There's a Poison Goin' On

The past couple of years, more than the rest of my years combined, I’ve been more conscious of race. A big part of that comes from my intense involvement in CrossFit. Due to my participation I’ve found myself thrown into the role of being one of few Black people in the vast majority of CrossFit affiliates or competitions. I can’t tell you how many events, competitions, training sessions, or social gatherings I have attended at CrossFit where I’m the only person of color in the room. Don’t even mention having a presence in mainstream CrossFit targeted magazines or media.

I saw this book and I thought, “oh, sounds like CrossFit."  The book is about race, but not CrossFit.
I saw this book called 10,000 White Women and I thought, “oh, sounds like CrossFit.” The book is about race, but not CrossFit.



Prior to CrossFit I had lived on the south side of Chicago for over 6 years and was training at a non-CrossFit related fitness facility in my own community, and I will admit there can be a comfort in blending in. Somehow you can feel invisible in either a good or a bad way. It can bring a sense of belonging or a sense of being a non-entity.

Being a Black woman who competes at a reasonably high level in CrossFit pretty much ensures I won’t be blending in any time soon and at various times I’ve been asked about race and CrossFit. A little over a year ago CrossFit Headquarters posted a controversial “Black folks don’t CrossFit” related link on their Facebook page. I was bombarded with tweets and texts and even people sharing their disappointment with me about my silence on the matter. Guess what, I’m not going to comment simply because CrossFit posted an article. The white women are over here writing on how to get abs or be a successful competitor and I’m tasked with tackling race in America? Naw, I’m good. I’m busy training. I appreciate being asked, but I prefer to communicate on my own terms.  I’ve also noticed a trend on my athlete social media and other CrossFit pages. As soon as someone mentions my Blackness in a comment, without fail a white person will say something like, “this is the CrossFit community, it’s not about race!” Blank stare. The CrossFit community is a segment of the American public. I realize there is are still significant numbers of people who would like to stick to their colorblind (or just blind) approach, but let me say, that ship has sailed. Literally. Off the coast of west Africa long before any of us was here.

2014 North Central Regional Athlete Briefing.   This has sent three different Black athletes to the CrossFit Games over the past three years, which I believe is more than any other region worldwide.
2014 North Central Regional Athlete Briefing. This has sent three different Black athletes to the CrossFit Games over the past three years, which I believe is more than any other region worldwide.

Over the years I’ve personally become less and less interested in discussing race. The biggest deterrent for me has been that troublesome race matters seem to be assigned to Black people for rectification, and there’s an overall lacking baseline of understanding, empathy, factual knowledge- at times seemingly willful ignorance related to race in America. In short, I just can’t. The chasm in perspective that I’ve observed has simply made it feel like a waste of time to engage.

I can acknowledge that this choice to shut off comes from a place of pain. Sometimes staggering, soul level, red hot anger, rage inducing pain. I felt pain as a little child watching “Roots” or hearing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” for the first time, or listening to/reading about the life experiences of other black folks and it has only intensified with my own life experiences and finally, with becoming a parent. I’m not ashamed to mention my pain because this country is in pain and rightfully so because it suffers from a debilitating sickness.  Our collective airway should feel cut off right now.

One of my most hurtful, eye-opening experiences as a parent came one day while visiting the Field Museum with my son. There’s an exhibit featuring African cultures. The exhibit is a walk through of multiple rooms that takes you through various countries and regions of the continent. Towards the end you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on a slave ship. That in itself was somehow shocking and disturbing, this sudden shift from something as beautiful as the diversity of human cultures to something as barbaric as human bondage. Anyway, it gets way better. So they had some authentic shackles, whips, and other tools of barbarism on loan from the Dusable Museum here in Chicago. My son was about five at the time and had a basic knowledge of the history of slavery in this country- probably the level that many adults have, to be frank. He asked me what these implements were and as gently as I could I gave him an age appropriate, but honest answer. The look in his eyes could only be described as horror and disbelief. He really seemed stunned, but after a brief pause he said, “they should go to hell.” All I could say is, “you know what, if there is a hell, I’m sure they’re in it.”

His comment was so poignant for me for a couple of reasons. First off, the clarity of vision that comes from children. Their simple, concrete sense of right and wrong.

“ You are the only ones who hear truly and whose eyes are clear”, he said. “You are the eyes and ears of our tribe”.

Secondly, and what really struck me personally was this: It made me consider with more empathy, the difficulty white folks may have with discussing race in America with their children. Things didn’t get to where they are by some kind of “bad luck accident,” (and they’re not going to improve by accident). There’s an abundance of terrifying, morally wrong, specific and intentional actions that have taken place for us to get here. If I didn’t think it was integral for my son’s well-being and survival, would I tell him about these horrors? Or contemporary horrors? I’m really not sure, because you know what? It ain’t fun. “Hey kiddo, there’s no Santa and in this country you will be judged not by the content of your character, but by the color of your skin. Meritocracy is a myth and justice is only for some”. Perhaps I’m completely off base, obviously I don’t know what’s in the hearts and minds of everyone else, but I know that even if I weren’t a bigot, but there’s a picture in the attic of that time when grandma and grandpa attended that lynching, I probably wouldn’t want to talk about race either. Extreme example, yes. Even if I’m wrong, it was a big step for me in even contemplating that perspective instead of just being angry about the burden that is placed on my son and other black children in this society.

I don’t believe this choice to shut off from dialogue helps, I think connection helps. Real live connection. Simply put in 7 year-old terms, “segregation is bad because then I couldn’t be friends with Spencer.” Segregation allows for the chasm to deepen, whether it’s residential, schools (so bad), or where you work out. Something cool about CrossFit for me is that I get to interact with a lot of people who are different from me. As an example, one of my good buddies at the gym is a big, white, former frat boy from a conservative family- someone I would normally completely avoid (laughing but serious), but we have some great conversations on all kinds of social issues. It turns out we have a number of things in common, the biggest one being parenting and wanting to make this world a decent place for our kids.

I felt compelled to share these thoughts because as a I was struggling to process most recent extra-judicial murders of black men and boys that have occurred, and the sickness and bigotry that it brought out in many people, I began to feel intense anger, hopelessness, pain, despair and frustration. On a day those feelings verged on inconsolable, I heard a message while at my son’s school that changed me, and it is a simple one: “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” Peace makers. That indicates action, not passivity. This perspective has given me a sense of hope and empowerment. Part of my action is to speak my truth with love, and compassion and a hope for furthering connection. We all have a job here.  These babies can see the truth and we owe it to them, each other and ourselves to do better.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.




Author: Elisabeth Akinwale

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  • Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. Beautiful post, I feel like you reached right into my heart and spoke its thoughts. Keep making it happen; you’re such an inspiration, both as an athlete and a mom. Blessed are peacemakers, of which you are definitely one.

  • Thank you for writing this. It took a great deal of courage, vulnerability, and fortitude to speak up and tell the truth.

  • Reading this made me cry. It was written from a place that, I too, know well. It was overwhelming in honesty and simplicity. It challenged me. It gives me hope, though. I now know that I too have a voice. I, too, can express myself (perhaps not as eloquently as you). We are connected via our similar experiences and it is how we can strive to change things for the better. Thanks, EA.

  • This post was so deep and echoes the thoughts of shop many black CrossFit athletes and blacks in general. I know you didn’t choose this role but you carry all of its when you head into battle.

    We really adore and look up to you EA!

    -Stut Muffin

  • Beautiful article Elizabeth. My heart is sadden by all the violence in the news period. I think its awesome that you communicate with your son about the truth. The minds of children is being misguided and it is up to us as parents to tell them the truth as well as guide them in the right direction. This article hit home for me (career, mother, my well-being). You’re an inspiration for me. Keep making a difference!

  • I hear you and I feel WITH you!!
    I hope to return to CrossFit after recovering from a series of injuries and even here in NYC, Brooklyn to be exact, I can be one of maybe two or three members, not just at the box, but members TOTAL of color.
    I do feel for you when you become the defacto representative of ‘Black people who CrossFit’ because you are the most visible. When all you want to be is the best athlete…the most fit woman on earth, not the most fit BLACK woman on earth.
    These recent racial discussions keep opening old wounds in the United States.
    It’s time to start healing them and stop pretending they don’t exist.
    When you pretend a wound doesn’t exist, you could get an infection and then deal with bigger issues.
    Thank you for sharing!

  • First off, i read that book, 1000 white women, and i loved it so much, that i passed it on to someone else to read. Secondly, thank you for always being grounded, honest, vulnerable, and strong. You represent so much to so many, and you shoulder that responsibility with dignity and grace, and you always keep it classy. You know who you are and what you represent– to the sport, to black people, to women, to mothers. Again, thank you for doing it so well.

  • Yes! I GET it ! I was one of only three competitors in the masters divisions (40 – 60+) and am often the only one at comps. Let’s all do the heavy lifting needed to make things better.

  • You are so inspiring and one of my role models as an athlete. I’m a 17 year old wrestler/crossfitter from CA. I recently made the CA national team for wrestling & I noticed the same thing being one of the only black on the team. It gets tiring constantly being asked about race & how I feel about what’s going on in the world or blaming my skill & work ethic on my “blackness.” Reading this post gave me some reassurance. Thank you for being such an amazing athlete & person.

  • Gurl…I cannot even tell you how hard I was nodding my head while reading this! This is the main reason why my coaches will have to pull my cold, dead, body from my box, Crossfit Laurel. There are so many instances in my life where I have no choice but to “stand out:” professionally, educationally, where I live, etc. It is so SO comforting to be somewhere where I can just blend in if I so choose- to be surrounded by a lot folk who look like me, and have shared the same experiences, joys, and struggles as me as a person of color. And perhaps, as you mentioned in your piece, this is not the best way to close that chasm, but for me, right now, it works.Sometimes, I get tired of being the “spokesperson,” and just need a soft place to land. That place, for me, is the box.

  • I feel lucky that I go to a black/brown owned box and most folks at my box are folks of color. The pricepoint of CF already bars a lot of working class black, brown and white folks from the sport so for me it is important that I spend my money wisely. My box is also really social justice minded. They are seriously rare!

  • This has many facets to discuss but one observation I have from my classroom is what literature or text I bring into my room. For example, most of my students think Ruby Bridges is a fictional character because she is always portrayed in a cartoon like medium. When I showed my kids the actual picture of her leaving school with white men laughing around her as contrast to the painting of her bold and storming up the steps front cover on the book they were “use to seeing,” it led to a great and powerful discussion on race and what it means for them as third graders. Without digressing too much, thank you for your post that encourages me to have self-reflection as I teach.

  • Thanks for taking the time to write this Elisabeth.
    I have been in veeery similar “spokesman for black people” situations ever since high school.

    My question to you is: what does being a (active) peacemaker look like for you?

    • For me, at this moment, it means having an open heart for dialogue. Sharing my thoughts and experiences in a forum like this. Continuing to work on seeing the perspective of others. Nurturing my son and other young people so they are prepared to understand the world they live in a and hopefully be equipped to contribute to making it a better place. I feel more focused on micro efforts, I guess you could say. Connecting locally, within the world I operate in daily, as I mentioned in the blog. Increasing real, genuine relationships with diverse groups of people. Just some thoughts, I don’t have the answers.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. I wish I knew the answers, but I do know that you are an inspiration to others, and that makes a difference.

  • Hi Elisabeth,

    I’m reaching out to you because I would like to invite you to be a part of a campaign I have started call Muscle Can Be… Muscle Is… The purpose of the campaign is to encourage other women to become more active via weight lifting or playing sports. I interview women that are athletes and post them in hopes that their stories will motivate other women. Please look at the blog and contact me to let me know your thoughts. the link is

    Be well,


  • Well written piece, I remember that crap on the Facebook page and I applaud you for not getting involved. Why must we sacrifice our time and energy that is better spent on our pursuits to fight such nonsense. As a women of color who works in STEM and lives in Iowa I was not at all worried about the lack of color in the sport. I am quite used to it and I love the sport. I would like to see more black people doing it as I think it is a great workout. I thank you for your excellence as one of the few visible Black women in the CrossFit community. You are an excellent ambassador for us kinky curly, thick thigh having women. Although you may alone on the field, please know that many of us are cheering for you.

    Good luck this season!

  • Reading this had me hollering “Yes, Elisabeth Akinwale is PREACHING”. This issue right here is the reason I left my Crossfit box. It is also the reason I won’t join the Crossfit community till I find one where there are a lot of POC. I was the only female of color at my box. I had a few “interesting” experiences whilst I was a member of this box and will share 2 examples – One guy (white) would speak normal proper English to all the other members of this box (again all white) and then when we would have a conversation, he would switch to ghetto English or what he considered black English”. This happened every time! Another example: white dude was flirting with me, I reminded him that he had a fiancée, he responded by saying well since I’m black, I could take her down easily! Excuse me! How does being black equate being violent? This is just 2 examples, there are many more. Needless to say, I quit being a member.

    It isn’t easy to be in your shoes and I salute for being honest, open and positive!

  • I am really glad that you posted this. I began Crossfiting two years ago after seeing you compete at the Crossfit games. I was actually on a treadmill at a local Bally’s and saw the Crossfit games on one of the televisions. I DVRed what little I could catch and ran home to see the rest of the events. I saw you and in you, I could see myself.

    Sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the race issue, you know being the only chocolate chip in the box. I feel like this post re-affirms my feelings, but at the same time reminds me that while I am at the box I need to focus on training and training alone.

    At the same time I want to ask you not to shy away from talking about issues of race and Crossfit. You provide a voice that is uplifting to the other lone chocolate chips and strengthen a section of the community that otherwise would be overlooked.

    Again, thank you.

  • Elisabeth..You are the reason I started watching Crossfit and your comments speak directly to the extremely painful truth of what is happening and being ignored in our society.
    People always say that black people are so focused on the past and need to get over how we’ve been treated unfairly (through forcefully bringing us to the country via slavery, jim crow laws, segregation, school to prison pipeline, war on drugs (which was war on us) but they really fail to realize the truth of our experience because IT’S JUST NOT THEIRS, and they will never understand it…because no matter what they think or feel about each other, they protect themselves and each other, but the beginnings or our history did not allow us to do this, which is still evident in our relationships and actions today, and though we try, we are constantly reminded by society of who we have been made out to be. I’m not saying all white people (nor people of other races) are racist…but I feel we will not go forward in our society until the injustices in our country are resolved, dissolved and changed…because our actions are based on the fact that we, in 2015 still see is the same injustices of ole…again with our young men and women being murdered without regard or care (except now we have the technology to show these injustices, yet has anything changed?)…no. It is heartbreakingly sad that there is no accountability (again) for these actions.
    I acknowledge there is crime, wrong and trouble in our race…but what is not acknowledged is the strategic plan to keep us there (in survival mode) through poverty (which is what causes these crimes in the first place) not to mention that crime is the same most everywhere…its just it is handled differently for us and there is attention to promote a negative stigmatism that has been attributed to our entire race…since forever, overshadowing the good, regular human beings that most of us are…all striving for the same goal of the equality, acceptance and love that we deserve wherever we might live.

    It is a shame that an entire race of people can be hated for existing…not to mention somehow still surviving and thriving in a culture that has been designed, redesigned and constantly redesigned to ensure that we fail. It is horrendous that this is still going on and time to let it go! If not for ourselves, then for our children and the future. Although I don’t know how it will happen in my say truthfully.

    Back to you…Be encouraged and move forward in the excellence in which you have always carried yourself…You’re my SHERO!!!!

  • Thank you for the post. I’m proud to belong to the Crossfit community and have made lifelong friends with people who I would never have struck a convo with. But, we managed to find each other. We found laughter, joy, and our core – humanity. Dialogue is a wonderful thing when it comes from a place of honesty, understanding and respect. I too have chosen to shut off my valve because the pain sometimes is so heart breaking it’s hard to face. Over the past two years, things have gotten so out of pocket I have found it difficult to go into my break room at work, certain grocery stores or cafes. The pain is real. It’s not going anywhere. I hope we can come together to alleviate just a lil bit of the pain.