Hear Our Voices: Actions White People Can Take to Dismantle Racism in the Fitness Industry

(Photo by scyther5/iStock/Getty Images Plus.) For the fitness industry to become more diverse, it will take concerted and conscious efforts by those in power to make it so. Black fitness professionals share some of the actions that can move the industry to better reflect the diversity of the general population.

This series on diversity, equity and inclusion is brought to you in collaboration with BLAQUE. For more on this series, read our introduction story here

Altruism is a trait and practice that many people would agree is abundant among those working in the health and wellness industry. People devote their lives to working at a fitness facility to help others enjoy life at its healthiest and for the longest time possible. That means being of service to everyone who walks through the doors, treating each well and equally.

Altruism extends to peers and employees, too. It means treating staff equally and giving opportunities to everyone to advance.

So the reality that the fitness industry includes so few people of color in positions of power seems discordant. The reasons for this lack of diversity in mid and upper management at many fitness facilities likely has to do, at least in part, with the history of who the industry initially served (and excluded) as well as a tendency of people to hire those who are like them.

To rid the industry of this dissonance, people in the industry at all levels but especially those in power need to step up to dismantle the systemic racism that they may have seen and been uncomfortable with or may have chosen to ignore.

Systemic racism is not a problem created by people of color, but fairly or unfairly, people of color often are asked to offer insights on how to dismantle this system. The Black fitness professionals below share how their white peers and people in power in the fitness industry can take action to ensure the industry moves toward more diversity, equity and inclusion. Also check out this article, “4 Ways The Fitness Industry Can Engage In True Allyship” for more steps to take.

Q: What can white people in the industry do as allies to dismantle systemic racism within the fitness industry? 

Jessica, Personal Trainer, Equinox (last name withheld upon request)

A: It’s hard for me to come up with a solution for a problem that I did not create within a system that was designed to shut me out. I do think that it’s important for white people to at least acknowledge that there is a problem, that they do benefit from a system that was designed to help them thrive at the expense of people of color. The moment this simple truth is brought up, white people get defensive and declare that they are not racist. You don’t have to be racist to acknowledge that the world you operate in was created to support you and that you have benefited from support and opportunities that others had no access to.

It’s important for white people to be honest with themselves about the implicit bias they have that affects people of color. That bias not only affects who gets hired, but it also affects who gets supported, who gets mentored, who gets promoted and so on. I do think that quotas can be helpful, but they’re only a starting point, not the solution.

Jana Stewart, Health And Lifestyle Accountability Coach And Lifestyle Consultant

A: They can first acknowledge that there is an issue and that it exists. Be understanding of what people go through. That's huge. Acting like racism does not exist is not only disrespectful, but it's extremely ignorant. The next thing would be to speak up, and if they are in a position to create more diversity, they should do it.

Ianthe Mellors, Head of Fitness and Dance, FitXR

A: I think the notion of an ally implies that this is a Black people issue that needs to be empathized with. That in itself allows white people the mindset that they can dip in and out of the work. Working to dismantle and combat systemic racism should be daily work for everyone whether or not it is new to them. What I say to white people in the industry is speak up. Do not align yourself with brands, companies and individuals that aren’t actively antiracist. Educate yourself, your communities and use your voices. You may not always get it right, and especially if this is new, it will feel incredibly uncomfortable, but keep showing up and doing the work. Like we say in the industry all the time: remember your “why” and let that fuel your fire to keep you going.

Venus Davis, Founder, The Strong Academy

A: Overall and as allies, white people will need to look at their internal biases and issues. The work starts with them. They should look at the processes and structures they have benefited from and created. Frankly, they have to ask themselves, “Have I been fair? Have I intentionally made the experience and opportunities for under-represented  groups more unbalanced and inequitable?” The deconstruction of racism starts with white people. Understanding and honestly caring about the disparities and biases are the only ways we as a society will be able to effect change.

Dr. Antonio Williams, Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair, Indiana University School of Public Health

A: The first step is to understand that systemic racism impacts all involved and does not lend itself to a victim/ally relationship. The next step is to dismantle policies, cultures and ideologies that leave out certain groups. It is important to be inclusive when making these changes. I would encourage leaders in the industry to advocate for having more racial minorities in positions of influence when these decisions are being made.

Ariana Stowe, Personal Trainer and 305 Fitness Instructor

A: To my white allies, please read and learn about Black history in America. For every single question that you have about Black people, it has probably been addressed in literature at some point. That way, you know what’s actually behind systemic racism in the first place. Next, with new knowledge and compassion in your heart, you can approach helping out a fellow Black fitness trainer in the right way—not from a space where you are looking to relate to the experience but purely from a place of understanding what can be done to make things easier.

Carlos Davila, Adjunct Professor at LIU Brooklyn, John Jay College and Baruch; Diversity Officer and Group Exercise Instructor at the Fhitting Room; and Coach at 5th Ave Gym

A: To put it frankly, by being honest with oneself about the impact that either unconscious or conscious biases against people of color, women and LGBTQIA+ have had on their business. It’s OK to use “Black music” or promote LGBTQIA+ for a month, but what happens after that? Where is the genuine conversation around what that community needs? Where is the conversation about the obstacles (such as the high price point of many of these spaces, various fitness deserts, etc.) that deter and at times push away individuals from Black and other communities?

Cheryl McCarver, Executive Director, Cooper Street YMCA

A: Get to know me, get to know people who are different than you and have different lived experiences. Be courageous by being uncomfortable not being in the majority to learn how to walk in others’ shoes. Remember that some people didn't start out playing in the same space so they might just be learning how to play the game. Give grace to folks who have never had the same opportunities.

Kurt Gillon, General Manager, LifeStart

A: During the OJ Simpson trial, I was in Chicago working for a Fortune 500 telecom company. I reported to this nice white woman. After the guilty verdict, there was a hush among Black men in the workplace. We felt the heat of racism. I/we saw promotions going to someone else when we knew we were the better candidate and employee. I/we remember training someone else not qualified to be my superior. There was racism then and racism still. As a Black male, I have been a part of this experience and can see it in our industry. What can white people do? It would just be nice for some to move past the bumper sticker or lawn sign. Don’t be apologetic. Keep being real. I don't like being reminded sometimes that I am Black.

Mike Z. Robinson, Owner, MZR Fitness

A: What I believe will be helpful is finding ways to create more discussions, such as larger fitness companies creating a new board and/or committee that meets year-round to address diversity in the industry and hiring minority spokespeople to endorse companies.

David Rachal III, Founder and CEO, HEALTHEFIT

A: Open opportunities for lower cost resources, partnerships and opportunities for profit sharing. 

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