How the fitness industry can move toward antiracism

Until now, in my experience, the fitness industry has responded to every story of brutality against black people with a shrug. The first death that triggered me was Trayvon Martin in 2012. At the time, I was working full time at a luxury gym where most of the Pilates staff and management was white. Not one asked how I felt about his death. After George Zimmerman’s acquittal, it was as if nothing had happened. My two black co-workers and I were devastated, because obviously no one cared about this young black man’s life or how we felt.

Perhaps the blind spots are due to a lack of representation. I have worked in seven Pilates studios over my 13-year career, and out of the seven, I had one black manager. As a participant in group fitness, many times I would be the only black person in class.

In recent years, smaller facilities such as Blink and Planet Fitness have opened in black neighborhoods. At Blink in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, where I was a member, most of the management staff and trainers were black. I felt safer in an environment where I was represented. (Although, with gentrification, the clientele is not representative of the long-standing community.)

But most elite gyms and boutique studios are not in black communities because the economics of our communities do not meet the revenue criteria. This is an example of what I would call “fitness redlining.” And when black instructors and clientele do find their ways to gyms and studios, they face unfair scrutiny and stereotyping.

I auditioned to teach a Pilates Mat class at a luxury gym several years ago. I received positive feedback, yet I was asked to audition again because the regional group exercise manager said I was “too aggressive” in my approach, and he wanted to see if I could “tone it down.”

A close black friend of mine told me that no one would partner with her during HIIT class because some of the participants in class felt she was “too strong and intimidating.” So, she would either do the exercises alone or with the instructor.

Over the years, I’ve observed that fitness summits/conference speakers were primarily white. Recently, I received an email regarding an upcoming fitness conference. All of the workshop leaders were white; however, the keynote speaker, a former National Football League player, was black. His topic was about diversity, and any donations received would go to a prominent black racial justice organization.

This young man has been placed into a sea of sharks without any help. Who is to say that the audience would be open to what he has to say about diversity from a black man’s perspective?

Many times, the fitness industry will use us as tokens to show that they are “making an effort” when what is truly happening is that a black person being subjected to any micro/macro aggressive behavior from any of the white attendees.

Since George Floyd’s killing, organizations in the fitness industry have taken similarly performative steps, such as dashing off 10-point plans, posting black squares to Instagram, starting scholarship programs specifically for black instructors, or creating a trademark brand to raise money for a well-known black organization. But donations and scholarships are only a Band-Aid for a much larger wound. How do we know that scholarship recipients won’t be subjected to the same prejudice, discrimination and bias that exists now?

Here are a few simple steps to begin making the fitness industry anti-racist:

Begin with yourself. You cannot change the outside without working on the inside. This requires turning the mirror on yourself, removing all the masks and digging deep. Admit to your own individual inherent racism. Just as I am connected to my enslaved ancestors, you are connected to ancestors who colonized indigenous land or who prospered from opportunities denied to others.

Call out racial injustices when you recognize them. Put your body in front of your black co-worker or client at these fitness facilities and studios when you observe prejudice and discrimination — such as a lone black member without a partner. Use your voice and privilege as a shield.

Seek out and learn from the black people who are leaders in anti-racism/racial justice education and who speak openly and honestly about racism and white supremacy. We know our oppression and racist experiences better than you. Our presentations may be different, but the anti-racism message is the same. In addition to my own offerings, you can find writings, webinars and  videos from fitness coach Chrissy King, pediatric physical therapist Jennifer Hutton and clinical health/sports psychologist Kerry Kirk.

Listen to black clients  who say they have experienced discomfort or prejudice at your facility and constantly reassess yourself. We should not have to prove that we are victims of a racist system when it is evident by what is on the news. Anti-racism requires a lifetime of action, otherwise it will be a lifetime of complicity. You will make mistakes along the way. However, that is part of the work.

Don’t appropriate our culture for your financial gain. A prime example of this would be Y7, a yoga studio chain with locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, which recently apologized for capitalizing upon hip-hop in its primarily white spaces.

Do not tokenize us. One or two black fitness instructors is not enough. And do not assume your one black instructor is the sole voice for the black community. We all have different black experiences but want the same liberation for our people.

Lastly, contribute to, refer people to and buy from black-owned businesses. There are tons of black-owned fitness apparel and equipment businesses that are better or comparable in quality to more popular brands. Rooted Resistance, for example, is committed to “creating socially just, accessible fitness and wellness environments for queer, trans, gender nonconforming, non-binary, gender-queer and historically untapped populations.” Ja’Nel Johnson founded Vibing on the Mat in Sacramento in 2019 with a focus on helping black women and girls of modest means thrive through exercise and sisterhood. Increasing your purchases from and the visibility of our businesses promotes sustainability.

Sonja Herbert is a Pilates instructor in New York City, founder of Black Girl Pilates and anti-racism speaker. Follow her @commandofitnesscollective.

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