CrossFit CEO’s Comment & Racism

To be perfectly honest I went back and forth about writing this. My writing and content focus is primarily business-related. My personal life is for the most part offline. I don’t comment on current events unless there is a connection with my passion for improving the quality of life of the active aging community. Thus I usually focus on advocating for the health and well-being of older adults as a fitness professional.

Right now the racial climate in the United States is ugly. It is hitting me hard. It is not like I am surprised in more senseless killing of a black people. There is just so much more fuel poured on the fire right now. People are coming out of the woodwork to show their true colors about the value they have for black lives. There is no leadership or attempt to bring the country together coming from the White House. By no means is it an exaggeration that we are at or moving towards a boiling point. I am a black man who is a fitness professional.

The CEO of CrossFit Greg Glassman made a comment on social media that went viral. It was regarding George Floyd. I am not going to talk specifically about it or make assumptions about his beliefs. His act is a place I want to start at and then move from there. He showed his true colors and there are repercussions…

Perhaps some in the fitness industry thought that we were not going to have any figures of influence shining a light on the systemic nature of racism. At the same time fires have swirled in the sports world. It is more than just Kaepernick but his message has never rung so true during this time. The fitness industry is a close cousin of the sports machine. Working in fitness especially with clients is not about a work environment per se. We are not colleagues of clients. We don’t have work meetings with them. We are there to help teach them ways to move better. Talking with them about social issues is completely up to the preference of the trainer. Thus my focus here is on those that are leaders, “influencers”, can hire and fire, and other ways they influence fitness professionals like myself. Also, the fitness industry is about people. They (the clients) are not only the consumer in a way they are our product living their lives and serve as a living promotion of the benefits of making your health a priority.

It is about people. Especially when it comes to group exercise classes it is about bringing people together and creating a community. That community makes people come back because it is more than just a workout.

Just like any industry the tone of the work environment is set by leaders. Leaders have opinions. They have lives of their own, beliefs, and life experiences that they draw from. These individuals can be why people go to classes or want to be a personal trainer. Who the leaders are as people reflect on those of us that are inspired by them or look to them for how we can make our industry better. They have their story. We all have our own story. It is our filter to how we see the world. We are human. We are flawed. Those that know us well know our story. Those that don’t know us as well don’t.

My Story

Raised primarily in a majority white community I was used to being one of the few black kids in the class. My parents are both college-educated plus upper level degrees and have been recognized countless times for what they have done to give back to the town they live in and elsewhere. My parents raised me to understand the value and power in helping others and showing empathy. They have always been role models of how to treat others, especially those different than me. I try my best to live up to that as best as I can but I am not perfect. At the same time, they ingrained in me that I would be watched more, judged, and scrutinized more than my white counterparts because of the color of my skin. I had a great childhood. I had many friends. I remember realizing how my nose and lips were bigger and differnt than my classmates. For a short time I was self-conscious smiling because my big teeth would show. Fortunately I got over that pretty quickly. We had neighbors that were important parts of my childhood. I was active in many things and was even voted the Prom King in High School (yep, true story). I had some wonderful teachers and will never forget how Mrs. Wiseman encouraged me to write poetry. I was fortunate that I didn’t live in a city where encounters with police were an everyday occurrence as many kids do growing up. At the same time even as a young black man, I had a fear of police. It was not irrational. This fear came from the reality of the history I learned between the police and black people. It was not in the past, it was in the news as well.

At school were some brushes of racist comments or questionable ways of treating me by teachers or students and my parents got involved. I grew up with a tall and wide bookshelf in our living with countless publications I read which educated me about my ancestors, the civil rights movement, and the power of diversity. I remember vividly after watching the old movie Mississippi Burning I stood at the front door looking outside in fear to make sure someone was not burning a cross on our lawn. Coming to terms with the fact as a child that there are people out there that want to harm me or not allow me to do something because of nothing but the color of my skin is a reality black and other youth of color know. Nothing drives me up the wall more than people denying the fact that this is true. This is a reality many parents right now that don’t have black children have to try to explain to their kids. That cannot be easy to do. Racism is not something imaginary. This is real. How racism has left its imprint on American society is not just in the history books folks.

The bookcase. Filled with words from people like Sidney Poitier, Alex Haley, Louise Meriwether, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer.

College was where I began to grow into who I was and understand what it was to be a black man in America. It was not through any educational pursuits. It was through experiences, reading more, and being more aware. I became very aware and conscious of how I was perceived as a black man by certain inviduals and institutions. I noticed like a light coming on in the darkness how I was treated differently when I lived in and worked in London. I was considered black of course. However, there was no extra layer of expectations, assumptions, connotations, and judgments that came with being black. I did not feel the weight of negative expectations stuck to the color of my skin.

You can even listen to some of this conversation on YouTube. For me reading the words can be more powerful as you have to digest them a bit more.

Some of my inspirations such as Nina Simone or Miles Davis and I believe also John Coltrane in their time spoke to their sense of being treated strikingly different in Europe. That is why they spent so much time in places like Paris. Even if one denies it when they come back to the states the difference is even more abrubt. Even with my travels and work abroad during college, I lived in a bubble from the real world as we all can do. I dug into reading James Baldwin, who I felt spoke to me as a black man. (Want to see or hear a dialogue on race? Check out A Rap on Race by James Baldwin & Margret Mead) Baldwins’ way of using the English language to describe his experience blows my mind to this day. Langston Hughes, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and others helped me to understand more my experience as a black man in America. I even read things like Charles Murray’s Bell Curve to read his and others’ justifications for racism.

The real world began when I lived in Chicago.

I did many things including helping to serve and work with the schools in the Chicago Public School System. I saw how the conditions of schools changed depending on the neighborhood. Calling the case Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 a landmark case would be an understatement. At the same time, the condition of schools for black and other students of color are still deplorable compared to schools in other neighborhoods. Racism is alive in the public school system. Countless books have been published about the institutional racism present in America’s schools. Is it everyone’s fault within that system? Of course not. I was blessed with meeting teachers, principals, and other individuals doing everything in their power to create a school environment that sheltered, nurtured, and treats black children and other students of color with the expectation that they are somebody. With that said still it is tangible how a system rotting with institutionalized racism can contribute to young people entering college, not at the same general level of preparedness as their white classmates.

In one of my jobs, I was speaking to someone over the phone and eventually sat down face to face to go over things. The white man matter-of-factly told me he was surprised I was black, cause I didn’t sound black. He didn’t mean it as an insult, to him it was an observation. I will just leave that here. What kind of expectations did he have or assumptions did he make?

In my professional and personal life often I am one of the few people of color let alone a black person in the room. Other times it is a more diverse. I was used to being in the minority after my experience growing up in a small town. I, of course, didn’t adjust my path because of that. At the same time be assured I notice things. I am aware that especially if people don’t know me I may be watched a bit more than others. I have seen patterns of white bosses consistently treat colleagues of color differently when they made a mistake compared to their white counterparts.

I am used to changing how I act and move to make others more comfortable. I love hooded sweatshirts. Would I walk around with my hood on? Nope. Would I walk into a grocery or a liquor store with my hood on? Hell no. Why? Because this could lead to someone thinking I was planning to do some criminal activity. There are some things I just won’t do. There have been towns or establishments I have passed through and the feeling is not good. Everyone in the room has their eyes on you. It is not a welcoming feeling. The air gets colder. Racism hits all 5 of your senses. I can tell you what it smells, tastes, feels, looks, and sounds like.

I remember some comedian that had a great bit about time travel. From what I recollect the bit explains that for white people time travel would be fun. However, black people showing up at the ”wrong time” in history would not be fun at all. It is some dark humor, funny but true. I loved watching In Living Color as a kid. Not only was it funny it had some social commentary that was on point like a lot of comedy does. In one skit a black slave named Anton Jackson played by Damon Wayans was living in a cave for a long time and was told to travel north by his dying father. Anton then emerged into everyday life as we know it. He crossed paths with a black professional in a suit (David Alan Grier). Wayans asked if Grier was free (a free slave), Grier, of course, told him he was. During the interaction, a white jogger literally ran into Grier and told him to watch where he was going. Wayans told Grier not to talk back to the white man. It was funny as obviously times changed, yet in the end, a police officer became involved because of the white jogger complaining about Grier. Soon Grier was face down getting handcuffed. The slave Wayans told Grier that he warned him not to talk to white people like that. It showed that we have come a long way but underscored how far? Richard Pryor was known for highlighting racism and getting white people to laugh at it. Robin Williams called Pryor “an alchemist who can turn the darkest pain into the deepest comedy.”

Years ago I had a friend at the time that was doing good work in Mississippi. I was looking for jobs and she suggested that I should move there. I explained to her that I thought about it but as great as it sounded I was not going to move here. She is white, educated, and liberal. I had to explain to her how I could not put roots down there. Just the thought of just going for a run gave me much pause. As well-meaning as she was, she didn’t get it at first.

Picture from the Press Conference. I am on the left. Photo credit ACLU of IL

I have had many interactions with police. A police officer pulled his gun out of his holster and asked me where I was going while walking to my car in Chicago. Another time I was sitting on a bench in my neighborhood reading a book in the afternoon when an undercover car pulled up and the first thing the officer said was “hands up, you know the drill.” Yes, that was the way the interaction began. Luckily his partner kept telling him I was “not the guy.” The officers then left with no explanation and it was over. I was even part of a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed in 2003 regarding what happened to me and black men that were “stopped, detained, and subjected to intrusive searches by Chicago police without any evidence of suspicion or wrongdoing.” (Quote is from the ACLU Press Release that you can read here.) At the time I was even working at the ACLU and my work there helped me to understand what I shouldn’t stand for but also how to deal with the situation when it was happening. Keep in mind cell phones and especially social media was not a big thing then, so no bystanders filmed it.

Understand as a black man I am way more relaxed driving when the police vehicle is in front of me. I am well aware I am not saint on the road. I have gotten some speeding tickets and other moving violations. The relief for me is not getting let go with a warning. That would be a luxury to only have that kind of relief. The relief is getting pulled over and something not going sideways. I know how to do my best to not make a situation worse by things like not getting into an argument and not doing something like getting out of my car. The reason is those and others for me as a black man are things that are not smart to do. I could be injured, charged with some offense that I did not do or worse. I am grateful when I get a ticket and that that is it. It is a relief during an interaction with a police officer that I am treated as a human being, not as a threat to society because of the color of my skin. Not all of my interactions with the police are bad. However, be assured for black men and many people of color behind the wheel or on the sidewalk — that concern and fear is real.

In interactions with police that were negative and someone who was white was in the car or heard about it often didn’t get my frustration, anger, and fear of how it went. Perhaps they think they know me so well and couldn’t believe that because who I am or how I hold myself anything bad would ever happen to me. I am sure there are some that felt that way before grieving for the loss of their friend under glaring circumstances.

I share this story with the understanding I have been fortunate. Many grew up in or lived in situations much more stressful and racially charged. They have constant negative interactions with authority figures. I have never been in a situation where physical harm has come to me. I have mentors and many close friends I love like family that are white and other colors of the rainbow. Also, I am a straight black man. Being a woman of color, being of mixed race, or not identifying as straight adds more layers of “isms” that they experience. Things could be much more complicated than how my life has been. Be assured for example, life can be much more complicated for a gay black man than me. In general, others may disagree with some of my opinions. At the same time we do share a feeling of a broken record of things that happen to the black community in many aspects of our life. The way we deal with it can be just as different as the next person.

That is a bit of my story, at least most of it that is relevant.

Don’t tell me you are colorblind. Don’t post online that you donated money to some charity helping black people and think you can rest easy because you did your part. Don’t throw up some hashtag with an inspiring quote. Don’t go give money to some black-owned business and then show up on voting day keeping in place those in government that are adding fuel to the fire right now. Don’t view my opinion as representing all of black people’s opinions. Don’t be a stubborn liberal afraid to take a step back and realize that you could be in denial that you are contributing to the problem. Don’t shield your eyes from your companies hiring practices but revel in virtue signaling on social media. Don’t go to a protest and then comment that your black friend, colleague or partner is “not really black, just kind of.” Don’t embrace black culture but at the same time proclaim that we are in post-racial America. If you are in an interracial relationship don’t downplay their experience with racism or think just because you love them you completely understand their struggles. Don’t rally around tearing down symbols of the country’s racist past but shield your eyes to what is happening now. Don’t watch some short video clips about racism instead read black, latino or other intellectuals’ works that draw a picture of what has happened and still happens. Don’t wonder why your black friends are upset right now, ask.

Racism just like sexism or homophobia and many others are fueled by ignorance and fear. I am no role model as to morality. I am just as flawed and imperfect as the next person. We all have work to do. I am just really, really tired of this shit. I have seen beacons of hope through the way people have stood up, the way organizations are rising up to lead, conversations with my friends, conversations with strangers, and knowing friends’ children will shine their light bright when they get older.

I have not completely lost all hope.

But at the same time, I am losing my faith in humanity.

Damien works with individuals 40 years + to help them move better in life. Incremental Fitness is all about helping clients train for the life they want to live

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