Forty-eight-weeks ago, I dreadlocked my locks. I spent five hours in a hippie hair studio while my curls were crimped, ratted, twisted, waxed, and knotted. We listened to 80’s music (in honor of the crimping and ratting), while I flipped through issues of Ode and Utne, trying not to (visibly) cry through the hair pulling. The salon owner–with his long, streaky blond tresses and fuscia goatee–was eccentrically playful with both his employees and patrons. We chatted about acupuncture, running a business, the local media, people we knew in common, our favorite yoga studios, the neighborhood co-op, his dogs/my boys, and a million other easy topics.
Then, in late summer, I read about a new African-American woman offering dreadlock maintenance. I wondered how my locking experiences with a California hippie and a woman of color would compare, so I made an appointment. I arrived early and spent some time absorbing the feel of her biz. The contemporary R&B music was unfamiliar to my ears. And the Wendy Williams show blaring from the large-screen, wall-mounted televisions shocked my cultural senses. I picked-up copies of Essence and American Legacy, but nothing caught my attention. The woman tending to my hair had a heart of gold, but our conversation felt forced. We couldn’t find experiences, friends, or ideas to share. Somehow, she ended-up telling me about her own religious perspective as it related to the spirituality of dread-locking, which evolved into a much broader conversation about religion and values with others in the salon.
And then it hit me: this must be similar to many African Americans’ experiences, when walking into most acupuncture clinics.
The event at both salons was inherently the same: I wanted my locks to be tightened, because they were scraggly and askew. Both stylists tended to my hair as requested. Both places provided music, magazines, and conversation. But my perception of these two experiences was decidedly disparate.
My discomfort in the African American salon began while waiting in the reception area, because the music, television, and magazines indicated to me that I had stepped out of my element. I was the only white woman in a room full of black faces. I couldn’t appreciate most of the cultural references being tossed about in the conversations. The stylist and I didn’t share the same religious background (which, incidentally, has about as much relevance being discussed while my hair was getting locked as it does while needles are being inserted). And although everyone was warm and friendly, we all knew the same thing: I did not belong there.
It makes me wonder, of course, what messages I send in my clinic that might make others feel unwelcome. Having had my experience in the black salon, I am more aware of how our music selection, magazines, décor, and library books might say to someone: “You do not belong here.”
Although The Turning Point is set-up just a few blocks from a working-class African American neighborhood, there are only a handful of black patients who come in regularly for care. And none of them are from the local neighborhood. Those who receive acupuncture are men and women of color who already have a circle of Caucasian friends and co-workers. That is, they have already assimilated into our white culture, and therefore feel more comfortable in our space.
I asked one of my friends—an African American and regular patient—to talk a little about what she perceives to be barriers for the black community in regards to acupuncture. She said it isn’t the needles or the money, and in fact most of them would love the group treatment aspect. The biggest obstacle that she faces, when trying to tell her friends or family about our clinic, is the perception that acupuncture and religion are somehow wrapped-up in each other. There is the fear, especially among the older generations of her family, that receiving acupuncture would somehow be sacrilegious. Looking around at our prayer flags, hanging crystals, wind chimes, and water fountains, I can imagine how our intentions might be questioned by someone from another religious and cultural background.
Korben, of Philadelphia Community Acupuncture, recently shared with me some of his experiences assimilating their clinic with Philly’s African American community. Not to put words into Korben’s mouth–but rather to support a very busy new papa who hasn’t much time to blog himself–I am sharing some of that conversation here. (And I hope Korben and Ellen will add more to this, as their time permits.) Korben talked about several different pieces that have played a significant role for PCA: location, integration, and image.
- Location: Philly is positioned at a magnificent crossroads of urban hippies, college students, and African Americans. Being situated in the African American community has had a huge impact on getting folks of color to walk through the door in the first place.
- Integration: one of Philly’s first front desk helpers was a woman of color. For any of us, walking into a new place and seeing someone with whom we can identify eases our own comfort, helps us feel like we belong.
- Image: By chance, when the local television station stopped over to film Philly for a story, there were several black patients receiving care in the clinic. Think for a minute: how many of us have photos on our websites portraying patients of color?
In terms of The Turning Point, I feel like we’ve got the right location for our clinic. And we are not in a position to hire staff right now, so we can’t do much with affirmative action. But what about the image we present?
I recently worked with a videographer, which offered an opportunity to make some conscious choices about what that film would look like. My initial feelings about asking black patients to participate in this video—when the reason that I would be requesting their participation was because of the color of their skin—left me feeling queasy…and even more so because the woman doing the filming is also African American. I worried about how she would react to the suggestion.
So I bounced my concerns off some comrades here (whom I hope will share their thoughts below), and I talked with the filmmaker. Not only was everybody supportive of the idea, but the videographer even brought along her friends of color to help diversify the chairs during our filming.
The lesson I am working with is this: if we want to break-down barriers to patients of different populations, we need to do more than sing Kum-Bai-Ya or bless our business’ thresholds. Spend some time outside your own element. Notice what you notice. Then bring that awareness back into your space and ask yourself, “What have I done that might suggest: ‘You do not belong here.’”
I feel a little funny writing a blog about racism, because I am not black. But I felt a little funny about using affirmative action in the video too, and I learned how much that intention was appreciated…so I am going-out on a limb with this one. I am sending links of this blog to as many of my African-American acquaintances and friends as I can, because I think that we need a discussion around the issue of racism in acu-land: from patients, students, and professionals. But it isn’t much of a discussion if it’s just a bunch of white folks talking at each other. So I hope you’ll consider doing the same.