Unpacking the History of Anti-Blackness in the Fitness Industry

Posted by Ilya Parker on

During the Jim Crow era, Black people weren’t allowed access to “health clubs”. Much like country clubs and golf courses during the years after desegregation, many ‘health clubs’ implemented discriminatory rules and policies to exclude Black patrons. Dr. Antonio Williams, Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair, Indiana University School of Public Health


"The fitness industry and all industries are impacted by systemic racism because all industries are managed and run by people. People come to the spaces they fill with thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that represent what they have learned, been taught and experienced from the day they were born. … With more diversity at the leadership level in our industry, thoughts and actions will be challenged." Cheryl McCarver, Executive Director, Cooper Street YMCA


The industry has been impacted by systemic racism because it is a microcosm of our society at large. 

Anti-Blackness in action:

  • Paying for amenities such as shampoo in your locker room, but the shampoo provided doesn’t work for your hair type.
  • Having to ensure you have your membership card on you at all times while in your gym because more than once you have been asked by staff to prove you are a member.  
  • Having to ensure your clothes are brightly colored and unmistakably running clothes when going for a run/walk outside in preparation for a possible stop by a police officer to ask where you live and what you are doing.
  • Most Black communities are considered fitness deserts and are underserved by the fitness industry. These communities often times are low walkability food deserts with little to no green space for physical activity.
  • “Black fitness professionals have a more difficult time proving their intellectual worth when meeting new clients. Our ability to perform physically is never questioned due to our history of being viewed as having been bred as “athletes.” Unfortunately, that stereotype is accompanied by a less flattering stigma of being brawn without brains.” Venus Davis, Founder, The Strong Academy
  • Companies can boast about their diverse hiring practices because the majority of the cleaning staff is Hispanic and several of the employees in entry-level positions are BIPOC." If you look at who consistently gets promoted, who is in charge and who makes decisions, you will invariably see white [cisgender men] and some white [cisgender] women. There may be a few Black or brown faces here or there, but they are very few and far between." Jessica, Personal Trainer, Equinox 
  • "We see the same type of people and/or the same exact person (which are often non-minorities) featured with the biggest companies in the industry on posters, websites, in educational content, teaching workshops, speaking at conferences, etc. So in the eyes of the up-and-coming fitness professionals, it is perceived that the person that they see featured is an industry expert regardless of their background and expertise." Mike Z. Robinson, Owner, MZR Fitness

Anti-Blackness can be something as seemingly innocent as carrying Suave shampoo but not SheaMoisture in the locker rooms-- oftentimes “subtle” systemic racism leads to even more serious consequences.

You can’t provide a supportive fitness space for Black people without knowing the historical impact of systemic anti-Blackness in the Fitness Industry.

Anti-Blackness still remains even with gyms decreasing price points and opening in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Racist tropes of innate athleticism and decreased intellect exist regarding Black trainers. Black patrons are often viewed as lazy and non-committed, being blamed for the chronic illnesses they carry. Yet there is still little to no true acknowledgment of the social determinants of health that dramatically impact the lives of Black folks. This is only scratching the surface. I feel we do a huge disservice of trying to implement “quick tips to help” without truly taking time to learn the history of why? If you can take the time to invest in a fitness certification, you can invest in educating yourself about the history of systemic anti-Blackness in the Fitness Industry. Learn, Engage, Dismantle.


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  • Thank you for this historic review. It’s important for the world to know HOW we got here.
    FIT4MOM D&I Manager

    Kia R Edwards on

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