In my professional writing just as in my work as a clinician, I like to play my cards face up. To that end, my purpose in this brief article is not to examine the intricacies of racial identity, racism, race relations, oppression, prejudice, racial income disparity, complex relationships with legal authorities, or any of the pressing concerns that lie unresolved on the present-day American landscape. My intentions are exceedingly more narrow and humble. In this space, my hope is to start a conversation about how we in the health and fitness community—as trainers, therapists, media, retailers, coaches, organizers and consultants—can take fuller advantage of what is (at least in my experience) one of the most effective ways to bridge the racial divide: exercise-induced mutual hardship.
After a particularly intense track workout this summer, our running group was standing around talking about various topics. I shared my surprise in learning that the musical group NWA planned to reunite for a European tour with Eminem as a stand-in for the late Eazy E. A new athlete to our group—an extremely likeable college-aged man—mentioned something about Eazy E’s Jerry Curl and whether Eminem would attempt to replicate it, and then he turned to me and asked, “What do you all call that?”
I was caught off guard by the question, and I had the immediate impulse to say something like, “There’s no ‘you all’ here, my man there’s only ‘us’ and ‘we’!” But as I looked into his sincere and well-intentioned eyes, it occurred to me that responding in this manner might offend someone I barely knew and perhaps embarrass myself in the process. An awkward and uncomfortable feeling of being an old white guy began to wash over me, and I was stumped about what to say next.
Shortly after this exchange, a slew of memories involving race, exercise, and athletic training/competition emerged in my mind, including at one time being the only white kid in my neighborhood and because of that (I assumed) getting picked last for pick-up games; the thrill of coming to be viewed as an asset and not a liability in these pick-up games; disparaging and racially charged taunts during athletic events; feeling a tight and enduring brotherhood with teammates across the racial spectrum; my athleticism being underestimated because of my skin color; and (perhaps most significantly for me) facing and overcoming adversity over the course of off-season football training, hell week, and during pressure-packed moments of games in a way that created a unique form of bonding and closeness in a manner that seemed to supersede race.
These memories are all tinged with deep feelings and encompass some of the most powerful experiences in my life. Exercise and athletics are the only places in our society—outside of a military or religious context—where we stand shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, and heart to heart. These activities not only bridge the massive racial and economic divides in our world, they also create deep and abiding forms of interpersonal connection that (in my opinion) touch the very essence of who we all are as human beings. I do not believe I am lapsing into hyperbole in expressing this sentiment. Rather, I am attempting to articulate an idea—admittedly rough and in need of refinement—that to enhance a felt-sense of brotherhood and sisterhood across the racial and ethnic spectrum, we must sweat together.
Many of my closest friends and training partners in the Austin fitness community do not share my glaring lack of pigment. Instead of serving as a barrier, I find that our racial differences and the stereotypes often attached to them actually provides fodder for mutually enjoyable banter and clowning. Except for only a handful of times over the past 10+ years, however, I cannot recall any conversations about how race relations are influenced by exercise.
It may be as shocking to many readers of Austin Fit Magazine as it was to me that our city was identified earlier this year as the most economically segregated city in America, according to the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Let that sink in for a quick minute. This statistic paints a very different portrait of our city from what is widely assumed, one that is associated with undesirable and unacceptable cultural consequences. If we pursue what this factoid might mean going forward, we come face-to-face with the strong correlation between economic segregation and residential segregation, which of course often involves or intensifies racial segregation. Furthermore, it stands to reason that a high level of racial segregation in Austin means that people of different races and ethnicities simply may not have much—if any—interaction. This absence of face-to-face much less shoulder-to-shoulder contact no doubt provides fertile soil for continued racist beliefs, values and practices.
By my count, one of the shining exceptions in Austin to the aforementioned racial segregation can be seen in fitness and exercise settings. I have found there to be a fairly healthy level of racial diversity among the top trainers and coaches in Austin. Moreover, at many of the area’s exercise classes there is often a racial mix that one simply cannot find in groups elsewhere. Most recently at the AFM FITTEST Awards Party at the beginning of August, for example, people of all tints and shades were hugging, joking, laughing, celebrating and enjoying one another. It was a blast!
So what is it about fitness and exercise that holds a key for increased interracial harmony and togetherness? Quite simply put: mutual physical hardship and struggle. However, merely exercising in the same gigantic air-conditioned room at a ginormous gym is not going to cut it. Our workouts should be with each other, in such close proximity that our reps reflect something of a group effort, and that dialogue and conversation are not only possible but necessary.
So how do we provide a structure to facilitate this? Well, in many respects this kind of structure is already in place at many of our city’s fitness leaders such as Dane’s Body Shop, Outright Sprint and Performance, Stronghorn Fitness and Of the Lion Fitness, to name only a few. Nevertheless, here’s the briefest and most general outline of an answer, given in the hope that others will feel at least a little bit inspired to elaborate, refine, and develop their own ideas about this topic.
Group classes have long been a staple of the fitness world, and anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes in one has no doubt noticed that the most successful classes include a high level of praise, acceptance, motivation, encouragement, camaraderie, and even celebration. This positivity and peer support makes training and exercise settings unique compared with many of the other settings in most people’s lives. Also, intense exercise triggers something very interesting psychologically and interpersonally: People become increasingly open, flexible, honest, communicative, and accepting.
This kind of atmosphere is not only conducive to exercise-adherence and increased enjoyment while working out. It can also create a family-like atmosphere that often extends beyond the exercise setting. In short, people who sweat together tend to stay together. Exercise does not discriminate; the last time I checked, all sweat is the same color. Also, because of the physical exertion involved, mental and psychological defenses that usually might keep others at a distance get deactivated or relaxed. Once we get past any initial awkwardness or self-consciousness that is a natural part in adjusting to a new environment, we are likely to be much more receptive to and even somewhat vulnerable in front of others in a manner that promotes interpersonal closeness and mutual affirmation.
Circling back to my conversation with a new workout partner after a track session, it’s important to remember that I barely knew this guy; he and I would need to sweat together in many more track workouts before either of us would be in a better position to bridge the racial divide. Along these lines, enhancing interracial togetherness best emerges from concentrating our efforts on connecting with each other around the details of our shared workouts.
If what I’ve been saying about the psychological, interpersonal and inter-racial benefits of exercise is true, losing ourselves in the details of a workout turns out to be a great way to make contact with one another and—in the process—to begin developing a deeper and more abiding sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. After all, in an intense workout just as in life, we succeed the more we act like we’re all in this together.