A More Comfortable CrossFit Community for People of Color Starts With “Uncomfortable Conversations”
When Brandon Whittington first walked into a CrossFit gym in 2013 and was the only person of color, he wasn’t all that perturbed. After all, he spent his entire life being “the only black kid,” said Brandon about his New Jersey upbringing.
- “So walking into a CrossFit gym was sadly comfortable because I was used to growing up being the only person who looked like me so it didn’t feel any different,” he said.
This wasn’t the case for his now wife Jessica Whittington. She grew up in Bloomfield, CT In a “more black environment,” she explained and found CrossFit in 2014 when she was “transitioning from college to being an adult.” Though she loved CrossFit, it felt weird to her that the only other person of color at the gym at the time was Brandon.
- The community, and the “suffering together” with people cheering her on helped her realize “these are my people,” she said, but she couldn’t help but want more people of color to benefit from what she was experiencing at the gym — empowerment through graining strength as a strong woman, she explained.
Taking action: While Jessica is happy that, at least in lip service, there has been a push to diversify CrossFit in recent months, doing so isn’t possible unless we start to create a dialogue, she said. This thought was the impetus behind the couple starting “In Lifting Color” last year, a platform that seeks to create dialogue and amplify voices of people who look like them in the CrossFit community.
- “There’s a lot of conversation about diversifying CrossFit, but you can’t just grab people of color to add diversity,” said Jessica, who now goes to CrossFit DT1 in Cherry Hill, NJ.
- “It’s not just about inviting people into a gym, either. Nobody is saying, ‘Don’t join if you’re not white,’” she explained. But there is still an element of discomfort for many, and unless we talk about it that will never change, Jessica explained.
The details: In recent months, In Lifting Color has featured various African American CrossFit athletes on their channel, including Elijah Muhammad, two-time Games athlete and the founder of the non-profit, Project Onyx. Other guests have included:
- Jennifer Hunter-Marshall, an affiliate owner and member of CrossFit LLC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, Arielle Sanders, an up-and-coming CrossFit athlete who has been very outspoken on issues regarding race and diversity, and Wylie Belasik, the owner of Subversus Fitness, who runs a program to help mostly African American inmates at a local prison become certified as coaches so they are job-ready when they’re released from prison. Next on the docket is former GRID League champion Taylar Stallings.
- One of their goals is to show people of color they’re not alone if they get to a CrossFit gym and feel uncomfortable, or wonder if they belong there, because they’re the only person who looks like them. “If people can see that even these elite athletes have had experiences where they’re uncomfortable in a gym—if someone at the top level feels like that—then it means people at these homegrown boxes feel like that, too,” Jessica explained.
- Jessica and Brandon have been shooting their podcasts remotely, but once the pandemic ends, their plan is to travel and do in-person interviews to upload to their YouTube channel.
The big picture: Their main intention is to “keep the conversation going,” Brandon explained. And a huge part of this involves having “uncomfortable conversations,” Jessica said, as this is what is required to eliminate the discomfort.
- “Me and Brandon aren’t race experts. We’re just trying to get dialogue going,” Jessica said. “And we want coaches and owners who aren’t back to be able to navigate those conversations as well, and hopefully seeing our (podcasts) will give them an understanding of, ‘Holy crap. I have done that and I don’t want to do that, and maybe should take a different approach.”
- She added: “If we create dialogue and talk about it, then people can’t just say, “I didn’t know people were uncomfortable going to a CrossFit gym. It’s about not shying away from those conversations. Sometimes not saying anything is worse than being afraid to say something wrong.”