How did you get into fitness and what does that mean for you?
I got fit to shrink and shrink my body. Then powerlifting helped me realize how strong my body is.
It also turned my narration into what I thought was possible and made me think, “Oh, what other narratives or stories am I holding onto as truth that is not true?”
I really believe that physical strength creates spiritual strength. And that simple act of powerlifting changed my career and my everyday life.
How can depictions of fitness and stereotypes affect black women’s fitness and health journeys?
In relation to sports like basketball and soccer, they are then very male and dominated by black. As a black woman, I didn’t see myself represented in the larger gym. These pictures confirm the idea that fitness is reserved for someone else.
One thing that interested me is how these social ideals of attractiveness, centered on the thin stereotype of a white woman, affect our actions. With that in mind, what extra pressure did you have when you shared a gym?
Gym rooms can be intimidating when outside of that norm. Much of it was probably my own projection and self-conscious[ness] about the way I entered these rooms.
Even now, after being in fitness for several years and working as a trainer in all sorts of facilities, I’ve gone places and haven’t felt welcome.
It’s hard for a room to really feel inclusive if you didn’t keep these people in mind when creating the room. People are much more comfortable seeing other people who look like them, be it a variety of races, height, diversity, or gender identity.
Which coaching techniques show respect for diversity in terms of height, goals and race?
One of the things I do for all of my clients is never to make assumptions about them or their goals in the gym. When a client walks in with a bigger body, I never assume they want to lose weight. This is not my task.
I think it is also very important as a trainer and coach, as well as a practitioner of wellbeing in some way, shape, or shape to always question your own implicit biases.
If you have a thought that comes up, for example, “All black women always do X, Y and Z” and you catch yourself, it’s a moment to stop and think, “Oh, wow, where is that from? And what ideas do I have about black women in the gym or in general that I have to unpack myself? “
What are examples of microaggressions in fitness, especially around racing?
Music in fitness rooms comes to mind as microaggression.
I’ve been to many gyms where I was the only person or one of the few people of color who worked out. And they play rap music and the N word is used repeatedly. And I heard other members who weren’t Black rap and say the lyrics [the N-word]. I know some people might think that’s okay because it’s a song. I don’t think it’s okay. It made me physically uncomfortable in this room.
Also the hypersexualization of black bodies by non-blacks. Comments on how to exercise because you want a bum like a black girl or just talk about black bodies in a way that, while complementary in people’s minds, is still very problematic.
Can you extend this hypersexualization?
In the past, black women have had to downplay or cover up our wealth. Many black women faced harassment at a young age because of their harassment [stereotypical] physically.
The preponderance of white women who talk about bums, sell bums through fitness, get praised for having bigger bums – if it’s something that has historically always been attributed to blackness [in a negative way] – it is frustrating. I see it a lot in the gym. Many people don’t see it as a problem. It’s a nuanced conversation and needs context to explain.
One of your blog posts mentioned a sign that said “We don’t see color” in a gym. Can you talk about how recognition of race and racism actually creates a more inclusive environment than not talking about it? How can people describe their support more precisely?
The statement “I don’t see color” is made by well-meaning whites who say, “I treat everyone equally.”
But not seeing color is not the goal. I am a black woman and I am proud to be a black woman and I love being a black woman. I want you to see me and respect the fact that I am a black woman and still treat me with the same dignity and respect as everyone else.
The saying “I see no color” ignores the systematic oppression of blacks and indigenous people.
The experiences of colored people in this country are different [from those] of white people. Personally, I have problems categorizing all people of color together. The experiences of colored people in this country are different, [especially from those of white people]. So we cannot wash away that experience, nor should we try to wash away that experience.
In an effort not to talk about difficult things, it is easier to say things like “I don’t see any color” than “The black experience of America is a challenge. And yes, your experience is different [from] Mine. And yes, I see you for who you are. ” [But] Everyone wants to be seen.
I want to be seen as a black woman because that’s me. I don’t want anyone to say they don’t see any color for me because my experience is very unique and worth hearing and understanding.
Should coaches acknowledge this different experience with black clients and other people of color?
In a gym or any room, talking about racism is important because it’s a real thing that happens in the world every day.
I think as a trainer, trainer, practitioner or wellness professional we have to talk about these things. Health goes far beyond just exercising and eating. Health is also how you feel mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually – all of these things.
Your experience in the world affects your health. I think it’s really short-sighted to say, “I’m just not going to talk about it” and then also to say, “I’m only there for people because I want them to be healthy.”
Do you have any advice or something else for white coaches having these tough conversations?
There’s no doubt that racing-related conversations can feel very uncomfortable. I understand that it must be difficult for whites to have this conversation. But it is not an excuse not to have a conversation because it is also very difficult to experience racism in this country.
When I go around the world as a black woman, I have no way of deciding against racism because it’s uncomfortable. It just happens. That is, we cannot talk about race without talking about privilege.
There is a privilege in this land that if you are white it does not mean you have not faced any trouble, but the trouble was not race related. I also strongly believe that it is the responsibility of whites to speak to other whites about this stuff and to examine their own privilege and ideas around the race. Nobody says you are a bad person when you have privileges. It’s just the truth about the society we live in.
How can people of color find fitness environments that are safe and inclusive?
When it comes to finding places that are the most comprehensive, it takes a little work. It’s a challenge sometimes.
I’m here in Brooklyn now and I am really blessed to be able to train at Strength for All [Editor’s note: This website under construction]. It’s very gender specific. A large percentage of our members are queer and trans. And there are people of all races.
You go to the gym and there is a Trans flag and a Black Lives Matter flag hanging. And we’re just very deliberate about how we talk about space [online].
I am a big fan of looking at the website and seeing who the coaches and coaches are and if they are representative of the population they say they serve. Go to social media and check out Instagram posts. Do you see someone who looks like you? Do you see people from different backgrounds? It’s very revealing – more than what they say about who is coming through the doors.
A great example of how strength builds an openly inclusive culture for all. What else can gyms think of to make all races more welcome?
I was on a panel recently and someone asked how people of color could get more interested in fitness. Do you need to offer more scholarships right away?
The assumption that people of color won’t come into your space because they can’t afford it is inherently biased. The question should be, “Why don’t we attract these types of people? Why don’t you feel comfortable or welcome? ”
Build too [zero tolerance for intolerance] into culture, [to say] “We don’t allow transphobia, we don’t allow homophobia, we don’t allow racism and misogyny. And if you don’t like that, if you can’t stick to it, then you are not welcome in this room. “
How would the entire fitness industry benefit from making inclusivity a priority?
Every time an industry lacks this diversity and inclusion and these important things, we only get one perspective. When all these people come and come to the table with different ideas [as a wheelchair user], queer or gay, black or in a bigger body, you can promote this entire industry and get more people into fitness.
I hope that all fitness professionals and practitioners believe that fitness is good for everyone and that people engage in exercise in ways that are good for them. That way, we can actually create an industry that everyone feels welcome.
Whitney Akers is a writer and traveler who always overpacks the wrong things. She helps health professionals connect with the people who need them most at Whitney Akers.