On the website “Stuff White People Like,” marathons are listed as #27. It describes running a marathon in the following way:
To a white person, the absolute pinnacle of fitness is to run a marathon. Not to win, just to run. White people will train for months, telling everyone who will listen about how they get up early in the morning, they run when it rains, how it makes them feels so great and gives them energy. When they finish the marathon, they will generally take a photo themselves in a pair of New Balance sneakers, running shorts, and their marathon number with both hands over their head in triumph (seriously, look it up, this is universal). They will then set goals like running in the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon. If you find yourself in a situation where a white person is talking about a marathon, you must be impressed or you will lose favor with them immediately. Running for a certain length of time on a specific day is a very important thing to a white person and should not be demeaned.
Playing upon widespread stereotypes about whiteness and African runners, Daniel Tosh celebrated the existence of marathons in racial terms: “The only reason marathons are still around is so 20,000 white people can chase three black guys through the streets of Boston like the good old days.”
This is the world I imagined when I first started running a few years back. As a white male, nobody ever questioned my “fitness” to run marathons, assuming, despite never being a runner, that it was a natural outgrowth of my past athletic endeavors. Since then I have done several races, increasingly witnessing the level of racial, class, and age diversity evident within the running world. Whereas both the Seattle Marathon (Rock n Roll) and San Francisco Marathon were overwhelmingly white, my recent race in Los Angeles challenged the widespread association between running and middle-class white identities. My experience highlighted the diversity of runners (and Los Angeles). I was surrounded by black and Latino youth, many who were running as part of the Students Run Los Angeles program. This challenging fact disrupts the celebrated whiteness associated with marathons. Running is not limited to 5K or 10ks, half or full marathons, but is a daily practice that brings people together in myriad contexts.
The existence of Black Girls Run! (BGR) is yet another challenge to a narrative that sees running as a white activity and its erasure of people of color, offering a symbolic intervention all while creating a community of betterment with its investment in running, walking, and collective exercise. Founded in 2009, BGR works “to encourage African-American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority,” yet in talking to its participants, it does so much more.
Throughout the media coverage of BGR it is celebrated as a movement that works to address black obesity and cultural shortcomings that purportedly discourages exercise and encourages poor eating habits. Erasing the power of the organization, the media focus on pathologies obscures the power and focus of a group committed to supporting black women runners. Contrary to this popular assumption, most of the respondents I spoke with noted a history of running and exercise, citing BGR as a nurturing community of support, and not one that taught or brought them into running. While pop cultural representations and various surveys (Running USA Survey found that only 1.6. percent of runners identified as African American) of African American people paint the running world as white territory, African Americans have always engaged in recreational running. Adrienne White told Runner’s World how BGR challenged dominant media representations: “You flip through the magazine, and you just don’t see yourself.” Similarly, Brenda Stallings lamented the erasure of black women from the public running imagination. “If we don’t see us, we don’t think that’s really for us. I read the magazine because it’s insightful, but I’m not going to look down there and see me.” BGR thus represents a symbolic and material challenge to the white imagination as it relates to running. It is the announcement of “we are black and we are runners” to a world and culture that so often sees runners as akin to whiteness. This representational distortion not only erases the experiences of black women runners, but also contributes to a larger discourse that often paints health disparities as the result of individual failures–as opposed to structural inequalities and persistent racism. Reflecting on the persistence of segregation where spaces of running lack diversity, and the elevation of white runners within media culture, BGR offers a powerful intervention.
Whereas gyms often feel like places of tremendous judgment, with its pictures of hard, slender bodies on their walls, mirrors strategically located throughout, and an overall culture that privileges the “beautiful,” BGR works to create a space free of criticism. While enhancing the exercise experience, the efforts to resist the socially constructed markers of beauty and athleticism, fitness and desirability, represents an important intervention individually and culturally. “BGR provides a safe, no-judgment zone for beginners and those getting back into a consistent routine of walking/running,” notes Tiffany Cullens of Columbus, Ohio.
Describing the organization as a “nation,” “family,” a “movement,” and sisterhood by its members, BGR offers a community that transcends age, class, geography, and most importantly level of expertise. It offers not only a supportive space but also one that values all its members. Whereas exercise is so often framed around achieving a Hollywood body in an effort to fulfill dominant standards of femininity and masculinity, BGR values exercise and the power of a community with a shared goal of running or walking. “I’m always amazed by all the different body types that come out every weekend. Big hips, big thighs, round bellies, as well as slim, lean, what you imagine is the “typical” runner’s body,” notes Leigh Raiford, a Bay Area BGR member. “There are women who perhaps you’d never think could run more than a mile, have done half-marathons or even full marathons. For me this has translated from a desire for a more perfect body to pleasure in feeling strong and healthy. I may not have a bikini ready figure but I’m taking care of myself in ways that truly matter.” Raiford brilliantly compared BGR to both the black church and hair salons given the shared emphasis on community, betterment, and sisterhood: “For someone like me who doesn’t go to church, who has a short fro and doesn’t go to the hairdresser, and who is a transplant to the Bay Area, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to hang out just with black women. So BGR has provided community for me in ways beyond running.” Similarly, Darlene Baltimore emphasizes the safety and support offered by BGR:
I think why so many women are drawn to BGR! is because we are so much more than a running group. We are a sisterhood, support group, and safe haven for all women who want to get fit and live a healthier lifestyle. BGR! welcomes all levels of fitness from walkers to marathoners. We don’t compete against each other, but inspire and motivate each other to reach our individual goals—whether it’s walking a mile or running a marathon. The name itself is appealing because immediately a black woman can identify.
Yolanda Jones, the Ambassador for the Colorado BGR group, concurs, “I believe it gives the ladies a sense of belonging. I have now found a group of other black women who like myself like to run, jog or even walk. It gives them a community to go to something that now says ‘I am now connected to others who look like me and have common goals.’” To say that this is a community of runners, a community that supports and nurtures a love of running, would be understatement. Operating at both a local and national level, the BGR community is one of support in the face of public erasure of black women and the ubiquitous demonization of black women’s women bodies, whether Serena Williams or Michelle Obama. Beyond challenging these stereotypes and larger forces of systemic racism/sexism, BGR provides its members with an environment apart from the daily rhetorical (and real) violence experienced by African American women.
While often dismissed as a running group, BGR is much more. Regina James, who highlighted the interventions and resistance offered from her participation in the organization, focused on the power of the group given the realities of racism and sexism in America:
I feel it’s important for us to train together. Most of us live and work in environments where we are ALWAYS the minority. It’s nice to have a place where we are a majority. We can just be ‘us’ (whatever that is) and be totally accepted. That is powerful.
We challenge the narrative just by being ‘there’. Most white runners I’ve talked to mention that there aren’t many Black runners at races (except Africans, who win the majority of distance races). Thanks to BGR and the NABM (National Association of Black Marathoners) I know I never have to be the only Black face in a sea of 30,000 people lining up to run a race. If I post online that I’m doing a race or visiting a city, I can find others who will run with me.
While the dominant media narrative of black women’s health often focuses on pathology, dysfunction, and personal shortcomings, the stories told by the women involved with BGR challenges a culture of disparagement and demonization. Yet challenging the accepted stereotypes isn’t of concern for the women of BGR whose focus remains on the next mile and nurturing a community of support during those long runs and after. With each step, with each high five, and with each statement of support, the members of BGR demonstrate the power of community and the power to move forward even when others stand in the way.