(Editor's Note: This story is part of Club Industry's series on diversity, equity and inclusion. To see more articles in this series, go here.)
As a psychology professor for close to 20 years now, I have always been curious about how the mind works. But more importantly, I have always been fascinated by the impact that context, culture and socialization have on our behaviors as humans. Ironically, it wasn’t until about five years ago when I started teaching sports psychology at Long Island University-Brooklyn and started collaborating with the amazing Dr. Leeja Carter that I started to dive into the world of microaggressions. These are described as “everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people," according to a May-June 2007 article in American Psychologist.
It was during this time that a lightbulb went off. It was at that moment I realized that there was a name for the various slights that I had experienced in my many years as a fitness professional. And, as is the case with many microaggressions, I didn’t think that deeply about them or simply brushed them off because, of course, my clients who take my classes and listen to me tell them to do burpees would not say or do anything to make me feel “less than,” to make me feel unseen or to be surprised at my competence. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
I quickly began to reframe a lot of my previous experiences, especially as a recurring comment I was hearing at that time forced me to assess the larger impact that microaggressions were having on my day-to-day experience. To keep this story short: I was working with someone at the time who looked enough like me that we could have been cousins, but we had enough significant physical differences that you could not confuse one of us for the other. My coworker was on a popular fitness-related TV show and did relatively well. Unfortunately, I was congratulated at least seven times for being on the show. Oh, wait, I almost forgot to share—I have had dreadlocks for 20 years while my coworker had a short afro at the time.
At first, I laughed it off, but then I started to come to the uncomfortable realization that these individuals did not “see” me. They saw an amalgamation of features and a context within which they expected to see me, but they didn’t really see me.
This awkward and unnerving realization led to me paying more attention to not only how I was being perceived and responded to within the space but also how others that look and sound like me were treated. Eventually, I began facilitating focus groups to get a better grasp of the fitness milieu and the role that microaggressions had within that space. One of the issues I noticed was the dearth of women of color in these spaces, so I interviewed women of color on both ends of the spectrum (both as facilitators and clients). It became increasingly clear that these women did not feel safe in boutique fitness, and they felt unseen. They were often the only “representation” in the room (or within the organization). They shared various stories about being ignored and made to feel unwanted. A lot of this information would lead to my chapter in Dr. Carter’s book “Feminist Applied Sports Psychology” (2020).
As these conversations continued, I was public in my disdain for how the fitness industry seemed to ignore Black History Month when COVID-19, quarantine and a resurgence of police violence against BIPOC were at the forefront of our thoughts. This captive space that we were all in due to quarantine not only forced us to have to witness this movement and figure out how to engage in it, but it also forced the fitness industry to take a stand and publicly advocate for the lives of BIPOC. Some got it right, but most got it wrong and simply checked off the anti-racism box, posted a black square and that was the end of the allyship.
For real, sustainable and genuine changes to occur within health, wellness and fitness spaces, there have to be uncomfortable, honest and judgment-free conversations about the deleterious impact these spaces have had on BIPOC. Until these microaggressions, where they come from and the impact that they have are addressed and understood, there can’t be a united and truly open path forward.
Carlos Davila is an adjunct professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn (where he teaches sports psychology at the undergraduate and graduate level) and John Jay College and Baruch (where he teaches Intro to Psychology). He also is the diversity officer and a group exercise instructor at the Fhitting Room (a boutique HIIT studio) and a coach at 5th Ave Gym. He has an M.A. in developmental psychology. Davila has been a part of both fitness and psychology focused spaces for more than 20 years. As a personal trainer, group exercise instructor, professor of psychology, athlete and avid exerciser, Davila is acutely aware of the intersection of these spaces. As both athlete and coach, specifically within the Crossfit/HIIT space for more than 10 years, he has a wealth of insight into the culture within these spaces. His previous research into microaggresions within sporting spaces and his understanding of intersectionality allow for an analysis of fitness spaces from a varied and multi-layered perspective.