A new mindfulness technique aims to help Black employees heal from racial trauma in and out of the workplace

March 10, 2023, 4:42 PM UTC
Healthy African woman meditating in yoga class with friends in background.
Luis Alvarez—Getty Images

Happy Friday.

Before you scroll on, let’s pause, close our eyes, and take a few breaths together—the kind of breaths that fill your body and make time stand still, if just for a moment.

(I’ll wait.)

This is the empowering way I started a conversation with Zee Clarke, a Harvard-educated business consultant and author of the new book Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing. The two-minute exercise did the trick. “The simple act of taking a deep belly breath can allow you to calm your nervous system in the moment so that you can speak from a less triggered place,” she told me.

Clarke digs deep into the science of trauma and racial stress and how it shows up in the lives of Black people. She covers code-switching and imposter syndrome and even includes a mindfulness meditation to help sort out how to recover from personal incidents of discrimination or racism. (I needed a few belly breaths after reading the “Shopping While Black” chapter.) And while the book draws on stories of her own racial trauma—from protesting police violence to the low-level exhaustion of being the only Black professional in the room—the mindfulness work she now teaches isn’t just about healing for its own sake. It’s about agency. “The Black employees I work with are so focused on surviving their day-to-day that I don’t think they have the bandwidth to think bigger picture about their future,” she says. “These tools are about reclaiming that path.”

Clarke has real corporate bona fides, starting in financial services, then to Harvard Business School, and into management consulting focusing on tech. “Often, I would be the only Black woman and the only Black person in the room, on the floor, in the building, sometimes at the whole company,” she says.

The status quo solution, which is assimilation, is part of the problem.

“I just was trained to sweep it under the rug and try to feel no pain and go to work. Go to school. Do your thing,” she says. “This is all so detrimental to our health.”

Clarke has taken her mindfulness and self-advocacy message to Black employees and similar groups at big, mostly tech companies. Yet despite commitments from employers after George Floyd’s murder, the day-to-day experience of Black employees hasn’t changed much, she says.

Moreover, leaders don’t have to settle for the status quo from which they benefit. “Use your privilege to amplify Black voices since our contributions so often are unattributed,” she says. Then use your voice. “Speak up. When you see or hear unethical things happening, your voice as an ally is going to be heard much louder than mine.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

On Point

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On Background

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“The late 19th century sees the pullback from Reconstruction… [and] these rollbacks of Black political rights," explains Moody-Turner. "And so it creates a space for Black women to step into the forefront because they didn’t have the same access to political rights.”
The 19th*

Parting Words

"The network of men hold unwritten rules that define insider vs outsiders. They get to decide who is successful and who is not. Females at this company have felt very little power to change a culture and environment that has been and continues to be disrespectful to women...This company must lay a new foundation, and it must start at the highest level of the organization."

—An excerpt from newly unsealed employee surveys detailing a toxic “boys club” atmosphere at Nike

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