A few years ago, I ran around my Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning. There was nothing whimsical about my routine: wake up at 4:30am, hit the alarm twice, eat something light and cleanse my system with water and electrolytes then hit the pavement. Sometimes my routes took me outside of my borough which allows me to enjoy the quiet of the morning – something that some New York City residents don’t experience during the daylight hours; other times I opt to do circles in a four-block radius until I mentally check out. One morning while electing to do the latter, my thoughts were interrupted by a police officer. He requested to see my identification and asked if I saw any suspicious activity; I obliged and didn’t think much of it until it happened twice more within a two-week span. I quickly realized that I was the suspicious activity in my ever-changing and gentrifying neighborhood; it filled me with deep sadness and fear. Each time I saw another officer, my thoughts raced through protocols that my father taught me on how to engage law enforcement. I answered questions as rehearsed: announce every action, keep your body movements non-threatening and do whatever needs to be done to come home safely. Months later, I learned that I was not the only person these types of incidents happened to in my neighborhood.
In hindsight, I realize that I adopted this same routine on the trails and while venturing around affluent neighborhoods where – according to stereotypes – I don’t look like I belong. Unprovoked, I remove the tension in my body, smile and only give enough eye contact to make my presence known without being perceived as a threat. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve danced into prejudgments based on stereotypes. Pickup trucks and confederate flags instantly make me want to seek an alternate route. Awkward exchanges of stares from a group of White people that watch me like a moving target pushes my imagination into overdrive. Instantly, I go down a rabbit hole of questioning my own biases to wondering if I’m a bad person for my thought process for immediately jumping to those conclusions. Unfortunately, I’m not a stranger to worst case scenarios. I have several personal experiences on what it means to be verbally and physically attacked based on race, body size and gender identity. Despite these interactions, I refuse to stop moving – even when society equips me with enough reasons to be fearful of it.
As the uptick in racially motivated hate crimes gain more visibility to mainstream media, I’ve watched people craft lists of people to follow — some of which I surfaced on – to watching the power of social media help educate the masses about being anti-racist. Initially, I wrote this with the intentions of brainstorming remedies to press forward. While many can echo statements like placing one foot in front of the other, I know there’s a preliminary course that I’m required to take because of my Black skin. I scout different areas that makes me less apprehensive while traveling alone. I adopted and dissected countless tactics suggested to women in the outdoor space like notifying numerous people of my whereabouts, utilizing apps like Strava Beacon, AllTrails’ Lifeline and Life360 and running with my GoGuarded ring. Whenever possible, I travel with groups of people but legitimate fears looming around COVID-19 drastically reduced those opportunities.
I cannot silence the imaginations of those who fear me as 250+ pound muscular Black woman simply because the outdoor space is stereotypically associated with Whiteness but I do have some suggestions for my fellow BIPOC adventurers, non BIPOC athletes and for those who have the privilege to change some of the preexisting narratives that thrive in the outdoors community.
BIPOC FEARS OF BEING HARASSED IN THE OUTDOOR SPACE IS REAL
It is not easy to be vulnerable about traumatic experiences, especially with stories about Ahmaud Arbery, Mathias Ometu and Tiffany Johnson being targeted while running. Sharing these stories with others takes grit and can be draining. Fears of experiencing gaslighting to being demanded to prove that certain incidents happened pushes people into silence and seclusion. Let’s be clear: Being scared about being racially profiled is a burden not an attention seeking opportunity. Actively listen with compassion and respect those sharing their stories as you would want someone to see and hear you if in a horrible situation. If a person doesn’t desire to elaborate further, it is not your place to demand or antagonize someone. Do not use their narrative as a way to center it around you.
DIVERSIFY YOUR FOLLOWING
Reading a short list of influential BIPOC people in the outdoors community is a great start but I encourage you to follow content and interact with those that truly resonate with you. On social media, if you hit the follow button on Instagram, you may be offered a suggestion of others that may speak on similar issues. Consider taking a step further by diversifying who you interact with in your everyday life. If an opportunity presents itself for you to interact with someone that shares a common goal and possibly have a different background than you, allow it to happen organically. This person is not your research assignment. Develop a good rapport with them and over time, you may find your worlds merging together. This may require for you to step outside of your comfort zone.
BEING THE INFLUENCER THAT YOU STRIVE TO SEE
The term influencer is commonly associated with a person that is noted in their community as a knowledgeable leader or trendsetter in a particular arena, particularly in the online space. In your everyday life, you are that person to someone. Most times people will trust or listen to a person that they know versus a public figure or brand. Encourage having an open dialogue within your fitness community about some of these topics that directly affect your area. Maybe it requires for you to brainstorm different ideas on how to make your running group more inclusive. Each person possesses a skill and superpower. The weight of educating people to be anti-racist requires all hands-on deck.
ADVOCATE FOR MORE VISIBILITY OF BIPOC ATHLETES IN THE MEDIA
Mainstream media perpetuated a narrow stereotype of who thrives in the running community and most times, they’re not featuring Black, Brown or Indigenous people. The lack of visual diversity in the fitness space not only enforces the stereotype that BIPOC people don’t belong but it’s harder to inspire a future generation of diverse leaders that will occupy this space too. Within our own communities, we may know these leaders exist but it helps a new or even an existing populous to dream bigger when we see and hear stories of people that look like their reflections.
MAKE ROOM FOR UNCOMFORTABLE DIALOGUE ABOUT RACE WHEN SPEAKING ABOUT RUNNER SAFETY
At the moment, conversations about runner’s safety is generally centered around women protecting themselves while venturing the outdoors. George Floyd’s death sparked a huge talking point everywhere about racism but dialogue about runner safety for marginalized communities haven’t caught up. Recently I became an ambassador for Runner’s Alliance in partnership with Runner’s World. This is a great start but advocacy starts within you too. Ask the hard questions: What are your personal biases? When did you first learn or adopted certain beliefs? What are you doing to change this thought process?
RESPECT YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Unfortunately, I am not able to equip the BIPOC community with a how to guide or a step by step list to guaranteed safety. This reality is overwhelming to many of us as we read countless news reports and learn about these events through our social media. Give yourself permission to detach and come up for air. When necessary, reflect, grieve or speak about these concerns with fellow BIPOC athletes or even a professional. Nothing about these vicious attacks are normal and it’s perfectly okay to not be okay. Remember: We are more than just our struggles.
CONSISTENTLY SHOWING UP IS POWERFUL
Oftentimes I’ve asked myself what can I say or do to be viewed as non-threatening? Sometimes smiling, wearing bright colors or running on well-lit paths don’t work. The absence of safety while venturing in the outdoors is a sobering feeling but consistency can remove some of this nervous energy. Despite the nuanced lack of diversity on the trails and in some road communities, BIPOC athletes belong in this the outdoor space too. When you take up space, your presence gifts another person inspiration to show up too. Fostering change doesn’t come from a one-time action; it requires for us to be present regularly. If you feel inclined, invite another person to come along on your next run. If there’s a lack of BIPOC visibility in your community, challenge yourself to create a tribe of your own.
Being judged and possibly attacked or killed for the color of your skin is a fear that I inherited from the way this world treats Black and Indigenous People of Color. That nervous tick that rests in between each stride pushes me to be vigilant but vocal. This may not be a shared reality for White cis-gendered counterparts but I urge you to acknowledge these things are happening. If you’re anything like me – a person who enjoys navigating the world through the gift of mobility – we must retain hope, remain active through our presence and continue telling our stories. Sharing the highs and lows grant opportunities for improvement. We may not have all of the answers right now but this conversation is a start. If I held your attention this long, there’s hope. To the non BIPOC community, what contribution can you make to stimulate change right now? And to my fellow BIPOC athletes, keep moving as organic as you please. Your movement and presence are a revolution.
FURTHER RESOURCES + READING MATERIAL:
* Outside Magazine: Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream
* Code Switch: How Running’s White Origins Led to the Dangers of ‘Running While Black’
* Runner’s World: These Indigenous Runners Bring More Than Themselves to the Start Line
* Conde Nast Traveler: Meet the Women Making the Outdoors More Accessible to All
* Outside Magazine: Ahmaud Arbery and Whiteness in the Running World
* Runner’s World: Black Women Deserve to Run Free
Latoya Snell is wearing the new women’s apparel from HOKA.