Traveling while Black, remember to breathe

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Traveling is often stressful and can be dangerous, especially if you’re Black. The Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC), operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, earlier this year produced a public education resource, “Movement and Space: CRMC Community Guide” on the current and historic constants Black people have encountered while traveling in this country.

“Traveling while Black” is more than a slogan but a real-life aspect for most Black Americans, said author Zee Clarke, whose book, “Black People Breathe,” (Penguin Random House) will be published on March 14, 2023.

Clarke is a “mindfulness” and breathwork expert for Black and communities of color. She told the MSR that Black travelers often deal with racism, microaggressions, stress and anxiety. She strongly suggests deep breathing can help the individual deal with stressful situations, whether at the airport, driving, or with the police.

“Mindfulness is really about intentional breathing,” she explained, “because as a Black person traveling, we know that we get treated differently than other people.”

Clarke offered several suggestions for handling such situations, including a 4-7-8 breathing practice: “This breathing practice is amazing for calming your nervous system,” she noted. “You inhale for a count of four, you hold [it] for a count of seven, and you exhale for a count of eight.  There’s a lot of medical research that shows that this calms your nervous system.”

She also described a second exercise, the “the belly breath”: “If you just inhale and stick that belly out on the inhale,” continued Clarke, “that allows us to respond from a calmer place.”

Examples of stressful times for Blacks traveling may occur at the airport, said the author. “When you’re in line and you’re about to go through the security check, and you’re like, ‘Are they gonna stop me?’ She noted a Gallop poll that says Black people are 19 times more likely to be stopped and checked by airport security.

Hair incidents are a common occurrence for Black women, said Clarke. “I read an article that an anonymous TSA officer said [airport] scanner alarms go off more often because Black women have thicker hair. That wearing a hairpiece extension or wearing their hair in a bun or braids could trigger the alarm. I have definitely been stopped and gotten the hair pat down,” she admitted.

Black men with dreadlocks could be subjected to this as well, she added. “A male friend of mine was stopped recently because of his dreadlocks. But it’s not just about the hair. A Black woman friend of mine who’s also queer has really short hair, but she said she gets [checked] up to 75% of the time when she travels.”

Tall Black men sometimes get the stop-and-check treatment as well. “I think height also plays a role here, because I have friends that are 6-3, 6-4 Black men and they feel even more that they are a target,” reported Clarke, who said that applying her breathing practices may help.

“Another research study shows that Black people are five times more likely to be treated with less courtesy and respect,” she stressed. “Has anybody ever cut you in line, and you’re just angry about it?” asked Clarke. 

Submitted photo Zee Clarke

“You’ll be in that line and a White person” will get favored treatment. “That leads to a lot of frustration,” said the author. “I suggest an extra-long exhale, just exhale as long as possible. Once you take that extra long exhale when you’re talking to that person that makes that a calmer place.”

Driving while Black, especially while traveling out of town, also can be stressful. “I am so scared of the police” said Clarke. “You don’t know where you’re going… You might be late. So, I say while you’re driving, just [use] mindfulness, become aware of how you’re feeling and just notice if you’re feeling any stress.”

Clarke’s expertise came after working in corporate America. She has an MBA from Harvard and worked in leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley startups.

“I was working in San Francisco. I was working in Silicon Valley, and I was experiencing a number of microaggressions at work [with] people not treating me right,” recalled Clarke, adding that she too often had to prove herself to both co-workers and business clients.  

Some “wouldn’t even believe that I was the boss. They would look at my White colleagues…and talk to them like they were the boss.

“Basically, I was tired. I was frustrated. That started to affect my mental health and my physical health,” said Clarke, who then made a life decision—she quit her job and went to India. There she learned yoga, meditation, breathwork, sound healing and Reiki, and later brought those tools back with her as she returned to the States.

“I am a strong believer that these tools, especially those breathing practices” can be helpful, especially for Black people, she noted. However, she added, “I think one of the challenges there is that people often associate yoga and mindfulness with religion. 

“Yoga is not exercise. It is a lifestyle. It is a way of life” and not a religion, she stressed.

“Traveling while Black is a tough thing. Our emotions get heightened, and we get stressed out. Remember to breathe.”

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