The Truth about Diversity and Inclusion: You Have to be Willing to Relinquish Power and Privilege
It seems as of late the words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ are all the rage. Somehow they have become buzzwords that are really trendy and cool to use. I first started discussing the lack of diversity and inclusion in fitness and wellness spaces in 2016. And while I think it’s fantastic that people are starting to become more aware of the issues of privilege and appropriation that exist in fitness and wellness, I find it increasingly more important that people show it with their actions versus announcing it with their words.
Before we jump in, let’s lay some groundwork. As I’ve stated before, the fitness and wellness industry has long been catering to a predominantly white audience. As a result, it’s largely oblivious to issues of access, diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality, as are a great many of its trainers and instructors, both in terms of staff at a given gym and more prominent influencers.
It’s trendy and cool to talk racial and social justice now, and unfortunately, there are people who are talking about it and capitalizing off of it without actually doing anything. If you have privilege (which we all do) and wish to create change and be part of the solution, the conversation needs to be about how you can leverage your own personal privilege to create change instead of centering yourself in the conversation. Meaning, black and brown people do not need to hear you talk about how you are going to create safe and welcoming spaces. In fact, it’s hella frustrating to see this happening.
There is no praise or acknowledgement deserved for doing the bare minimum or for acknowledging the privilege you have. Recognizing that you have privilege doesn’t actually do anything, except for maybe make you feel good about yourself. You don’t do get cookies or a pat on the back for finally recognizing that a space lacks inclusivity, especially when Black femmes and other people of color have been explaining this and doing this work literally forever. We are not new to this work. We are the originators of this work because we have to for our own survival and liberation.
Instead of telling the world about how you are working to create more diversity and inclusion in an industry that already centers people who look like you and collecting your accolades and praise from other white women calling you ‘inspiring’ and ‘brave’ and applauding your ‘leadership,’ I challenge you to show the world with your actions. You can be ally by doing something and choosing not to tell anyone what you did.
If you want to bring awareness to this particular issue, point to BIPOC who are already talking about this and elevate their voices instead of deciding to be the ‘new voice’ for an issue that you benefit from. This will likely not be a well-loved opinion, but other white people can’t help you create an inclusive space or one that feels welcoming and safe for black and brown people. How would they be able to lend you that perspective?
Creating more inclusive spaces and changing systems of inequality requires that white people relinquish their power and privilege. That might mean that you need to pass up opportunities because there are already enough people at the table who look like you. You participate by sharing the work of others and elevating the voices of other people rather than elevating your own.
You do this work by calling out your racist and transphobic friends and family members. You do this work by correcting and challenging your coworkers and people you share spaces with when they are engaging in bigoted and hateful conversation. And of course, you do this by continually checking your own white supremacy and giving up power. That is the work. That is how you show up.
I have personally encountered white women in fitness spaces who are “doing the work”—taking the courses, saying the right phrases, spouting off the right diversity and inclusivity language – while also making overtly racist remarks in my presence and refusing to relinquish power and dominance. As you can imagine, I’m not moved by people voicing their intentions. Words are meaningless if you are causing harm to the exact pollutions you are seeking to include.
Diversity and Inclusion is not a business strategy or a box to check. It takes real work, commitment to change, and a willingness to secede power. Before you embark on making diversity and inclusion your trademark, I challenge you to do the difficult work of understanding your own privilege, uncovering your implicit biases, and discovering your internalized racism and desire for dominance. This step cannot be skipped because it will show in the work you do, and you will cause harm to people.
“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.” – Bell Hooks
Any time a business or organization claims to be diverse and inclusive, the very first thing I do is look at its board of directors and employees. If the board of directors and employees are majority cisgender white folks, it’s a tell-tale sign that this is not an inclusive organization. If they are not employing and paying BIPOC, it’s are an inclusive organization. Period – no ands, ifs, or buts.
It’s no coincidence that more black womxn are shying away from identifying as intersectional femininists. The term ‘intersectional’ was coined by a black woman, Kimberle Chenshaw, in 1989 to describe the ways in which blackness specifically (among other things) needed to be included in feminism. What we are seeing increasingly is white women being praised for creating diversity or supposed inclusion or intersectionality.
What this shows is that once again, whiteness is being centered in a space (feminism) where whiteness is already taking up too much space. Ironically, the term intersectional, which was created to highlight the unique struggles of black womxn within the feminist movement is being used to center white womxn. Essentially, the term ‘intersectional feminism’ has been whitewashed.
If you are a white person interested in doing this work, ask yourself this very important question. I challenge you think critically and honestly before you answer. Are you actually going to give up power and privilege? Because that is exactly what is required to create a truly diverse, inclusive, and welcoming fitness and wellness space, or any space for that matter. You have to be willing to de-center yourself and secede power. That is at the root of changing systems of inequality.
If your intention is truly to create a difference without centering yourself, why not do the work without looking for validation? Why not take the courses to educate yourself without sharing with everyone how much work you are doing to unlearn your privilege? Instead of telling everyone that you’re intersectional, show people with your actions because actions speak so much louder than words. You don’t have to talk about it, just be about it.
The motivation for diversity and inclusion has to be firmly rooted in a desire to uproot the systems that leads to spaces that center white people and to change the balance of power. When this is not the case, the efforts are performative in nature.
As I stated earlier, white people can’t show you how to create spaces that feel safe and welcoming for black and brown people. Despite their best efforts, they aren’t the experts on how black and brown people feel and what’s relatable to us. Pay black femmes and other people of color to consult for you and help to change the framework of your business and provide you insight.
Lastly, if you’re feeling triggered or defensive at this point, I challenge you to sit with those feelings of discomfort and start to unpack what’s at the root of it. Doing this work doesn’t come without lots of discomfort, and it requires leaving behind fragility and defensiveness. It requires listening to feedback that will likely be hard to accept. None of this is easy, but despite that, it’s completely necessary if we ever hope to dismantle systems of oppression.
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