Unpacking the Running Knapsack: Chasing White Privilege
In my non-running life, I am an multicultural educator. I work with students preparing to be teachers and assist them in the process of providing a multiculturally-inclusive curricular experience for their students. I also live and work in Iowa. As such, a majority of my students are White. Although not exclusively, a majority of my students, like a majority of White Americans, have never really thought about what it means to be White. As a White male, I know first hand that you don’t have to think about it when you grow up in America. You take it for granted. Acknowledging the existence of White privilege and the impact it has on individual choices and opportunities is hard for many folks to do. Heck, it was hard for me to do. If you’ve never thought about this yourself, or are unsure of what exactly I’m talking about, please start here.
This post is not an educational or philosophical piece, per say. This is a blog about running. However, I’ve been giving some thought to the intersection between recreational and distance running, and White privilege. Last year, Runner’s World ran an article titled “Why is Running So White?”, and they examined the racial realities of the sport and attempted to deconstruct the “why”, as well as offer suggestions on how to change the current norm. In case you aren’t aware, of have just never thought about it before, running is a very White sport.
Now, before you start discussing the elite runners in an attempt to contradict this statement, I clearly and fully acknowledge their presence. However, I’m not talking about the folks winning races, getting big paychecks, and being sponsored by shoe and apparel companies. I’m talking about the normal individual in this country who laces up his or her shoes in the morning before work, or after a long day of work, or wakes up early on the weekend to head out for a training run. Perhaps the goal is a 5K, or a half marathon, or even a marathon. I’m talking about the people you see running on the road as you drive by (and if you are like me, you turn to sneak a quick peak, to see if you know them). Have you ever asked yourself why almost everyone you see running is White?
Take a look around next time you step up to the starting line, ready to hit start on your Garmin. What do you see? Who do you see? Who don’t you see? Now, running is certainly not a sport for everyone, and there are hundreds and thousands of other activities that are vying for peoples’ time, effort, and money. As a country, we do not suffer from a shortage of opportunities to distract ourselves. At this point, you are probably saying to yourself, “I guess more White folks just choose to be runners than other groups of people who pursue other interests”. I mean, “marathons” did make it on the list of Stuff White People Like.
In many venues, running has been heralded as the ultimate equalizer in sports. All you need is a pair of shoes and the open road, and you are off. Other sports require far more financial means and organization. Surely then, running should be the sport that eclipses all racial and class boundaries. However, the reality is quite different. In fact, race/class/gender have everything to do with who runs and who doesn’t. Although perhaps fairly low on my knapsack of advantages, White privilege still allows me to run with relative ease. Let’s consider this further:
1. running is recreational for me- I do it in my free time, with no hope of financial or personal gain (other than the goals I set)…does everyone have that time?
2. I run most of my miles in my community- I’ve learned more neighborhood streets in this community through running than I have through driving. In addition, I run on the road, day and night, with no real worries about my safety, as long as I’m smart. Can others do that? How does where you live impact your ability to run?
3. I can run in a new area when I travel, and nobody is going to call the police because I’m on their street @ 5AM…I’m just running.
4. I have the disposable (for the most part) income to register for races/ purchase new shoes every 400 miles/ buy nutrition/ add to my running wardrobe. How much money do you spend on running every year?
5. I’m encouraged by my family and friends- my parents love tracking my progress, I have a loving and supportive partner, and I run with a community of friends who support and encourage me in my running endeavors. Aside from good-natured joking, I will never face ridicule for my choice to be a runner.
6. When I read about other famous runners and seek inspiration from them, they look like me.
7. Numerous races are marketed towards me and in a manner that is accessible to me…and I can travel to those races.
I could certainly go on and into more depth about how my White privilege allows me the opportunity to run. The previously mentioned article from Runner’s World also mentions “next steps”, such as focusing races on causes of importance to minority groups, and resisting stereotypes that exclude minority youth from active involvement in running, which could set the stage for a life-long commitment. These are certainly important steps to take, and they have the potential to have a positive impact on the sport as it evolves to meet the needs of a broader range of individuals. However, on a much larger scale, the whiteness of running is just one more reminder of the overarching impact and interconnectedness of race, class, and gender in this country. Until we acknowledge our own Whiteness and the influence it has on our lives, and how all of these forces are connected to one another, we won’t be able to break out of the comfortable silos we run in.
Just some food for thought next time you lace up or pin on that bib.