I’ve spent the majority of my life being the only one in the room.
I grew up in the deep south and attended a majority Black high school. I graduated, entered the real world and instantly became the only Black woman in most spaces that I occupy. From the classroom to the conference room, I represented 99% of the “diversity” in that room. On the softball field it was just me and for the last 5 years in competitive Weightlifting it has been lonely to be able to easily list the names of prominent Black women in the sport that I love.
I have lived the majority of my adult life being the only one in the room. I vacillated between feeling like the “token” Black girl chosen to achieve the “inclusion” check mark or the “other” Black girl that somehow ended up in the wrong room. It’s become the norm and that is not okay. My personal journey in fitness and sport has not been absent of covert and systemic racism and biases.
The prevalence of regular exercise in the Black community is low in comparison to other racial groups. Despite the known benefits, there are a ton of perceived and real barriers for Black folks. Black women are also less likely to participate in exercise than their male counterparts regardless of age, education, income level, and marital status. Research indicates that about 25% of Black women report regular exercise. So when I pursued a degree in Exercise Science and started working as a trainer and instructor in health clubs and fitness centers I was overlooked by the very wealthy and very white members. If Black women do not exercise, how could they possibly be a credible fitness professional? A white, female client was assigned to me during my first week and when she arrived for her first session she informed me that she “didn’t think we would mesh well together” and asked me if I knew anything about training paying clients. She told my manager that she assumed that the only experience I had was doing workouts for “certain types of people.” Though I would never know what people she was referring to as I quickly learned that I would have to work harder and do more to prove myself.
Why don’t Black women workout? Breaking news: It has nothing to do with our hair…
The fitness industry had a singular standard of health. Black women do not see themselves in that definition. In fact, for a long time, we were not in the marketing strategies, the portfolios, the commercials, or the research. The research did not include women of color. Athletic brands rarely included Black women and our curves in their print and digital campaigns. Have you ever picked up an “athleisure” brand shopping catalogue and struggled to visualize what you might look like in any of the vibrant, meticulously designed attire? Will my legs fit into the extra large? Will any of these colors highlight my melanated skin tone? These are questions that every Black woman has asked herself at least once. Is this designed to fit someone that looks like me?
Black women represent less than 6 percent of head coaches in D1 college athletic sports. This in part due to some unwritten (and primarily patriarchal) rule that in order to be an elite coach, you must first be an elite professional athlete. Since there are so few opportunities for women to excel in professional athletic careers, it is no surprise that there are limited opportunities for coaching positions at the highest levels. In my high school and collegiate athletic career, I never had a Black coach. I never had anyone that looked like me leading, teaching, and preparing me to become a professional coach. In my current sport of Weightlifting, I am aware of four Black women who serve as respected coaches (all of which I admire). So despite my love for the sport, my knowledge of exercise and biomechanics, my training as a USAW advanced sport performance coach, my experience competing as an athlete – I spend a lot of time wondering if I am good enough to be a coach. To be clear, my doubt does not come from my personal preparedness (I will humbly tell you in a second that I am qualified). However, it’s hard to feel qualified to enter a space in which you do not see others that look like you.
Black female athletes have been trailblazers in sport for so long. Yet, they have not been recognized for their hard work, dedication, strength, and courage on and off the court. The focus is rarely on their accomplishments and talent. Instead the narrative centers around failure to adhere to respectability politics. The media focuses on whether her hair is combed and straightened. Her chosen attire, decision to start a family, and whether or not she is smiling for the camera.
The truth is that sport and exercise has always been my form of therapy. It has been a constant reminder of how much strength and power I have inside of me. Coaching others is what I was made to do. I will continue to coach to the very best in my athletes and clients. As a Black female athlete and fitness professional, I will create space and advocate for representation in the sport, fitness, and health industry. The time is now and this work must be done.