Why Is Road Running Such a White Sport in the U.S.?

We love this photo of gals we met in Atlanta, but as you can see, we're all as white as the tees Dimity (far right) and I (2nd from left) are sporting.
We love this photo of gals we met at an Atlanta race expo, but as you can see, we're all as white as the tees Dimity (far right) and I (2nd from left) are sporting.

On this, the holiday celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream: that one day, running will be a more multi-racial sport. The starting corrals at most road and trail races are as white a snow-covered ski hill: a few pops of color, but the overwhelming hue is white. Dimity and I are struck by it at race expos we attend across the country: We meet mother runners in all ages, shapes, sizes, and speeds, but the overwhelming majority of them are caucasian. Reflecting back on the events we’ve attended in the past three years, in cities like Seattle, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Denver, Kansas City, Portland, Anaheim, and Nashville, a flurry of white faces fill our minds. It’s only been in cities in Texas, such as Austin and San Antonio, where we’ve met a good number of Latina runners; only in Annapolis and Atlanta were a relatively decent percentage of the racers African American. There are some Asians at most of the expos, but not many.

Rosa Gaby (2nd from left) and her friends added welcome color to Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio in several ways.
Rosa Gaby (2nd from left) and her friends added welcome color to Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio in several ways.

Specific racers come to mind: Bridget, a lithe African-American mother, who was the 2nd-place finisher at 2010 ZOOMA 10K in Annapolis. Irma, an effervescent Latina we first connected with at the 2010 ZOOMA expo in Austin; she ran the race with a group of other Hispanic mothers. There’s Lavon, an Indian mother of two who grew up in Dubai; she and I first met at the Happy Girls Run in Bend, Oregon. (She’s also the mother runner modeling two of our latest tees: I freely admit I asked her to model for us because she’s a mother of color. The fact that she’s beautiful was a bonus.) But for every one of these women of color, I could paint portraits of hundreds of white mother runners we’ve engaged with at races.

A badass mother runner in Minneapolis, next to a women sporting a BGR! jacket.
A badass mother runner in Minneapolis, next to a women sporting a BGR! jacket.

I’m puzzled about why running is overwhelming white. Is the barrier cost? Available time? Childcare options? Resources? Access to safe running routes? Cultural influences? Role models? I’m at a loss to find an explanation; I just know it saddens me.

I’d love to hear from runners of color who can enlighten us. Is there something we all could be doing to make all runners feel more welcome? Is there a way we can make the running community more like a rainbow and less like a ski slope? Please click on the orange Comments ribbon to say what’s on your mind about this topic.

To continue this conversation, next month, we will be doing a Q&A with someone from Black Girls RUN! (BGR!), a nationwide organization that promotes fitness and healthy living among African-American women. In less than two years, BGR! has launched roughly 70 running groups across the U.S. with more than 52,000 African-American women. Good stuff, really good stuff. 



58 responses to “Why Is Road Running Such a White Sport in the U.S.?

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  3. Thank you so much for this post. It is a faith-in-the-universe renewing discussion. I am both White and Native American (Chickasaw) and have lived primarily in the white world. Race and culture are such multi-faceted issues and touch us in personal and collective ways. It is these conversations that build connections between us and help us see each other authentically. Again, thank you!!!

  4. Hi I just recently started running with a group called Sole2Soul Sisters. When I arrived I was among a handful of Black ladies that were in the group, not intimidating but I just acted like my normal self, a social butterfly in any situation, and I blended right in. Today I realize it was the best decision I have made and now I wonder what took me so long. Those reasons that I did and also the answer to your question lie in the fact, in my genuine opinion, is that Black women do not have a lot of role models to look at. For one, we see beautiful Black women that make it the Olympics and are the best athletes in the WNBA, but we dont have anyone in our daily life that leads a healthy and active lifestyle. Additionally, we like our down home southern soul cellulite producing, artery clogging food. Eating healthy would mean letting that go, in lieu of finding healthier alternatives, which take less time to make, might I add. Lastly, it is hard in todays society to make changes, especially to diet, when everyone else in the house is resistant! As I glanced through the various mother runners, before I asked to join, I didnt see many Black faces, but hey I was the only Black lady to run in a winter 5K with my group in December, and today I can say that I am very proud of myself for continuing to run. I think celebrating the small accomplishments has kept me motivated as well as joining and following other groups like this one, keep me on track with my weight loss and fitness goals!! I truly appreciate the fact that you even put this article out there, I look forward to the increase in Black ladies running!!!

  5. Hi Donna!! I share your group’s success in motivating others in the community to experience not only the health benefits of running but the sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line!!
    I am also a Native (U.S.) and have lived in the SW and in cities, and now live in northern MN. I have been active all my life including running. I am 52, a mother of 2, and a grandmother of a 22 month old, and 1 month old beautiful, healthy granddaughters! I find myself being among the few brown skin competitors in many events over the years, and in local health clubs. Most of the ‘others’ are African-Americans and Hispanics, and I often get mistaken for a Latina. I have always been a ‘take charge’ person and have had no issues with doing things by myself, or exploring outside my comfort zones which has me interacting in the ‘white world’ frequently. This seems to ‘confuse’ those who are hanging onto and/or misguided by stereotypical images of Native people. Yes, we are, in general, community minded, to do what is best for the ‘group.’ However, conformity is my nemesis but I am respectful of my culture, beliefs, etc. I know my traditional education strengthened my identity as a Native woman and my early exposure to the ‘outside’ world, and my education at the universities off the reservation in my later years have nurtured me and guided me, in addition to my current professional career, to not be compartmentalized in thinking and behavior. Survival is priority in our culture per history. Being healthy in body, mind, and spirit is essential to survival in these times. Running allows me to stay fit and healthy, doesn’t take much in regard to ‘gear,’ and it doesn’t matter to me if I am the only brown skin competitor at an event or where the event is. Thus, I am always in ‘training mode.’ I am cordial to others, saying hello, etc. at these events and oftentimes, we connect on our passion of running. But there are others who just look at me and walk away. It feels good when I pass them in my half marathons and marathons.

  6. I have been following your blog for over a year and came to a Washington, DC event last year in Bethesda. I was the only “one” to “represent,” but I rarely find myself counting when I’m out running…I’m a Cali girl and never look at my surroundings from that point of view. Remember, we’re only 12% of the population. I try new things based on what I like or am willing to expose my body to and try to encourage my friends…that range in athletic ability, parenthood, and ethnicity… to join me. This year I biked my first metric century w/my hubby and some friends. For me, lack of exposure, at an early age, is the only thing that delayed my start of running. I joined a local running club, and last year joined BGR! after reading the article in Runner’s World. I am now training for my first half with a group of BGR runners, who are also supporting me as a hodgkins lymphoma survivor. I share your blog often on the BGR! DC facebook page, wear my “Another Mother Runner”shirt with pride, and will continue to encourage my non-runner friends to join me on the trail. I look forward to your chat with BGR.

  7. I am a white teacher in a large, diverse school district. This morning I was at a training on how to better understand and reach our Latino families. The presenters began goving examples of how the dominant (white) culture is individualistic and how this can be a challenge to cultures that are collectivist. Collectivism values the interconnectedness between people and wants the group to be successful. In general, American culture values the individual. I immediately thought of running. It is much more and individual sport compared to many popular team sports. Could this be one explanation for the lack of diversity in running?

    As I was thinking this, one woman gave an example of joining the gym with her sister and joked, “we had to do it together. It’s not like we’d ever work out alone, right?!”

    Maybe running is seen as a solo activity and some people prefer groups or communities. Maybe that’s why BGR is so successful and important. If this is the case, I think this amazing tribe is doing exactly what it should: building a supportive community, sharing the joys & struggles of running, and proving that we need running buddies. It may appear to be a solo event, but running is often a team sport for me!

    1. Maura – what an insightful thought. As an Asian mother, that makes sense to me. Which is also why this tribe, AMR tribe, needs to be more visible in races that are closer to more diverse populations and cities.
      How about hosting more all women races/runs where you are discounted in price if you run with a group of sisters.

  8. I wasn’t exposed to running either. I am a Native Canadian woman who was just introduced to running last year at the age of 44. I live on a Reserve (First Nation), and our health centre has a nurse who is a runner and has done Half Marathons and a Marathon. She wanted to share her passion of running with us, and so started up a Learn to Run program. There was 5 of us who completed the program and we entered and ran in our first 5K race on Father’s Day 2012. Since this program was a success, the Health Centre ran another Learn to Run program and a couple of us returned to run with and help motivate the new runners. Hoping that there will be a third seesion of a Learn 2 Run program on our First Nation as people have been watching us and cheering us on as we run together. Some of us still get together once a week to run together as a group.

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