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.
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.
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.