Assumed a Threat Out of the Gate: Exercising While Black in America

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You might not think twice about going for a run in your neighborhood. But as someone who is wrongly perceived as a threat, I have to consider the worst case scenario.

Imagine it’s 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday. The weather’s absolutely perfect for an outdoor walk or jog, and you’re excited to breathe in the fresh air as you burn some calories.

Then you look down and notice the color of your skin. Seconds later, you remember that you’re the only person with your skin color in your entire neighborhood.

Soon your mind is filled with memories of when you’ve received quizzical stares from your neighbors, or they’ve crossed the street when you’ve approached them — even in the pre-pandemic world.

After giving it some thought, you concede and decide to hop on the elliptical machine in your hot, stuffy garage instead. Sadness overcomes you.

Can you picture something like this happening to you while you’re trying to work out? This is my personal exercise story in a nutshell.

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Dangerous until proven harmless

I’m a Black man in America, and we’re all aware of the countless stories involving unarmed people with my skin color getting hurt or killed for simply existing in this country.

I live in a nice neighborhood, and I’m literally the only Black man who lives on my street. When nobody else within a square mile looks like me, all it takes for something to go wrong is one overzealous neighbor to get spooked by seeing someone who looks like me running down the sidewalk.

But a funny thing happens whenever I walk in my neighborhood with my adorable puppy or two young daughters. Instead of being viewed as a thug, threat, or outsider, people will wave to me, ask to pet my dog, and strike up a conversation.

In an instant, I become a loving dad and pet owner. In other words, I become “safe” — even though I’m the exact same person when I’m alone.

The only way I can describe it is soul-crushing.

Adding injury to insult

Adding another layer to this, I suffer from depressive disorder — something that has been amplified by not feeling comfortable in my own skin in America.

Quite frankly, there aren’t a lot of men who’d admit to this publicly due to the immense stigma around it, and that’s a big problem in itself.

Personally, exercise does wonders for my mental health, but I want to be able to exercise on my own terms in my own neighborhood, as many of my white neighbors are able to do without even giving it a second thought.

Recognizing prejudice

Whenever I share my feelings with white people, I’m often met with these questions:

“Why don’t you make an effort to meet your neighbors so they know you’re not a threat?”

“If it’s that bad, why don’t you move somewhere else more diverse?”

“Do you think you’re exaggerating this a little? I doubt it’s as bad as you’re making it out to be.”

Put differently, they believe it’s my fault that I don’t feel comfortable exercising alone in my own neighborhood, and the onus is on me to fix it. Trust me, it doesn’t make me feel good to have my experiences ignored or minimized.

I’ve been taught that if you want better answers, you should ask better questions — and the one question I’ve been rarely asked by white people is, “What can I do to help?”

What white people can do to help

Here’s a quick list of five things that can be done right now:

1. Believe us when we talk about racism

Instead of blowing us off for waving around a mythical race card, take time to realize that Black people don’t use racism as a crutch or an excuse.

As a matter of fact, if I brought up the topic of racism every time I experienced it, it’d be the only thing I’d ever talk about. Instead, I talk about it when I’m at the end of my rope as a cry for help.

I don’t want your sympathy for racism — I want your empathy, which will hopefully drive you to take action to fix it.

2. Listen more, talk less

Try not to center yourself or your experiences when trying to understand racism, because it’s not about you. Seek out diverse teachers, books, documentaries, and other resources to learn more about the history of racism and how it permeates society today.

3. Give Black people the benefit of the doubt

Black people are guilty until proven innocent in the court of public opinion in America.

Whenever you see someone who looks like me in your neighborhood, you should believe that the overwhelming majority of us are just minding our own business and have no desire to harm you.

A simple smile or hello as you pass me on the sidewalk would mean more than you realize. Who knows, you could even make a new friend in the process.

4. Be actively anti-racist

To be clear, being quietly “not racist” is not the same as being anti-racist.

The art of anti-racism is often messy, confrontational, and uncomfortable — but it’s never passive. It’s important to call out racism wherever we see it to eradicate it from polite society.

5. Show up, even when you don’t want to

To piggyback on the previous point, anti-racism work is exhausting. It’s easy to commit to it at first, but after weeks or months of fighting racism, you may feel as if you’re trying to empty the ocean with a spoon.

At that point, it’d be easy to throw in the towel — and you could do so without any consequence. Your life would be the same on pretty much every level.

However, people like me don’t have the luxury to quit, and I’ll still be on the beach with my spoon even when I don’t want to be. Don’t turn your back on this fight. We need you.

Let’s get to work

Not to make light of the words from the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I have a dream that someday I’ll be able to walk or run alone in any neighborhood without being viewed negatively.

With your help, I have hope that we’ll get there.

Doyin Richards is the founder and CEO of the Anti-Racism Fight Club and has trained thousands of corporate employees on how to create and sustain anti-racist workplaces. He’s also a bestselling children’s author and TEDx speaker.

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