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Aww Shift

Feb 28, 2023

In today’s episode, our guest is Zee Clarke. She is a Harvard MBA who went from leading teams at Fortune 500 companies and startups in Silicon Valley to teaching mindfulness and breathwork to people of color. Trained in India, Zee leverages her toolkit of yoga, meditation, breathwork, sound healing, and Reiki to ensure that all people of color have the tools to thrive despite any challenges that race, gender, or sexuality might present.

[2:55] Why should I listen to you? 

If you’re a black person, you should listen to me because I can share with you tools that can help you deal with racism and racial profiling and also help your mental health. But if you’re an ally or aspiring ally, you should listen to me for education about the reality of the experiences of people who look like me in this country. 

[4:56] When did this torch become something you wanted to carry? 

So I grew up in Washington, DC, also known as the "murder capital" of America. I grew up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood, and I went to a fancy private school in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where I was the only black person in a school filled with rich white people. So the first time that I experienced this feeling of, "Do I belong here?" I'm not good enough. What is happening, why is nobody speaking to me, and why are people treating me differently? That was the first day of school when I was eight years old. I share this with you to say that this feeling continued throughout my education. I went to Harvard Business School. I worked in financial services early in my career, and then after business school, I went to the Bay Area, where I worked in Silicon Valley in tech. And so during that entire time of my corporate career, I would be the only woman in the room, sometimes in tech. My mental health was in the gutter. I wasn't eating, and my doctors were like, "Something's got to change your stress levels; they're causing your current state of being," so I quit and I went to India. I joke that I did the black girl version of Eat, Pray, Love because I was meditating. I'm doing yoga, and I've never felt so good in my entire life. I did not know that this was possible. And so I felt very passionately that I needed to share these tools with others, particularly black people and people of color because we have higher rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and all sorts of other things that now medical research is showing are a direct result of racism and microaggressions.

[8:00] How would you define microaggression? 

A microaggression is a comment or action that unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude towards a member of a marginalized group. It can also be when people question your competence, when you don’t feel seen or heard, or when they mistake you for somebody that looks nothing like you. There is a long list, but in short, we are being treated differently because of what we look like. 

[9:45] Where do you think this came from? 

I think it's a lack of empathy. A lot of people who commit microaggressions might have good intentions, and that is why the definition means "unconsciously" or "unintentionally." They might have good intentions, but the impact is usually negative. Some of these things come from parents, too. When you hear your parents speak negatively about a certain group of people, you think they are right, but the truth is they also learned it from their parents. 

[11:56] What do you think should be the first thing we think about when these things happen to us and when we choose to respond to them? 

Well, my book is called Black People Breathe because breathing is very critical to regulating our nervous system. When these things happen, we get triggered, and that is when our systematic nervous system kicks in, and when that happens, your heart rate tends to go up. You might start sweating, you might clench up, your shoulders might come up, and all of that kind of just depends on how your body reacts to that. But that is the sympathetic nervous system kicking in, and when that happens, we aren't rational people, and we might say or do things that come from an emotionally charged place, which could hurt your job. So my recommendation is that when you are triggered, be intentional about breathing so that you can regulate your nervous system. 

[16:35] What are the things someone can do when stuff like this happens? 

I think what happens is that when you breathe, you can speak from a more calm and rational place. Nelson Mandela has a quote that states that “resentment is like drinking poison and hoping for your enemy to die." When somebody says something offensive, take a breath and ask yourself if it’s good for your mental health. Sometimes I’m not okay, but for my mental health, I choose not to engage. I get that sometimes you might want to educate others, but it will be preferable if you don’t. You get to sleep better because you didn’t get to fight someone at work. 

[22:00] Can you dive deeper into your book? 

Every chapter of the book is focused on a particular issue that black people face in America, and I shared this in the context of personal stories that have happened to me. At the end of every chapter, there are specific mindfulness and breathwork tools that you can use when it happens to you. So for allies, it’s going to be very educational because you will get a live glimpse of what it is like to be black in America. In the end, there are also practices that you can use when you experience anxiety. 

[27:20] When one acquires skills like this, do they have to wait until these moments before utilizing them?

I know that people are just busy. I have so many friends who are like me and can't meditate and so what I'll say is, yes, even just five minutes every morning of doing some deep breathing is beneficial. One of the practices that I love is called "box breathing," which is when you inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and then exhale. As I explain, many people are familiar with it. But just doing a couple of minutes of box breathing every morning can make you sick and can set a solid foundation for your nervous system so that when things happen, you might not be as triggered. However, you know, what I tend to recommend for folks is that they do it when bad things happen. You've got to remember these breathing techniques so that you can figure them out. 

[29:38] What was the journey like for you to get into organizations and express the need for this? 

In my experience; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives never felt like they were for me. They prioritize talent acquisition, so external candidate pools are usually larger, so I partner with employee resource groups, which are usually funded by DEI. Our stress levels are off the charts. Some of us want to quit. It's a toxic environment. And so I teach workshops to empower black and brown folks in the workplace to know how to navigate microaggressions. I teach a workshop called mindfulness to heal from microaggressions at work. I teach one on countering impostor syndrome because sometimes we need an extra competence boost, but there are also so many other issues when it comes to being black in the workplace. For example, when managing people as a black manager, you have white people report to you. They may not respond to your leadership and direction in the same way that a white man would, depending on their upbringing. As a result, even if they do not respond to your feedback, for example, in a performance review, the dynamics are different, just like when you have the courage to ask for a promotion. As we already know, there aren't that many of us in leadership positions, and so having the courage to ask for a promotion, a raise, or extra responsibilities can be a lot for a black person in the workplace. So I teach several workshops around self-doubt, performance microaggressions, and dealing with stereotypes.

[44:00] What promise did God make to the world when he created you? 

To help all black people and all people of color feel good so that we can be our best selves in this world.

Key Quotes 

[34:38-34:40] Do not work harder, but smarter. 

[35:50-35:53] Do what matters to the people that matter.

[41:42-41:46] Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment without judgment. 

How to connect with Zee Clarke