Evaluating Black life through a different lens in the midst of COVID-19, civil unrest
How silence in a run group spoke volumes to one Black runner
COVID-19 has revealed the underbelly of how racism permeates everything in our society — including my neighborhood run group.
After three months of stay-at-home orders in Washington, the city has slowly begun to reopen. Rumblings of one-day-a-week runs started to filter through my run group emails and text messages. Yet, I found myself hesitant to return.
I ran with this predominantly white group for seven years, three days a week, rain, sleet, snow or humidity – Washington summers are brutal. This group checked all the white “progressive check marks”: Peace Corps or local volunteering in Black and brown communities, dating and having Black and brown family members, not saying the “N-word,” voting for Barack Obama and of course, being “nice” to Black and brown people. All of this justified why I not only ran with these people outside of morning runs. We spent time together: happy-hour celebrations, trivia nights, Sunday dinners, attending local events and sharing family dramas.
We were a community — or so I thought. I realized that the group that had no problem helping me push through the pain of running up a hill or sprinting in the last quarter of a 4-mile run also had no problem remaining silent in the face of multiple killings, year after year, of unarmed Black men and women. The silence became hard to bear as every company, group or person around me declared, “Black Lives Matter.” Yet, the predominantly white run group that I spent seven years of my life with remained silent. The silence was especially troubling in the wake of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed, Black runner, killed by white men during his run. Was I really a member of this community?
Finding a run group close to my home and community activities was like finding a new home. Running is my anchor, providing stability and comfort in good times and bad. So, seven years ago, after surviving a stem cell transplant to treat the third recurrence of Hodgkin’s disease, I found a community of runners. When I joined the group, I noticed that I was the only Black member, which was ironic because we met in the historic Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, also affectionately known as “Chocolate City.” Through the years, Black runners came out to the runs. Some more than once, but none of them ever stayed for months or years like I did. For the past seven years, I was the only consistent Black runner in the group. When Black runners, usually young runners, did show up to morning runs, I always reached out. I am not as fast as many young runners (8:30-minute/miles or better), so it was a struggle to keep up with them, much less run and talk, when they showed up. Nonetheless, I made efforts. It bothered me that Black runners didn’t stay.
Yet, I stayed. I stayed even though I rarely saw Black runners on the sidewalks of one neighborhood after the other in Chocolate City. I didn’t know how much it bothered me until on May 8, almost three months after Arbery was killed. I joined people across the country and took to the streets and ran 2.23 miles in his honor. I wrote on Facebook: “I went running today — like I do most mornings, especially since [co]rona. Today, I didn’t meet my judge, jury, and executioners.”
I didn’t notice how much it bothered me until I joined strangers across the country who raised their voices to proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” but the group I ran with three days a week; drank coffee/tea with; sang “Happy Birthday” to; raised my glass in celebration of their marriages, new jobs, new homes and new babies; spent time volunteering with; and shared parts of my life were SILENT. What a sad commentary on our country that the world came together to commemorate the untimely death of yet another Black person at the hands of white people. What an even sadder commentary on the state of cross-racial friendships in our rapidly changing and supposedly progressive Washington that my white run “friends” were silent.
Silence in the face of injustice is complicity. These progressives’ silence was especially astonishing to me because some of them have Black friends and family members. Meanwhile, many of them like to tout their credentials of working with and among Black and brown people. The Washington white “progressive check marks.” All of it rings hollow in the face of their silence. All of it seems like a lie as here I stood, a Black female runner, and not only were they silent, but when I raised my voice to address the silence, I was silenced. Each attempt I made to address the issue of race and racism within the group was met with silence. It was made clear to me that bringing up the importance of Black life, my life, would be an imposition of beliefs on the group.
Astonished, I began to wonder, who are these people that I spent all these years with. I began to question: Am I truly, emotionally, psychologically, physically safe with them? And, then, there were more questions: Why did they leave me on my own to handle each white pedestrian who moved out of the way for them but not for me? When the white male pedestrian refused to move out of the way and we collided, why did they slow their pace as he yelled epithets at me? And, when we regrouped, instead of asking me how I was doing, why did they only focus on how the incident made them feel rather than asking about me? Wasn’t I the one who had the physical interaction?
I wasn’t safe. I was never safe with them. It had never been so clear to me the multiple ways that I abandoned myself to run with these people and the invisible, unconscious psychological, emotional and intellectual work that I did while being around these people. As I look back at my years of running with the group, I realized that as much as we ran together, how much I ran alone.
I left the group with one parting message: Do the work where your feet are planted.