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Everyday Racism and White Fragility in CrossFit® (OPINION)

Events from the past few weeks have shaken the world, not because something new or different happened, but because the world was forced to watch a particularly bothersome and lengthy image that reflected what has been happening for centuries. The power inequalities symbolized through George Floyd’s blackness and Derek Chauvin’s whiteness represent the racialized power inequalities that have flowed for so long through a range of institutional spheres – criminal justice, education, politics, work, media, and let’s not forget, sport.

As a result of sustained and intense activism, mainstream organizations across the world finally began responding supportively to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And, a greater number of white people have started discussing the notion of white privilege in the media, including across social media.

CrossFit® Headquarters, however, initially remained silent on the issue, that is until its then CEO, Greg Glassman responded to a Tweet regarding racism as a public health issue by writing insensitively, “It’s FLOYD-19.”, something most of us have undoubtedly seen:

On top of this, Glassman stated in reference to Floyd’s death during a Zoom call, “We’re not mourning for George Floyd, I don’t think me or any of my staff are…Can you tell me why I should mourn for him? Other than it’s the white thing to do.”

Since Glassman’s digital blunders, a number of colossal developments have transpired, it appears for the better. Still, his actions provide us with an opportunity to reflect on CrossFit’s demographics, and the ways we view this ever evolving sport that so many of us love.

Understanding Racism’s Layers

Most of us think racism is no longer systemic, built into law, and instead believe racism only materializes when extreme, fringe radicals display a swastika symbol or if someone hurls racial epithets at an ethnic minority. Of course those are examples of racism. But racism carries other elements, ones which resonate more strongly with ethnic minorities.

Again, racism reflects power inequalities. In countries like Canada, Australia, the United States (where I’m from), Aotearoa New Zealand (where I live now) and those across Western Europe, white people are the numerical majority, which gives them a dimension of power. But on average, white people are also more likely to wield institutionalized power, meaning it’s more likely for them to hold formalized leadership positions, where their decision making power disseminates across organizational spheres. Additionally, they are more likely to hold influence in mainstream media platforms which set the agenda for our broader discourse.

Another important aspect of racism worth noting is that current racialized power inequalities across society reflect historical manifestations of racism. To this end, encounters with racism are not singular, unique events for ethnic minorities. They remind us of patterned inequalities that have impacted our families, friends, and communities for decades, sometimes centuries.

Racism also comes in different forms. Again, it’s not just the odd loudmouth or angry gunman targeting people of color. The more common form of racism today is called “everyday racism,” or the so-called “subtle” micro-aggressions that put down black, Indigenous and other people of color, perhaps not on literally an everyday basis, but regularly enough that clear patterns exist.

  • “Wow, you’re really well-spoken for a Mexican.”
  • “Can I touch your hair?”
  • “You’re lucky for affirmative action.”

It’s also about body language, noticing people rolling their eyes at you, getting interrupted more than white peers, having to endure “minor” racist jokes, reading racist comments on the Internet, having white people belittle you online when you expose racism. Another thing, white people tend not to notice these instances, and tend to be less aware these actions are in fact racist. Women can probably relate with respect to everyday sexism (which is also relevant to this discussion). If instances of everyday racism happen once a year, it’s not a big deal. But once a year isn’t reality, and dealing with everyday racism gets exhausting.

Additionally, racism gets institutionalized. As stated previously, within organizations, white people are more likely to be in authoritative positions. Thus, formal leaders are less likely to intervene when overt or everyday racism transpires; anti-racist policies are less likely to be considered, let alone developed (same too with anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic policies).

Two last things before we get back to CrossFit®. When an ethnic minority confronts someone about racism, it’s frequently the ethnic minority who gets called out as the trouble-maker, cast as being hyper-sensitive, because racism is supposedly only a thing of the past. Enter white privilege, a reference to the unearned benefits white people experience in majority-white societies. White privilege doesn’t mean white people don’t have to work hard, but they don’t have to overcome racism to get where they’re going, and that’s a significant form of privilege (think also heterosexual/male privilege).

What black people, Indigenous people, other people of color wish, is when we point out racism that more white people would back us up, listen to us, believe us, try to understand us. It’s much more frequently uncomfortable for us. If us pointing out racism is uncomfortable for you, don’t respond by demonstrating white fragility, doing something hurtful to us that makes it more comfortable for you. Unfortunately, we’ve recently seen white fragility displayed among CrossFit® leadership.

Okay, finally, back to CrossFit®.

CrossFit’s Recent White Fragility

Following Glassman’s racist Tweet, waves of criticism ensued, eventually prompting Glassman to Tweet, “…the CrossFit community will not stand for racism,” and, “My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake.”

Classic white fragility. By contending that his initial comment was “not racist,” Glassman attempted to exonerate himself from any responsibility of being racist, consciously or unconsciously, thereby re-establishing his own comfortable social equilibirum. Instead, he should have admitted to making an insensitive, racist Tweet, and clarified he will do the hard work to learn more about racism’s complexities so that he can be an active anti-racist ally. This would include taking on advice from those who regularly experience racism so he can use his power to address institutionalized and interpersonal racism in CrossFit®.

Institutionalized Racism in CrossFit?

Remember that hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite? How about #CrossFitGamesSoWhite? But wait, this is sport, and people earn their way to the top absent of systemic racism, right? To a degree, yes, but just like golf, swimming, skiing and tennis, CrossFit® is an expensive sport that is inaccessible to a disproportionate number of black, Indigenous and other ethnic minorities.

This varies from community to community, and even between countries. Individual exceptions will rise from time to time. However, we need to acknowledge the racialized membership patterns that flow throughout the global CrossFit® community. An intersection between race and class cannot be ignored.

Back at a 2019 CrossFit Games® press conference, Dave Castro was asked, “These are all amazing athletes right here, but they all look alike. What are your plans for, or if any plans to add diversity to the roster?” A few fans in the audience yelled, “Next question,” as Castro chuckled. He then ignored the question by describing the next morning’s event (see last 2 minutes of video). [Castro has since explained that press conference was not the time or place to have that discussion.]

Once more, classic fragility. To be fair, Dave Castro is Mexican-American, yet him evading a question on ethnic diversity demonstrates both privilege and fragility. Even before Floyd’s murder, wasn’t ethnic diversity important across all sectors of society, including CrossFit®? When a leader walks away and dismisses diversity as worthy of discussion, he (or she) is re-establishing the status quo. This is racism, not in its most acute form, but it stops us from having the uncomfortable but necessary conversations. In this way, everyday racism upholds severe racism.

In turn, when someone else in leadership makes a more obvious racist statement (like Glassman’s), CrossFit® doesn’t have a leg to stand on. They had chances in 2019 to address racism and their lack of ethnic diversity, but they very publicly let those chances slide.

Come 2020, CrossFit® HQ could only release a very tardy statement regarding their prolonged silence after Floyd’s murder and Glassman’s racist Tweet. Part of their statement reads, “We weren’t sure how to get the message right, and as a result, we failed catastrophically by not effectively communicating care for the Black community, all as the online world was watching and experiencing extreme pain,” to which I ask, how many senior members of staff at CrossFit® HQ are woke ethnic minorities? Did their absence contribute to your delay?

And here we are, CrossFit® Boxes de-affiliating, elite athletes withdrawing from The Games, members infuriated and arguing with each other.

So What Now?

Elite athletes have been taking a stand. Katrín Davíðsdóttir, Brooke Wells and Amanda Barnhart posted the following types of statements, showcasing their morals around racial justice supersede their athletic goals, problematizing the fact that Glassman for a short period still held the key position of power (owner) within CrossFit®.

Other Games athletes, such as Sam Briggs, Brent Fikowski, Chandler Smith, Noah Olsen, Kristi Eramo O’Connell, and Tim Paulson also announced their intentions to boycott. Like Colin Kaepernick recently and Muhammad Ali from yesteryear, these athletes demonstrated their political will in the midst of their athletic careers when they have more influence. They are now reconsidering in light of major organizational changes.

Now we have a new CrossFit® owner coming on board in Eric Roza, who wrote, “Racism and sexism are abhorrent and will not be tolerated in CrossFit.” During his recent Zoom call with Castro, neither of the two mentioned issues of discrimination, perhaps trying to stay positive and/or for legal reasons. Roza did state he plans to prioritize a “stakeholder model of success,” where he will listen to key stakeholders in order to grow effectively.

To this end, will Roza’s stakeholders include individuals from black, Indigenous and other ethnic minority communities, including those excluded from CrossFit® due to economic disparity (as opposed to those who might use CrossFit® to enhance their ski seasons)?

Will woke ethnic minorities, women, members of the Rainbow community be hired in leadership positions? Will gym owners and members step up, including those who are white, to act as anti-racist allies when ethnic minorities need them? Society finally seems to be accepting, when discrimination is happening, silence is violence.

These conversations aren’t easy. I’m a heterosexual male, and I don’t like admitting I get privilege from those statuses, but I do. We must exile the complex forms of sexism, racism and other types of discrimination flowing through CrossFit®; these difficult conversations are essential. If you have privilege, don’t let a sense of fragility stop you from reflecting on social inequality. Those of us who are minorities, we may not always need you, but it feels really good to get your help, and no doubt, your help stimulates change.

David Tokiharu Mayeda, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology & Criminology at The University of Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand.

His teaching and research expertise are in everyday racism and Indigenous student success in higher education. He has been an active CrossFit member for approximately five years.

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