Title: Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built for Us
Author: Alison Mariella Désir
Completed: Feb 2023 (Full list of books)
Overview: I first heard about Alison and this book through an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. The book went on my “Must Read” list and I added her podcast to my regular listening queue.
This is a book every runner should read. It covers a lot of untold (at least no one told me) stories about the start of distance running in the US. Many of the people who helped establish the sport were Black men who have been erased from the history.
Other part of the book covered more general history of race in America. Although many of these points have been covered a lot since 2020, they were largely ignored for decades or centuries before that and deserve to be repeated until this history is as well known as other aspects of this country’s founding.
As part of a running club in Seattle, there are definitely step and suggestions in this book I want to work on to ensure our group can be as welcoming to all runners as we hope it is.
- I’d pass the house with the American flag and start wondering if it’s safe, and then I’d be annoyed that white nationalists have somehow claimed the flag, as if the rest of us aren’t Americans, too.
- Running showed me change was possible. It showed me how transformative movement can be. Simply put, running changes lives.
- Slowly, people began to arrive, wearing tights and jackets. Everyone was white, and no one was talking to each other, a habit of white people I find odd—a default to being stoic and standoffish. I’m never quite sure: are they not talking to me because I’m Black, or because they’re white?
- The low-performing white kids were not kids I was supposed to stay away from, but the low-performing Black kids were a “bad” influence? It was the first time, but not the last, that I saw how race and class were often conflated in the United States and how the kind of Black I was (middle class) was somehow seen as exceptional, but in danger of being “contaminated” by the kind of Black (working class) some of my classmates were.
- The science of the time said that the differences between the races were such that education was moot. “The black, the brown, and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white . . . that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts,” said Daniel Brinton in the late 1890s, the outgoing president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Junior year, we had to recite a poem to the class. Most of the students picked works by Sylvia Plath. I read a piece by African American activist Jayne Cortez called “There It Is.” It equated white supremacy to Legionnaires’ disease, a disease sprayed on people, poisoning minds with a lie about their superiority, that their way was the right way. The poem allowed me to say words and phrases like “ruling class,” “Ku Klux Klan,” and “penises” out loud. I loved the discomfort my teachers and classmates seemed to feel when faced with language and ideas we were not supposed to use.
- When it came time to write my thesis, I chose to expose how the narrative of Haiti in the U.S. was an intentional project of white supremacy. I wrote how Haiti has been portrayed as poor, diseased, and without a future, because it was the only successful revolt by enslaved people, and it will be paying the price for that radical act forever. If Haiti had become a thriving country, what would it have signaled to other enslaved people, other nations under colonial or imperial rule? You can unseat white supremacy. That was not something the world wanted anybody to think.
- the power of a totem, the idea that you can imbue an object with meaning and it can have a positive impact on you.
- Black people couldn’t own property until the state’s Fair Housing Act passed in 1957, six years before the running group first met. Eugene’s population in 1963 was only 0.4 percent Black, or 220 of nearly 51,000 people. The University of Oregon had a small percentage of Black students, but it wouldn’t approve a Black student union until 1966.
- During the ’50s and ’60s, civil rights lawyers filed multiple lawsuits in attempts to desegregate state parks. But rather than open parks to Black people, South Carolina shut down its entire parks system. Georgia opted to lease a dozen of its parks to private operators, circumventing the legal system.
- As runners showed up, I greeted them. Other regulars like Amir did the same. Then we’d form a circle and the first words I spoke were: “Welcome to Harlem Run. Great to see so many people out here. Is anyone here for the first time?” We were getting one, maybe two, new people each week. If someone’s hand went up, the group applauded and welcomed them. I added icebreakers to create connection. In a circle, we went around answering the question of the day: What’s your favorite ice cream, movie, song? It allowed each person to know someone, to actually have spoken to a fellow human and shared a bit of information about themselves. It was fun, and felt both silly and intimate.
- I asked everyone not to wear headphones so we could engage with our community, and to run two by two on the sidewalk; I’d witnessed groups take off as a mob, clogging traffic, endangering runners and pedestrians alike. When we ran, we made sure there was room on the sidewalk for others, recognizing that we all shared these streets. I also plotted our routes to showcase Harlem’s historic monuments and places. In these ways, Harlem became a member of Harlem Run, and we became custodians of the neighborhood.
- We did an activity that asked everyone to line up in a semicircle according to skin color, lightest to darkest. Everyone in the class got up and began assembling themselves, except for a dozen or so white folks. They stood there, flummoxed by the whole affair. “I don’t know where to go,” a white woman said. Oh for fuck’s sake, I thought, just get on the end. White people are so uncomfortable with race that they pretend not to know the color of their own skin. So we had a conversation about this. What is it like for each person to arrange themselves according to race? This was where white people’s feelings on race surfaced. White people felt “bad” that Black people had to line up as “dark.” It was ridiculous. I don’t feel bad about the complexion of my skin. You feel “bad” for me because you’re projecting your biases about Blackness as “bad,” “inferior,” and “other” onto me. Faced with their own biases for the first time, some of the white women began to cry. I could hardly contain myself. This was of course the whole point of the exercise; not the tears, but the awareness. Nothing more had been said other than to line up according to complexion. Everything else, all the feelings and thoughts that came, were what you made of it, or rather what you had been taught and socialized to make of it.
- Traditional counseling views the therapist as a change agent only within the walls of the counseling room, while a social justice approach sees the therapist as a change agent both inside the counseling room and out in the larger world, as an advocate for changing rules, laws, and conditions that impact clients’ lives. A social justice approach asks, What are the conditions in the world that contribute to my client’s mental health symptoms—such as racism, food insecurity, and sexism—and how can I as a therapist work to resist and dismantle those conditions in order to help my client?
- In 1946, for example, the Pioneer Club boycotted the national championships in San Antonio, Texas. The AAU, eager for the Pioneer Club athletes to compete, sent a representative to New York to talk to the club, trying to persuade the team to attend. The club refused on principle. Four years later, the Pioneers took a stand against the national championships being held at the University of Maryland, which did not allow Black people in the dorms. To make a point, the eighty-five athletes, Black, brown, and white, stayed at Lincoln University, a historically Black university in Pennsylvania, ninety-three miles away. The New York Road Runners, I learned, grew out of the Pioneer Club.
- I was floored by this. We were not only there; we helped build the sport. But our participation had been erased, buried. While the New York Road Runners, the RRCA, and the sport as a whole evolved into a white sport, it was clear to me now that the running story is not only a white story. It is a Black story. It is a civil rights story. It is a story of our talent and resilience. It is a story of creating space for Black people. The idea of an inclusive distance-running culture—the democratic, anybody-can-run ideal running wants to be—traces its roots to 1942, with three Black men who embraced and fought for integration and inclusion. Said simply, the first chapter of the modern running boom began with Black men in Harlem.
- Sometimes I’d go to the website tedcorbitt.com and reread the mantras Corbitt used, to keep them in my mind. “I will be relaxed and free of all restrictions.” “I will feel buoyant and strong while running.” “I will run hard and enjoy the effort.”
- my first introduction to how much runners buy in to the Boston Marathon myth of exclusion. Our participation as sponsored athletes seemed to threaten these runners’ perception of the race’s specialness, and therefore their own specialness. They suggested we’d cheated the system. But the idea that a system is inherently right and we all have to abide by it is problematic. Why not change the system to welcome more people? Why not have a dialogue on ways to expand the race experience to more runners, rather than shrink it?
- In the 1970s, Boston likely saw itself as the “Olympics” of marathoning in the U.S. at the time. The distance was not yet a mass participation event; the majority of people running marathons in the early ’70s were fast men, mostly white, who were participating in what was then “amateur” athletics. But as participation grew and the marathon became a distance for all runners, Boston did not evolve. Other big-city marathons like New York, Marine Corps, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo all chose a lottery system to manage participation. Boston went through multiple changes to its qualifying times rather than doing the obvious—switching to a lottery system. It chose to be elitist rather than democratic.
- Growing up, grown-ups tell you: don’t be caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. But when you get older, you realize that the wrong place and the wrong time could really be any day of the week, any hour of the day. White supremacy dictates the time; it dictates the lessons we all learn
- I was conflicted about honoring his life by running the miles associated with his death. I worried that the complexity of a human being could not be distilled into a day, that running a distance that marked his murder erased the life that he’d lived. Were we honoring Ahmaud? Or was this for us? Amir and I put the baby in the stroller and headed out. We ran down 132nd to Randall’s Island Park, did a small loop, and finished as a family. As always, I gained a sense of clarity that comes after a run. We were running for Ahmaud because that was his place of joy, something we as Black people all deserve to feel while moving through space.
- Some white runners were able to see that a Black person’s agency is very different from a white person’s. One runner wrote on Instagram about the freedom a white man knows: “I almost always feel safe while running,” he said. “Even when I shouldn’t. I’ve found myself down dark alleys at night. Or on private property, have taken a wrong turn. There are even times I’ve trespassed knowingly, wanting to get to that beach or down that trail, all the while figuring it’ll be all right. Many runners don’t have that privilege. To move so freely without fear. Or to make a mistake. To just be human.”
- In the course of conversation, I had to explain the term white supremacy to him. He thought it meant extremism, the KKK, white nationalists. “That’s not what you’re talking about, or is that what you’re talking about, or not what you’re talking about?” he said, fumbling. So I explained that white supremacy was not simply extremist views or people, but rather the economic, social, and political structure of our nation. It was the idea that white is the norm and everyone else a deviation from it.
- The average Black person without a formal education knows more about racial issues in our country than a formally educated white person. White ignorance is part of what keeps a white supremacist system in place. If we don’t acknowledge it exists, then there’s nothing to address. White supremacy is the system that allows racism to flourish, and prevents racial diversity from being welcomed and celebrated. I often think of this quote from the hip-hop artist Guante: “White supremacy is not a shark, it is the water.”
- I learned later that the person who’d suggested we soften the language worked through her blocks with a biracial friend who’d offered to be a sounding board. The friend explained that white supremacy was not just a phrase or term. It existed physically and historically, as a structure and system, and it thrives on being hidden, she said. The more ingrained white supremacy is in the system, the easier it is to hide and the harder it is to get rid of. So watering down the language actually empowers white supremacy. She added that by suggesting the group soften the language, she was actually muting the voices of the cause she was claiming to support and positioning herself in alliance with people who were not really on board.
- a sense of urgency diluted the possibility of meaningful work. And while the work is urgent, it cannot be done urgently. It requires strategy, and the mental fortitude to resist white supremacy culture, which prioritizes speed over other factors like including more voices at the table.
- One simple step—hiring more people of color, for example—is more complex than you initially think. It takes education, planning, thought, and care. It requires an understanding of what certain phrases like “must be professional” signal to Black people and other historically excluded communities: that we won’t thrive there because “professionalism” usually translates into a culture that centers white appearance and norms of behavior.
- A 2021 survey conducted by TRUE Global Intelligence for Gatorade found that 40 percent of Black respondents cited a safe place to run as a barrier to entering endurance sports like running and cycling. Nearly half of respondents of color named a safe place to train as a barrier, as well as fear of hate crimes.
- In a study conducted by sociologist Rashawn Ray, Ph.D., on why middle-class Black Americans are less active than their white counterparts, Ray found that safety played a primary role.
- When I hear white runners say “keep politics out of running” or that running publications and brands should “stick to running,” and that “race” and “social issues” don’t belong in running, I hear someone denying structural racism, bias, and white supremacy—denying my reality and the reality of millions of others. These comments demonstrate a lack of racial understanding and a narrow view of our nation’s history. And they ignore the fact that running occurs outdoors, in neighborhoods and parks, and on streets and trails. They ignore the fact that politics and racism are embedded in everything—all aspects of American life.
- The meet-up was the birth of the Seattle Running Collective, a place for the region’s running groups to come together to meet and share ideas and best practices on how to create inclusive and welcoming environments. It’s a work in progress, but our goal is clear: fostering a change in running culture to focus on inclusion.
- The running collective is “come as you are,” in sweats or sweat-wicking gear. We want to dispel the myth that running is only about getting faster or that it must be about pain and struggle; running can just be about movement, community, and joy.
That’s a lot to digest.
She packed a lot of fascinating information into a relatively small book