I’ve always considered myself as the white privileged Dominican runner, which might bring you confused faces, but I promise I’ll tell you my story. Recently I’ve been asked by people both white and black, “what is it like being a minority in a predominately white sport” and my face resembled the meme full of question marks. Hearing this question over and over I’ve been bottling up my frustration, but with racism on the rise and discussions opening up more and more, I’m giving into the urge to come forward with my story.
Track and Field and Running isn’t a predominantly white sport. If it wasn’t for BIPOC runners, neither would have been pushed to the current level of elite athleticism that they are now at. BIPOC athletes have pushed the boundaries of culture, acceptance, and running both on and off the track, but are almost exclusively celebrated only when competing. That celebration and inclusion stops when they walk off the track and put their trainers back on. Now that I have your attention, let’s dive into my personal story.
Since this is a running blog, I’ll do my best to relate everything to running. When I was a baby, I was adopted from the Dominican Republic by an amazing (endless emphasis on amazing) white family. For the most part, most of my siblings grew up in New Jersey but I however, get to claim Fuquay Varina, NC as my hometown and be the southerner of the family. Fuquay many years ago was that typical country small town that bordered larger towns and had country roads and pick up trucks for days. Today Fuquay Varina has changed to become more of a typical suburban cookie cutter small town complete with turn lanes where there shouldn’t be turn lanes, breweries and a mattress store on every corner possible.
To help set the scene, and help you understand, a brief story from my hometown: When I was in high school I was selected for Homecoming Court. As the minority nominee. An entirely separate category reserved for non white students, who had their own Homecoming Court. Not in 1950, but 2006. For the record, my white father escorted me onto the football field so his daughter could be recognized for the segregated category. At the time, I wasn’t humiliated or angry; I was actually excited to feel like I got a “free pass” to getting onto the Homecoming Court, such as it was. It wouldn’t be until later that I would even realize that this wasn’t a normal high school experience, but one that was limited to towns that had never fully embraced people being represented as something, anything, other than what they could determine from a glance at their skin color.
Growing up in a white household allowed me to experience white privilege my entire upbringing and even to this day to an extent. My family was middle-class, my dad had a great job that allowed my mom to be a stay at home parent, we always had food on the table and we never experienced financial struggles. Lucky me, right? Inside my house was this perfect package deal, but as soon as I stepped out the door, the protective shield of my white family was left behind.
Within the first few weeks of attending my new elementary school in second grade, I was beat up and called the N word. Having grown up in my family I thought of myself as ‘white’ and at the time I thought I was just being bullied as ‘the new kid’, but over time and as I got older I realized that wasn’t it at all. It took me years to realize the plot twist of my childhood; I was white but still got beat up for being Black/Hispanic (the struggle of the Dominican color palette).
I didn’t realize my white privilege until I began running track for my high school and for my summer club team. My dad was laid off during the 2008 recession but my parents still paid for my registration fees and plane ticket to compete at Nike Indoor Nationals in Boston without hesitation. I always had Nike iD spikes, purchased a customized event t-shirt at every meet and even went to physical therapy for the smallest injury. On the other hand some of my teammates were sponsored by other families, wore used/donated spikes, joined the team to stay away from gang violence and occasionally missed practice because they couldn’t find a ride. I look back on these years and think “wow”. I was given so much, and even during a recession my parents managed to make sure I was given everything I wanted and needed, but friends and teammates with the same passion and parental love didn’t have the same opportunities as I did. That’s the individualism of running, where one child or athlete has access to specialized training, recovery, meets, and the other isn’t able to do the same; not because their parents cared any less, but because of systematic and generational racism they simply weren’t in the position to, even if they had more talent than I did.
Fast forward to college. I attended Western Carolina University on scholarship with a focus on the 800M, 400M and Cross Country (that last one wasn’t my choice). Western Carolina University is a small D1 school that is plopped right in the middle of some of the most racist, country mountain towns of North Carolina. Confederate flags were everywhere you looked, death stares for daring to be a minority in their presence while shopping in the local Walmart and even racism on campus.
I had a recent conversation with my former teammates and student-athletes and sadly enough, we all experienced racism in some shape or form while competing. Once, when I was doing my summer training, I was on a long run off campus and instantly felt something off about my surroundings. I looked behind me and there was a huge jacked up (raised up for those not in the South) truck with a confederate flag waving that was riding really slow behind me.
You might be wondering “why didn’t you sprint off to the side and out of sight?” Trust me, I would have, but both to my left and my right were mountain cliffs… I was trapped with nowhere to go, so my mindset was to remain calm and ride it out. They began to pass me and there was a guy sitting in the back holding a paintball gun. The next thing I heard was someone shouting the N word from the window and a paintball was fired my way. I was hit in my side, and while I’d like to tell you the details, it remains an emotional blur as they sped off and I sprinted back to campus.
The only good thing to come from this is that I am 100% positive I set my 5K PR running back to the locker room (I live for dark humor). I never really told many people about this because my mind was so focused on me leaving to compete for the Dominican Republic in Mexico a couple weeks later. Many of the athletes and friends I’ve talked to since then adopted the same mentality. ‘I don’t have time to fathom this right now, I’m living my dream, competing in two weeks.’ I think I was lucky being an athlete on campus and dealing with racism because I had something to distract me, a goal I was always working on, twenty-four seven. I don’t know what it would have been like for me in college without sports to keep my mind focused on something besides racism.
I look back at all the trials I endured as a student-athlete in college and I believe all those encounters were clouded with the fact my mind was only focused on competing and making good grades. I don’t think I ever fully processed what happened to me until years later after I stopped running. There were even times I would be called a “spic” by both black and white people while in my Dominican uniform or just being around Spanish-speaking training partners. It’s one thing to experience racism but man, it is absolutely crazy to experience it on different spectrums.
For the past couple years it has been extremely hard for me to get into road running and running miles for fun. I will always choose a 800/400M track workout over a simple three mile run. My body and mind are wired more towards the speed workouts I did in high school, college and professionally, but that actually isn’t the main reason why I don’t love running on the roads. The track has always been my safe space. You’re in an enclosed area with your teammates and coaches and the only stress your mind embodies is when the lactic acid is going to hit. When I go out and run around downtown or on a local trail, I don’t feel safe. I can be running with a run club with all white runners and I still don’t feel safe. I have experienced so much racism off the track that I can’t fathom running alone or just out in the open.
Of course some days I make it happen but other days I just absolutely can’t. When I say all of this, it probably sounds like I’m contradicting my opening statement on how I don’t believe the sport of running is a predominantly white sport. MY sport, MY track and field career were predominantly Black and Hispanic. From high school meets, to summer track, to college and all the way to the elite level, white athletes were always the minority. Yes, when it comes to distance races and road races, as well as overall participation from everyday runners, there are more white runners. But what I am trying to say is, while it’s not a huge sport on the spectrum of sports, I would love for it to be recognized that running does come from so many different places and people, and that some of running’s biggest success stories and athletes are coming from Black culture. The top finishers, record holders and the athletes we aspire to be, the shining star at the top, are for the most part all black. #NoHumanIsLimited #Kipchoge
I love that the conversation of racism and diversity is becoming a conversation in the sport of running. I believe it is important to approach it in a way to not instantly assume that everyone thinks of it as a “white culture sport”. In my eyes, it isn’t. I am sure that I am not alone when it comes to my journey and experiences. There are many other BIPOC runners that may have not experienced (my) white privilege, such as my teammates whose experiences were completely different from mine outside of my family and I hope my story challenges you to change the narrative of the next conversation you have, whether it’s related to running or not.
Earlier I mentioned that in high school, I realized my own ‘white privilege’ looking at some of the differences that were afforded to me, but not all of my teammates. At the time, I was able to look across the divide that unfairly seemed to separate us and see my own privilege. But there were so many more examples of systematic racism and separation that, looking back, seem obvious. But such are the pitfalls of growing up in the system of entrenched racism. In telling my story, I’m not asking anyone to feel a certain way about my experience. What I am asking everyone to do, is to take a moment and realize that what you think is normal, may only be ‘normal’ because it’s what you know. You may not have thought about it any other way-because no one has ever shown you that there might be another way.
When you call it a white sport, I can only think that we need more representation, because my sport IS black; but it does welcome so many different backgrounds, talents, paces, and is so open arms that anyone can step onto the field to attempt to compete.
Godspeed + suerte,