Zee Clarke received her Harvard MBA and spent over two decades leading teams at FORTUNE 500 companies and tech startups. But after instances of being racially-profiled, experiencing microaggressions at work and even being harassed by police, she realized how breathing exercises were so critical to her mental health – not only to survive, but to also thrive in a world that felt slow to change. Through her holistic training in India, Clarke felt a passionate desire to share these practices with others, particularly Blacks – since researchers have linked systemic racism with ailments related to high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and depression among communities of color. Join us as I SEE U‘s Eddie Robinson chats unguarded with Zee Clarke, author of the book, “Black People Breathe.” The acclaimed writer shares breathing techniques and tips as well as illustrates some exercises for the host to try out. She also describes how to identity notions of family-inherited trauma and what tools could be useful to help end the cycle of suffering.
[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: Zee Clarke received her Harvard MBA and spent over two decades leading teams at Fortune 500 companies and tech startups. But after instances of being racially profiled, experiencing microaggressions at work, even being harassed by police, she realized. How breathing exercises were so critical to her mental health, not only to survive, but also thrive
[00:00:27] Zee Clarke: Actually takes practical situations and challenges that we face. And I’m like, look, when the police harass you, breathe like this.
[00:00:35] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. Stay tuned as we chat with author Zee Clarke about her new book. Black people breathe. She’ll offer up tips on breathing and share some behavioral techniques and practices that can help provide clarity and understanding when faced with stressful situations.
[00:00:52] Eddie Robinson: Oh yeah. I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.
[00:01:05] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. Remember the infamous Will Smith slap when the actor walked on stage and hit comedian Chris Rock in the face during the Oscar ceremony in 2022. In an interview not too long after that incident, Smith said, quote, A rage that had been bottled for a really long time came out that night.
[00:01:27] Eddie Robinson: But what do you think would have happened if he’d just taken a few seconds to breathe deeply? I mean, could that incident have been avoided? What about the number of race related challenges many of us have seen on the news? From racial profiling, police harassment, the microaggressions in the workplace.
[00:01:42] Eddie Robinson: What do you think would have happened if notions of mindfulness… And breath work activities were options to really consider versus say, hitting the gym or stopping by a yoga studio or paying a visit to a therapist. Twinkle in the eye, which activity do you think is the least expensive? Well, interestingly enough, a Harvard MBA graduate and author of the book, Black People Breathe, went from leading teams at Fortune 500 companies and startups in Silicon Valley.
[00:02:10] Eddie Robinson: To teaching concepts related to mindfulness, breath work, racial healing for black people. But does it really work? And if we’re to consider these breathing techniques to ease stress, is it really solving the overall problem? I SEE U. As we dive on in and chat with mindfulness author, Zee Clarke. She’s here to tell us about her thoughtful and vividly illustrated guidebook to help Black people and all people of color.
[00:02:39] Eddie Robinson: heal from racial trauma by using tools and methodologies and mindfulness, meditation, breath work, and yoga. The book is simply called Black People Breathe. Zee, thank you for breathing, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to be a part of I SEE U, and thank you for this book.
[00:03:02] Zee Clarke: Well, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you.
[00:03:05] Eddie Robinson: Why put out a book like this? I mean, you know, what led you to do such a thing and write a book that’s called Black People Breathe?
[00:03:15] Zee Clarke: Well, I was tired of hearing, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe was everywhere. Everywhere in the news, we would be watching video footage of one of our people not being able to breathe.
[00:03:29] Zee Clarke: And I was finding that I needed to breathe just to feel better throughout all of it. And now medical research is showing that the higher rates of high blood pressure and heart disease in African Americans is a direct result of discrimination, racism, microaggressions that we experience on a daily basis.
[00:03:49] Zee Clarke: And all of that leads to chronic stress. And when I was doing research on the symptoms of chronic stress, high blood pressure, who has higher rates of high blood pressure, weakened immune system, what population was most affected by COVID? Anxiety and depression. We have, there are a lot of Black women that go undiagnosed.
[00:04:07] Zee Clarke: Because our symptoms for depression are different than everybody else. Obesity, diabetes. We have higher rates of diabetes. Basically, we’re not okay. We’re not okay. Physically, we’re not okay emotionally. And what happened to me was burnout. Basically, I experienced significant burnout from all of that stuff.
[00:04:25] Zee Clarke: And I found healing. In breathwork, I found healing and mindfulness. I took myself to India to learn all of this stuff, doing my own version, Black girl version, of Eat, Pray, Love. So that’s where this book came from. It was like, wow, these tools worked for me. I need to share this with our people and everybody.
[00:04:44] Eddie Robinson: And there’s this word called mindfulness. I want you to kind of give us some insight on what it means and why is it that Black people just don’t associate themselves with this concept or perhaps even yoga. I don’t even want to admit it to you Zee, but I’ve never done yoga. Why do we feel comfortable in those spaces?
[00:05:07] Zee Clarke: We don’t feel comfortable in those spaces because we’re not in those spaces for the most part. And the media shows people that don’t look like us. You know, when I think about yoga, immediately it comes to my mind is a white woman, maybe blonde, kind of perky and happy and maybe like, Namaste, Namaste. And I’m like, that person doesn’t understand me.
[00:05:28] Zee Clarke: That person can tell me to breathe, but doesn’t understand what my daily struggles are like. So I just can’t take them seriously because I’m like, you don’t get me. So I feel like the media has portrayed yoga meditation in the context of the white majority, when in fact, these practices were created by people of color.
[00:05:46] Zee Clarke: That’s why I went to India to learn them. I wasn’t trying to learn it here, though. I’ve had some amazing teachers in the United States. So if you just say, you know, Namaste, do a breathing technique. I’m like, why? Right. And so my book. Black people breathe actually takes practical situations and challenges that we face.
[00:06:04] Zee Clarke: And I’m like, look, when the police harass you breathe like this, when your boss says something offensive at work and you don’t want to get fired, but you really want to cuss them out. Take a deep breath.
[00:06:16] Eddie Robinson: And that’s powerful because seeing others who look like you allow me to want to participate more in it.
[00:06:23] Eddie Robinson: I remember when, um, a friend of mine, my best friend in New York, he took me to his church when I lived in New York. It was called Sacred Center. The church was founded September 9th, 2001. So that tells you about, you know, setting up consciousness, right? In the sense of what’s going to happen within the next two, three days later.
[00:06:43] Eddie Robinson: But, um, it was a beautiful church and it was, um, founded on the principles of Ernest Holmes and spiritual mind treatment, new thought. And it really sort of opened my mind up to breathing and, you know, reading the Tao Te Ching, and it was just a very powerful moment. But when I was, I think it was like my first.
[00:07:03] Eddie Robinson: to this church. I’m sitting there in the, in the seat and I look to my right and there’s actress Vanessa Williams, you know, not Miss America, but actress Vanessa Williams, like the New Jack City actress, Vanessa Williams, who’s beautiful. She’s fantastic. I love her. And I saw her and I was like, you’re Vanessa Williams.
[00:07:21] Eddie Robinson: And immediately that feeling of. Well, if she’s here and this massive, you know, Hollywood actress, then, man, I’m probably at the right place. And it felt good to see blackness and see people that looked like me wanting to be a part of this in back at that time, you know, a very sort of interesting, almost not necessarily new concept, but it was very, very revolutionary and radical for me.
[00:07:55] Eddie Robinson: To think that breathing and spiritual mind treatment is something that really helps the soul.
[00:08:03] Zee Clarke: Yes. Yes. You know, a lot of what you said resonates. And in fact, for me getting into meditation at first, I was like, Black people don’t meditate. Right? And then I went to the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California to their People of Color night, and I saw Black people meditating around.
[00:08:22] Zee Clarke: I was looking to my left, looking to my right, being like, okay, wait, I’m not alone here. And then I saw Alice Walker, and I was like, wait, wait, the author of The Color Purple is also meditating? Okay, wait, wait, maybe, maybe this is for me. Because before I was like, no, that’s not for us. You know, I grew up, I grew up in D. C. There’s a lot of Black people don’t do that. I love the outdoors. I find so much healing in nature, but I didn’t go on my first hike till I was 26 years old because I’m from D. C. We don’t hike. I was like we don’t hike. What you talking about.
[00:08:53] Eddie Robinson: That’s Right. Right. Wow.
[00:08:57] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with mindfulness author Zee Clarke.
[00:09:02] Eddie Robinson: Her latest book, Black People Breathe, gets it helping us understand why breath work is so critical these days for communities of color to heal from the racial challenges, the stigma, the stereotypes, the stresses of what’s happening in this country and beyond, not only for our mental and emotional health, But for our physical health as well.
[00:09:22] Eddie Robinson: The artwork in Black People Breathe is really phenomenal. And it really helps shape the reading experience of this book. How did you and the illustrator come together to, you know, really collaborate? On these visuals, you know, why did you feel that this was so important to capture and display for the readers in this book for this book?
[00:09:43] Zee Clarke: Yes. Well, the illustrator, um, Princella Seripenah. Um, she’s Nigerian. She’s amazing. She is amazing. But let me tell you the power of the illustrations. As somebody that studied yoga, right? I’ve studied meditation, and in most of the books, not all, there’s a couple, there’s a couple Black yoga teachers that have written books.
[00:10:05] Zee Clarke: But in most of the books, you see white faces doing these practices. When I first saw the first draft of the illustrations of Black people, people that look like us doing the breathing techniques that I learned in India, right? I see Black people. I cried. I, I, you know, to see something and see yourself, right?
[00:10:28] Zee Clarke: When I saw the illustrations in this book, Black person doing these very traditional techniques that can help us. So powerful for us to see us. I SEE U.
[00:10:42] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our chat with author Zee Clarke. She tells us about an incident that she describes in her latest book, Black People Breathe, about how she was falsely accused of shoplifting and then confronted by police.
[00:10:56] Eddie Robinson: We’ll also get into the dynamics of Blacks being called out for speaking a certain way, for speaking intelligently. How does someone grapple with the constant stereotype of being thought of as less educated? I’m Eddie Robinson. A provocative second segment of I SEE U comes your way right after this.
[00:11:16] Eddie Robinson: We’ll be right back.
[00:11:24] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
[00:11:53] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. We’re chatting with author Zee Clarke. Her book entitled Black People Breathe is exactly what you think it’s about. The book published by Penguin Random House highlights teachings that are focused on what people of color can do when faced with racist situations.
[00:12:12] Eddie Robinson: Zee actually trained in India and provides a how to guide complete with illustrations on how to do several kinds of breath work and mindfulness treatments to ensure those communities of color have the tools that they need to thrive despite the challenges and stresses that all come with discrimination, microaggressions and drama at the workplace or anything that makes a person feel uncomfortable when it comes to instances pertaining to race, gender or sexuality.
[00:12:40] Eddie Robinson: Zee, thanks again for being with us to talk about Black People Breathe. You know, your book has some incredible moments of analysis. There seems to be this need in society for being a strong Black woman, but I’m sure one has to be careful that a person doesn’t come off as being. Angry Black woman, right? I mean, and as a Black man in the workplace, I find that to be a fascinating dynamic as well, making sure that I’m careful not to come off as an angry Black man, but still maintain the sense of assertiveness, but with professionalism, but I digress, but this need for being a strong Black woman, is this one of the reasons why?
[00:13:19] Eddie Robinson: Some women may not have the desire to seek out mindfulness concepts. I mean, how did this ideal of a strong black woman play a role with your own struggles to initially start these mindfulness practices and to write the book?
[00:13:36] Zee Clarke: The term strong Black woman in my mind is a controversial one. It’s controversial because We have been expected to be strong since the beginning of time.
[00:13:45] Zee Clarke: Let’s talk about slavery. Let us talk about all of the work that Black women did, both, you know, when we were enslaved people, and then what we had to do at home to take care of our own people, right? Let me tell you that strong Black woman, in my mind, means exhausted Black woman. And it was never a choice.
[00:14:05] Zee Clarke: It was never a choice. There is a new trend, soft life. Soft girl, soft Black girl, right? This is the idea of self care. This is the idea that we don’t have to be strong, that it is okay to have feelings. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to be tired. It is okay. This was my biggest lesson from 2022. It is okay to ask for and receive help.
[00:14:33] Zee Clarke: Let me, let me just repeat that because this one was big. It is okay to ask for and receive help. And this strong Black woman, yes, we are strong. Of course we are strong. But the point is that we don’t have to be strong all the time. And then you couple that strong Black woman with angry Black woman, right?
[00:14:54] Zee Clarke: And when I connect this to my book, it is the stereotypes of angry Black woman that I experienced both from white people that reported to me. HR, my colleagues, right? And so I’ve always scared that I was going to be portrayed as an angry Black woman. And you talked about also being a Black man in the workplace.
[00:15:14] Zee Clarke: I have a friend who is a Black man and he has a heavyset six foot three Black man. And he said just by his stature alone. He could say nothing, make zero facial expression, and yet people are scared of him. He will already be aggressive without speaking. And as a Black woman, and even my face, you know.
[00:15:34] Zee Clarke: There’s a term resting bitch face, right? Now I grew up in DC. Okay. Okay, you can’t walk around the street smiling like a happy go lucky Now you’re about to get jumped, okay? Like, I mean, just What’s wrong with her? Murder capital of America in the 80s, 90s, like that’s my background. And so I’ll just say that with a resting bitch face, then I automatically get called angry Black woman.
[00:15:59] Zee Clarke: Then I’m not a team player and I haven’t said or done anything. And so knowing that this might be how I am received without me doing or saying anything. I need to understand the dynamics and then be able to breathe so that because the other thing about my face is that I can’t hide how I’m feeling. So somebody will say something and I will, I will side eye like I will, you know, I just, I can’t help it.
[00:16:27] Zee Clarke: And also I will say I went to Ghana for the first time last year. And I, I learned that there are these. Forms of communication that our ancestors did that they, our cousins still do over there today that I did not realize. I was like, Oh wait, this is for my ancestors. It’s like this, that sounds okay. Wait, did you know that that’s language?
[00:16:47] Zee Clarke: Did you know that that’s communication that people do that? And it’s like without even, you know, you say something like, wait, wait. Okay. So all this to say that it is so important to do some deep breathing in circumstances that are stressful because if we’re already assumed to be aggressive, angry, et cetera, then the deep breathing will help us to keep our calm, get our points across whatever it is that we want to communicate or impact.
[00:17:16] Zee Clarke: And have it be received by the majority. Let’s call them aspiring allies in a way that lands that lands so that we get our point across so that we get what needs to get done, done.
[00:17:32] Eddie Robinson: You know, our producer, Laura Walker shared an experience with me about working for a high end retailer and customer service.
[00:17:41] Eddie Robinson: And she often worked with people over the phone. And on occasion they would come into the store to meet with her. And she shared that guests often looked shocked to the point that you know, you could instantly feel their reaction when they are saying, “Oh, you’re Black.” You know, I share this only, you know, with the only notion you mentioned in the book, you know, of the sense of me being here at Houston Public Media. I was the first and the only Black male on air host. If I stand corrected, please, by all means do.
[00:18:13] Eddie Robinson: But I remember being told when I got hired here that I was the first Black man. To become an on air host, a news host here at this station. And I definitely received the feedback and comments from listeners who were surprised. To learn that I was indeed, you know, why is it that after statistics, especially as it relates to Black women, why is it that after statistics show that Black women are the most educated in groups of America, you know, the expectation is still there that Black women speak a specific way or are less educated?
[00:18:48] Zee Clarke: I mean, I wish I could answer. The why uh, I will I will I mean Why there’s so many whys? Um, I will react and just share a couple things one I just want to share a quick story because the thing is that i’m always like It’s so helpful for me to know that i’m not alone In these experiences. I do workshops.
[00:19:12] Zee Clarke: So I teach Black and brown employees at leading companies around the country. I teach them their employee resource groups, tools on how to deal with microaggressions in the workplace, tools on how to deal with imposter syndrome. And I do polls during those workshops. Okay. In one of the workshops, 100 percent of the Black people at this organization, this company whose tools All of you use, I’m sure.
[00:19:34] Zee Clarke: Okay. 100 percent of the employees, the Black employees said they had experienced this, ignoring my comment. And then they praise somebody else who says the exact same thing. Okay.
[00:19:49] Zee Clarke: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. And it wasn’t like five people on this workshop.
[00:19:54] Eddie Robinson: Right. I agree completely.
[00:19:59] Zee Clarke: Uh, so then back to like the story that you shared of your colleague. I remember back in the day before zoom, okay. Before zoom, there were conference calls, you know, you dial the number and then the dial the many, many numbers sort of thing.
[00:20:11] Zee Clarke: So for like a year, I was talking to this woman regularly on phone calls, meet her in person and she goes. Oh, my God. Hi. You’re Zee. Whoa. I didn’t know that you were dot, dot, dot.
[00:20:24] Eddie Robinson: Right.
[00:20:25] Zee Clarke: Awkward pause…diverse. Let’s talk about the definition of diversity. Okay. But anyway, I, I hear you and I will share, uh, in my book, I talk about a study that was done that was trying to understand whether, who was recognized, whose faces were recognized.
[00:20:45] Zee Clarke: And also whose comments were remembered, right? And this study showed that Black women are on the bottom, okay, of this. Uh, so what does that mean? It means that when white people see our faces, they are least likely to remember our faces. I currently live in a small rural area, and multiple times I have been, people thought I was the other Black person, right?
[00:21:12] Zee Clarke: And then in the workplace, in the workplace. Our comments, when we say something in a meeting. People will remember what was said, but they won’t remember that we specifically said it. So if a white man says something in a meeting, what he said will be remembered. And yes, Tom said this. Black woman says something in a meeting, and they remember the thing, but they don’t remember that it was the Black woman that said it.
[00:21:39] Zee Clarke: Let’s talk about being invisible, okay? Because, you know, the invisible man. I recently wrote an article about the invisible woman. The invisible woman. Who’s the invisible woman? Black women, because if we are not seen and we are not heard, how can we get promoted in the workplace, right? That glass ceiling is a concrete ceiling for us, and that’s why we need to breathe, so that we can shake it off.
[00:22:05] Zee Clarke: Not let these folks impact our joy, nor our trajectory. And that’s what I’m about. You know, I, I had this traditional background, Harvard Business School, Vice President of blah, blah, blah. Let me tell you how much I care about it right now. Because, because I did not feel seen. I did not feel heard. But it is important for us to be represented in senior leadership at companies so that we can help the rest of us.
[00:22:33] Eddie Robinson: Say it.
[00:22:35] Zee Clarke: Yeah.
[00:22:35] Eddie Robinson: What would you say to those who say, you know what, the breathing works to ease my stress.
[00:22:41] Zee Clarke: Yeah.
[00:22:42] Eddie Robinson: But doesn’t solve the overall problem.
[00:22:45] Zee Clarke: Oh. I say, no, of course it doesn’t like solve the overall problem. You tell me what does. What, who can tell me what’s the one silver bullet that solves the overall problem.
[00:22:58] Zee Clarke: All I’m going to say is that we cannot wait. For white folks to get woke, because if we do, we will die in the process from heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and all these other things that we are currently experiencing as a direct result of this behavior. So I’ll say no, it doesn’t solve the problem.
[00:23:19] Zee Clarke: But for now, while the problem is slowly in process, hopefully of being solved, I can feel better today. And that’s what I’m about.
[00:23:31] Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re here chatting with author Zee Clarke, who’s written a very interesting book called Black People Breathe in your book. Zee you highlighted an incident that happened in 2018 where you and a friend were accused of stealing deli meat from a major chain grocery store, Rayley’s Grocery Store in Sacramento, California.
[00:23:59] Zee Clarke: I was definitely racially profiled. And there’s no other reason, I don’t know, I mean I spent, I paid for the item. So I couldn’t imagine any possible reason why they would think that I stole.
[00:24:11] Eddie Robinson: Uh, the cashier who charged you for your groceries called the police on the both of you. Your car, which was parked for a camping trip. He was completely searched. Uh, during this encounter you engaged in what was called belly breathing. Uh, tell us more about what happened in that experience and what that experience was like for you, for those who haven’t read the book and how did this belly breathing help you maintain your composure?
[00:24:40] Zee Clarke: Yeah, yeah. Um, This was a very traumatizing experience for me. I was going on a camping road trip. I was also moving across country I share this to say that my car was packed to the rim And when you go camping and you’re gonna go in the middle of nowhere, you need supplies because there are no stores So stopped at the grocery store in Sacramento, California Spent 220 dollars on vegan groceries and then somebody called the cops an employee called the cops said I sold deli meat the cops came the sirens right everything and they were really mean and they were like those groceries ma’am ma’am did you purchase them and I was like here’s the receipt and then they proceeded to go through every item in the grocery bags and match it with the receipt 220 worth of vegetables. So first of all, that took a long time. Then the second thing is that they didn’t even understand what some stuff, what’s this? I was like, that’s a cucumber. An English. Portobello mushroom.
[00:25:41] Eddie Robinson: Interesting.
[00:25:42] Zee Clarke: Right. So I’m sitting there feeling attacked, and I really am like mad at these people because they don’t believe me. And I have a receipt! And they still don’t believe me. They continue to search every crevice. Like, imagine all of your stuff. Your sleeping bag, your water bottles, like, all, you know, your clothing. On the concrete parking lot at the grocery store for hours. I was scared. I was also scared that they were gonna do something to me, right?
[00:26:10] Zee Clarke: And I really wanted to cuss them out. It is like, maybe it’s just my growing up in D. C. But I just wanted to cuss them out, but I knew… what was possible. I knew the power that they had and that is where the belly breaths came through. So a belly breath, just for everybody to understand, is when you inhale and you expand your belly as big as you can like a balloon.
[00:26:32] Zee Clarke: Want to do it with me? Want to do it with me? Okay. So take a deep breath in, inhale and expand your belly big. And then you exhale, let your belly come towards your spine. Inhale, belly expands real big, big. Exhale, belly comes towards your spine. Yeah, yeah. Alright? This is counterintuitive. Because we are trained to suck it in and look skinny.
[00:26:55] Zee Clarke: This is society, right? But the thing is, the belly breath actually allows you to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. So let me just explain. The sympathetic nervous system, that is our fight, flight, or freeze nervous system and reaction. So it’s like, when we believe that we are under attack, like when these policemen with weapons are harassing me and searching everything in my car, I was under attack.
[00:27:20] Zee Clarke: And when you feel that, when your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, you’re not thinking straight. You are not rational. And so when the police with their weapons were searching every crevice of my car, I felt like I was being attacked. And when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, we’re not thinking straight, we are very emotional.
[00:27:41] Zee Clarke: Have you ever get caught up in a rage, or in sadness, and then you might say things or do things that you look back and you’re like, Ooh, I might’ve, that wasn’t my best self. Well, in these circumstances, that’s why people fight, flight or freeze, right? Fight. You’ve seen people do that where they just get up in the cop space, right?
[00:27:59] Zee Clarke: Flight, they run away. That doesn’t lead to good things or they freeze, which also might not lead to good things, just depending. And so the belly breath, what it does is it helps. simulate the parasympathetic nervous system. That is the opposite. That is the rest and digest nervous system. That is our ability to feel calm.
[00:28:19] Zee Clarke: And so doing these deep belly breaths when you’re under this intense pressure, you feel like you’re being attacked. It allows you to be calm to think straight and be a little bit rational. And so calmly, like, well, sir, what exactly are you looking for? Oh, you’re looking for deli meat? Well, I’m a vegan. I don’t know what to tell you, officer.
[00:28:43] Zee Clarke: Right? Versus, mother f er, why are you know what I mean? Like, like, I just really…
[00:28:49] Eddie Robinson: And so Zee, going back to this Raley’s grocery store incident… That at the Raley’s corporate office, there were bets going on to see what you would ask for in terms of money in exchange for this experience. How did that make you feel?
[00:29:04] Zee Clarke: Well, let me just share a little bit of this, of the story for those that haven’t read the book.
[00:29:07] Eddie Robinson: Yes please.
[00:29:08] Zee Clarke: I was p****d the next day. So I didn’t get to where I was going because they took out all the daylight opportunities. I woke up at somewhere else, at a different campsite, without internet, but I had my laptop and I was p****d.
[00:29:21] Zee Clarke: So I did some breathing techniques to release the anger. And then, I, with my rational mind, I wrote them a letter. A real, you know, Dear Railey. Do you know what I mean? And, and I wrote a letter explaining what happened. And I asked them, what are their policies? You know, what evidence do they need to call the police?
[00:29:40] Zee Clarke: And what sort of training do they have for their employees on treating people equally? Right? And so in response to that letter, then the CEO or president or somebody Like was like, I’ll issue a public apology. And so I’m in these negotiations, the ACLU assisted in some of these negotiations where I didn’t want any money.
[00:29:59] Zee Clarke: I want them to treat everyone equally. I want people to go to the grocery store and not get the cops called on them. That’s what I really wanted. But what I found out. A very kind person who worked there, who was in the corporate office, wrote me a Facebook message and was like, Look, we need to talk. I want you to know what’s going on on this side.
[00:30:17] Eddie Robinson: Wow.
[00:30:18] Zee Clarke: And this person told me that it was a joke in the office. So I’m sitting here crying and upset, like so upset that I’m treated this way in America. And then I found out that it was a joke, that it was just a joke. All these white people in the corporate office were laughing so hard that they had a bet going on what I was going to ask for.
[00:30:39] Zee Clarke: There was physically an envelope, okay, with money in it and what people said I was going to ask for. And that, I just felt like I wasn’t a human being worth anything. Like, if you’re, like, I’m a person and yet I’m just a joke to these people? I, I, I, I was, I was so upset. I can’t either. I, I, yeah.
[00:31:03] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, more of our chat with author Zee Clarke. We’ll get into a conversation that deals with the behavior known as code switching. And then later, as the author describes the breathing tools needed for Black and brown individuals when faced with stressful situations, how would reading these experiences help white people become better at future interactions with people of color?
[00:31:28] Eddie Robinson: What lessons can other ethnicities learn? In the event that they’re interested in picking up a book called Black People Breathe. I’m Eddie Robinson. Don’t move. A captivating third and final segment of I SEE U comes your way next. We’ll be right back.
[00:31:52] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
[00:32:22] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson, as we look to wrap up our conversation here with mindfulness author Zee Clarke. Her latest book is entitled Black people breathe from penguin random house. After experiencing a number of race related challenges from being racially profiled and being harassed by police to encountering microaggressions in the workplace, Zee is looking to help people of color through realizing the power of mindfulness and breathwork and how it really can benefit all of us in these turbulent times.
[00:32:56] Eddie Robinson: You know, Zee, my favorite part of the book was the chapter relating to code switching. Now, for those who might not be familiar with what it means to code switch, Here’s a visual. Take, for instance, a 2014 Comedy Central skit featuring comedians Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, where in this sketch, President Obama, played by Jordan Peele, wraps up a meet and greet White House session with a group of onlookers.
[00:33:23] Eddie Robinson: As Obama walks through the crowd of onlookers to shake hands, not everyone receives the same handshake treatment. If you know what I mean.
[00:34:01] Eddie Robinson: This is the closest example, in my opinion, from a visual standpoint of what code switching means. It’s the notion of people of color having to adjust to what’s being shared or communicated to someone when you’re in these so called white spaces. Yeah, it’s a skill, it’s a practice, if you will. I noticed an article with an interesting headline on it, which read, Code switching is not trying to fit into white culture, it’s trying to survive it.
[00:34:45] Eddie Robinson: Language and culture author George B. Ray defines code switching and gets at why Black people code switch. He says it’s a skill. That holds benefits in relation to the way success is often measured in institutional and professional settings. So to code switch or not code switch Zee, that is the question.
[00:35:08] Zee Clarke: Yeah, code switching is complicated. Um, I, to, to, to, before I answer your question, I just want to share a little bit about my background, which is, as I mentioned, I grew up in Washington, D. C. I grew up in a predominantly low income Black neighborhood in D. C. And I went to a predominantly white private school in a wealthy suburb of D. C. at 8 years old. So, little Zee, 8 years old, you know, takes me an hour to get to this place filled with rich white people. And I, like, I was like, I don’t belong here. That was the first time I experienced imposter syndrome, because I was like, first of all, I’m the only Black person. I’m definitely poor. I’m definitely like, I just, I’m, wow.
[00:35:50] Zee Clarke: And I, I, I spoke differently than everybody else. And I immediately was like, I just, I don’t belong. That’s when I learned that code switching was important. Like, you know, like that was my first, I was like, okay, guess I gotta switch it up to survive. And what ended up happening to me is going to predominantly white institutions.
[00:36:13] Zee Clarke: I went to Harvard for undergrad. I went to Harvard Business School, right? I was working in corporate America. And code switching became. second nature. It’s almost like, and then when you’re constantly code switching, you’re like, wait, who am I? Where’s the real Zee? And so in Black people breathe, I invite folks to be intentional using mindfulness.
[00:36:36] Zee Clarke: Let me just define it. Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment. To what’s happening right now inside of me and around me without judgment, not judging myself, right? And so in the context of code switching, it’s like paying attention to in this moment, do I have to code switch versus doing it like by default?
[00:36:57] Zee Clarke: And so I share a framework that’s not mine. But there is a woman named Byron Katie who came up with something called The Work, which is four questions of inquiry, right? The first question, well, it starts with an assumption, like, what is, what do you believe, right? And, and, and for me, in terms of code switching, it’s like, well, why are you code switching?
[00:37:15] Zee Clarke: And for me, I was code switching because I felt like I wasn’t going to succeed at work if I didn’t code switch. I wasn’t gonna get good grades in school, you know, I wasn’t gonna have any friends, right, like all these things. Um, and so the question, the first question is, is it true, right? So, is it true that I won’t succeed in my career if I don’t code switch, right?
[00:37:38] Zee Clarke: So, my answer would be, Yeah, of course it’s true, that’s why I believe it, too. Can you be 100 percent absolutely sure, like sure sure, that that’s true? And the answer is no, you can’t be absolutely 100 percent sure that it’s true. Okay! Question number three. Who are you with that thought? Right? Like, how do you act?
[00:38:03] Zee Clarke: What do you, you know, how do you treat other people? And for me, with that thought, first of all, I’m not myself. I’m not comfortable, right? I’m super stressed out. I have low self esteem. I don’t love myself and I’m not good at my job as a result, right? So the fourth question is, who would you be without that thought?
[00:38:22] Zee Clarke: Who would you be? I would be free. I’d be myself. I’d be able to share my opinions. Openly, I’d be able to bring my best self to work if I didn’t believe that, right? And so, here’s the thing, I do not, I won’t tell people blanket statements, don’t code switch, or do code switch, right? My, my strong belief is that you need to decide for you in that particular circumstance whether code switching is important or not necessary.
[00:38:54] Zee Clarke: Let me give you an example where it is necessary, at the doctor, okay? There is now a lot of research that shows that doctors do not believe in our pain, right? You know, a study was done where you put a bunch of people with the same injury, broken leg or something like that, right? And then they don’t get paid meds, right?
[00:39:17] Zee Clarke: Like, the Black people don’t get paid meds, the white people do. And, and it’s like, oh, well, they don’t actually, they’re not actually feeling their pain. And even in a Pearson nursing textbook, right, it said that Black people exaggerate their pain. So all these nurses get trained in school to believe this.
[00:39:37] Zee Clarke: In these circumstances where it could be life or death, yeah, you gotta code switch so you can get your treatment.
[00:39:47] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson here with Zee Clarke. She’s talking about her latest book, Black People Breathe.
[00:39:56] Eddie Robinson: Zee, your teachings are often focused on what Black people can do when faced with racist situations. What would you say to someone who felt these teachings lend itself to being like respectability politics, not self care? What do you say to that?
[00:40:13] Zee Clarke: I would say that we currently live in a society where our actions And our words do have an impact on whether we stay alive in the face of police.
[00:40:27] Zee Clarke: They do have an impact on whether we remain employed at our jobs, which then leads to whether we can pay rent and or feed our children. And so I would say that techniques that I share are about survival and I share techniques about self care. I’ll share it for microaggressions, for example. What can you do in response to a microaggression in the moment? And what can you do at home? You are either angry or experience anxiety, etc. So I would say it is both survival and self care.
[00:41:07] Eddie Robinson: In the beginning of Black People Breathe, You detail an incident, Zee, that happened during a vigil in honor of Elijah McClain.
[00:41:14] Zee Clarke: Yes.
[00:41:15] Eddie Robinson: An unarmed Black man who was killed by Aurora police officers in Colorado.
[00:41:19] Zee Clarke: Yes.
[00:41:20] Eddie Robinson: The vigil, which featured violinists as a nod to McClain’s love for playing the violin in animal shelters. Quickly turns into a police protest filled with officers and riot gear. And you were there right now. What was this experience like playing such a beautiful instrument as the violin in honor of McClain’s memory amid all this police protest and tear gas all over the place.
[00:41:44] Zee Clarke: That experience was terrible. What was the experience like? It was awful and traumatizing. It was, it was terrible.
[00:42:23] Zee Clarke: It was horrific. Elijah McClain was a 23 year old Black man, a violinist, who was unarmed when he was walking home from the store. And he used to play violin for the kittens at an animal shelter. Okay, just the kindest. Sweetest man, also a vegetarian. I bring that up to say that I too am a Black person, violinist, vegetarian.
[00:42:55] Zee Clarke: I’m even vegan. And there are very few of us out there in the world. So when I heard about what happened to him. I was sad, depressed, and I didn’t go to any protests because I have already been teargassed in my life. And I just really, I don’t, I don’t, I just couldn’t, for my own mental health, I did not want to get teargassed again.
[00:43:16] Zee Clarke: But, I went to a violin vigil. It was a bunch of violinists that went to a park in Colorado to honor the life of Elijah McClain. And as we are playing music, all these peaceful instruments, right? Beautiful music. And that’s when the riot police came with the tear gas and suddenly I am sprinting away from police holding my violin.
[00:43:42] Zee Clarke: It’s like, wait a minute. How threatening are we with violins? Like, really? Really?
[00:43:53] Zee Clarke: And we found another place, hoping that they wouldn’t come back and get us, right? We went a little bit away from the crowds. But I’ll just say that the injustice was so in my face, in our faces. But I will also say, hmm, the community, the camaraderie, all of us there together, and knowing that I was not alone in believing in and fighting for, granted, fighting with our music, right, the voices of our violins. Fighting for justice. That was so powerful. It was almost like a religious and spiritual experience to be with a bunch of people that believed in the same thing.
[00:44:35] Zee Clarke: And that thing was peace and love and justice. This is why change needs to happen. And we all have different ways in which we can get there and try to do our part. But I will say that I’m always bringing things back to breathing. You gotta stay calm in the face of, of the trauma, right? And, and, and maybe you can’t in that moment, but like even afterwards to take care of yourself because the world is not changing fast enough.
[00:45:04] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson with author Zee Clarke. We’re talking about her latest book, Black People Breathe. In this book, Zee, you highlight several interactions with white people and how their interactions made you feel and even affected your body. How is it that people store their emotions within their bodies, and how can people apply breathing methods to those affected areas?
[00:45:31] Zee Clarke: Yeah, in my book, black People Breathe, we talk a lot about how experiences of racism actually get stored in the body. There is a phrase that I love to repeat and it is this the issues are in the tissues What do I mean? I mean that when something happens that happens you might feel like you’ve got punched in the gut or you might feel that big lump in your throat throat, or maybe your shoulders tense up and they come up towards your ears, right?
[00:46:03] Zee Clarke: We all have different places in the body that we experience hard emotions because there is this connection between our mental and emotional health and our physical bodies. And so that’s why it is so important when hard things happen to notice, this is mindfulness, paying attention, notice where am I experiencing this in the body, and then breathe in that place because that simple act can help you feel better.
[00:46:31] Eddie Robinson: Zee, how do you think reading your experiences in Black People Breathe can help white people with future interactions with people of color?
[00:46:42] Zee Clarke: I hope that white people that read this book get a better understanding of the realities of Black people in this country. And I hope that the awareness around the impact of their words and their actions will help folks.
[00:47:01] Zee Clarke: To perhaps be more mindful about interactions with Black people in the future. So just to, just to be a little thoughtful, to pause and say to oneself, How will what I am about to say or do impact the person I’m interacting with? Just that pause, that mindful pause. I will give you an example. I had a boss once.
[00:47:25] Zee Clarke: I, I was new. I was a new employee. And… In my first week of work, my boss said to me, Hey, can I talk to you for a sec? And I was like, sure. And then he closes the door behind him, private conversation. I’m thinking it’s going to be like something I was like, Oh my gosh, something bad happened. What happened?
[00:47:41] Zee Clarke: And he said to me, I just want you to know, I didn’t hire you because you’re Black now. Here’s the thing. I never thought he hired me because I was Black and my immediate reaction was like not great inside Though I did my breathing techniques and he would never know however, I know his intentions were good, right but really pausing to think about what will the Impact be because I speak a lot in my book about the physical and emotional health of Impacts, consequences of racism, right?
[00:48:18] Zee Clarke: High blood pressure, diabetes, chronic stress, anxiety and depression. For me, I had chronic insomnia. I just couldn’t sleep. And so, know, know that this is the impact. And while one small statement, you might say, Oh, but it was just a small thing. But that small thing? Add it up to another small thing, add it up to another small thing for my entire life?
[00:48:45] Zee Clarke: Well, that’s gonna have an impact. And I also talk about epigenetics. What does that mean? That’s about family inherited trauma. Okay, that means that something that happened to my ancestors, that the trauma of that gets passed down to me, that gets passed down to, you know, my offspring, et cetera, for generations.
[00:49:07] Zee Clarke: And so, the impact, huge, because something, some small thing, I hate the word microaggression because it has Micro in it, uh, microaggression can add up to a macro public health issue for the entire Black population. That is what I want white people to know, and while your intentions might not be bad, right?
[00:49:30] Zee Clarke: I, I, I have a lot of white friends too, right? But just knowing what the potential impact could be might encourage you to be more mindful about your interactions. With people that look like me in the future.
[00:49:45] Eddie Robinson: Zee this is truly inspiring. Great material here. Thank you so much. Final question. Something we always ask our guests at the end of our chat of all the accomplishments you’ve made of all that you’ve had to endure.
[00:50:00] Eddie Robinson: As you’ve included in your book, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?
[00:50:07] Zee Clarke: I learned that we cannot control the world outside of us. We cannot control what happens around us. We cannot control how other people treat us, but what we can control is what happens inside. What we can control is how we take care of ourselves.
[00:50:26] Zee Clarke: And so what I learned is that I have agency around how I feel, that just because someone says or does something that is hurtful, I have agency around what’s happening inside of here, I can breathe to make myself feel better, I can have compassion for myself when I’m not feeling okay, but it’s the agency piece that I realized that I had, rather than the Relying on other people to make me feel good. I can make myself feel good.
[00:51:02] Eddie Robinson: Her name is Zee Clarke, author of the book, Black People Breathe. The book, published by Penguin Random House, highlights teachings that are focused on what people of color can do when faced with racist situations. Zee, thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.
[00:51:21] Zee Clarke: It’s been such a pleasure to be here with you today, and I invite you to keep on breathing.
[00:51:30] Eddie Robinson: Our team includes Technical Director Todd Hulslander. Producer, Laura Walker. Editors, Mark DiClaudio and Jonmitchell Goode. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter. And subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson.
[00:51:55] Eddie Robinson: And I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.