Running while white

IMG_5014Lately, I’ve been doing some thinking about white privilege and running.  I know the term “white privilege” makes many white people defensive. Coming from another white person, it’s heard as simultaneously self-righteous and self-flagellating. Coming from a person of color, it’s heard as an accusation. And it invariably sounds oh-so-politically correct.

But it shouldn’t. And I’d like to think that just maybe, thinking about white privilege in the context of running – a relatively un-fraught, low-stakes topic – might make it easier to recognize it elsewhere, where the stakes are higher. (I’m thinking about myself and other white people here; I don’t think most people of color have any trouble recognizing white privilege.)

Without further ado, here are five ways I experience white privilege as a runner.

1. I can run wherever I want without being questioned or hassled. I routinely run through places where I “don’t belong”: Chinatown, Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, low-income housing projects, industrial areas and so on. Not only do I engage in the suspicious behavior of running, I do it in all kinds of weather and at all times of day (including before dawn and after dark). I’ve been doing this for years now, and in all that time, I’ve never once been stopped by cops, security guards, neighborhood patrols or suspicious residents. I find that nothing short of astonishing: I mean, the way I look sometimes, I would stop me.

2. Most of the time, I’m blithely unaware of the police. I can afford to be blithely unaware because my life experiences (and those of my family members) don’t include being stopped while going about my business and questioned, frisked or worse. When I cross against the light (hey, I’m a runner, I’m impatient) right by a cop car, do you know what happens?


3. If I do notice the police, I assume they’re there to protect me. When I’m running in the park after dark, or in a deserted industrial area any time of day, and I see a police patrol, I feel safer. The thought that they might be looking at me as a “suspect” . . . in other words, that I might have something to fear . . . that thought never occurs to me. Literally, never.

4. Businesses cut me slack and treat me with respect. Like many runners, I have occasional bathroom emergencies far from home. When I appeal to use a “customers only” restroom, I’m usually successful. (And when I’m not, I’m shocked and outraged and walk away muttering about boycotts.) Sometimes, especially with larger establishments, I don’t even ask – I just brazen my way in, walking through a crowded restaurant or fancy hotel lobby with an air of entitlement.

5. I can count on seeing a lot of other people who look like me at races and running events. When I show up for a group run on a weekend morning, I know I won’t be the only white person there. When a black person shows up, they may or may not be the only black person there. Does that matter? Runners are runners, right? Well, sure – but I kind of think that if I were the only white runner in a black crowd, I’d be, at a minimum, aware of my race (just as I’m often made aware of my gender). The ability to remain unaware is a kind of privilege.

. . .

I don’t claim that my experience of “running while white” reflects that of all white runners. All of us are bundles of different identities, and I’m sure my running experiences are also shaped by the fact that I’m a woman, well into middle age, whose technical gear telegraphs her socioeconomic status as “not poor.” But I know in my gut that my experience of running would be different if all these other things were the same, and I had darker skin.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t about guilt. It’s not really about running, either. It’s about the need to talk about race frankly and non-defensively (and, may I add, to listen), as part of a broader effort to change things that need changing. I have some personal experience with how difficult these conversations can be (that’s a topic for another day) – but for heaven’s sake, we need to have them.

(A note: I had some technical difficulties putting this post up . . . by which I really mean that I accidentally clicked “publish” while still editing, and then had to figure out how to take it back. I have no idea what that means for people who follow this blog. If it resulted in confusing notifications, I apologize!)


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