Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Joe Gray, one of the best trail runners in history, in Trail Runner: “Sadly, racism has not been a stranger in my experience … 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?” (Instagram Twitter Facebook)
Adam Merry, an elite trail runner: “One thing that has bothered me since I began trail running was the lack of diversity in the sport.” (Strava)
Marielle Hall, a track Olympian, in Runner’s World: “It’s time to acknowledge that the running community, which has long been heralded as one of the most accessible, most inclusive communities, does not exclude itself from the impact that issues of intolerance and bigotry create in this country.” (Instagram)
Now is the time to re-evaluate how you see those who are different than you. You could be part of the problem.
Michelle Carter, an Olympic gold medalist, in Runner’s World: “My heart is heavy and numb because this isn’t new. I’m used to living in a world where I have to constantly prove myself. Be way better than the rest to even get in the room. Now is the time to re-evaluate how you see those who are different than you. You could be part of the problem.” (Instagram Twitter)
After the murder of George Floyd, our country and the world are having a reckoning. Sometimes that’s in the streets, sometimes it’s confined to spending some time in between our own ears with our background and choices. Here’s my ultimate personal reflection: I am part of the problem. That doesn’t mean I’m the biggest part of the problem, or that I did it intentionally. It’s not self-loathing necessarily, or “woke.” And it’s definitely not “virtue signaling.” It’s just a fact that many of us can do and be better. We have to do and be better.
And it all starts with truly listening to Black voices like Joe Gray, Adam Merry, Marielle Hall, Michelle Carter, Mirna Valerio, Gwen Berry and millions of others. That’s a small step, but as all runners know, that first step can sometimes be the hardest.
The Listening Challenge
I usually write about running or vaguely running-adjacent topics in this space. You listen to the advice. Or you don’t. You’re a runner, you can take your experiences and incorporate them with whatever I say to come to your own conclusions.
That’s how our brains function with a lot of topics, and it works for us most of the time. But it all breaks down when listening to someone’s racial experience.
First, the facts. I am white, I have privilege, I am not an expert. Honestly, I’m not even sure if I should be writing this article. But I need to show up, like the kid at T-ball practice who can barely hold up the bat. Because as comfortable as I am talking about almost everything else, from sex drive to gender-specific issues to trail dancing (?!), I need to try to get there on race. Or I’ll keep being part of the problem.
This article is addressed to anyone who hears the term “listen” and has trouble knowing what to do with it. I am also a public-interest lawyer and I have worked with amazing people who have gone out of their way to help me learn what listening meant and how to listen better, but I have thousands of miles left on that journey. If I mess things up here, I am sorry and I am thankful for you pointing it out.
I can’t remember who told me this idea, I just remember it being one of the first things I learned at a community meeting where I was participating as a lawyer. The general idea: When listening to a Black person describe what it feels like to be Black, listening means learning without negotiating between the lived experience being presented to you and how you have experienced the world.
Here’s my attempt to summarize the discussion (so it may not be a perfect understanding). True listening is not intended to invalidate your own experiences (and struggles). It’s about going beyond imagining what you might feel like in someone else’s shoes, since experiences with racism are unique and uniquely sickening. It’s about affirming Black voices as legitimate, standalone authority, then acting on that knowledge. And often it means admitting you’re wrong. For a brilliant examination of this issue and beyond, see Dr. Juliet Hooker’s 2017 article “Black Protest / White Grievance: On the Problem of White Political Imaginations Not Shaped by Loss” in The South Atlantic Quarterly.
Good intentions don’t mean much without positive impacts, and when it comes to race, that’s not up for the person doing the intending to decide.
I have been wrong many, many times (and will be wrong many times in the future, probably in the next couple paragraphs). This week, I posted something on social media about systemic racism. A BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) athlete reached out to me with criticism of something that was absent from the post. For a split second, my brain wanted to provide a counter argument. “But I read this” or “but I meant this” or “but how about this.” But but but.
Those buts are normal I think. Listening about race is what you do with those thoughts and feelings. Accept, apologize, express gratitude, learn, and grow. Carry that knowledge forward into all you do and say, continuing to listen as you go. Good intentions don’t mean much without positive impacts, and when it comes to race, that’s not up for the person doing the intending to decide.
Translating Learning Into Action
Maybe that knowledge eventually means advocating for changed laws, an absolute necessity at all levels. That includes prison reform laws that dismantle the prison-industrial complex and a complete overhaul of policing and sentencing. Read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” for an understanding of the racism of mass incarceration. “Just Mercy” is an amazing book/movie on the subject too.
It means applying existing environmental laws and creating new ones to prevent injustice like the Flint water crisis and the horrifyingly disparate air pollution impacts experienced by Black Americans. Plus, it’s essential to mitigate the impacts of climate change, which will be borne disproportionately by Black Americans as well. Consider donating to the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy headed by Colette Pichon Battle, an organization doing amazing work in this area.
It means total change of housing and zoning law. Read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership” and Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” to see how policy led directly racist outcomes. (The books were recommended by political scientist/trail runner Dr. Jennie Ikuta and continually cited by sources I looked at to write this article, so I have a lot of reading to do.)
There are dozens of other essential legislative and regulatory changes, and that will just be the first mile of a marathon that our country needs to run. The tendrils of systemic racism are deeply embedded in law and policy.
It’s essential to affirm and amplify Black voices and experiences, then actively support diversity through our time and/or pocketbooks with whatever platform we have.
For more immediate actions, maybe it means donating money to BIPOC-led organizations like Black Girls Run, buying from BIPOC-led businesses like Zoezi Sport (for clothes and apparel), and/or marching on the streets. Moving forward through the rest of our lives, listening requires us to weave our existing passions and pursuits into the change the world needs, even if our contribution feels infinitesimally small.
In the running world, coaches, fellow athletes, race directors, magazines, writers, shoe companies and everyone else have roles to play. Being welcoming is a start, but it’s not enough. It’s essential to affirm and amplify Black voices and experiences, then actively support diversity through our time and/or pocketbooks with whatever platform we have. I definitely have a lot of work to do to be better.
All Ears And Hands On Deck
Adam Merry: “This is a really important moment and the best thing we can all do is communicate openly and honestly with each other, listening and seeking to understand.”
Here’s a statistic. In Boston, the median net worth of white Americans is $247,500. Of Black Americans: $8.
This is a really important moment and the best thing we can all do is communicate openly and honestly with each other, listening and seeking to understand.
Wow, systemic racism is horrific and unjust. That stat is emblematic of racism and the legacy of slavery combining with insidiously discriminatory policy in housing, education, banking, and countless other areas over time. Read Mehrsa Baradaran’s “The Color of Money” for how banking played a role in the economic disparity plus “When Affirmative Action Was White” by Ira Katznelson for how some New Deal policies spurred on the wealth gap.
There are thousands of other stats that paint the same picture of what institutionalized injustice does to individuals and communities. But it has to go further than that.
Listening about the experiences of Black people and other BIPOC individuals means understanding that the experiences shared are undeniable facts, without qualification, just like the data on Boston net worth or police brutality prevalence. Especially if that information seems to contrast with your personal experiences or worldview.
So let’s listen.
Let’s listen to Black athletes, friends, community members, writers, artists, musicians, scholars, creators, all Black voices. The experiences will be unique to each individual, and it’s up to us listeners to do the work.
Take it in. Let’s run full speed ahead with the knowledge we have learned. Let’s act in every aspect of our lives, no matter how small those first steps feel. Let’s open up about our journeys, sharing support with our communities in the learning process.
And let’s see those steps add up. Because we must fight systemic racism together through billions of more steps to support justice, from the trails to our families/communities to the ballot box.
It will take relentless work. But relentless work is one place where runners shine.
Black lives matter.
Mirna Valerio, an ultrarunner and the author of A Beautiful Work In Progress on Ginger Runner Live: “When we tell our stories and people don’t believe us or they delegitimize our stories or they gaslight us … it takes a huge toll on a community. And the reason that shit is burning right now is because we’ve had enough.” (Instagram Twitter)
Marielle Hall in Runner’s World: “The misinterpretation and characterization of black people’s experiences is something I know well. When I was in high school, a parent approached my coach to inquire whether my mom was white. She had seen my dad at meets to confirm he is black, but the woman was searching for something to explain my ‘discipline and focus.’ In her world, blackness didn’t equate to those characteristics, and it certainly didn’t add up to running cross country.”
Until everyone gets on one accord, we’re going to keep seeing these things happen. We have to burn down the system.
Gwen Berry, Pan Am Games gold medalist who was reprimanded after a protest, in Sports Illustrated: “The system has been corrupt for a very long time. I know that in my lifetime, there probably won’t be too much change. I hope that this is the year that we never forget that going forward, something can be done. It’s not the Targets and the Walmarts that need to be burned to the ground. It’s the system. The police act like this because of the system. The president acts like this because of the system. I feel like that’s the thing people need to realize. Until everyone gets on one accord, we’re going to keep seeing these things happen. We have to burn down the system.” (Instagram Twitter)
Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback: “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”