Lifting Up Black and Brown Health and Wellness during the COVID-19 Crisis

Moving beyond respectability politics & white supremacist logic

Previously, I posted 12 Practices for Protecting and Maintaining Black & Brown Health During the COVID-19 Crisis.

Frustrated that immune system health is not a part of the Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, or World Health Organization’s plans to address the COVID-19 crisis, I created a practical guide for Black and Brown communities with support from my family.

This guide is curated with great humility and respect for the diversity of knowledge and traditions surrounding Black and Brown health and wellness.

Growing up food insecure with chronic asthma, I deeply acknowledge the systemic restrictions placed on Black and Brown communities to access clean water, healthy foods, and live in environmentally safe spaces.

Health and wellness is not a choice. Coming from historically and systemically oppressed communities, Black and Brown people can not simply elect to “live well”.

A health-conscious and sustainable way of life is deeply political.

Black and Brown health and wellness practices go against 500-year-old institutions founded in racial capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism.

It is only with perseverance and determination that Black and Brown people have maintained traditions and created innovative healthful practices.

From yoga to “twerking” and quinoa to soursop, elite white health and wellness trends have appropriated integral cultural practices and taken over the dominant health and wellness narrative.

Our collective inaccessibility to health and wellness is rooted in global systems of Food Apartheid, Medical Apartheid, and Environmental Racism.

Although inequities in health care treatment and pollution in underserved communities demonstrate blatant institutional racism, health and wellness through food access and consumption are presented as a “choice”.

So communities with high instances of particular diseases, chronic illnesses, or comorbidities — such as diabetes and high blood pressure — are portrayed by experts as irresponsible, lazy, and immoral.

Food Apartheid can not be fully addressed solely by increasing “food choice” in underserved areas (“food swamps”) or global UN-based food aid programs.

Food Apartheid is a global system rooted in slavery and colonialism and has been maintained by brutal oppression.

Black and Brown people in the US and across the globe have experienced military interventions, land theft, and labor exploitation, all in the name of our current global food system.

Since food is medicine — food is deeply political.

Racial Gaslighting and Black People’s Choices

Racial gaslighting (v) The political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.

Racial spectacle (n) Narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure.

Angelique Davis and Rose Ernst describe racial gaslighting as “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.

This type of gaslighting relies on “racial spectacles”, or the circulation of narratives that redirects attention from white supremacy and instead sensationalizes specific issues as a problem solely belonging to a racial or ethnic group.

Black people are particularly susceptible to racial gaslighting around food choices or consumption practices and perceived access. Especially when healthier choices are made available as black communities become highly gentrified — like Harlem in Manhattan or Bedstuy in Brooklyn.

“Soul food” and “slave food” have been politicized as intrinsically bad.

Both are celebrated and criticized for being the scapegoat for indulgence, and the influence for the creation of billion-dollar corporate food enterprises (Popeyes and KFC) that falsely mimic black recipes and foodways.

A white supremacist logic model indicts Black people as irresponsible: choosing to eat “badly”, not budgeting accordingly, and not taking their health and wellness seriously.

This also redirects discussion from unhealthy consumption habits practiced by white Americans.

“American’’ consumption practices — that are representative of the centuries-long US corporate agenda and targeted marketing — are also minimized to focus on Black “choice” and irresponsibility.

My family joined millions of Black people throughout the western hemisphere (from South America to Virginia) that moved to urban centers in the United States from the early 1900s to the 1970s.

The Great Migration occurred for a variety of reasons, including racial terrorism, military intervention, and environmental displacement.

My grandmother was a horticulturist, farmer, and nurse from St. Thomas, Jamaica. She and my mother made medicine from traditional herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables.

Raised in the United States in majority-white spaces, I grew up self-conscious about our “close to the land” traditions, knowing that these ways were not qualified as “modern” or “American”.

We would go to prescribed “food deserts”/”food swamps” of Boston’s inner cities to access traditional foods and herbs from Black and Brown run markets, such as cassava, chayote, and cerasee.

Targeted by advertisements and trillion-dollar marketing campaigns, I joined the legions of Black people in the US (including Black Americans) across generations that were pressured to “Americanize”.

This meant consuming store/restaurant bought processed foods and a normative European-American based diet that focuses on high meat, dairy, and gluten intake.

These processed foods often mimicked Afro-Indigenous foodways to connect with potential Black consumers. But at the same time, veered away from including circum-Caribbean (South Carolina to Bahia, Brazil) traditional items such as:

  • high consumption of fish (catfish, snapper, herring spray)
  • legumes and nuts (black eye pea, kidney beans, black beans, gandules, sunflower seed, peanuts, almonds, cashews)
  • root vegetables and tubers (sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, taro)
  • dark leafy greens (callaloo, mustard greens, collard greens, dandelion greens)
  • a diversity of fruits (watermelon, coconut, mangoes, pineapples, peaches, apricots, custard apple, avocado)
  • a variety of herbs and spices (thyme, rosemary, cumin, tumeric, pimento, mint, cinnamon, nutmeg)

Particularly, at the turn of the 20th century, the watermelon and coconut were demonized, and damaging stereotypes through blackface minstrelsy circulated by US corporations, mainstream media outlets, political figures, and “experts” around global Black food culture, health and wellness practices, and primitivism.

This racial gaslighting fueled Black middle-class respectability politics and incited shame around Afro-Indigenous centered foodways.

Omitting historical repression, white-centered health and wellness romanticize watermelon and coconut as “superfoods”.

Historically, respectability politics intersected with external pressures by U.S. based corporations to increase Black and Brown consumption of processed and corporate produced foods.

Pressure came from the militarization of the US food system and US colonization of Black and Brown nations and peoples.

Taking control of our personal and communal health and wellness should not be marred with white supremacist logic and rhetoric of Black and Brown irresponsibility.

Diddy and the US Surgeon General

So, what we’re not going to do is… support a narrative that connects rising COVID-19 related death rates in Black and Brown communities to irresponsibility and Black and Brown people NOT taking the COVID-19 virus seriously.

Although Sean “Diddy” Comb’s REVOLT convening of notably Black and Brown figures was timely, the messages were weak and left more questions than practical and locally-based solutions.

Co-hosted by Van Jones, the rhetoric focused on Black self-responsibility and the importance of taking the COVID-19 virus seriously and engaging politically.

This messaging quickly moved into respectability politics and a disengaged Black elite controlling the narrative of Black death and collective Black and Brown systemic vulnerabilities.

Immune system health and wellness practices were given very limited attention, in which traditional wellness expert Queen Afua responded to Diddy via an Instagram post to contact her directly.

Additionally, outside of the visible work of Styles P and Adjua Styles through @farmacyforlife, hip hop geared infographics — such as #thecornonacommandments — divert from substantive conversations about immune system health and instead focuses on pathologizing young black men around social distancing.

In addition to the issues with celebrities — sheltered by money and corporate endorsements— leading conversations about any crisis, the US Surgeon General recently gave official comments about the high rates of COVID-19 related deaths in Black and Latinx communities.

His offensive comments replicated language used by the Moynihan report of the 1960s, which exploited damaging stereotypical tropes about the Black family structure.

He implored Black and Latinx people to take responsibility for themselves by decreasing smoking, drinking, and drug intake for “Abuela” and “Big Mama”.

I am gaslit, but I refuse to dissect the layers within his comments — proving the universality of such issues or Black and Brown humanity.

I will just respond that the US Surgeon General would not dare address white Americans with the same paternalist tone and plea for them to take personal responsibility for their “bobbe”, “babushka” or “memaw”. This is particularly poignant right now with white Americans across the US leading large outdoor protests against “Stay-at-Home” orders and other protocols.

American pathologies are NOT the responsibility of Black and Brown people. American problems are NOT the responsibility of Black and Brown people.

The United States government’s long list of missteps and irresponsibility in containing the COVID-19 virus does not belong to Black and Brown people.

State and local governments' irrationality and slackness do not belong to Black and Brown people.

The health care system, food system and the visible outcomes of inequality do not belong to Black and Brown people.

Growing COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is the sole responsibility of the government and a defunded national pandemic response team.

These rates are the result of unresolved historic and current systemic inequities.

Black and Brown people are at the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in urban areas, like New York City, where our labor is essential and social distancing is logistically difficult. Additionally, doctors and public officials have exposed the barriers and inequities to testing in Black and Brown working-class communities, such as Philadephia and New York City. Some people may not have access to testing until they are hospitalized.

The Black immunity myth came from official sources in China, NOT from us.

Global media outlets circulated this narrative, because of the “surprisingly” significantly low infection rates in Africa in February.

These low rates stood as a counter-narrative to the European COVID-19 epidemic, going against propagated dominant narratives of Africa in crisis and Black death — whether in the United States or Sierra Leone — as normative.

Although the virus is still affecting Europe at high rates, the new (and exponentially damaging) narrative now projects COVID-19 as a “black virus”.

In addition to highlighting rates of COVID-19 related deaths among Black people in the US, this narrative becomes global when addressing efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to move forward with vaccinations on the African continent and the maltreatment of African nationals in China.

Traditional medicine practice is older… than science and it is accepted by the majority of Zimbabweans…If modern scientists are given opportunities to try whenever there is an emergency disease (outbreak), why can’t we do the same to traditional medicine practice? We are treating symptoms related to COVID-19, so by (some) chance we may be able to treat COVID-19.

— Zimbabwe Traditional Practitioners Association, Sekuru Friday Chisanyu

We can advocate for health and wellness without shaming Black and Brown people with sensationalized statistics.

In the variety of ways we take care of ourselves, as we have the right to do, it should be with love and care.

Rooted in understanding aspects of our holistic traditions and the flourishing existence of Black and Brown healing communities.

These healing communities are global and dynamic.

Currently, African traditional herbal medicine is used throughout the continent and the diaspora to work through COVID-19 symptoms.

The Zimbabwean government supports the treatment of coronavirus-positive Zimbabweans by herbalists using traditional herbal medicine.

Globally, public health officials position traditional herbal medicine in conflict with the World Health organization’s appeal to curve the spread through social distancing, hand washing and disinfecting shared spaces.

But in reality, traditional medicine fills in the gaps on how to manage COVID-19 symptoms naturally and build immune system health.

How to “manage symptoms” is an important feature of this crisis that has not been adequately addressed by officials.

Many of the traditions we have been made ashamed of or faced brutal persecution for practicing, we are urgently reclaiming.

Although I appreciate the steps celebrities take to provide a platform for the COVID-19 crisis and Black and Brown health, they should lift the voices of Black and Brown health and wellness experts, practitioners and community leaders.

These experts must include maroon, global indigenous, Rastafarian, and farming communities. This will divert conversations away from “choice”, self-responsibility, and respectability.

In addition to addressing cultural appropriation, it is critical to pivot the narrative to centering Black and Brown people and culture at the forefront of health and wellness.

By doing this, we have to address systemic oppression around food, medical treatment, and the environment.

This means first confronting the current and historic abuses of non-white people in western medicine systems of treatment and logic. And second, eliciting well known and obscure cultural practices that have allowed Black and Brown people to survive and thrive through the most horrific of circumstances.

We have always been at the forefront of health and wellness. We are the experts: our elders and ancestors are the guides, and our culture is the blueprint.

Here is a list of Black and Brown health and wellness experts and practitioners, farming communities, and sustainability activists that we should support. We got us.

Kshamica MD @kshamicamd: Preventive Medicine Physician #NaturalRemedies #Herbs #HealthTips #MentalHealth #Wellness

Life Wellness Center @lifewellnessbk (Brooklyn, NY, USA): Create a balance that works for you — Apothecary, Massage, Acupuncture, Wellness Center

jbGch @jbgch_herbs: Husband and wife team who are passionate about the healing power of herbs. We believe God created an herb/plant to heal every disease.

Sacred Herbal Apothecary @sacredvibesapothecary (Brooklyn, NY, USA): Founded by Herbalist Karen Rose. @empresskarenmrose Sacred Vibes Apothecary, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is focused on Education, Healing + Community.

Hip Hop is Green™ @hiphopisgreen: The first national plant-based Hip Hop organization in the World! Welcome to the Green Age of Hip Hop!

Idil, Nutritionist BASc @idilsworld: Nutrition is the root of your health. Empowering #KitchenFarmacists to be #HealthyAtEverySize with recipes & meal plans #YourKitchenIsYourFarmacy

Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz @kitchencurandera: Healing rooted in Indigenous wisdom for over 25 years.

Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar @kheprasrawfoodjuicebar (Washington, DC, USA): Serving daily raw cuisine and fresh juice along with juice cleanses.

Sol Sips™ @solsipsnyc (Brooklyn, NY, USA): Restaurant making handcrafted, intentional food for the spirit.

Hermana Luna @hermana.luna (Rio Grande Valley, TX): Nonprofit Organization, Community of like-minded people working to build a healthy, compassionate & ecologically sustainable future. Instagram

Ancient Blends ApotheCare @ancientblendapothe_care (Brooklyn, NY, USA): Cowrie Shell Center and Ancient Blends ApotheCare, providing Plantbased Products, Holistic Hair Care, and Yoni Steams.

Urban Asanas @urbanasanas (Brooklyn, NY ): The breath + beats of the streets. Urban Asanas is a yoga and wellness studio for the community in #CrownHeights, Brooklyn.

Heal Haus @healhaus (Brooklyn, NY): A Wellness Concept & Café, Daily Yoga + Meditation Classes, Workshops + Private Sessions, Corporate Wellness

Grae Wellness @graewellness (NYC/Manhattan, NY, USA): A Space for Events and More; Weekly Wellness Classes, Workshops & Events; Massage Therapy, Acupuncture, & Reiki

Naaya @naaya.wellness: Naaya is the Shona word for healing and we aim to root BIPOC in their well-being. Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, creative producer and founder of Naaya, explores the privilege of manifestation, gaps of access in the wellness industry, and the need to redefine ‘well-being’ as our collective responsibility.

D’Real Graham | Afroecology @blackwithplants: Ancestral Lands of the Meskwaki; Free Food Pantry (24/7): @ypsilocal; S1, E5: @relationshipwithplants; L1, Farmer: @3phfarm

Sustainable Brooklyn @sustainablebk (Brooklyn, NY, USA): Fashionably bridging gaps b/w the sustainability movement & TARGETED communities via consulting & programming| @whitneyrmcguire & @dominiquedrakeford

Brujas of Brooklyn, LLC @brujasofbrooklyn (Brooklyn, NY, USA): PRACTICAL MAGICIANS. Afro-Latinx.Identical Twins.Social-Science Brujas. Ph.D.s, Doctoras. Profesoras. Yoginis.

Radical Joy, Inc. @radicaljoyinc (Boston, MA, USA): A. Rahema Mooltrey LCSW, M Ed; Self-Care, Social Justice, Equitable Education & Joy.

Linda Lopes @mslindalopes (Brooklyn, NY, USA): Co-Founder of The Practice @thepracticebk, Mindfulness Educator, Yoga Instructor, Reiki Practitioner

Amber Tamm Canty @ambertamm (Brooklyn, NY, USA): floral designer +horticulturalist + farmer

Soul Fire Farm @soulfirefarm (New York State, USA): Soul Fire Farm is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.

Black Veg Fest @blackvegfest (USA): A Black-led intersectional liberation group centering Black Women & Queer Folx and advocating for Animal Life. Dope Liberation Projects and Events.

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.