Friday, November 18, 2016

Evolution of a Distance Runner: Running & Privilege

I wouldn't blame you if you cringed a little when you read that title. Privilege is a hot, touchy subject these days. Seeing as it plays an important role around a lot of the work I do re: access and equity in math education, though, it's hard for me to ever completely abandon that lens.

I actually started writing this post over a year ago for a variety of reasons and have worked on it on and off, because it's a tricky one and I want to get it as close to right as possible (though I'm kind of just accepting that it won't be perfect and please let me know if I miss or screw up something important). Unfortunately it feels a bit timely right now, so while that wasn't intended, perhaps it's fortuitous in some ways.

In a (really oversimplified) nutshell, privilege just means anything about your appearance, background, experience, etc. that makes it so that certain situations are a little easier for you to navigate than they would be otherwise. I'm white so people are less likely to assume I'm doing something criminal and more likely to assume I'm educated, so that's a certain kind of privilege. If I'm feeling lazy I can grab takeout for dinner and not really worry about how it costs like 3x as much as it would cost to buy groceries & cook, so that's another type of privilege. I grew up in an environment where people told me, "Of course you are smart and will go to college and be successful," so that is another type of privilege. I've sat in any number of classes or meetings where a dude repeated the same idea I just said and instead of ignoring it people would tell him how smart he was and what a great idea he'd come up with, so that is a kind of not-privilege.

Basically, it just means that some of us get to play the video game of life on harder or easier settings because of things we didn't choose, like race, gender identity, who our parents are, where we were born, how our bodies are made, etc. You can still win the game if your settings are harder; you just have to work a whole lot harder than someone playing on the easiest settings.

Some people really, truly don't believe privilege exists, and that if you got something good in life, it's either random good luck or because you worked hard and earned and/or deserved it, and if something turned out shitty for you, it's either because you didn't work hard enough or are just super unlucky. (This idea is called meritocracy.) And, I get it; it's really comforting to think that we all get exactly what we work for and deserve, and scary to think that there are parts of that that are completely out of our control. And if you've never been exposed to anything different, your own privilege very well may be completely invisible to you. Alas, privilege is extremely real and has been scientifically documented over and over and over.

(If you are interested in learning more about privilege in general and how it works, I really like these two posts:

Something I've thought a lot about in recent years is how different types of privilege play into what I think of as "recreational fitness," ie, spending more time and effort on athletic- or fitness-oriented than is strictly necessary for making your living and/or maintaining reasonably good health & wellness. For example, if you do endurance sports or other athletic/fitness related things and spend time on the internet, this will probably not be the first time you've seen memes like these:

Like I've said before, I understand that most of the time pithy sound bites like this are intended more to motivate than to describe philosophical positions or literal beliefs. And as long as people get that, it isn't really the end of the world. But I have read enough blog posts and talked to enough overly zealous athletes/fitness buffs to know that, for an unsettling number of people, that is not the case.

These folks comprise what I have started to think of as the fitness meritocracy. (Again meritocracy is the idea that people get what they've earned, and have earned what they've gotten.) So, I call these folks the fitness meritocracy because they seem to believe that if your body or physical fitness or abilities are not to your liking, it is mostly because of your own actions and choices and if you want things to be different, all you have to do is make different choices; and likewise, that people who are strong and fit and have nice bodies (read: bodies that fit a certain rather narrowly defined stereotype) got that way mostly from their own hard work, sacrifice, perseverance, etc.

Again, it's a nice idea. It's comforting and lets us feel in control. Like social meritocracy, however, "fitness meritocracy" just doesn't pass muster.

Do people's actions and choices play important roles in how their lives and situations turn out? Are there things we can do sometimes, in certain situations, to make changes? Undoubtedly, YES. I'm certainly not saying that our lives are pre-determined and we're all just adrift in the universe, at the complete mercy of our circumstances. We all get choices and we all have to live with the consequences.

Are people's actions and choices the sole determinants of those things? Do we have the sole power to make and re-make our lives and bodies and situations in any way we like, if we just work hard enough? Unfortunately, NO. There are a lot of things we can control, but there are also plenty of things we can't, and sometimes those things are way, way bigger than we are.

I think about this in my own running. Obviously my goal is to get stronger and faster, and there are a lot of things I can control around that:

  • I can do my runs, even when I'm tired or the weather is crappy or there's something else I would rather be doing.
  • I can go to bed on time so that I'm not dragging myself through workouts, even though I'd rather stay up into the wee hours reading the internet great works of literature.
  • I can eat nutritious foods in reasonable portions at the right times, even though life would be so much more awesome if I just had half a pizza & three glasses of wine every night.
  • I can think through my week ahead of time and plan and move things around and negotiate and whatever else I need to do to make sure I get, if not all my running in, as much of it as possible.
  • I can be consistent about my strength work and massages to help me avoid injury, and see appropriate doctors/PTs/etc. if I get injured anyway.
  • I can stretch and roll and do all the good recovery things, even though it sucks and I'd rather sit on the couch drinking wine & watching Netflix & playing 2048.

But, it's worth thinking about why I'm able to control these things:

  • I can do my runs *at all, ever* because I am able-bodied and (by and large) free of major health problems and have the expendable income for serviceable running shoes & clothes.
  • I can exercise in public without fear of body shaming or mistreatment because by and large I 'fit the mold' of what society thinks of when they think about ladies doing exercise (fairly average size & body shape, cis, etc.).
  • I can do my runs in my own neighborhood because I live in a safe, clean neighborhood with serviceable sidewalks, and even if I didn't, I could drive my car to safe, clean trails or to the gym that I pay for with my expendable income.
  • I am able to control the minor health issues I do have thanks to the health insurance (that I have thanks to my full-time job with benefits) that lets me see doctors and get prescription medications at affordable prices.
  • I can sleep eight hours a night because I only have to work one full-time job and have no dependents to care for.
  • I can choose nutritious foods because my paycheck and lack of crushing debt means I can afford to buy and eat pretty much whatever I want. Also I can afford to live not in a food desert, and have a car, and access to easy public transit, which means it is fairly easy (parking non-withstanding) to get to any number of stores that sell fresh, nutritious foods. (Hell, I can even get a fancy take-out salad at about fifty restaurants within a three block radius, because San Francisco.)
  • I can get quality massages and strength coaching because 1) job 2) no dependents/crushing debt 3) free time (one job, fairly flexible, no dependents) 4) car.
  • Yes, I've worked very hard to get into the schools I've attended and earn the degrees I needed to get the jobs I've had and to be successful in those jobs. But that stuff was made at the very least more probable in part thanks to growing up in a white, suburban, working/middle-class family near reasonably good schools that prioritized education and supported me however they could. Privilege often has a domino effect that way (as does lack of privilege).

Not everyone has those things, which is why fitness memes & articles that offer advice like, "All you need is a pair of running shoes!" "Running is free, just go outside!" "Just start with 30 minutes!" etc. are a bit problematic. I understand that this intended to encourage people and make getting started feel less intimidating, but often it misses some critical challenges and makes some serious assumptions about fitness privilege.

A pair of running shoes is really not all you need, and even if it were, not everyone has that. (For a while I helped "coach"--which mostly meant organize and cheerlead--a small running group at the high school where I taught. We found out through a series of conversation that one rather unlikely boy kind of wanted to join & run the 5K that the group had targeted for later in the year but never came because he felt ashamed that he didn't have running shoes and his family couldn't afford them. The faculty took up a collection & we took him to RoadRunner Sports & got him a pair. He came to every run after that and eventually ran the 5K and it kind of changed his life, at least for that year.)

Not everyone can "just go outside" (many of my students lived in an area where it was literally not safe to be outside your house beyond going to and from the car/bus/etc.) and not everyone has 30 free minutes a day or even each week (many of the adults at the community college where I taught briefly managed school on top of multiple jobs, single parenting multiple kids, and other responsibilities, like the woman who cried in my office about how she never slept enough because she was up most nights caring for her father who was dying of stomach cancer).

Not everyone can shop for, pay for, and prepare a kale-quinoa-beetroot post-run recovery salad.

Is this post meant to make you feel guilty about getting your hours of running/riding in in your lovely safe neighborhood and/or using your expendable income and/or somewhat flexible schedule to eat well and/or get to the gym/that group fitness class/run a million races a year?

Not at all! I think one of the most pervasive myths surrounding the idea of privilege is that we should all feel guilty for the privilege that we have and apologize for it and/or not use it. No one is saying that. Certainly not me, who pays a coach and has a gym membership & shops at the ridiculously overpriced local organic market half a mile from my house and spends 10 hours a week running.

However, at the bare minimum, I do think it's important for those of us with certain kinds of privilege to a) recognize that that we are privileged in those ways, and b) appreciate everything that privilege allows us to do. I think it's important for us to realize that not 100% of our success in the health/fitness/endurance sports world is due to our own efforts, and not to jump to making judgments about the decisions other people make around health/fitness/etc. and assume that they *could* do x but are just *choosing* y because they're lazy/undisciplined/lack work ethic/don't really care/whatever.

I also think that, ideally, with great privilege comes great responsibility--that we have an obligation to use at least some of our privilege to improve the lives of those with less privilege in whatever way we can, whether that means volunteering or donating or mentoring or helping out someone in need without any expectation of getting something in return. Your privilege is a wonderful thing when it is put to good use to help out those around you! (Full disclosure -- Personally, I can't claim a *stellar* track record around this, but in light of recent events, it's something I'm planning to work harder at in the near future.)

I have more to say on this topic in the future, but I felt like I needed to get my general position out there with a little explanation first. Hopefully it was useful or informative!


  1. This is an awesome post. Thank you!

    I wholeheartedly agree with not feeling guilty for the privilege you have, but rather, just doing your best to recognize it and use it for good.

    On my travels this year, I've run through neighborhoods both in the US and abroad (always in the daylight, after researching crime, etc) where the local inhabitants are clearly surprised to see me running, whether due to my ethnicity, the fact that I'm a female running alone, the fact that I'm out in insane heat and humidity, etc.

    Almost every time, when it's clear they are surprised at my arrival, I've been met with joyous congratulations and high fives and in many cases expressions bordering on gratitude that I would choose to run in their neighborhoods. Each time it's been a huge humbling privilege reminder (I'm able to run, I'm not perceived as a threat, I'm fully welcomed, etc), and I've done my best to show my gratitude by giving high fives back, saying thank you to each and every encouraging word (even, I admit, smiling benignly and sometimes waving at South American catcalls of adoration I probably wouldn't welcome in California).

    It's certainly been a reminder of how much we take running (as a female alone, safely) for granted in the SF bay area bubble, and how much it is seen as something unique, special, and celebrated in other communities.

  2. Really wonderful post. And that cartoon was excellent.

  3. Thanks for this post - it is thoughtful and true, and something I don't hear enough.

    I'm a fairly longtime reader and really appreciate your blog! Especially since I recently moved to the Bay Area; your race reviews are great and helpful. (also, talk about privilege - moved here from NYC, I feel grateful every day I am/was able to live in two such vibrant cities, with great running cultures too). keep it up!

  4. I've been thinking about this topic in a different context - mainly, how I've been very negative and whiny this training cycle, even though there are actually a lot of things I should be thankful for. I agree that most of us reading your blog are probably extremely privileged, and should acknowledge it and pass it forward somehow. On the other hand, I think that endurance running in and of itself isn't necessarily a privileged sport/hobby. There are a lot of people who have challenges in many different areas that you describe above who still manage to train for marathons and ultras. This guy is a pretty good example:

  5. Very well written, something I think about a lot too. (And I've shared that privilege illustration all over the place!) I may not get a lot of sleep or have a lot of extra money for perks like massages and new shoes every 6 months and beet root recovery salads but I am most certainly privileged to live in a somewhat rural area where I'm not subjected to catcalls and harassment on a daily basis. I'm privileged to run in a safe neighborhood and I can run in the dark and still feel safe. And I can usually afford the shoes. ;) I can't say that I'd 100% still be a runner if all these things weren't true.

  6. Great post. I completely agree with you, and I'm looking forward to your further thoughts on the subject. And it's part of why the fitspiration 'no excuses' camp rubs me the wrong way. Some people have good excuses, and it's not their fault.

  7. Angela, I've been following your blog for a while while training for a couple local SF races! I've been inspired by your training methods and determination.

    But THIS post really resonates with what I've been feeling for a very long time, since becoming a more consistent runner/biker. All my feelings and emotions re: the idea of privelege are spot-on described here. Very, very well said. Thank you for your wonderful voice/heart!