sinikiwe dhliwayo

Naaya Founder Sinikiwe Dhliwayo on Decolonizing Wellness

Racism and white supremacy pervade our nation’s fabric—in everyday life, in politics, in culture, and even in the wellness space. For decades, white people have ignored or sidelined the voices of Black people, especially Black women and non-binary people, during conversations about sexual wellness, pleasure, and intimacy. There has been a notable shift in the past few months, but there is still ample work to be done. Sinikiwe Dhliwayo is an art director, public speaker, and founder of Naaya, a company focused on making wellness equitable and restorative for BIPOC individuals. She consistently engages in dialogue centered around racial justice, white privilege, and the radical nature of Black rage and joy. Sinikiwe took time to speak with us about decolonizing sexual wellness.

How did your journey in the wellness space begin? Why did you decide to launch Naaya?

I started practicing yoga after an injury while training for the New York marathon. As a part of my physical rehabilitation, my physical therapist suggested that I start practicing yoga. At the time I started practicing, I was in a not-so-great job situation. My salary was maybe $30,000. In addition to my full time job , I was doing all of these odd jobs just to get by. So I started practicing yoga and then I really liked it. My entry point into the practice was a very physical entry point. I grew up playing three sports: soccer, lacrosse, and cheerleading. I think the interesting thing for me was that it was never touted as wellness growing up. I was just playing sports. It wasn’t “we’re going to do wellness activities now.” It was just a way of living life. My entry point into starting Naaya was really from a visual standpoint. I’m a photo/video art director. For four years, I worked at Men’s Health magazine where essentially every month I made a magazine for white men and their health issues and how they can best optimize to be well. I didn’t see myself being reflected in either the workplace or the magazine, and this really started to wear on me. When I got injured and started practicing yoga, I was looking at ways to teach young people the practice of yoga. I started teaching yoga to high school students with a nonprofit called Bent on Learning which puts yoga teachers in NYC public schools. From there I realized that there was still not a lot of representation. A lot of the teachers with that nonprofit were white teachers who were serving Black and brown young people. I tried to set up an afterschool program where kids could practice yoga for free.
If you only sleep with BIPOC folks but you don’t seriously date them, maybe you are fetishizing them.
It was kind of a flop for a lot of reasons. It's easy to captivate a young person’s attention in a classroom setting , where yoga is an alternative to other gym activities, versus expecting them to go into a studio that is white-owned, potentially in a neighborhood that they don’t live in or aren’t necessary familiar with, and expecting them to show up in the same way. Also, they’re high schoolers. They have Instagram and other things, so getting a student to dedicate time to yoga, unless they’re super into it, is difficult. So with the combination of all those experiences, I was trying to figure out how I could create the access that I thought was lacking in the wellness space. Initially, I wanted to have a physical yoga studio space. But I’m always trying to think of how to innovate on what already exists and to do it in a different way, not to say better, but just different. Physical yoga studios have very slim margins in terms of profit. And in New York City, you need financial resources to rent a space, to be able to open a studio. I knew that I didn’t have those financial resources and I knew that running, operating, and being in a yoga studio every day was not for me.

What does it mean to you to decolonize sexual wellness? How can individuals, communities, and companies work to do this?

I don’t think that decolonization can happen without truly accessing and addressing how white supremacy operates in the sexual wellness space. In like dating apps, that looks like white women successfully matching with men of any race because they fit into the societal norm of what constitutes as beautiful. On the opposite end of the spectrum, that looks like Black women being highly fetishized (“you’re cute for a Black girl”) and no real recourse for men who spew these comments. If dating apps wanted to fully stand behind BLM and being anti-racist, then folks who violate their terms and conditions would be blocked from using the platform.
In retrospect, I would take back all the fake orgasms in my twenties and take the opportunity to really connect with my bedfellow.
From an individual standpoint, looks like really tuning into what your preferences are and maybe why they are that way. Like if you “don’t date” outside of your race, is that just your preference or is it because you have some ingrained anti-blackness or deeply entrenched racism that you have not addressed? Or if you only sleep with BIPOC folks but you don’t seriously date them, or you would never consider having them meet your family, maybe you are fetishizing them. From a brand standpoint, decolonization looks like how you are actually treating the BIPOC folks who work for you, who purchase your products. Are your entire social media feeds or marketing campaigns filled with white women and void of BIQTPOC folks?

What advice would you give to people, especially Black folks, who are trying to tend to their sexuality?

That it's ok if it doesn't look like what we see in the media or have been otherwise taught. It's also ok to ask for what you want and be open about what you desire. In retrospect, I would take back all the fake orgasms in my twenties and take the opportunity to really connect with my bedfellow. That said, could most of those folks handle an open and honest conversation? It's questionable. Thank god for growth. I now only want bedfellows that I can be honest with.

There is a lot of conversation around using our imagination as a starting point for social change. What kind of changes do you imagine for the wellness space?

I am imagining a wellness space where being a Black, Indigneous or person of color is not a novelty. Right now it feels like white folks are playing in diversity. Like they haven’t really gotten to the root (see: racism) of why they don’t actually value BIPOC folks. Yet they want to get proximal to us to make it seem like they have really done something. It is always apparent to me when people have never really interacted with a Black woman and/or they don’t see me as fully human. Like for fuck’s sake, we are in a global pandemic, I am person who has not left her home in six months, is deeply missing her people, and is constantly being bombarded by the stories of folks that could be her kindred getting killed. So sorry it's been 24 hours and I haven’t responded to your email to do free labor, FOH!

What are some organizations or people you’d like folks to give their attention to?

Pro Hoe, a podcast founded by Penda N’diaye. Sex educator Ericka Hart. Founder of Loom Erica Chidi-Cohen. Writer’s Note: Please consider donating to The Check-In, an initiative to provide therapy and yoga sessions to BIPOC high school students during COVID-19.

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