Open The Doors: In Fitness, I’m Often The Only Black Person In The Room

(Photo courtesy Dr. Antonio Williams.) Despite “feeling the love” of the fitness industry today, Dr. Antonio Williams says that initially, the fitness industry felt to him like an exclusive club that wasn’t accepting of new members, particularly a new member who was Black like him.

I love being American … and I love being Black.

Interesting, right? As author, educator and civil rights advocate W.E.B. Dubois stated in his acclaimed book “The Souls of Black Folk,” it is a peculiar sensation—being a proud American and loving the brown skin you are in. Some look at you with pity and others with contempt. Dubois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Despite all the pain and struggle, I would choose my skin and this country again—with a few tweaks of course.

By the way, there’s something else I love dearly—fitness.

My love of fitness and Black culture may also seem like warring ideals to many. We've all seen disparaging numbers of Blacks with obesity and chronic diseases. However, this could not be further from my personal truth. Despite growing up in small, rural Swansea, South Carolina, my father and grandmother stressed the importance of daily physical activity and a well-rounded diet. I often ask myself how they could have done so while living in a food desert with little to no infrastructure for organized sport and recreation. Later, I realized that it had been passed down from generation to generation because, to my ancestors, a strong, healthy body was the only way a Black person could make an honest living in America.

As I got older, however, I saw a shift in these values. The 1990s saw Black Americans shift to higher-paying yet more sedentary jobs. As a result, chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes began to plague my community. So, when I enrolled at South Carolina State University (SCSU), one of the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), to study sport and exercise, the goal was to get an education that would help me change the lives of people in my community. It was at SCSU that I fell madly in love with fitness. I mean, I loved it before, but after learning the science of exercise from professors that meshed theory, application and Black culture, I was ready to commit my whole life to it. When I left the cozy confines of my beloved HBCU, however, things changed.

For the first time, I felt like fitness did not love me back. It loved my culture, but I am not sure it loved me. I remember my first day as a newly minted certified personal trainer. As I walked in the gym, I could hear hip hop and R&B music blaring through the sound systems as some members trained and others participated in group exercise classes with choreography that mimicked traditional hip hop and urban dance. Despite the familiar sounds and movement, none of the members looked like me, so I made it my mission to help convert minority prospects into members. One could say I was a “token,” but I prefer the term trailblazer. I knew firsthand how fitness can change a person’s life intrinsically and extrinsically, so if I had to be the token Black trainer in order to help someone from my community discover their best self, so be it. Little did I know, doing so would introduce me to a new love: marketing and consumer behavior.

At the age of 22, I left personal training for graduate school at Indiana University and started my first fitness marketing and communication business, Black Health and The goal was to bridge exercise and Black culture. This led me to attend my first major fitness conference in Dallas. Quite honestly, I was surprised to see it closely resembled that first day in the gym – hundreds of attendees, and no one looked like me. However, this feeling was a little different. Instead of feeling like I could make my mark by bringing in more minorities, I got the sense that this was an exclusive club that may not be so accepting of new members. These fears quickly turned into reality.

As I made my way through the crowd at a conference mixer, I saw an old friend who introduced me to a group of her friends that were chatting over drinks. After telling them of my aspirations for my newly formed company, one member of the group abruptly stopped me. She exclaimed, “I have a great idea.” As you can imagine, I was all ears, and my heart was pacing waiting to hear what she had to say. It is something I will never forget. “Why don’t you call up Jay-Z and that other guy– Puff Daddy,” she said. I responded by saying, “Oh, do you know them?” She said “No, but I assumed you did.” I wanted to ask her why she would think that, but I was too embarrassed to ask and I immediately left the mixer and the conference.

It would be several years before I would attend another fitness conference. However, the next one would change the course of my career and standing in the industry. During my fitness conference hiatus, I completed my doctorate and wrote my dissertation on building brand equity in the fitness industry. I decided to present my research findings at a conference in Athens, Greece. While there, I met a representative from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) who felt my expertise in fitness branding and consumer behavior would be beneficial to the organization. I felt the relationship would be mutually beneficial, as ACE’s mission aligns with my current role as a tenured associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health. I’ve been partnering with ACE ever since, and I must say, for the first time I feel like the industry loves me too.

Despite this, I’m still disheartened because when I walk into most rooms, I’m still the only Black person. Yes, I now feel the love, but loving only me is not enough. We as an industry must open the doors to a more diverse group of professionals. No one has to lose their seat at the table, but I ask you to be kind enough to bring an extra chair and offer it to someone who historically hasn’t gotten an invitation.

Representation matters. As Dubois stated, “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.”

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