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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Anti-Racism In Massage

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

"The beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way forward." - ljeoma Oluo

Confronting racism in massage therapy is important to me. It is a deeply personal commitment I began so that I could be more comfortable and more competent working with clients that didn’t look exactly like me. It has led me to create Arkansas' first Diversity, Inclusion, & Equity: Cultural Competency Training continuing education course for Massage Therapists. I would like to share the fundamentals that I’ve learned through my process so far.

Bias: Explicit Vs. Implicit

Everyone has biases. Feelings of inclination either toward or against things, people, or groups that are different. Just because we have biases doesn’t necessarily mean that we are behaving horribly- but recognizing our bias and why we hold these values is important in the work of antiracism. Explicit bias is the most recognizable. It is overt and apparent to everyone- the individual demonstrating their bias as well as everyone around them. Implicit bias, on the other hand, can be expressed without intention, contradict an individuals stated beliefs or values, and can manifest as behavior. The fascinating science of stereotyping is that it is a natural and efficient function of the brain- what we perceive as truth is often based off our culture and filtered through our individual values. Stereotyping is the brain’s way of categorizing and interoperating new experiences to match with experiences it’s come across before. Bias happens automatically, so it tends to go unrealized or even feel normal. In the work of antiracism, we must be mindful of if our stereotypes and biases start to become or foster discrimination. Intention does not absolve anyone from causing harm, to truly invest in the act of inclusion, we have to overcome the obstacles of disbelief and shame.

The State of Massage & Bodywork

A report from 2020 broke down massage therapists in the United States by race as 74% White, 9% Hispanic/Latine, 9% Asian, 3% Black/African American, and 0.5% Native/Indigenous. That same report estimated the total value of the massage and bodywork industry at $542 Billion dollars (that’s Billion with a B). The report also revealed that the general image of massage consists of stereotypes of white women in both roles as therapist and client, in serene or luxurious spa settings with flowers and candles. This image or stereotype demonstrates how massage is largely viewed as a luxury for whites instead of healthcare for all. Historically, healthcare and medicine have not been inclusive as a system. This includes massage therapy, think about Arkansas in particular! We had our first massage registration law in 1951, over a decade before the civil rights movement. Segregation was still the culture at the time when Arkansas massage therapy was born. Refusing to have conversations or acknowledge the role of bias from our profession’s inception will only further limit who we care for. The aforementioned report supports the claim that representation matters! Because fewer people of color (POC) receive massage, they have less exposure to the profession and don’t seek careers in massage therapy. With fewer POC practitioners, this continues the cycle of massage remaining a stereotyped luxury for white persons. There are other studies that suggest representation matters because it leads to higher client satisfaction, better health outcomes, and comfort/trust building in the roles of the therapeutic model. Comfort and trust in the profession as a whole will come from having more therapists available that look like their clientele. Representation in the industry will also bring concerns and points of view that otherwise may have remained silent to our collective awareness as professionals. The United States is on track to become a minority majority nation in the 2030s or 2040s, massage will either adapt with innovation or lose perspective consumers/practitioners and suffer. And as if all that weren’t enough to bring concern to the issue of antiracism, I’ll leave this paragraph with the premise of health equity which goes something like this; “All people, regardless of circumstance, deserve the best quality care to live their fullest potential for well-being and good health”.

Is Racism an issue?

Race is a classification system for humans, socially constructed to distinguish groups of people based on physical features deemed important by society (specifically, skin color). That sounds scientific and fanciful, but that doesn’t mean that race is based in science or biological fact. In fact, race is a lie. Race is a story told long ago to justify the brutal exploitation of human beings for profit. Racism bolsters and supports that lie. Racism includes beliefs, thoughts, and actions that are based on the idea that one race of people is innately superior to another. Topics like this tend to cause most people various levels of discomfort. But it is important to have these conversations and face the truth of our reality. As massage therapists, we know that focusing on our own trauma or discomfort leads us to be less compassionate and less effective as bodyworkers. We mustn’t shy away from this- it’s important to remind ourselves that racism is an uncomfortable place, that it’s an ugly face of reality TODAY, not some relic of the past. Racism has ripples and echoes that infect every aspect of our daily lives. Running away from the discomfort only compounds and increases it. That being said, it’s also important to recognize when and where conversations like this can and should take place. Consider the safety and mental/emotional capacity of minorities when engaging in conversations of cultural competency. Those of us with privilege- that is, the access to social power/resources/opportunities, have a responsibility to wield it for the benefit for those without. It can be easy to fall into the clichéd excuse of being colorblind. “I don’t see color. I treat everyone equally.” Clinging to the excuse of being color blind is uncaring because if you are color blind then you are willfully ignoring an aspect of another’s identity, culture, and experience. To fulfil the promise of health equity, we have to provide a safe, secure, and respectful environment. That simply isn't possible without cultural competency. The good news is there is plenty of opportunities to course correct our implicit bias and become antiracists in the profession.

Steps to take

Growth and improvement begins with awareness. We cannot fix issues if we cannot become comfortable thinking/talking about them. If you have made it this far, if you’ve read and listened with an open mind, if you’ve sat in your discomfort and overcome it so far- then congratulations! You’ve taken the first step toward a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable massage profession. Contemplate the next steps and what actions you can take to create more equity in your practice:

1. Take an inclusion inventory. Is there a lack of representation in your clinic? Does your marketing, decorations, artwork, etc. establish a welcoming and culturally competent space and staff? Does your referral and/or intake process systematically weed out racial minorities?

2. Hold yourself accountable. Ask yourself if your personal and professional values/bias harmful to clients from different racial backgrounds? Is it possible that a lack of acknowledgement or lack of sensitivity as the therapist causes unnecessary distress to clients? It’s vital to remember that we can cause as much harm with our words as we can with our hands.

3. Wield your privilege! Start conversations with other persons with privilege. Do the work of antiracism with a vested interest in equity and fairness instead of the interest of self service. When others witness your commitment to antiracism, it demonstrates that racism isn’t the problem of other races, it’s a white problem. White people constructed and supported the systems of racism, we must take responsibility of antiracism.

4. Get to know racial communities! Advertise and work events at race-based spaces- when appropriate, of course. Explore advertising in multiple languages, have documents in multiple languages. If you ask for help or advice from racial minorities, do so in a respectful manner and pay them for the work they do for you. Get to know those who are already doing this work in your local community.

I would like to end in assuring you that the goal of antiracism isn’t to be perfect and never make mistakes again. That would be too big, too overwhelming, and too unrealistic. The goal of cultural competency is to have these conversations, listen to and learn from the experiences of others, and take accountability when we do make mistakes. When all else fails me, I find it helpful to remember this phrase; “Diversity is a fact of life, Inclusion is an action we take, and Equity is our end goal’.

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark, MMT, BCTMB

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1 Comment

John Joseph Ray
John Joseph Ray
Feb 07, 2023

Very interesting, Kirby. I support your effort in exploring these important issues.

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