a picture of activists at the Dakota access pipeline, and in the caption thanked “the Natives” for their hard work protecting “Mother Earth”.

I will never understand the need that white people seemingly have to dress up as people from other cultures for fun, whilst knowing nothing about the people from that culture or the issues they face. It isn’t appreciation at all, it’s just plain racism. Images of white women next to Tipis,or wearing a headdrress are common on the pages of women who lead spiritual groups. They use these cultures as decoration and just a bit of fun.

I think all of this ties into how many people who run spiritual groups and circles have turned their spirituality into a business. They want to appeal the masses, so they post pictures of skinny, white women who fit the beauty standard, they use crystals and sage and other cultures as mere decoration and entertainment. They don’t want to offend anyone by being truly inclusive or revolutionary- instead they just talk about love and light and dismiss your valid concerns.

Representation is important. If there are no women of colour in promotional materials for your spiritual class or group then it is more than likely that no women of colour will show up. And why should they when it’s clearly not a welcoming space for them. True spirituality is not about appeasing everyone. It’s about doing the right thing, it’s about changing ideas and beliefs, it’s not about assimilating to some ideal of a perfect spiritual white woman.

Spirituality is messy, and dark. To be a true spiritual leader or facilitator you have to work on yourself, in every way. If you haven’t done any anti-racist work then your community will be racist and will perpetuate harmful ideals. I’m completely over this image of perfection that so many women’s spirituality groups seem to push. No, you’re not woke because you have some crystals and did yoga last night. To become awakened/enlightened we have to come face-to-face with our true selves; warts and all. If you haven’t done that then you’re not truly doing the work, you’re simply using spirituality as entertainment. Women’s circles, yoga classes, meditation classes — all of these spaces should be inclusive, accepting places where people from all backgrounds can come to feel supported, heard and inspired whilst they go on their spiritual journeys. If the space you run is upholding the values of white supremacy then you are doing more harm than good.

What can we do to change this?

If you run spaces:

  • If you are white and run a spiritual space/group/community then you need to do your own anti-racism work and research. The book “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a good place to start.
  • Make your promotional materials representative of the actual population. If you live in London and your poster has 8 white women on the front, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Consider lowering your prices. If you know that only a certain group of people are likely to come to your event because it’s so expensive then rethink your motives.
  • If you are using practices or items from another culture then do your research on them — thoroughly! Explain the history behind it when using them and speak out about issues surrounding the people from that culture and make sure to include them in your group.
  • Do not use images that tokenize or fetishize indigenous or minority groups. Just don’t do it.

In the words of Catrice Jackson, an author and activist, “If people of colour are not showing up at your spaces, you don’t have a diversity and inclusion problem, you have a racism problem”. There are many courses you can take as an event organiser to ensure your event is truly anti-racist. I also suggest you look up the White Supremacy & Me challenge which is currently being hosted by Wild Mystic Woman on Instagram.

An example of what not to post.

If you attend spaces:

  • Don’t support groups/communities/events that are mainly white. Stop going and unfollow them from social media.
  • Call leaders out when they are being racist, let them know that this isn’t okay. Tell them your reason for leaving.
  • Consider starting your own, inclusive group. I’m starting my own women’s circle (if you live in London feel free to message me about it).

Spirituality does not belong to white people. It doesn’t exist to keep white supremacy in place. It belongs to everyone and it is here to dismantle white supremacy, and to heal the pain created by it. This post is for all the people who felt out of place at these mainly white, middle class spaces and wondered if there was something wrong with them. Let’s create spaces that are safe havens for everyone and where nobody ever has to feel like that again.

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Read part 2 here: “Racism In Spiritual And Wellbeing Communities: Part 2” https://medium.com/@gabriella_evang/racism-in-spiritual-and-wellbeing-communities-part-2-ab384b56b1dd