Running While Black
A conversation with Alison Désir
There are a lot of things white people take for granted — and one of them is ease of movement. I don't mean, like, the ability to move your body without feeling creaks and cracks, I mean actually moving oneself — across town, across the country, by foot, by car, by train, by plane — without question. That assertion is complicated, of course, by other parts of a person's identity, but the general pass of whiteness remains in place: the understanding that in a white body, I will almost certainly be given the benefit of the doubt, and that my presence in a space will not be immediately understood as threatening or suspect. Again, that doesn't mean that whiteness makes someone invulnerable. But one of the many privileges of whiteness is not having to maintain constant vigilance in public spaces. Privilege, in so many instances, is expressed as an absence, a negative space: the fact that you never had to think about something at all.
I am thrilled to have Alison Désir in the newsletter today, making a whole lot of those things that a lot of (white) runners are never forced to think about visible — including just how white running really is. In making that whiteness visible, she also makes it, as she's previously written, unbearable — it is ridiculous, the ways that a sport that prides itself on the idea that "anyone can run" still centers a very specific type of body, it is preposterous, that Black figures central to the development of distance running have been excised from the popular narrative, it is scandalous that the white running community still believes that running somehow transcends politics or identity.
As she wrote back in 2020, following the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and shot by three white men in a Georgia suburb while he was out for a jog: “For too long, the running community has pretended as though it were possible to keep politics out of running. As if, somehow, running is the great equalizer where people can come together and compete on an equal playing field, transcending all markers of identity. The truth is, when I go for a run as a Black woman, that in and of itself is a political act and one that puts me at risk—fearing for my life. As long as we live in a world steeped in white supremacy—and we do—being a Black woman will never be separate from my identity as a runner.”
Désir's new book, Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport that Wasn’t Built For Us, unrolls these truths and many others (including a very compelling case against the Boston Marathon as an institution) while centering her own as a Black runner who's fallen deeply in love with a still deeply flawed sport. If you're a runner, it's mandatory reading, and if you're not, I still think the book — and this conversation — will challenge you or make you feel seen.
I know the story about how you, personally started running, and I’d love to for you to share that with readers — but I also want to know what your understanding of what running was (and who it was for) before you first starting doing it yourself.
(I personally remember thinking it was a thing that dads with mustaches did down on the trail next to the river). What images do you think kids have now of what running is — and how does that shift according to race, location, and class?
I was always very active growing up. In elementary school, I was the kid who was excited for recess because I would race the boys and win. That was what running was for me — it was fast and explosive. I grew up loving Flo Jo and fantasizing about one day being in the Olympics like she was. Long distance running/cross country was never on my radar. It wasn’t until high school that the idea of long distance running even came into my consciousness — and I saw it as something that thin, white people did. I remember looking at my classmates with confusion -— why would they want to do something so incredibly painful for so long. It didn’t excite or interest me at all; it was completely foreign and nothing I ever imagined I would do.
That is until 2011 — when I found myself unemployed, in a failing relationship, sharing responsibility for caring for my father who was six years into a Lewy Body Dementia diagnosis, and I saw a friend of mine who was training for a marathon and sharing his experience on Facebook. He was Black, husky — he did not have the stereotypical body type of a runner — and I was intrigued. I started following his journey and reaching out to him with questions about his training: everything from “what happens if you have to poop while you’re running?” to “how do you keep yourself going to for so long?” He was really kind and shared all parts of his training journey, and when he completed his marathon in June of that year, I got the sense that it had transformed his life and maybe it could do the same for me despite how depressed I was at the time. In January of 2012, I decided to sign up for the same race as part of Team in Training and commit to fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Training for the marathon brought me back to life. I found a sense of purpose, realized that I was in fact capable of doing hard things and my entire perspective began to shift — I was realizing that my life was not over and that I could take responsibility for changing it.
When I completed the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon in June of 2012. having raised over $5,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, I knew that this powerful practice of running I had stumbled into was here to stay and I wanted to share it with other people in my community. Read: Black people.
Because as powerful as my marathon experience was, it was clear to me that running was divided along racial and class lines. For one thing, Black people are almost exclusively represented in track and field, and we get these messages at an early age that that is where we belong. Long standing racist ideas, rooted in Eugenics, continue to convey the notion that we are somehow better suited for sprinting and jumping.
And despite the rhetoric of long distance running that claims “running is for everyone” and all you need are a pair of running shoes, representation in traditional media, social media and marketing continues to center thin, white men and women. I created Harlem Run as a running movement that would disrupt the white narrative and center and make space for people like me.
In the writing and research for this book, I dug deeper, exploring the ways in which Jim Crow segregation, redlining, zoning, and environmental racism all impact who sees themselves as a runner and who has access to what you need to go for a run. Long distance runners need physical safety, psychological safety, clean air, safe streets, proper lighting and sidewalks. And all of those things are commodities that are not nearly as available to Black people as to white people in a white supremacist country.
There’s a timeline at the beginning of the book that contrasts Running History with Black People’s Reality when it comes to freedom of movement — it’s the sort of thing that is often very eye-opening to well-intentioned white people without a lot of experience outside of whiteness, but, as the chart puts it, was and is just Black people’s daily reality.
In your book, in your advocacy, in your speaking — how do you balance the need to educate people with the need to acknowledge a common reality? How, in other words, do you think of your audience? (It strikes me as very purposeful, for example, that the subtitle of your book explicitly invokes an “us” that is Black — and I’m also thinking about the shift in the original title, The Unbearable Whiteness of Running).
Initially, the book was very much for white people. It was more in the genre of an anti-racism book. Straight manifesto. Instructional. Confrontational. There is still a chapter titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Running,” but thankfully, my editor pushed me to move in a different direction — recognizing that what was missing in that first version of the book was me. Running While Black is powerful because it is my journey — raw, vulnerable — and readers are alongside of me, in the passenger seat, for the ride.
So in this published version? This book is first and foremost for “us,” my people, to finally see ourselves and our running story reflected in mainstream print. There are so few books in general written by Black authors (itself a reflection of the whiteness of the publishing industry) let alone running books by Black women. I hope Running While Black is one of many more books by us to come.
Running While Black is as much about the fear and struggles that come with moving through space as it is about the power of movement to transform and save/change your life. It has been incredibly moving to know that my story resonates so deeply with other Black people and marginalized people more generally. Black people have also enjoyed the opportunity to learn just how central and integral we are to running’s history. Learning that key figures like Ted Corbitt shaped the sport we love — but have been all but removed from the story of long distance running — empowers Black folks to share the truth far and wide.
The second audience is white people for whom my book is eye opening and in many ways shocking. I am no longer surprised at just how ignorant most white people are in this country; it’s by design. Ignorance is a key feature that keeps white supremacy in place. I’m hopeful that this book humanizes the experience of what it is to live as a Black person/runner in this country and then inspires white people to take action towards racial equity.
Many people tell me that though I’m warm and kind, I am unapologetically direct and straightforward. I love that and the book takes the same tone. My book is for anyone who is willing to be open to learning and unlearning what they think they know to be true. I guarantee that everyone will leave inspired.
In your chapter on Inclusion/Exclusion, you narrate a glorious experience you had at the 2016 Brooklyn Half (which, coincidentally, I also ran, and also found glorious) and how your time there led to conversations about qualifying for the Boston Marathon. As you put it:
If I could run a 1:39 without thinking about it, I could qualify for Boston with a little effort. The question was: did I want to?
That was easy: Nope. Boston was not a city I cared to go to. It’s a racist place, more than other cities and towns in the country. It’s in the air, a product of the city’s history. Not just in the fact that segregation originated there in 1838, when the Eastern Railroad started segregating cars between Boston and Salem before the end of slavery, but also in the city’s pride in colonialism, and how lower- and middle-class Irish Americans resented middle-class Black people, believing they were taking economic opportunity from them. It’s in the way Boston fiercely fought school integration in the ’60s and ’70s, and how Black parents were still fighting for equal resources for their kids, for the end of police bias and brutality, for the end of Jim Crow. On top of that, the Boston I knew and had been to was Dorchester and Roxbury, two neighborhoods with large Black populations. But those neighborhoods weren’t part of the Boston Marathon, because the majority of the race doesn’t actually go through the city of Boston. It travels through predominantly white suburbs and finishes in a predominantly white part of the city.
The Boston Marathon’s reputation was also a deterrent. The race is viewed as the holy grail of our sport, the most sought-after event. If you’ve run Boston, you’ve somehow “made it” as a runner. But Boston’s “specialness” stems from its exclusivity. The race is open only to those who can run fast enough to earn a spot, unless you run for charity and can fundraise thousands of dollars. Speed makes you “worthy” of Boston. I had no interest in participating in an event that valued exclusion. What is white supremacy, ultimately, but an ideology of exclusion, of thinking you’re “special,” above all the rest? In my mind, the Boston Marathon epitomizes this thinking, and I wanted no part of it.
I absolutely the challenge of this section and the rest of the chapter — not only to think through the ways in which a city that might feel welcoming or “neutral” to one group of people will always feel different to others, but also the way you connect racial exclusion and supremacy to the race’s exclusion and narrative of supremacy. How has this conversation challenged people, particularly people who think of the quest for “eliteness” as somehow neutral?
In my experience, there is nothing this country loves more than myths rooted in exclusion and privilege. Manifest Destiny. The American Dream. It is just so peak American to disregard what is clearly rooted in oppression and elitism as somehow neutral.
That being said, many readers have thanked me for putting into words what they have felt but could not put their finger on. And others, who have spent their lives “chasing the unicorn” have begun to grapple with “what has it all been for.” There’s also, of course, a large segment of people who are still in their feelings about it: working through what feels like a personal attack and haven’t yet come out the other side. I’m okay with that too.
I’m heading to Boston on my book tour and will be in conversation with the BAA; I’m very curious how I/the book will be received and what if anything the organization will do to address its elitism and the cognitive dissonance I explore in the book. Will the BAA see how the exclusiveness of the event is in direct contrast to its own messaging that all are welcome? Furthermore, will the BAA finally address the health and movement disparities in the Boston running community that are amplified in its races? Will the BAA continue to racially diversify its board and leadership structure (In Nov 2021, Adrienne R. Benton was named to the BAA Board of Governors, becoming the first woman of color to serve in this role in the organization’s 135-year-history)?
Here’s hoping they have the endurance needed!
In the intro, you detail the small things you do on a run to try and make yourself feel more safe in an unsafe world — sending your location to your partner before you start a run, for instance, or choose your route to avoid streets that seem to have a higher likelihood for harassment based on the political signs and flags in their yards. “It seems both silly and essential,” you write. “It’s all I have.”
When a system or society refuses to change its norms, all you have are those silly and yet essential means of trying to make yourself feel safer. I love that the book begins with an acknowledgment of how backwards it is for the individual to have to behave this way, and ends with a tour de force argument for the industry itself to change — because as it is now, no matter the story it tells about itself, it is still upholding white supremacy. What are some of things that you’re excited about in terms of (slowly) dismantling white supremacy within the industry, and where do you think there are still massive blind spots?
Where to begin? I get really excited about the progress that can be made from a leadership and ownership perspective within the industry. I read a quote once that said “if your place of business is still structured like a plantation — with all the power and decision making in the hands of white men at the top — you’re doing it wrong.” That’s the running industry!
The Running Industry Diversity Coalition (of which I’m co-chair and co-founder) has launched a research project that will allow us to get an accurate picture of the current racial and ethnic composition of running industry employment, leadership and ownership in the U.S. as well as current racial and ethnic composition of running participation. This baseline data will then allow us to measure and track progress annually with regard to racial and ethnic representation in running industry employment, leadership, and ownership and running participation, helping us to create goals, build action plans, and measure progress.
I also work closely with several brands on a consulting basis to look at the ways in which their hiring and retention practices are flawed. There are sometimes simple fixes — like allowing for remote work or listing salaries in job descriptions — but many times it is deeper cultural issues that make those working environments hostile to Black people. I’m hopeful that over the next 3-5 years, we will make some measurable progress.
As far as other projects that excite me — I have a PBS show launching December 1st called Out & Back!! I was approached last spring by a friend and producer, Sarah Menzies, who had heard I was moving to the PNW and was curious if I wanted to host a tv show. I almost didn’t believe the request was real at first but went on to develop what will very soon be a real tv show available for the world to see! Out & Back will cover topics like the running boom, sundown towns, environmental racism, redlining, representation and otherism while also featuring incredible Black, Indigenous and other people of color reclaiming and making space in the outdoor industry.
Finally, because I know the runners in this community will love this — who are your favorite runners to follow on Instagram, or podcasts that you listen to religiously, or organizations that you support that are doing the damn work?
Love this question! My absolute favorite podcast is 2 Black Runners. Aaron and Joshua Potts are brothers who are obsessed with the sport of running and bring the type of energy and expertise our sport needs to reach new audiences. I consider the two of them my brothers and love to see them shining.
Other Favorite Podcasts:
Burn it Down Podcast https://www.burnitalldownpod.com/episodes
Grounded Pod https://www.instagram.com/groundedpod/
Keeping Track https://www.instagram.com/keeptrackmedia/
Trailhead Podcast: https://www.instagram.com/trailahead_podcast/
Orgs Doing the Damn Work:
Some of My Favorite Runners on Instagram: