This past month has been a nightmare for the United States of America. Many had thought racism was dying down. Over the last three years I have had many conversations with friends and family and the topic of “racism on the rise” has come up frequently. Is it really? What I and many others failed to realize, technology was not quite the influencer it is today. Racial awareness is probably higher than it has ever been due to racist imagery being captured by cellphones.
Sadly, racism has not been a stranger in my experiences. Each time an act of racism hits the media, it is like an old wound being ripped open yet again. Recently there was a case where a Black man peacefully asked a White woman to please leash her dog in a posted leash zone in New York’s Central Park. She called 911 and told the dispatcher, “There is an African American man. I am in Central Park. He is recording me and threatening myself and my dog.” The threats were later deemed intentionally and blatantly false as video of the encounter was released. The scars of my past were ripped open. This story reminded me of the harsh reality we must all acknowledge. How many Black citizens have been accused wrongfully, then lost their lives? I thought about the false accusations that led to the untimely death of Emmett Louis Till. Even more vivid in my mind, my experience when I asked a man to leash his dog after it chased and attempted to bite while I was on a training run on one of my regular routes in the PNW.
Sadly, racism has not been a stranger in my experiences.
After asking a man to leash his pet, he quickly began arguing and cursing, then called me a N*****. To be honest, I was not angry at first as I hadn’t been called that for quite some time. I remained quiet, almost as if someone had hit the pause button. I lived in a fairly diverse community and had slowly started to forget that racism was alive and kicking. A fight ensued after he threatened to hit me with his dog’s leash. Thankfully a former high school teacher of mine and a few others were there to witness most of the situation. Nobody had cell phone footage. When the police arrived, the man with the dog (now leashed) ran to them as if he was not the one at fault. He went on to tell the police officer that I attacked him, unprovoked and that this led to his tooth missing after our encounter. The officer quickly looked over at me and approached me as he was reaching for his handcuffs.
I was taught to be quiet and respect the police. Subsequently, I was quiet and didn’t open my mouth to tell my side of the story out of fear of what could be provoked by my words. Like clockwork, two ladies and my former teacher who had seen most of the situation suddenly bent around the curve to give the truth, leaving the cop momentarily flabbergasted. Needless to say I was perplexed. The cop told us to go our separate ways, nothing was done. I was happy I didn’t get arrested as I stood there with my heart ready to jump out of my chest. On the other hand, I was confused as to how nothing was done about the racist man violating city rules and initiating a physical altercation in a public space.
That experience wasn’t the only time I’d been called the N-word. Shortly after coming off of Pikes Peak following a race victory, I was on a cool down run through Manitou Springs. Almost to my car, I hear a van speeding by me as someone rolls down the window to shout n*****. I could see their faces, their eyes, and could hear their laughter. I can’t even express the anger I had in that moment. My happiness from the race evaporated instantly. Being completely transparent, past circumstances like these have altered my life and have led to paranoia throughout my travels. I have avoided ordering food in areas where racist acts have occurred repeatedly/historically. If a city had ties to racist organizations, political leaders who were against equality in any way, or if I saw multiple Confederate flags, I immediately realized I needed to either cook my own food or have a White friend order the food for me and bring it outside. This practice continued for many years and still today.
Ultimately, my acceptance of the situation ignored a problem that many other Black athletes shared as I later found. My acts were cowardice because I never shared these experiences publicly. When you are attached to sponsors as a professional athlete there is tension and fear. The last few years I’ve been fortunate to have sponsors who support diversity. Black athletes shouldn’t have to be afraid to speak on the negative impact of racial discrimination out of fear of losing sponsorships. WE can’t be quiet any longer.
Being vocal about the lack of diversity in the outdoor sports world has been a project in the making. Many of my past experiences both positive and negative have brought me to realize that racism is a problem not simply when it comes to the judicial system but also when it comes to sport. How can Black American athletes be intrigued by a sport at which nobody who looks like them is promoted or given sponsorship opportunities? Why are there just a handful of Black Americans in mountain and trail running events? These are questions for which I’m trying to seek answers and, in the process create a dialogue to make change. WE can all make change for the equality of all Americans, but we have to take action. Silence didn’t work in the past and it won’t in the future.
Joe Gray is a trail and mountain runner who lives and trains in Manitou Springs, Colorado. He is a 28-time Team USA national team member, with wins at the national and international level in trail running, snowshoeing and vertical racing. He has also previously held the Manitou Incline FKT and the Mount Antero FKT.