• Denise Williams

A Letter to My Beloved Running Community & White Allies

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

My name is Denise; some folx* call me D. I am a 31-year-old biracial, Southeast Asian American, genderqueer/queer runner, social worker and doctoral student. I served as a Still I Run (SIR) Ambassador for 2021. My history includes mental illness and diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. I was born on the stolen lands of the Indigenous Chesepian and Chesapeake nations (i.e., Virginia Beach). But, I was mostly raised on the stolen lands of the Lumbee, Piscataway, and Cherokee nations (i.e., Baltimore Metropolitan area). I write this letter as an invitation to you, to become better allies.



Some of you may be unfamiliar with this practice, but I begin by opening my letter with my positionality.

Positionality is a description of my identity in society, especially as it relates to the issues I will write about—mental health, race/racism, and running in the United States. In stating my positionality, I acknowledge that the same experiences could have different meaning or interpretation for someone of another identity. I invite you to consider a different perspective than the one to which you may be accustomed, that of a White runner in the United States. I invite you to heed my clarion call, in the agreement that we are all humans worthy and deserving of happiness.

Our stories deserve to be heard, too.


Without my choosing, race has always played a big role in my life. Even as a child, I experienced feelings of “otherness” and faced discrimination. While all experiences of racism are harmful, many of my Black and Indigenous family have experienced more overt and subsequently detrimental racism than I. This is evidenced by the existence and history of slavery, forced assimilation, Native American boarding schools, murders, unjust arrests, and incarcerations. We know these and many other terrible, inhumane actions and disparities occurred and exist.

This letter will be an uncomfortable read for some. It’s uncomfortable to write.


I’m being vulnerable and opening myself to criticism and possible misinterpretation. I’ve put off writing this, afraid I would never find the “right” words. Racism and mental health are complicated, related topics. I am still uncomfortable now, typing this. But, I feel it must be done, especially since the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict and because the men who violently gunned down Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging tried to claim self-defense.

Simply living in our country and running while Black or Brown can be a death sentence.


Can you fathom this—have you considered this? Or have you already forgotten? I promise you, I have not.

I invite you to sit with me in this discomfort.


Understand I am human, just like you. Feeling discomfort is important for growth and self-improvement. To my mental health warriors and fellow therapy goers, haven’t we heard this in sessions before? Mental health professionals tell us that to grow and better ourselves as humans, we must sit in the discomfort. The things that are best for us are often the most challenging. Why should this be any different in our daily living? Don’t we all want to be better people?

I acknowledge my privilege in being able to write in a public forum and share this with you.


I hope this post will bolster and elevate other voices that are historically marginalized, forgotten, and ignored, especially in our running communities—those of us who are different than the


White majority; in this case, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) folx. I hope we can not only normalize conversations around running and mental health, but also integrate conversations about race and racism in our larger running communities. We cannot shy away from this or discount experiences of all folx if we are to truly be revolutionary—not just“inclusive” or “diverse”.


A picture showing some of the intersections of identity, or the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” (Oxford Languages)In January of this year, I wrote a post on social media that was shared on the SIR Community Instagram Page. There, we share our experiences on running and mental health, to combat the stigma of mental illness.

I feel that we cannot separate our identities, especially our historically marginalized identities, from trauma or mental health.

Our identities and our mental health are connected and related.


On this day, I wrote about my discomfort and anxiety while running as a queer, Brown person in the south. Despite my fear, I still ran. In my post, I explained the rationale of this discomfort. I talked about the voice in the back of my mind that warned me to be on guard, especially because I am visibly “different.” Things about my physical appearance have made me a target in the past, not just for sexist, racial and homophobic slurs, but physical aggression.

The discomfort I felt was exacerbated by the summer of 2020, which was rife with the murders of unarmed Black men, women and transgender folx. In my post, I talked about our nation’s history of racism including sundown towns, and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Emmett Till. While I am clearly not a Black man, there are Black folx and children in my life that I love deeply. In my communities of color we talk about race, racism, our fears, and our experiences openly amongst our loved ones.


There are so many worries. These fears are rooted in reality. This is our reality.


If any of this is shocking or new to you, then you are living in privilege. The BIPOC folx in your life (if there are any) may not feel safe or comfortable discussing these issues or divulging their fears to you.

In January, in a since-deleted thread, someone brought to my attention that a White woman runner from our community posted some hateful comments directed toward me on the SIR Community Page. I cannot recall everything verbatim. She deleted her comments before blocking me, but I do remember one thing she said: “You are a part of the problem.” In effect, this White woman told me that “people like me” (I suppose, BIPOC people who challenge her status quo and ignorant worldview), are the reason our country is so divided.


“You are a part of the problem,” she said.


She then proceeded to explain how her circle of friends at the gym included Black and Brown folx, who “never complain” about feeling unsafe. Because of that, she concluded that I am the problem. Not that racism is the problem, but that I am, because I voiced my feelings on some very vulnerable, raw topics for me.


I can only suppose that she felt threatened by my vulnerability. When we feel threatened, we tend to lash out. I make this conjecture because she did not engage in dialogue. She only wanted to tear me down, drown out my voice and say her piece before she blocked me and the others who came to my defense. Her words conveyed such disdain.


I was curious about this online stranger who spewed such hatred toward me. How could I make sense of it?


I looked at her profile on another social media platform. I found pictures showing her, some hashtags, and a blurb about how she completed a run for Ahmaud Arbery during a worldwide race in the running community, a movement meant to show support and solidarity with Ahmaud, his family and, in essence, the BIPOC folx (i.e., Black men) who are brutally, unjustly and senselessly murdered in our country at disproportionately high rates. The incongruence of this performative White allyship and what she said to me were uncomfortable and hard to swallow.

I’m used to criticisms and verbal attacks. I’m accustomed to microaggressions. People try to belittle me, for whatever reason. I’m usually steelier, but that day, I cried when I read her comments, because I felt so raw. I was emotionally and mentally depleted by the experience of “other-ness,” powerlessness and dismissiveness. I felt it so palpably in that moment.

Now, I am far enough removed from the situation that I can extend her grace.


I truly do not think she realized the contradictions or terrible irony and disconnect between “running for Ahmaud” and pivoting to discount my feelings, experiences, and fears, while painting me as the “divisive problem.”

I felt like she wanted me to sit down and shut up. She believed, since her experiences were not like mine, that I must be wrong.


Her actions are in keeping with the history of White folx in the United States turning a blind eye and gaslighting the experiences of people like me. If our lived experiences contradict theirs, it brings up feelings of discomfort. Sometimes it’s the eye rolls, the snorts, the dismissive and discounting comments. Performative, White allyship is ubiquitous and harmful to our community, just like overt and covert, systematic racism.

Though one may have good intentions, the impact is not always such.


“You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other.” —Audre Lorde, who famously described herself as a “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior”. Illustration by Meredith Stern.


I write this letter to ask my beloved running community to do better in their allyship.


Race relations in our running communities—which are only microcosms of our larger nation—are historically problematic. This issue is bigger than this one event. The act of running is a space I cherish, not only for the mental health benefits, but the camaraderie. It feels like I am trying to claim space and tell people, “I belong here, too.”

The running community has become a place for me to forge friendships and grow in ways I thought impossible. But in our community, I do not see as many people that look like me—Brown and queer. The running community is generally dominated by middle to upper-class cisgender White women with small builds and physiques, at least in communities where I have lived. White men tend to dominate the running marathons, which can be inaccessible to many for different reasons. Without seeing others who look like you and having representation, it can feel like you do not belong in such spaces. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

We need more representation.


We need more acceptance, empathy and understanding in our running communities. Everyone in the community needs to try harder to make everyone feel welcome. Listen to what people need. Sit in our discomfort. We must change, grow, and improve.

And, we need more allies.


I do not say this in an accusatory, shaming way, but more as a call to action for us to do better—to make people of all presentations, body shapes and backgrounds feel comfortable in our communities. To call out racism, sexism, body shaming, transphobia, homophobia—all the -isms—when we see or hear it, immediately. Especially if we call ourselves allies.

Perhaps this woman considers herself an ally to BIPOC folx, as displayed by her Ahmaud Arbery hashtags and post. I imagine she did not realize that in trying to silence me she furthered my feelings of marginalization and “other-ness.” She may not have intended to contribute to the very root problem of racism she made attempts to deconstruct with her social media running selfie and hashtags. She is not the only one who operates and exists in the world in this way. She is but a minor example of the bigger issue; the issue of race and how racism and White supremacy permeate all aspects of our nation and our lives, in ways we are oftentimes not even aware.

We need to be uncomfortable. We need to talk about this.


As BIPOC and historically marginalized folx from different identity intersections in America, we often sit in discomfort to some degree every single day of our lives. White allies, when you are experiencing discomfort about race conversations, please consider for a moment how it must feel to be a BIPOC individual, where some people literally hate us and want to hurt us for the color of our skin. For the way we look. For whom they think and assume we are.


I don’t mean to shame White runners or White folx. Instead, I invite you to recognize that your skin color affords you certain advantages in life, and in America, a nation stolen and built upon the very foundations of White supremacy. The fact that your skin color has not made you feel uncomfortable, up until (perhaps) we ask you to talk about race, well—that is White privilege.


We must acknowledge the role racism plays in our larger society—even in our running communities.


And we must recognize that racism affects the mental health outcomes for historically marginalized communities. Racism and this false narrative of White supremacy are a public health emergency that causes intergenerational trauma and negative mental and physical health outcomes—just read the literature. Sometimes it leads to premature death. White supremacy literally kills.

I urge you—please stop discounting our lived experiences just because you haven’t had the same, or because our talking about race makes you feel uncomfortable. Ask yourself why you are feeling uncomfortable. And, in the end, is it really about you, anyway? It shouldn’t be. I imagine if, in this case, I stuck to only writing about running and my mental health narrative I would have received only accolades and support, rather than criticism.

But here’s the thing—I’ve said it before—racism and mental health are interconnected within all of us, whether you choose to ignore it or pretend like it doesn’t exist.

I implore you to look inside yourself and lean into the discomfort.


We must all humble ourselves and engage in introspection if we are to learn and change anything. I hope you will consider that your lived reality or your perception isn’t the same as someone else’s. Please reflect on that. We cannot shatter the mental health stigma without also challenging White supremacy, which means talking about race and racism.

For now, I implore and invite you in. Please, learn more about racism in our country. Please, look up and learn ways that we can be more than just performative allies. Follow different folx on social media. Look up histories from different sources. Please, listen to the experiences of historically marginalized folx when they ask you to hear them out.

Race, mental health and running are interrelated.


Racism causes mental and physical health disparities amongst Black and Brown communities. Racism is woven into every fiber and core of our country—it is divisive to not recognize it and act on it. Inaction is siding with the oppressor—and here, that is inherently racist.

Don’t just do this when it is convenient.

Dismantling the White supremacy in all of us is something that must be practiced daily, individually and with others. White folx, please! When you see individuals saying hurtful things, whether they are microaggressions or overt prejudices, please use your privilege and stand up for BIPOC folx in the same way you would for any bully attacking someone for being “different” than the majority.

If you do not know our country’s dark and sinister history, educate yourselves. The truth differs vastly from what we learn in public schools, especially now that attempts are being made to stop teaching the history of marginalized populations. Fear about race, lack of knowledge and misunderstanding fuels this trend.

I too am learning, or rather, unlearning.

To the woman whom I never got to talk to back in January; I forgive you. You probably didn’t understand the hurt and harm that you caused me, or the dissonance in your actions. Please understand where I am coming from.

Hear me out instead of trying to silence my voice.


May we continue to mess up, learn from it, grow together, and continue to elevate and support those amongst us who have not been afforded the same privileges as us, by using our privileges (whether it be race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical abilities, or other areas of intersection) to be true allies rather than the performative kind.

To be true allies means to sit with the discomfort, own it, move to a place of action, apologize, and change our ways when we have done something wrong or hurtful to the community. Not just when it’s fashionable, or when it’s convenient, but every single day. I saw such gusto from my White allies last summer when George Floyd was murdered.

Where did that energy go?


We have a lot of important, challenging, and exhausting work ahead of us to make the world a better place for all of us; will you move forward with me?

With love, respect, and kindest regards,

Another Human Being

 

*Language matters: “Folx” is a general colloquial spelling of “folks” that originated in the 1990’s, especially used amongst LGBTQ+ and other historically marginalized communities to explicitly signal the inclusion of commonly marginalized groups


Articles on how to be an ally to the BIPOC running community:

Additional resources to learn about how to be an ally and have conversations about race:

Some suggestions on where you can start learning about racist United States history:

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