cultural competence

Two massage therapists are at the forefront of a movement in massage to increase cultural competence by identifying biases.

As a massage therapist, you may work with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, and with the U.S. in a state of racial unrest, it is a very appropriate time to become conscious of and address your own biases.

The grassroots effort of Meg Donnelly, LMT, and Sakinah Irizarry, LMT, is called the Anti-Racism Initiative in Massage (AIM) Alliance.

The idea for cultural competence outreach began with Donnelly, who on #BlackoutTuesday, an anti-racism initiative that took place June 2, investigated several resources for cultural competence training and wrote about them in a blog post on her website.

Meg Donnelly

“As a white woman … [I observed] Blackout Tuesday by just pausing my business for the day. I felt like it gave me time to sit back, reflect and figure out the work that I really needed to do,” Donnelly told MASSAGE Magazine. “In doing that, I [searched for and] put together a list of resources.”

She then created a June 3 blog post, which was picked up and shared among some online massage therapist groups. Among the resources listed in her post are Healwell’s Unconscious Bias course, Psychology Today’s article, “How Well-Meaning Therapists Commit Racism,” a The Thinking Practitioner podcast episode featuring massage therapy educator Benny Vaughn discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, and many others.

Sakinah Irizarry, who is co-developing the AIM Alliance with Donnelly, feels that anyone who reads this educational material will probably identify unconscious biases, if they are willing to take an honest look at themselves.

Sakinah Irizarry

“[Racism is] something that’s so built into our society that you’ve got to be an introspective person; you’ve got to be a person who’s willing to interrogate the ways in which you participate in systems upholding racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bias,” Irizarry said. “We’re far past the question of do we hold these biases? It’s what are we going to do about them?

Power Hours

Irizarry said the idea for the organization came about from meeting with other massage therapists around one of the resources Donnelly included in her blog post, the 2019 book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi’s book, which examines and defines the concept of racism, contained conversations and initiatives that came to inform the therapist group’s own work.

As one example, after reading the book, the group spent a “power hour” working toward justice for Elijah McClain, a black Colorado massage therapist who was killed by the police in 2019, and whose family has not yet found justice. They spent an hour in support of a McClain Instagram group, helping with suggested activities such as writing letters to Colorado’s governor and other officials.

“For lack of a better term, [our group is] not really an organization as [much as] it is a community initiative,” said Irizarry, “having conversations, planning actions and trying to follow through.”

Donnelly noted that the idea of anti-racism isn’t new to most people; she said she has grown up with the idea that people should be color-blind and treat everyone the same.

However, even if a person believes in those principles, implicit bias can still exist, and does exist, in our society. The key, she said, is not to be blind to biases but to recognize differences in a positive way.

“Let’s really make sure that we are not talking about [being] color-blind, but we’re saying, ‘Yes, we are all different and how can we dig out those unconscious biases to let them affect us a little bit less?’ One of the great things about the alliance and the group is that we’re not afraid to live in our uncomfortableness and not afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations and uncomfortable moments and learn how to be called out on, ‘No, you can’t treat everyone the same, but these are the steps that we can take to try and work toward anti-racism as a massage therapist and as a human.’”

“A point of view that … is very prevalent in the industry of massage therapy: ‘Oh, I treat everyone the same; I come to everyone with love; everybody is just the body on the table,’” Irizarry added.

Working with a group of people who had already recognized their biases was important to her because “we can move forward into doing the work of taking action, realizing that everyone’s not treated the same in society, that there may be ways that no matter what our good intentions, people are being treated differently when they walk in the door to your office. How we are addressing this on a larger scale?”

To address potential biases in themselves and their practices, Donnelly said the first step is awareness—and the first step to awareness is education.

“Even if you think you don’t have biases, take a course on unconscious bias,” she said. She recommends then reflecting inwardly on the results before you begin to work on the issues you have identified. If your business is paused or limited by the pandemic, she added, the free time can be a good chance to learn more about these issues.

Cultural Competence in CE

Diversity in continuing education (CE) for massage therapists is one of the issues AIM will address; right now Donnelly, Irizarry and other therapists involved have been individually urging continuing education event sponsors to move toward more diversity.

The group is backing up their requests for diversity with action—by choosing not to pay money to participate in conferences that don’t showcase diversity, instead directing their support to the events that do and promote them within the group and to other networks of massage therapists.

They make a point to “uplift the places and organizations and fields where we see them doing it right,” Irizarry said.

Irizarry also noted that educators of color may face implicit bias, even in an organization that is trying to combat bias.

“These educators who are trying to gain a foothold, reach a wider audience, they are faced with an industry that likes to see itself reflected … Look at how we advertise massage therapy; look at how it’s depicted in magazines and in our media; look at how a spa advertises or sports massage is advertised or promoted,” she said.

“And some of this is a business of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ Some of it is also that as people are trying to break through that wall, they’re faced with the unconscious bias of the people who are doing the hiring,” she continued.  

Cultural Competence in Massage Leadership

The group remains committed to promoting the voices of people who may have been boxed out of leadership roles in the massage industry and in continuing education. The hope is that by showing how much they value a diverse group of voices, educational organizations will make a greater effort to seek them out and include them in events for massage therapists.

“We have to agitate the system,” said Donnelly. “And we have to be willing to give people a voice that don’t have the audience yet.”

For more information on joining the Anti-Racism Initiative in Massage Alliance, go to and sign up; include a note in the comments box that you are interested in AIM.

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is a freelance writer and editor based in central Florida. Her articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “MTs Ask: What is Asymptomatic Transmission of Coronavirus and What Does it Mean for My Practice?” and “Questions About Paying Student Loans During the Pandemic? Here’s Where to Find Answers.”