Hear Our Voices: The Impact Of Systemic Racism On The Fitness Industry

This series on diversity, equity and inclusion is brought to you in collaboration with BLAQUE. For more on this series, read our introduction story here

Imagine a world where you are a health club member paying for amenities such as shampoo in your locker room, but the shampoo provided doesn’t work for your hair type.

Imagine ensuring 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.  

Imagine going for your outdoor run each day by first ensuring your clothes are brightly colored and unmistakably running clothes while bracing yourself for a possible stop by a police officer to ask where you live and what you are doing.

Imagine not hitting your goal as a trainer for the month and being told you need to work harder while another trainer who also did not meet goal is given more training and a mentor.

Imagine buying a gym and finding out that the landlord gave a better deal and more assistance for renovations to the former owners than he did to you.  

Millions of Americans don’t have to imagine these scenarios because these scenarios are their reality.

For generations, the people who have set up the systems, laws and businesses in America have been white men, so it’s no wonder that their needs and beliefs are considered the “norm.” Ignorance or the lack of concern about the needs of people of color have led to a feeling of “otherness” for many people of color. When that “otherness” is baked into systems, it can be difficult to break unless business owners and politicians make a concerted effort to understand and change those systems.

And yes, this can be something as seemingly innocent as carrying Suave shampoo but not SheaMoisture in your locker rooms. It can be something as racist as buying into the stereotype that your Black trainers don’t meet their goals due to laziness while your white trainers don’t meet their goals because they just need a little more guidance. Sometimes this systemic racism leads to even more serious consequences.

The next question in Club Industry’s series on diversity, equity and inclusion, focuses on how the fitness industry has been affected by systemic racism. Responses to the questions in this first part of this series comes from Black members of the industry.

Q: How has the fitness industry been impacted by systemic racism? 

Dr. Antonio Williams, Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair, Indiana University School of Public Health

A: In this regard, fitness isn’t unlike most other industries. During the Jim Crow era, Blacks 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. Despite the myriad of lower priced clubs available today, many minorities may still consider private gym memberships to be a luxury. Furthermore, 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. Fitness clubs would be a welcomed addition to these communities. The historical impact of Jim Crow, the price of exclusivity and the lack of clubs in Black communities have led some Black gym members to feel as if they don’t truly belong. Over the past few years, several fitness club brands have come under scrutiny for racial discrimination. In a few of those incidents, Black members have been asked to show proof of membership and even asked to leave without probable cause. 

Cheryl McCarver, Executive Director, Cooper Street YMCA

A: 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. Yes, there is systemic racism in the fitness industry that is displayed daily in our classes, in why people choose a certain trainer and the instructors who are selected to represent the organization publicly, etc. But it doesn't mean that things can't change. With more diversity at the leadership level in our industry, thoughts and actions will be challenged.

David Rachal III, Founder and CEO, HEALTHEFIT

A: Shortly after taking over a gym, I sent out a welcome email with information about my company including my background and picture. We then proceeded to experience a mass exodus of white members. Almost 100 members decided that they would not continue even though the membership rates were remaining the same and more services and a cleaner facility were going to be provided.

In hindsight, both the landlord (a white male) and the previous owners (three white males) seemed eager to offload this business and boasted about the amount of assistance they were willing to provide in order to support the restoration and grand opening. After all agreements had been signed and monies exchanged, the landlord decided that he would only assist with painting the interior of the facility. Yet our due diligence revealed that he paid for new flooring and carpet plus built a new office for the previous owners. Grand opening day came around and neither the landlord nor the previous owners showed up. The referrals and people they said they would send over never showed up either. I eventually had to shut down the gym due to substantial membership loss.

Venus Davis, Founder, The Strong Academy

A: A: Because of systemic racism, 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.

Jessica, Personal Trainer, Equinox (last name withheld upon request)

A: The industry has been impacted by systemic racism because it is a microcosm of our society at large. 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. However, if you look at who consistently gets promoted, who is in charge and who makes decisions, you will invariably see white men and some white women. There may be a few Black or brown faces here or there, but they are very few and far between. The Black population in the United States is about 13.4 percent. At my gym and the company I work for, far less than 13.4 percent of the management is Black. Far less than 13.4 percent of the trainers hired are Black. 

Mike Z. Robinson, Owner, MZR Fitness

A: I feel like one of the biggest issues as far as this goes in the fitness industry is that 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.

So the systemic problem about that is that these mostly non-minority fitness professionals are able to get huge exposure opportunities from these larger companies, and then they are able to create a bigger platform to where they can capitalize financially by creating even more revenue outside of their facilities, such as mentorship programs, mastermind programs, sponsorship and endorsement deals, celebrity and/or pro athlete training opportunities, speaking gigs, corporate fitness partnerships, etc. Unfortunately for the minority population, the same opportunities are not available because they are often not getting the same exposure.

Ariana Stowe, Personal Trainer and 305 Fitness Instructor

A: In my professional and personal opinion, the fitness industry up until the more recent years has not appealed or catered to the needs, desires and wants of the Black community as a whole.

I spent two years living in Baltimore City, Maryland, a city that is 62.46 percent Black, and in the poorest areas of town, there are no fitness facilities at all. Outside of a college campus gym and school recess, there is a lack of investment of health in Black communities.

Statistically, Black people are at the highest risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, so one would think that on every street corner there would be a gym like there is in the nice more affluent parts of Baltimore or other cities in America, but there isn’t.

This is in part due to the implicit fear of investing into Black communities, which started with redlining, a practice once backed by the U.S. government in the 1930s where Black people and other people of color were denied loans based strictly on their race and where they lived. These areas were deemed risky to invest in.

Redlining was banned in 1968, and even with some cities facing gentrification now, the levels of economic inequality are still present.

Carlos Davila, Adjunct Professor at LIU Brooklyn, John Jay College and Baruch; Diversity Officer at the Fhitting Room; and Coach at 5th Ave Gym

A: Similar to other spaces, the systemic, consistent and at times subtle racism that is inherent to this country is also present in these spaces. Not feeling seen (which I have often experienced), not feeling heard (due to concerns of people of color not being a priority), not being represented (often these spaces, at times inadvertently, make it clear from their promotional materials that a very specific subset of the larger community are welcome), and not being acknowledged (I actually posted during February how disappointed I was by the lack of celebration of Black History Month by a majority of fitness spaces). Fitness spaces are going to mirror the socialization of its patrons, and if your target audience is slim, white women, that can (and often does) ostracize and “others” anyone else that enters that space.

A: From pay gaps to whitewashing and profiting off Black cultures to not acknowledging or celebrating Black History Month, systemic racism is omnipresent in the fitness industry. You just have to look at the response from the fitness industry after George Floyd’s murder and how long it took companies and fit pros to speak out to see it.

Jana Stewart, Health And Lifestyle Accountability Coach And Lifestyle Consultant

A: They simply fell inline with the rest of society discriminating against people of color and making opportunities more available to white people. They did nothing to make a change. I'm happy to see so many companies making changes now. We must not stop.

Kurt Gillon, General Manager, LifeStart

A: If you are qualified, have a proven track record of success, invested in your education/continuing education and more, and then you see an opportunity go to someone who is not as qualified as you, that is disheartening and in some cases, it could be attributed to bigotry, fear and  the like. I have experienced that. But racism is such a strong word for me. This industry is built on education, collaboration, sharing, networking. At times I am the only person of color in the room, on the roster as a presenter or a place of employment. We can work on more exposure to these opportunities, but it still needs to be earned, I repeat earned, because no one, no man or woman, regardless of their ethnicity, wants to have someone give it to them. I will not accept it and am sure that is a shared thought.