Sunday, June 14, 2020

CrossFit: An Exercise in Everyday Racism and White Fragility

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, 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 probably seen:

On top of this, Glassman stated of Floyd's death, "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."

Understanding Racism’s Layers
Before going further with an inspection of CrossFit, it’s important to understand racism. 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 those across Western Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States (where I’m from) and Aotearoa New Zealand (where I live now), 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.

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 exists.

“Wow, you’re really smart 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 hear “minor” racist jokes, reading racist comments on the Internet, having white people belittle you online when you expose racism. Here’s 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. 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 developed (same too with anti-sexist, homophobic and 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 manifest 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 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 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).

Once more, classic fragility. To be fair, I’m not sure if Castro is white (his surname leads me to believe he isn’t), but I’m guessing he’s not black or Indigenous, and him evading a question on diversity demonstrates both privilege and fragility. I mean, even before Floyd’s death, 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 to address racism and their lack of racial diversity, but they very publicly let those chances slide and 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 CrossFitHQ are woke ethnic minorities? Did that 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?
More elite athletes need to stand up. Katrín Davíðsdóttir, Brooke Wells and Amanda Barnhart have all posted the following types of statements, showcasing that their morals around racial justice supersede their athletic goals (apologies to other athletes who’ve made similar posts), as they problematize the fact that Glassman still holds the key position of power within CrossFit.

Will other elite CrossFit athletes do like Colin Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali, fight for justice in the midst of their career when they have more influence? Will the new CrossFit CEO, Dave Castro, tackle the issue of poor ethnic diversity, and do so carefully by listening to individuals from black, Indigenous and other ethnic minority communities, including those excluded from CrossFit due to economic disparity? Will woke ethnic minorities 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? Silence is compliance.

These conversations are not easy. I’m a heterosexual male, and I don’t like admitting I get privilege from those statuses, but I do. It appears everyday and overt sexism exists in CrossFitHQ; these 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 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 ethnic minority student success in higher education. He has been an active CrossFit member for approximately five years.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

From Rodney King to George Floyd: Racism Still Trumps Panoptic Proof

"...when the looting starts, the shooting starts" (U.S. President Donald Trump). 

In the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, coming at the hands (or knee) of white police officer, Derek Chauvin, uprisings have sprouted across the United States. The largest and most intense are understandably in Minneapolis, where the tragedy transpired. Not too long ago or far away in 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota after indicating he was carrying a legal firearm and telling the officer he was not reaching for it. Both tragedies share a range of key characteristics that are all too familiar and anxiety-provoking for African American communities:

  • The deceased victims are African Americans, mostly, though not always male;
  • the law enforcement officers (or figures*) are not African American and typically white;
  • the African American victim is inaccurately stigmatized in advance as disproportionately dangerous, perceived as large, armed, aggressive, criminogenic;
  • the officers (or figures) use excessive force;
  • the tragedy is often video recorded, either by bystanders, or in a few cases through technologies connected to the police (e.g., body cameras);
  • the officers (or figures) normally do not face legal repercussions, even with video evidence, or legal repercussions are extremely delayed and only enforced because video evidence goes public.
* In some cases, vigilante figures are not formally connected to law enforcement, but claim enforcement rights in their neighborhood or hold former law enforcement connections. Think George Zimmerman who killed Trayvon Martin and Gregory and Travis McMichael who killed Ahmaud Arbery.

Over-criminalization of African American males is nothing new in American history. Following the abolition of slavery, the American south saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Absent the institution of slavery, legal mechanisms that could oppress African Americans were less ubiquitous and less formal. Thus, the Klan implemented their own form of terrorism, relying on a strategically constructed image of black men as sexual predators. As Hodes (1993) writes, "In the minds of Klansmen and their sympathizers, the rape of white women was the logical extreme to which black men would go without the institution of slavery to restrain them" (p. 409); in short, without slavery, white racists needed to fabricate dangerous images of black men in order to justify their continued violent oppression. Unsurprisingly, it was after slavery's abolition that lynchings festered in the south under that region's enforcers.

But that was roughly one and a half centuries ago. Since then society has advanced tremendously, specifically with respect to our justice systems and technologies. Today, we have established law enforcement, court and corrections systems that are not supposed to demonstrate biases. And more germane to this piece, we have technologies that can capture interactions between police and alleged criminals that were non-existent even in the 1980s.

Panoptic Eye over Police Undercut by Power of Racism
Michel Foucault's notion of pantopticism suggests that in the modern era, technologies control workers, as managers are able to maintain a constant watch over employees. Management may not actually be watching, but workers wonder if they are, and they can't watch management. Thus workers are incessantly anxious and in turn obedient. Given the level of technology in modern society, shouldn't police be anxious enough not to abuse their authority?

If we go back to March 1991, Los Angeles resident George Holliday used his VCR to film four white LAPD officers - Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind as they beat Rodney King, striking King with metal batons at least 56 times, resulting in 11 skull fractures. Indeed, King was committing crimes (driving under the influence, evading arrest), but the level of punishment was disproportionate, to say the least.

Of course the other key element of the story emerges April 29, 1992, when the four officers were acquitted, in spite of the video evidence that was disseminated across the world. Their acquittal sparked an uprising across Los Angeles resulting in 58 deaths, over 2000 injured and $785 million in property damage (Loyd, 2012, p. 432). Why so much rage, why so much destruction?

For African Americans in Los Angeles (and beyond) King's violent victimization wasn't an isolated incident. Rather, it represented the first time a pattern was proven through visceral video imagery to the international public, catalyzing a rage also reflected during the Watts uprising of 1965, but which at that time lacked the panoptic power of citizen journalism.

Moving forward to the 2010's, citizens across the world were armed with quickly accessible smart phones, there to film and live stream potential cases of police brutality, including those gone lethal. With patterned examples of deathly excessive force inflicted upon African American victims proven through video and disseminated to the world, society would expect to see a change judicial outcomes. Of course instead, justice has been denied, as communicated through this post spreading across social media, also speaking to white privilege:

I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean#AtatianaJefferson#BreonnaTaylor).
I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
I can play loud music (#JordanDavis).
I can sell CD's (#AltonSterling).
I can sleep (#AiyanaJones)
I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
I can go to church (Charleston9).
I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
I can get a traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .
I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott).
I can be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover).
I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
I can run (#WalterScott).
I can breathe ( #EricGarner).
I can live (#FreddieGray).
I can ask someone to put a leash on their dog when it is required in the public park we are in (#christiancooper).


African American communities and their allies realize nearly 30 years after the uprisings in Los Angeles, even with the advent of digital proof, we still fail to see justice. To this end, "It's worse today than it was back then."

Anger - Including Violent Anger - must be Contextualized
By sating, "...when the looting starts, the shooting starts," the POTUS is expressing an insensitivity to the most recent example of lethal police misconduct inflicted upon African Americans. Additionally, he is demonstrating an ignorance to patterned racial injustice. The mass anger we are seeing now is far more reflective of a revolution grounded in demands for justice than it is looting. Thus as POTUS and his followers fixate on looting and responding to it with threats to "shoot," they are dismissing the fundamental social concern.

When critique, outrage and anger regarding looting overtakes critique, outrage and anger regarding patterns of lethal police discrimination, a deep seeded racism is exposed. As activists are demanding, if society wants to see less violent revolution, it needs to see its justice systems and political leaders admit their racist faults and radically shift their practices.

Hodes, M. (1993). The sexualization of reconstruction politics: white women and black men in the South after the Civil War. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 3(3), 402-417.

Loyd, J. M. (2012). The fire next time: Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and law-and-order urbanism. City, 16(4), 431-438.