He assumed a threat from the beginning: to exercise being black in the United States
You may not think twice before going for a run in your neighborhood. But as someone who is wrongly perceived as a threat, I have to consider the worst case scenario.
Imagine that it is 10:00 am on a Saturday. The weather is absolutely perfect for a walk or jog outside, and you’re excited to breathe in the fresh air while burning off some calories.
Then you look down and notice the color of your skin. Seconds later, you remember that you are the only person with your skin color in your entire neighborhood.
Soon your mind is filled with memories of receiving questioning looks from your neighbors, or crossing the street when you approached them, even in the pre-pandemic world.
After some thought, you agree and decide to hop on the elliptical machine in your hot, stuffy garage. The sadness overcomes you.
Can you imagine something like this happening to you while trying to exercise? This is my personal exercise story in a nutshell.
I am a black man in America, and we all know the countless stories involving unarmed people of my skin color being injured or killed simply for existing in this country.
I live in a nice neighborhood and I am literally the only black man who lives on my street. When no one someone else within a square mile looks like me, all it takes for something to go wrong is an overzealous neighbor freaking out at the sight of someone who looks like me running down the sidewalk.
But something funny happens every time I walk through my neighborhood with my adorable puppy or my two little daughters. Instead of being seen as a bully, a threat, or a stranger, people will greet me, ask me to pet my dog, and strike up a conversation.
In an instant, I become a loving parent and pet owner. In other words, I become “secure”, even though I am exactly the same person when I am alone.
The only way I can describe it is crushing.
Adding another layer to this, I suffer from a depressive disorder, something that has been amplified by not feeling comfortable in my own skin in America.
Frankly, there aren’t many men who admit it publicly due to the immense stigma that surrounds it, and that’s a big problem in and of itself.
Personally, exercise does wonders for my mental health, but I want to be able to exercise on my own terms in my own neighborhood, like many of my white neighbors can do without a second thought.
Whenever I share my feelings with white people, I often find myself with these questions:
“Why don’t you make an effort to meet with your neighbors so they know you’re not a threat?”
“If it’s so bad, why don’t you move to a more diverse place?”
“Do you think you’re exaggerating this a bit? I doubt it’s as bad as you’re making it out to be.
Put another way, they think it’s my fault that I don’t feel comfortable exercising alone in my own neighborhood, and that I have a responsibility to fix it. Trust me, it doesn’t make me feel good to have my experiences ignored or downplayed.
I’ve been taught that if you want better answers, you have to ask better questions, and the one question I’ve rarely been asked by white people is, “What can I do to help?”
Here’s a quick list of five things to do right now:
1. Believe us when we talk about racism
Instead of rejecting us for waving a mythical race card, take the time to realize that black people don’t use racism as a crutch or an excuse.
In fact, if you brought up the subject of racism every time you experienced it, it would be the only thing you would talk about. Instead, I talk about it when I’m at the end of my rope as a cry for help.
I don’t want your sympathy for racism, I want your empathy, which will hopefully prompt you to take action to fix it.
2. Listen more, talk less
Try not to focus on yourself or your experiences when trying to understand racism, because it’s not about you. Find a variety of teachers, books, documentaries, and other resources to learn more about the history of racism and how it pervades society today.
3. Give blacks the benefit of the doubt
Blacks are guilty until proven innocent in the court of public opinion in America.
Anytime you see someone who looks like me in your neighborhood, you must believe that the vast majority of us are just minding our own business and don’t want to hurt you.
A simple smile or wave when you pass me on the sidewalk would mean more than you think. Who knows, you might even make a new friend in the process.
4. Be actively anti-racist
To be clear, being discreetly “non-racist” is not the same as being anti-racist.
The art of anti-racism is often complicated, confrontational and uncomfortable, but never passive. It is important to denounce racism wherever we see it in order to eradicate it from polite society.
5. Introduce yourself, even when you don’t want to
To piggyback on the previous point, anti-racism work is exhausting. It’s easy to compromise at first, but after weeks or months of fighting racism, it can feel like you’re trying to empty the ocean with a spoon.
At that point, it would be easy to throw in the towel, and he could do it without consequence. Your life would be the same on almost every level.
However, people like me can’t afford to quit, and I’ll still be on the beach with my spoon even when I don’t want to. Don’t turn your back on this fight. We need you.
I don’t want to take the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lightly, but I have a dream that one day I will be able to walk or run alone in any neighborhood without being viewed negatively.
With your help, I am hopeful that we will get there.
Doyin Richards is the founder and CEO of the anti-racism club and has trained thousands of corporate employees on how to create and maintain anti-racist workplaces. He is also a bestselling children’s author and TEDx speaker.
Last medical check-up on April 13, 2021