On Charlottes-ville, Racism and the Silence of the Fitness Industry
I’m not going to even pretend that writing this blog is easy. I’m going to start with some radical vulnerability, in the hopes that it will encourage anyone reading to open their hearts and minds, to practice grace with me and with yourself and to, in turn, encourage you to be honest and vulnerable with yourself and those in your life that you care about.
This blog entry is intended for white people, specifically white men in the fitness industry. Any one of course is welcome to read it, but I will be talking about my feelings, some racist things that I have done, and my struggle as a white person to combat my internal racism in order to become a more effective agent of change. I understand that for a lot of people of color (POC) this can be exhausting or emotional to read, so if you want to skip this one, no worries. (With that said, if any of my friends or colleagues who are POC want to read this and offer feedback I will do my best to listen and make use of anything you’d like to share.)
I am writing this blog as a response to the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA two weeks ago and, more specifically, in response to everything that I was reading afterwards.
My own emotions after hearing that white supremacists and nazis were rallying in Charlottesville ranged from anger to fear. Anger at these men who feel it is alright to call up images of the past, that are all still too close, that have terrorized POC, Jewish people and other oppressed groups in our country and abroad. Fear for anyone who was involved in the counter-rally, as well as fear for my friends who are POC and/or Jewish, as well as dismay at how they would be feeling seeing these images.
I also felt shame. I felt shame that at first, my initial reaction, was to dismiss the event. I am aware that racism is still alive and thriving in our country and in our world. I am, however, white and the benefactor of white privilege, which means that I could roll my eyes at these men who I had the luxury of thinking are “stuck in the past” and then move on to the rest of my day. But I quickly saw, through social media and observing my friends who are POC’s reactions, that this was not something to dismiss. I saw the pain, anguish, fear and terror that resulted from the raw hate that spewed from the rally. This “rally” was in fact a hate crime and a terrorist act.
I felt helpless, I was unsure of how to react or what to do. Over the course of the next several days, as I began obsessively checking my Instagram and Facebook feeds, I read several reactions from fitness professionals that I follow online. For years I have used my social media as a way to keep up with friends, but also as a self-curated newsfeed of the fitness pros that I want to follow and learn from. Person after person put up posts reacting to the terror in Charlottesville, many people linked to articles and resources that were specifically targeted to white people to help us be better support to our friends and neighbors of color.
But here is an important point, I say “person after person,” but the more honest truth is that it was “woman after woman.” I did not see a single male fitness professional make any sort of statement about Charlottesville within the first 24 hours after. I’m going to get back to this in a minute…
I read one article in particular that really helped me to start thinking about what I could do in order to fight back against this display of violent white supremacy. Chrissy King wrote this blog post: Dear Fitness Professionals: You Cannot Help POC with Fitness and Wellness While Remaining Silent on Racism
When I was first working in the fitness and wellness fields (first as a yoga teacher and then as a trainer and nutrition coach) there was an unwritten rule that there were three things you don’t talk about: politics, religion and sports teams (I live in an SEC college town, you have no idea how crazy these people are!). I was very good at following this rule, I made sure to go so far as to never post anything of a “personal” nature on my Facebook page and kept my main Instagram account private and for close friends only. The idea behind this starts with a good intention: that our clients should feel comfortable working with us. However, at a point, you have to question what we are allowing people to be comfortable with.
If I make a post denouncing nazis and white supremacists marching with torches and shouting racists slogans and that offends someone…do I really care? Racism, hate crimes and terrorist actions injure and kill, as well as contribute to an overall environment of such toxicity that living with the stress can make POC and members of other oppressed groups sick. If you support any of those things and me speaking out against them offends you it sounds to me like you got off easy.
After reading King’s article I started to feel an even greater shame. Shame that I had been not addressing something that was potentially impacting the health of my clients, and that I was being selective about it. I have long spoken out about the impacts of sexism and body-shaming on my female (and male) clients. But I do not serve only white people. How could I so easily and so often speak out against sexism while ignoring racism and it’s effects on health and wellness?
Easy: white privilege. And here, more shame rose up inside me (and continues to as I write this), because for as much as King’s words made sense to me, as real and important as they felt, I still did nothing. I sat in paralysis. I knew she was right and I felt afraid — what if I lost clients, or followers or had to endure the rant of an angry nazi who found my blog? And I knew that all of these fears paled in comparison to the very real violence the POC in America face everyday and still I was a coward.
Very soon after I read the blog that Chrissy King published I received an email newsletter from Jill Coleman, another fitness pro I’ve followed for several years and look up to immensely. I had never seen Coleman speak out on issues around social justice, but here she was, taking a stand against white supremacy, acknowledging her own benefit from white privilege and publicly putting herself on the hook to do better. And, I am embarrassed to admit, it was this writing that made me certain I had to write this blog post.
Why am I embarrassed? Because King is black and Coleman is white, and the fact that I listened more to the words of a white person over the true and lived experience of a black person is glaring proof of all the hard work I must do to untie the knot of racism inside me, that lives there subconsciously.
I anticipate that some folks reading this blog may be uncomfortable with what I am writing about and how I am writing about it. If you are still reading, despite your discomfort, I thank you for sticking with me. I’m not going to try and make you more comfortable. I am not comfortable. Nothing about what is going on in our country should feel comfortable.
And that’s good news.
Look, my job involves discomfort. I help people become stronger more capable versions of themselves. I help them recognize their inner strength, but that doesn’t happen with affirmations written on a sticky note. That happens through the challenging work of making changes in mindset and lifestyle and the physical body. If we want to change our outcomes we have to change the behaviors that create those outcomes. And change is uncomfortable.
It also makes us stronger.
The system of white supremacy that terrorizes and injures and kills people of color in this country and creates a system of benefit for white people (whether we want it or not) can be dismantled. But white folks, we will have to do a lot of the work! There are a billion metaphors to explain the systems of racism at work in our country and to help you understand white supremacy and white privilege and why you should care. And there are so many talented writers who have written about this already, so I’m going to link to many of them at the end of this blog, so you can read people who are better at this than me.
My purpose in writing this blog was to call attention to the fact that racism is still a huge and terrible problem in America. The more people acknowledging this, the better. I also want to be another voice to say that working against racism, and other systems of oppression, is part of my job as fitness professional because these systems effect people’s health (whether through the stress of living with oppression or the very real violence that can be enacted against them).
I wanted to be honest about my own internalized racism and (some of) the mistakes that I have made and continue to make because making mistakes will be a part of the process. If you are white person reading this and you want to do something to fight white supremacy but you are afraid to make a mistake, just do something anyway and accept that you will make mistakes. That is how you learn and improve. Just like any other process in your life: strength training, parenting, your job, learning a new skill. Do your best, accept that you will fuck up, listen to those that have been hurt by your mistakes and then move forward. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I am hoping that if I am vulnerable with the mistakes that I have made that you will have the courage to speak out, to stand up and you will give yourself grace when you make a mistake, too.
And lastly, I wanted to address the dearth of reaction to Charlottesville I saw in the white, male fitness professionals that I follow. I follow about an equal number of men and women although I will admit that female fitness pros more often speak about topics in a way that has a higher impact on my thinking and on how I serve my clients. Now, this could be because of who I follow, but overall I see more from female leaders on mindset, fighting body-shame, compassion and other aspects of change that really impacts me. Of all of the male leaders I follow I have only ever seen anything about social justice issues from three of them. Three!
Racism impacts everyone, sexism impacts everyone, all oppression impacts everyone. Even if you receive a benefit or privilege from an oppressive system that system still impacts you in a negative way. Either by blinding you to another way that the system is preying on you (example: economic systems that oppress poor white people, while giving them POC as a scapegoat that distracts them from the capitalist elite that benefits from their oppression), by creating an oppressive narrative you have to wedge your identity into (example: “men don’t cry”) or by twisting you into an unwitting tool for oppression. I don’t know about you, but I want the impact of my life to be because of choices that I make, not because I am a cog in someone else’s machine.
As a white man in America I receive the benefits of white privilege (whether I want to or not). I didn’t ask for those privileges, but they are there. To quote Jill Coleman, “it may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.” It is my responsibility to help dismantle any system that oppresses another. It is my job, in fact, to address things that threaten the health of those I work with, or may work with, whether it is lack of sleep or exercise, or a system of oppression that creates real violence in the lives of a certain group. Calling out that privilege, bringing awareness to it, speaking out against it — these are all a good starting point.
I hope that this blog entry will encourage other white men in the fitness industry to start being more vocal about the impact of oppression on health. My vision is a world of strong and happy people, a world where all forms of strength are pursued and honored. Doing my best to fight against oppression will make that world accessible to all.
I hope that you got something out of reading this blog entry, that it made you think or strengthened your resolve. I am open to communicating with other white folks, especially those in the fitness, health and wellness industries, to level ourselves up and become better at serving all. If you’d like to chat about this I promise you I am very nonjudgmental, go ahead and send me a message! To my friends and colleagues of color, if you are reading this and feel that I screwed something up, please feel free to message me and I will do my best to remedy it!
I thank everyone who read this for the opportunity to make myself and my process vulnerable, I am sure that I did this imperfectly, but I am committed to showing up and speaking up and I will get better as I go. Please keep an eye out, as I plan to write several more blog posts in the near future on this topic and others that are related.
If you’d like to read other people’s words (which are often much, much clearer and more intelligent than mine) please check out these links:
If you prefer to listen, over reading, I highly suggest these podcasts, that I found very helpful:
If you are interested in folks in the fitness, health and wellness field that speak out about social justice please consider checking out any of the below (particularly on Instagram and Facebook):
*And if you have suggestions of fitness pros for me to follow that you think would make a great addition to this list, I would love to hear about it!