The Constant Gamble That Comes With Being a Black Runner
Going for a run always comes with the anxiety that it may be your last.
I’ve been running since I was 14. It started off innocently with me running laps around the baseball field across the street from my house. By the time I entered high school, I wanted to take it more seriously. I joined the cross country team and found a real passion for the sport. It made me feel powerful, strong, and free. Running served as my way to unplug from the world. During that time, my mind felt at ease and the world seemed to stand still as I moved around in it. When I entered college, my passion for running never waned but the anxiety that came with the prospect of a run only intensified.
As a Black runner, I have to make a mental checklist before I even leave the house. For one, I know that I cannot run in the dark. Too many eyes will be on me, especially if I’m in a white neighborhood. Secondly, I have to make sure I look presentable. Baggy clothes are not an option for Black runners. Any semblance of suspicious activity and it could be my last run. So I ensure that I’m wearing visibly acceptable running clothes. It has to be Nike, Lululemon, or Adidas. Thirdly, I make sure that at least 3 people know the route of my run and when I’m expected to be back. I also share my iPhone location with them so they can track me down if I don’t come back. Lastly, I make sure to smile and wave to people while I’m on the run. The friendlier you look the less likely people are to assume anything about you. I do all this because I know people seeing a Black man run frightens them.
On Feb 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was killed while running. He was pursued by three white males and shot to death. Unfortunately, his tragic death isn’t shocking to the countless Black Americans who see White privilege at its ugliest when running. Mental checklists, carrying mace, constantly looking behind your back, and hearing people say things underneath their breath is nothing new. It is to be expected. Enjoying the outdoors and running freely isn’t something that Black people are supposed to enjoy. As outlined in a piece by The Undefeated,
What makes cases like this one sting in particular for black runners, especially black men, is that they already go out of their way to let the public know they are not a threat, said Ravenell and Davon Culley, the other co-founder of Black Runners Connection. They wear bright colors and clothing that is clearly intended for running. They stick to neighborhoods they know, they said. If they see women, particularly white women, they make sure to steer clear.
Running while Black is a constant reminder that the world views you as a threat. It’s a test in convincing others around you that you are safe and harmless.
As I get older, the more I worry about my safety while running. The guise of youth offers me less and less protection as the years go on. I’m no longer that kid running around the baseball field. I’m a late-20s-year-old Black man running in a deeply segregated city. A city that makes it painfully obvious you have entered a white neighborhood. A neighborhood that you want to run in because the roads are nicer, the sidewalks are new, and the streets aren’t crowded. However, these are the same neighborhoods where people cross the street when they see you running their way. The same places where the cops don’t reside unless they see people like you lingering too long. The places that have fun names letting you know you’ve entered a heavily gentrified area. How am I supposed to feel safe again?
The past year had us largely stuck inside because of the pandemic with our only real sense of freedom coming from being outdoors. But how are you supposed to feel free outside as a Black person when the world continues to watch you? How do you enjoy the feeling that comes from running when you don’t know if it will be your last? I’ve been running for over a decade now and the older I get the less safe it feels. Running outside as a Black person is a constant gamble of freedom. You know the stares are going to come no matter how you present. You know the whispers are there no matter how hard you smile. You know the fear of death is constant no matter how hard you convince yourself it’s not.