Race and equality in the fitness industry
Transcript of the No-Bullshit Vegan podcast, episode 77
Coach Ren Jones on race, equality, and inclusiveness in the fitness industry
Karina Inkster: You're listening to the No Bullshit Vegan podcast episode 77. Today, I'm speaking with coach Ren Jones about issues of race and the fitness industry.
I'm Karina, your go to, no-BS, vegan fitness and nutrition coach. Our last episode was very vegan themed, and our next one is going to be vegan themed as well. Today we're departing from veganism to discuss some very important topics, not just within fitness, but important topics in their own right. Certified Personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and nutrition coach Ren Jones is back on the show today. He was on episodes 45 and 63 of this show. Make sure you go back and check out those episodes, if you haven't already. Today we're going to be discussing whether fitness professionals should speak about race issues, what fitness professionals and others can do as allies, and then zooming out a bit, what should happen within the fitness industry to make it more inclusive. Now, this conversation was recorded back in June, but I want to make sure that we continue speaking about these important issues.
Ren Jones: There's been so much about 2020, and so much to talk about. 2020, and all of the perceived challenges of 2020, the glass half empty 2020. I remember talking to clients who had just enrolled with me in March. They started with me in March, and this was before things really started shutting down everywhere. These are online clients, so they're all over the place; all parts of the United States and a few in Canada as well. The topic of conversation was, who knew that when you got started, we'd be rolling right into a historical medical event. Nobody could have predicted that. I try to find the (I won't say the positives), but I try to find the opportunity in what's happening around me.
I know you know this; your listeners have heard me before, and my sad story. In February, I lost my baby sister, my youngest sister. My youngest sister died suddenly. So, I'm rolling right out of that in February, right into the pandemic with my new enrolled clients in March. Then we roll right into Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor's death. For the listeners out there that may not be familiar, I know you guys have been seeing all these things circulating ad nauseum, I get it. It is a significant topic because it also pertains to health. As you know, Karina and I are going to try to sort of intersect those things and highlight it today, but let’s roll right into Breonna Taylor.
A lot of people didn't hear about the story early on, but it's the young lady who was asleep at home with her boo. There was a raid of her apartment, what they call a no-knock warrant. These things are highly sketch, and I believe actually illegal, in Louisville (where this happened.) Some officers in plain clothes just literally kicked in the front door. Let me preface this by saying that my baby brother, William Anthony Jones, is a fine, fine police officer. I'm not an anti-police person. My uncle Calvin Edward Anderson is New York police department retired. I’m in North Carolina. I'm not a New Yorker. (You guys are probably thinking this guy's got the weirdest New York accent.)
Just to clear that up because I'm not one of these "all police are evil” types. I don't categorize groups of people in any way, shape, form, or fashion. It's just weird to do and it’s silly. In any case, no knock warrant; they barged into this woman's home in the middle of the night, literally asleep with her boo. 20 shots ring out; eight shots hit her. Her boo thing fires back, thinking that perhaps someone was breaking into the apartment. He injures one of (a non life threatening injury) the officers. Nobody is arrested. It's sort of like an "oops, you're dead," but it's nobody's fault really. These gentlemen serving the warrant had gone to the wrong apartment. Not only had they gone to the wrong apartment; they were seeking out an individual that was apprehended earlier that day.
Karina Inkster: Right. I forgot that piece.
Ren Jones: So the person they're looking for is already in jail. The apartment they went to is absolutely wrong. Breonna Taylor, who is a first responder, an EMT working two different jobs during a pandemic as a courageous first responder, is killed by first responders. So we roll into that. We roll right out of that into the Ahmaud Arbery case. By the way, the Breonna Taylor case, and I don't want to expound too much on this, but I think it sort of set the backdrop for what eventually sort of happened in the US. Her case was on the case of another young man named Botham Jean, who was here studying from abroad. His father is actually the head person (I can't remember the country); somewhere in the Caribbean. His father's the prime minister; the governor there. I can't remember what it’s called and where it's from, but in any case: he was sitting on his couch, eating ice cream, an officer went into his home. The officer thought it was her apartment. How she got through the door, I have no idea. I get it. Apartments look the same. I’m in an apartment community, high-rise building in my city. She barges in, and thinks he's an intruder in her home on a couch that doesn't look like hers, eating ice cream, shot to death. The Breonna Taylor situation is sort of reminiscent of that.
We roll into Ahmaud Arbery, apparently jogging through the neighborhood, and three adult men (he was also an adult) corner him in the neighborhood under the assumption that he was a burglar. This was in daylight. Most of you have probably seen that footage or you've heard the story. He was killed. The details of that recently came out in court, how they were tracking him and hit him with the truck. Once he got away, running through the neighborhood, they finally cornered him. Someone got out of the truck, shot him, and hurled an expletive and racial slur over his dying body, which was caught on video and came out in the hearing. The trial’s not yet come, but that was during the hearing.
That was reminiscent for a lot of folks in my community, of the Trayvon Martin case many years ago, where this young man was walking back home from the store, and the neighborhood watch person said that he thought he looked suspicious. The police asked that he leaves this young man alone, but the neighborhood watchman took it upon himself to try to apprehend him, lost a fistfight to a 15-year-old-kid and then subsequently shot him.
Then we roll from there into George Floyd, probably the one that's set the most precedent and people are mostly familiar with, and frustrated by it, quite frankly. I see the frustration on my timeline, people on both sides, people frustrated about the situation and people frustrated hearing about it. Of course, that case was significant to the extent that everybody sort of saw that one. It was shocking to a lot of people, but to some other folks it was very reminiscent of Eric Garner, who also lost his life to a chokehold in New York City, when there were multiple officers there. He was sort of the (I hate to coin the phrase), but he was the first victim of murder to say (the now infamous words), ‘ I can’t breathe.’ All these situations had a sort of duality to them, repetitive in nature; things that didn't sit right the first time. Then the second time, it was it was really difficult to take.
In the midst of that, there was a non-lethal situation with the young lady in the park, Amy Cooper and the African American gentlemen Christian Cooper, who was President of the Audubon Society from what I understand; actually, a gentleman that worked for Marvel comics as an editor at some point. (It’s pretty neat, I love Marvel comics). So we have an ex-Marvel employee, and the young lady had her dog off the leash in Central Park. He suggests, 'Hey, you need to lease your dog’. She thought that was not his place. If you haven't seen the video, she places the call and tells the authorities that a large African American man is threatening her, not realizing who he is, not that it matters. He records her through this exchange, and eventually she came back and apologized for it. She lost her dog, and because of the abusive way in which she was handling the dog (nearly choking him by his collar because the dog wasn't leashed, so she was grabbing the collar), the dog was a rescue, and she (Amy Cooper) was asked to turn the rescue dog back in.
That accusation, for a lot of us who grew up (in my case in particular) knowing and understanding the story of Emmett Till. In the 1950s, late fifties, early sixties, Till was accused of having whistled at a Caucasian woman, and he was 14 at the time. He was a kid. He was subsequently beat to death, to the extent that he was unrecognizable. The now-famous photograph; his mother and sister insisted on an open casket, and this young kid looked like the Elephant Man. I mean, there was no distinguishing factor of where his nose was, or where his eyes used to be, or where his mouth was. That appeared in a defunct magazine; now primarily targeted towards African-Americans, back then called Jet magazine, which was the companion magazine to Ebony Magazine, back when magazines were a big thing.
We had that reminiscent of that Amy Cooper situation. For folks that knew the historical context, it was like we were watching that false accusation of Emmett Till. Later on, and in her elderly years, the young lady that accused Emmett Till of having whistled at, or accosted her, recanted her story. I don't believe she's still alive, but somewhere near the end of her life, she just came out and said 'you know, it didn't happen.’
That's a great big stew, right? I know last time I was on the show, you asked me my favorite vegan recipe and always said my aunt Betty's Vegan Eggplant Parmesan, which is delicious. I still don't know how she does it. I just know that I eat it when it shows up. You asked me how she does it that the first time, and I still don’t know. I’m just not that clever. You know, they're both very delicate recipes. You’ve got a duality in each one of these most recent cases. If you've ever been angry with someone for something that they did, and then they do something similar after it’s subsided, it’s hard to not regurgitate that energy that you swallowed down (even if it’s a different person). There's trauma there when we're angry, and that mix of things brought us to this point where we’ve had a unique sort of awakening; in the midst of that, some challenging interactions and some uncomfortable conversations.
What I've seen that unique about this particular situation is the making of space. Karina, as a no bullshit vegan, I can only imagine (and I'm not trying to correlate veganism to racism in a side by side context), but I'm sure you can relate. I'm sure there was some awakening for you that led you there, maybe not one thing, but a series of things over time. I also am sure that there was some there was some judgment placed on you. I can only imagine when you're in an environment where most people don't hold the same beliefs that you do necessarily; that there's sort of a ‘ yeah, but’ to some of your early interactions. Is that fair to say?
Karina Inkster: Absolutely, especially back then. Let’s just make it clear: we're not putting racism and veganism side by side, but yes of course, it involved judgment from others, and a so-called awakening to something I feel is wrong, you know? There's some parallel there for sure.
Ren Jones: You know, if you look at the general context, subject matter aside, the feeling of learning something that significantly switches your view; shifts the paradigm, as they say, and the subsequent judgment of people who may not be ready to allow you to make that shift. I've seen that a lot in the fitness community. Molly comes to mind immediately, Molly Galbraith of Girls Gone Strong (awesome person); she has a tendency to jump feet first right into these social issues. Thank God for that, because it's difficult. You've got a following of people to a certain extent, and what I found is as fitness professionals, people sort of like you in the old school chocolate boxes.
They’ve got the label, you take the top off and look underneath, and it's got the labels of where everything is, in that order. People like the caramel coconut crunch in the caramel coconut crunch hole; it matches the size of the little square. That’s where it's supposed to be. Then you've got the heart shaped ones; chocolate on chocolate. That's got a little heart shaped hole in the main part of the box. Everything sort of fits, right? It's like playing blocks as a kid. You have your circle, square, your X, and your heart shape. What I found in this environment, is people like you to stay in a fitness box, as if there's no human behind the fitness professional. You're not subject to the conditions and situations that they are. What's sort of been your experience with that as we discuss these challenging conversations?
Karina Inkster: That's such a great question. I was looking forward to speaking with you about this, because I want to talk about white privilege in the fitness industry. What you're saying about the boxes and the chocolate box is actually a really good analogy. At first, I have to be honest and I felt really out of my lane. I think I even used that term in one of my podcasts. I feel out of my lane here, but silence is essentially being complicit. I don't think at this point that there is an option for us fitness coaches, specifically, to stay silent. So that is part of it. First of all, I did feel out of my lane. I thought ' Hmm, should I just stick to fitness and veganism and photos of my cats on social media’, but I changed my mind.
I'm glad that I did. However, and I think this is something that a lot of people in the fitness industry are experiencing, we lose followers for this shit. Now are those people that I want in my network? Hell no, but I have actually spoken with a lot of fitness professionals this week in the last three days, who have had hundreds of people unfollow them, or their follower count has gone down on Instagram. I got an email from someone on my email list after I sent out our last podcast episode, which was with two black female leaders in the vegan world. I started it off with a summary of where I stand; why it’s important to discuss these issues, et cetera. I got a response from someone that said, 'Nope, goodbye.'
She unsubscribed, and I've never heard from her again. These are not people I want in my sphere anyway. On the other hand, when you mentioned Molly, who runs Girls Gone Strong, which is an amazing company for those who don't know, they actually just put out an article that says, (I actually have a quote here from them), “overall wellness also includes mental and emotional well wellbeing among other things. As such, fitness professionals cannot simultaneously help women and men with their fitness and wellness, while remaining silent on issues of racism”. Not only is it important to talk about, but also it's within our scope. We should be talking about that.
What can I do, as an ally? I guess what Molly is doing, putting out content written by people of colour, having people on the show (are great examples). From your perspective, what should fitness coaches be doing?
Ren Jones: That's such a great question, because I have cut ties with people in the industry this week. Not just this week, but over the course of the last three weeks, waiting for them to say anything at all about it. It's a world issue. There’s nobody that doesn't know that COVID-19 is going on right now. You could say ‘ I don't watch news and I try to stay away from news site.' I get it. But we all know that it's going on. It's everywhere. It’s the same for me with this situation. What's so shocking about it is the silence. It's really noticeable. Even on a personal level. I get it because to your point, followers are dropping off left and right.
It's really challenging as a solopreneur, right? We're the entire face of our business. Neither one of us have a business the size of Molly's, but for the most part, Molly's kind of the face of that whole thing too. The way she goes is the way it goes. Even Jonathan Goodman, who I know you've done or doing a podcast with, he made a little statement and he got some heat for his statement. It's really challenging. I think one of the things that really can be done to be an ally in this situation is just doing exactly what you did: an admission of where you are, where you stand, what you feel capable of assisting with, and what you feel a little bit inadequately prepared to tackle. I think that's so fair and honest.
I'll sort of parallel it to the introduction of the #MeToo movement. As a male, I could very easily say, ‘ sexism doesn't happen in fitness. I've never seen it’, which is the dumbest possible thing that I can say as a man. ‘ There’s no misogyny in fitness. What do you mean? These Instagram ads are fine; the sexualized position in that nutrition bar ad, it wasn't a big deal. She was just showing her glutes..’ That's also one of the most disheartening things, is for someone who cannot experience your experience to invalidate it, as if it's not reality. When the whole Harvey Weinstein thing went down, I could have said 'Aw, man, but I love his movies. Boys will be boys. He's a powerful man. These women are probably just butt hurt because he didn't put them in the movie.’
All these deflections that I hear on this topic are so disheartening. I remember me being on the other end. As a male, it's very, very easy for you to take in the information of the #MeToo movement, and immediately feel defensive. We see that in the context of this racial climate. As I mention something that some Caucasian person did, it's very easy for the person that I'm talking to, who is in no way even remotely connected to this event to say, "yeah, but, you know…” and the’but' is where the empathy cuts off, and the passive aggressiveness starts.
Karina Inkster: That's such a good point. You know, actually, this is reminding me of something I'm reading right now, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. It's written by a white person, for white people, about racism and why white people are so defensive about it (exactly what you just said.) If the definition of racism is something that you do intentionally to someone based on the colour of their skin, then of course somebody is going to get defensive when you point out something that they did, that was potentially racially problematic. Then the conversation ends there. Then it becomes a defense of their character versus, (them reflecting and thinking),' maybe I did something that was unacceptable’.
Ren Jones: Absolutely. I remember that feeling on the other side, because guess what, there's such a thing as male privilege, and I have to be aware of that. I can't be dismissive of it. For those of you that aren’t familiar with me, I coach women exclusively; almost exclusively women over 30, almost exclusively moms. I have to be able to receive information like “ Ren, it’s not really great for you to say, 'Oh yeah, you lost so much weight. You look amazing’”, because that's an indication of holding someone to a patriarchal standard of what a woman's body should represent. It's not overtly insensitive, but it is somewhat of a micro aggression, indicating that the way you were before, wasn't appealing to me as a male, but now that you've lost weight, you fit more into my ideal of what a woman's body should look like. I have to do the work as a man of receiving that information. Before I deploy judgment, deploying empathy. If you can put empathy before judgment, you can change.
There was so much through the course of me learning how to properly coach women, relate to them and hold space for them. I could very easily say when a woman is in the first few stages of her menstrual cycle, and she says 'you know, I'm just feeling sort of worn out’, I could really easy say that they're just being lazy. Let’s toughen up. Let’s get going. 'Well, you know, Ren, I just started my cycle’, and (I could say) 'I don't really believe in that stuff, you know, it's in your head.’ That would be amazingly insensitive to say yet, here we are.
'There's no racism. I've never seen any racism before.' Well, Sally, you're a midlife Caucasian woman from Montana. I don't expect that you would come into contact with a lot of situations. What I do know is that you can't live the experience, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, everywhere you go, or; the other thing is, we just need to stop talking about this racism, just let this stuff that down. It's along the lines of me telling a woman, ' I know that there was a sexual assault in your past and it's trauma, but let's just stop talking about it. You know, it's just divisive. You’re just dividing men and women, by speaking your truth within your story.' What kind of a total asshat would I have to be to do that?
Karina Inkster: Well, also isn't it coming from a place of white privilege to say, 'let's just stop talking about racism,' because clearly it's not affecting you, if you want to stop talking about it.
Ren Jones: One example that I use in a conversation that I had: let's say there's a woman who's fairly busty. I mean that just in the technical sense of the term; she’s got a fairly significant chess measurement. She works at a company that has a uniform, and that uniform is made in such a way that it sort of accentuates that. She works in a part of the country where it's hot all the time. The way that she drives into the city to get to this particular job, whatever the job is, it doesn't matter. She parks in the parking deck and she has to walk by a construction site every day, just filthy horny males.
You know how we can be. She has to walk by this construction site every day, and these men have no home training. Their mamas didn't teach them nothing. And every day, yelling: 'Hey baby, what you got in that shirt?’ Any lewd thing you can imagine. She comes to me talking about it, and she's crying. She says,’ I hate walking past that construction site. I get anxiety. Every time I go there, I literally feel indigestion and heartburn knowing that I have to walk past there to get into my building. It sucks every day.' I say, 'you know, when I see you, Susan, I don't see a woman, I just see a friend.’
That's great for me to say, but she's got to walk around in that uniform with her measurements looking the way that she looks. It sounds sweet for me to say that, but what I'm actually saying is, ' it's not my problem. I don't empathize with you at all. I know you came to me for empathy in this situation.' I don't want to be complicit and I feel fairly defensive about it. I don't see that because I don't want to get into that conversation. It’s not helpful when she comes to me to talk about this for me to say, ‘ when I look at you, I don't see a woman. I don't even know that you have breasts. It sounds great, it seems awesome. But it’s a total lack of empathy.
This correlates very well to a gym environment, where (sometimes), women don’t feel as comfortable wearing things that actually make them comfortable to work out in. It’s part and parcel to what we see with womens' only sections in some major gyms and with womens’ only gyms. It's not the woman's fault. The problem doesn't rest with her. The problem rests with the response given, by the uneducated to her. If I tell her 'I don't see a woman when I see you, I just see my friend’, then I've totally disregarded her feelings about the situation and I've made no space for her to share this. We get that a lot with the 'I don't see color.' When you say that, you're not giving an illustration of how you and I interact. You're giving an illustration of how unconcerned you are about how the world responds to me.
Karina Inkster: I’m also erasing your experience.
Ren Jones: Erasing the experience; you’ve completely cut it off. Let’s say we’re in when a gym training together and I'm your coach. Men are walking by and, 'Oh, hot damn baby,’ and I say, ' don't worry about them. They're just being guys.’ I don't see that when I see you; that's not helpful. There's no help there. I try to correlate these things to experiences that I can't experience to show people; to try to give an example of how to hold space for people. This is probably the longest way around to the answer of the question that you asked me about what you can do, but to your point, that's what's so beautiful about simply holding space; about simply saying, I don't understand this fully. I don't have an answer for it. I don't know what to say, and I don't yet have the skill to participate on your behalf. But I see you. I hear you. I empathize with that. Help me understand what I can do.
A lot of times that's enough, because a lot of times in these situations, you get the complete antithesis of that repetitively: year after year of your life, day after day of your life, minute after minute, second after second, every single social media interaction. There's someone willing to tell you what the reality of your life experience is when they have no basis for the experience, and they cannot experience it. You know, I told a gentlemen on one thread on my page very politely, I said, 'you know, go home and tell your pregnant wife that that the first trimester is the easiest, and see how she responds to that input. Clear the room of all metal objects before you tell her this. You’re going down; you have no frame of reference for it. That's the most frustrating thing.
For the fitness professionals out there listening to this, just making space is a beautiful thing; just the admission of 'heck, I don't know what to do here.' The first time as a coach that I had someone bare their soul to me about bingeing, and how it was sort of correlated to some challenges that she had with her father around 12, 13 years old, (in that situation) I didn't know what to say. They don't teach us this. I didn't know what to say, but what I could say is, 'man, I can't even picture how awful that is for you. I don't know what to do in this situation, but if you want to express some more of it, I'm here to listen. If there's something that you think I can do, just let me know. I'm going to make sure that I get educated on this from between now and the time that we next engage. Empathy goes such a long way; it just goes such a long way.
Karina Inkster: Absolutely. I think that applies to so many different issues and tying back to the fitness industry in itself, if you're a coach, you don't just take people through workouts. If you're a coach, you're working with someone on their life, essentially: quality of life, nutrition, habits, mindset, this is all mental and emotional wellbeing. Like the Girls Gone Strong article, we can't be effective fitness professionals if we're not also helping people with these other pieces. I think that's where a lot of this empathy and holding space that you're talking about comes in. I think that's extremely important to anybody, whether they're a coach or not, I would say.
Ren Jones: Absolutely! Coaches in particular, but whether they're a coach or not, there are so many potential minefields in the fitness and wellness space. Here's what I've seen Karina; I've seen one or two types of responses from coaches or just from the fitness space in general. Number one: everything’s got to be so PC now, you can’t say this; you can’t say that. You can’t even go to the gym anymore. The other response I've seen is you 'wow, I never knew that. I really need to get educated on that.’ What’s my best first source? In your case, you went and got a book, White Fragility, you said, 'I'm not very educated on this. I don't have the means to understand it to this point.’ What's my best first choice on that source? I'm guessing somebody pointed you in the direction of that book. That happens a lot in the fitness industry in general; whether it’s that I've seen coaches get frustrated because they're running a group class and someone needs modifications.
Maybe someone has a knee issue or they have a herniated disc; or even something like scoliosis, or they have high blood pressure. There's so many things; so many cofactors that can be found in a fitness class. You have two types of coaches, the one that modifies: ‘ all right Susan, here’s where your modifications come on. Susan, here’s what you’ll do.’ Those are the great cultures, right? You get the people who get frustrated if you can't keep up with the class; then that’s probably not the class for you. You’ve got the person in terms of working with and coaching women, the person that knows to say things like ' if we do anything here in the gym and I put you in a position on the floor or anything, or anything makes you uncomfortable please let me know. You don't have to get into details with me.’ You just say ‘hey, that doesn't work for me today.’
As a male coach, I understand that there could be things like incontinence. There could be some other pelvic issues I'm not aware of. There could be positional issues where you just feel sort of sexualized being put in the position. There are so many things that can happen, and fitness is sort of a microcosm of society. The unique thing about fitness is, for most of my involvement in fitness, these sorts of issues didn’t fully make their way into fitness. This particular issue has been different from my observation, because even people that I know that have gone back into gyms full time have said, 'there's a level of discomfort in the gym between certain groups of people. There's also a level of discussion in some cases between groups of people, as people sort of try to reach out to understand each other.
That's evidence again, by some of your commentary about what's going on with Facebook and Instagram, everybody's losing followers for one reason or another, or they're deleting followers; it's really been much more pervasive this time from what I've seen. I like that because that's what we do, right? We take our clients to a level of discomfort in order to help them transition through effective, long lasting change. There's really no change without the discomfort. Just the act of exercise is a great sort of correlation to the act of making these mental shifts. Just trying to understand each other a little bit better.
Karina Inkster: That's a really interesting analogy or comparison; not really one I have thought about before. Getting outside of your comfort zone slightly, doing something you might not do if you didn't have a coach, or somebody who can answer questions for you or mentor you. That's huge.
Ren Jones: You end up stronger.
Karina Inkster: Exactly; you do end up stronger. What do you think about the fitness industry, zooming out a little bit? We're talking about people in the gym. We're talking about uncomfortable conversations, which are all important. We're talking about getting outside of our comfort zones. What if we zoom out, and we’re looking at some issues about the industry itself. I was doing some reading on how Black and Asian women are the least physically active social groups. Apparently when there's been research into why this is, one of the significant barriers to being more active or participating in a gym or a class is a lack of role models. This issue of having trainers or gym staff, or people in social media ads for fitness products, if they're disproportionately white, doesn't that send a message to ethnic minorities that really, this space or these services have not really been created with diversity in mind. That's a problem to me.
Ren Jones: Absolutely. Absolutely! Here's the thing: it’s such a great question. We know that representation matters, right? It's significant. Not only does representation matter, but the type of representation matters, and in the fitness industry, from that 50,000 foot level, you don't see a lot of representation for minorities very much at all, maybe men a little bit more. Women, certainly not. When you develop the connotation of what something is, it's very easy to develop the sense of 'it's not for me.’
That happens often in these fitness environments. If you page through any particular fitness book, (you and I know that fitness magazines, although there's some validity to them, there is some science between the pages of a fitness magazine), overwhelmingly it's about pushing products, right? It's about your bars, your protein, your fat burners, your thermogenics and all that stuff. It’s wildly underrepresented for women of color, and when they are women of color it’s sort of this ambiguously ethnic…
Karina Inkster: Yes, it’s a very whitewashed kind of situation.
Ren Jones: I can count on one hand the amount of times that I've seen a more darkly complected woman representing any product in a magazine, or a woman of color who wears her natural hair. That’s a whole different conversation, but it's not something that we see widely at all. Here's another thing, and this may seem sort of weird and off topic, but I hope the listeners will make space for me to express this. I can't express it as well as a woman of color would, but there's this hair thing. For women of color, particularly black women, it's just not that easy to come back quickly from sweating out the hair, and maintaining the style of it. That depends on what type of hair, but if the African American woman's hair is natural, and we see a lot of natural hair displayed these days. I's become sort of a return to the natural coarse hair that that a lot of African Americans posses, that’s one thing.
If it's been straightened with any chemical process, and for those that don't understand out there: for the most part, African American women, their hair is not straight and falling down their back. There are some chemical processes that they go through to do that. It's very common, very well known process in most communities. When you add a 60-minute class to that in an enclosed space, with high humidity and things like that (I know this sounds vain), but there's a challenge there for doing that and then taking your shower and going into the office. That's one thing that I've run into as a coach with my black female clients, who are sort of concerned about that. They don’t want the “poofies”. If you're familiar with the term 'frizzy hair weather’, it’s sort of along those lines.
Secondarily to that, and this is something that we see on a high level in the industry, there's sort of a glorification of skinny and Caucasian. This is sort of seen as the ideal fitness body. I do a thing on my Instagram every week. It's called Wonderful Woman Wednesday, when I feature somebody who's not a particularly famous person but just a woman that I follow on Instagram or Facebook, or they follow me. They are working out, prioritizing health in addition to maybe serving the community, or in addition to handling their business, or working a job, in addition to having children: all the things that you ladies make look easy that are not in any way, shape, form, or fashion easy.
What I try to do on that feature every Wednesday: I try to represent as many different body types as possible, because looking from that 50,000 foot level Karina, we only sort of celebrate one type of fit. Fitness and size don’t directly correlate. Fitness and body fat, also (we’re finding out), do not directly correlate. We read the research now that shows that being underweight is probably significantly more of a health risk, than people who are presumably overweight, whatever that means. I'm not talking about morbid obesity of course, but every body type is different. It's different. I know women personally that represent a fuller body type, that I could never keep up with in a spin class or on a 5K (run). The size and shape is not the truest representation of health, the health is. That’s one of the most glaring sort of things we see in the fitness industry as it pertains to women.
It’s the glorification of the ultra European, modelesque, physique in fitness so much that we have "fitness influencers" who obviously don't work out. They don't exercise at all. They just happen to have the body type. That’s where we get into problems. On the other hand in the industry, as far as males, I've been in a thread recently where a gentleman called out a friend of mine, his name is Leland. He told him that he had black privilege as a competitor because of his muscularity. The pendulum swings both ways. He felt like that was an advantage, because of his ability to build muscularity, which is not uncommon. It is somewhat stereotypical, but it's not uncommon.
What I expressed to that gentleman was (and it's so uncomfortable to have these conversations, but they need to be had.) When you're breeding humans for physical performance, you sort of weed the smaller out. You just don’t allow them to breed in. I know that sounds like a horror show to the listeners. The historical context of that is accurate. Nobody was trying to make sure that five foot six, 130 pound, enslaved person was procreating. It wasn't that useful, you know? That physical lineage, even though someone considered it as a privilege; it's a direct remnant of manipulating humans like beasts of burden, livestock essentially. “ Don’t make that one.” It’s no different than show dogs. “ Don’t make that one, make the big one, the line will come out.”
I don't want to get super deep in this conversation, but you see that in some of the results physically, in categories like sprinting, in categories like vertical leap, in categories like overall strength. That's not to indicate that everybody can't be strong, everybody can't have a great vertical everybody, blah, blah, blah. We see the athletic inclination quite often. It's a sticky subject to talk around. Everybody’s sort of not ready for that conversation yet, but just by practicality of what shadow slavery was, you have to (sort of) connect the dots.
If other people have control over certain things that happen in your life, for the purposes of getting the best quality physical work out of you, and they have control over where you sleep and who with, and how, and monitoring every single second of your day, chances are they're going to develop a methodology of getting the best out of the “ ownership”.
To your earlier point, there's definitely a minimum of representation. Not only black, not only Asian, but Hispanic as well. You just don't see a lot of representation from those groups. You and I both know people across the spectrum of colors who are amazingly fit, tremendously knowledgeable, and heck- swell looking individuals. They could easily endorse a product; it just doesn't seem to happen that often. I won’t talk much further after this, but that sort of runs from the social economic situation too. Can you afford a gym membership or a trainer? Is there a gym close to where you live? Can you get to it? What about nutrition? Are you living in a nutritional desert, where there's nothing but convenience stores and grocery stores with low grade produce departments? There is a lack of information. As far as health and wellness is concerned, it doesn't really lend itself to being a pathway to wellness. There are some challenges there, and yes, some of those challenges can be overcome.
You have to understand the structure of how these parts of our nation were built, and that’s another complex set of issues. It speaks to the funding of the new deal, where FHA loans in the suburbs were created, to allow a certain section of the population to move out of the city; combined with the restriction of redlining, which was a historical practice of drawing red lines around neighborhoods where no loans would be given, or blacks couldn't answer. The new deal was not accessible to minorities by design: they couldn't get that FHA, low-interest loan. They couldn't apply for the mortgage or be allowed into the neighborhood. They were forced to stay in the inner city, and then you defunded that; all the “projects” as we call them, get defunded once the white people move out of the area. You defund the inner city and defund those urban communities.
The funding for schools is based on property taxes in the immediate area. You're going to a school that's funded low, because the property taxes are low, because the area that you live in was defunded, while funds were sent to suburban areas. You've got a cocktail of a mix there, and then the influx flux of drugs that did not come from the community (there's no poppy fields in the hood). There was no cocaine; there are no cocaine plants there. There are a lot of social economic conditions that led to that situation, a story for another time, but it does directly take you down that track. How do I learn about health? If I wanted to work out, where would I? I'd never be able to afford a trainer or fitness professional.
What about my nutritional options; they're defunct. I don't have a vehicle. The income that I'm generating is not great, because my school is funded by our low property taxes. The teachers that show up there just don't want to deal with us. We know they don't want to deal with this. There’s just so much that leads down that tunnel to fitness. That's sort of what we see from 50,000 feet. That's so complex. We could do a podcast on just that alone. It's a great, great question.
Karina Inkster: I think that's a really great point to bring in. Sure, we can talk about the individual actions we can take as fitness coaches, or just as humans, not even as coaches. We need to keep in mind that there are the systemic issues that might be affecting certain parts of the population at different rates. That might then affect exactly what you said: access to nutrient dense foods, access to gyms, transportation, time to even work out in the first place. We could totally do a whole podcast episode just on the systemic issues around that, and how that relates to health.
Ren Jones: That has to be challenging, you know, to be a vegan in those areas of the country.
Karina Inkster: That’s something we talked about. I had Gigi Carter and Alyssa Nash on recently, to talk. Their whole approach is: how can they get more black Americans taking control of their own health? The way that they're doing it is through eating more plant based foods. Of course, again with this discussion, we had exactly the same caveat, which is, 'Hey, there are also these systemic issues that need to be taken into consideration.' I actually think that you're right. We didn't really touch on veganism specifically. We kind of talked about the food environment in general, but of course there are going to be differences in people who have access to produce, as you just mentioned. It doesn't have to be buying premade, five course meals in order to go plant-based. There are barriers that I think we needed to take to take into account. It's not as easy as just telling everybody and anyone, 'Oh, all you need to do is go vegan, the end’. We're erasing people's experiences.
Ren Jones: You know, it's so reminiscent of Katrina, in the context that I remember when that happened, one of my friends said to me, 'you know, why didn't they just leave New Orleans?’ Well, how would they leave? You have $20 in your bank account and for generations, no one in your family has owned the car. You don’t just leave. Your options are cut short. You just have to stay in. I don't want to give across the impression that there aren't ways to beat the system. Sure there are. What we often don’t realize is that the society that we exist in wasn't meant for really shared opportunity.
I don't mean that to make anybody feel guilty. One phrase I do not personally use is white privilege. I don't think it's something that can be assigned. I think it's something that you may discover, but I think it’s so abrasive that it immediately puts up a wall with the person I'm speaking with. I don't mean that to say that I don't believe there's such a thing. I just don't believe it's something that I can assign to a person. I think the more you educate yourself, the more you understand the discrepancies between what you're allowed to do, and maybe what's more challenging for other people. I don't say it to people, but when people say it, I'm willing to discuss it and jump into it.
It can manifest like this and that, but the point that I was leading to is that if you don't take into consideration all the circumstances that lead someone to doing something, and don't take any consideration, sure: people will occasionally beat the system. If you don't take into consideration that the things that are in place, where all the structures in this country that were built, were not built with black people in mind, when it was being built. (No more than when you built your home, with a trail of ants in mind. You didn’t build your house to get a trail of ants in it. I’m not comparing black people to ants, but it’s comparing that this wasn’t even a thought in someone’s head, as the systems in this country were being constructed.
It’s very much like riding a bicycle for any bike riders out there, who ride through their cities, or their towns. You realize that you have the legal rights to ride a bicycle, as if it's a vehicle. You should be going with the flow of traffic on a bicycle. It's legal. You have the right to be there, but the street wasn't built for a bicycle, it was built for cars. When you're on that bicycle, you have a disadvantage because you're going to be moving slower. You have the right to be there, but you're going to be moving slower. People are going to get frustrated because you're in traffic. They're going to honk the horn at you, and tell you things like 'you don't belong on this road. You shouldn't be out here.'
You're going to try to take turns where people want you to go faster. They don't want you to take a turn right there. You're going to smell the exhaust of the cars; the other people in the cars aren't smelling that. You're going to be subjected to the wind, and the rain, and the sleet and the snow. But you have the legal right to ride that bicycle in the road. It's legally considered a vehicle. Every once in a while, some parts of the city might make a bike lane for you. It's easier to ride right there, but the bike lane is going to run out at some point, and you're right back in traffic, being yelled at. You’re in the way. You’re feeling a sense of discomfort, but also a sense of determination that you have the right to be in the road.
You're doing what's best for you at the time. You're going to keep pedaling and pushing and going because you made a decision that no matter what, when you entered the road or roadway on that bike, you were going to reach your destination. That's a lot of the experiences that African Americans have in this country. Do we have legal rights? Yes. Was it built for us? Absolutely not. You have to take that into consideration when people are sharing their stories with you on their frustrations; their situations. One of the things that you and I talked about, and again I don't, I don't want to take your podcast over, was the statement that I put out a few days ago. If you went to high school with any black people between like '85 and '95, (1985 and 1995), you probably went to school with the first black person in their family that had all their rights and privileges intact everywhere in the United States when they were born.
I was born in 1974. The last Civil Rights Act, we’ll add with quotes “ The Last Civil Rights Act”, was 1968. I was born in 1974. My older brother was born in 1957. He was 18 when I was born. My oldest sister was born in 1961. They couldn't drink water anywhere they wanted to in North Carolina. There were Whites Only fountains, and there were Coloured fountains. My mother climbed a fire escape to watch movies in the city we grew up in because colored people (my mother, not my great, great great grandmother, my mother, the lady that gave birth to me) couldn't go through the front entrance of a movie theater. They had to walk up the fire escape in the back, to take the back entrance to the balcony, and that’s where they could watch from.
On my maternal side of my family, my mother's side of the family, born in 1974, I was the first person ever born in my family as a black person who did not have to participate in any marching, protesting, or legal action to secure all of (and validate) all of my rights. I'm 46 years old. I look younger than that. Let that sink in. These circumstances and conditions didn't happen 250 years ago. My mother; I’m the first free born African American male, with his rights intact everywhere in the United States. That's crazy.
Karina Inkster: That is beyond crazy. When you mentioned that about going to high school with people in the eighties and nineties, that's not that long ago. You're only 46. You're talking about your mom here. This really should hit home for people, in case it hasn’t already, which for a lot of people, it has of course. If it hasn't, this is such a clear way of saying, ‘hey, this is recent. This is not 200 years ago.'
Ren Jones: Right. Right. And you know, those ideologies haven't shifted. I mean, look in the fitness industry. We still have trainers telling people, ‘no pain, no gain!’
Karina Inkster: We have trainers telling people all sorts of shit, my friend.
Ren Jones: You know, eat low fat because if your body gets any fat, any oils in it, any omega-3’s, that makes you fat. You’re in starvation mode. We're not that far removed from a lot of things that we think we are very far removed from. Hopefully it helps shift perspective. I don't personally want anybody to feel guilty about anything. I'm not personally going around, throwing out the term white privilege. I don't think it's something that I can assign a person. I know that exists. I 100% believe in it, but it's not for me to say that for, for me personally.
It’s not for me to say that, so please don't go out and tell your black friends 'black people aren't supposed to tell us...’ Don’t do that. I don't speak for every black person in the world. We're not a monolith. Personally, it’s not something that I like to assign to a person. I don't want people to feel guilty in any concept of the word. You guys just don't know. Most major educational systems have totally failed us in explaining the actual context of our history. Maybe because they didn't want us to be upset, it's easier for people to live the idealized version of what their existence is. It’s challenging to come to terms with things. These last couples of weeks have really been like one of my favorite movies, The Matrix (with Keanu Reeves), where he's living in this simulated world. They unplug him, and he realizes it isn't that great, actually.
In that movie, one of the characters wanted to go back in. If you remember that movie, they unplug from the matrix, which is what our world looks like. When they’re unplugged they’re in the real world. They’re underground because the sky has been burned out because of nuclear stuff and radiation; it's really terrible. They eat this goop every day, and there's no such things as steaks or anything like that, hotels, beaches, none of that. It's just barren and it’s desolate. One of the guys said he wanted to go back in the matrix. You had the evil robots that controlled everything who put him back in. Don't be like that in this case. It's not as bad as you think it is. But it's not as idealized as we were taught it is. It's OK to educate yourself. Now, if you refuse the education that's on you. You’re not responsible for what you know until you start rejecting information, then you become blatantly responsible for what you don't know.
Karina Inkster: I think that's a fantastic message for our listeners, and let's leave it there, shall we. We're going to have show notes for our listeners, and we will have ways for them to connect with you. Are you open to conversations on social media? Can we put your Facebook and Instagram on there?
Ren Jones: Put it all up there. I love to chat with the people. If you folks see any of the previous podcasts I did with Karina, you know I'm much more funny and lighthearted.
Karina Inkster: We're talking about serious issues.
Ren Jones: We have to have a serious discussion about this because it's a serious thing. We are health professionals and this is a health crisis. Just don’t think if you see the other two episodes and you're like, 'oh, that's it; that guy's going to make me feel bad about myself. Mr. Doomsday is on that episode..’ The other two episodes weren't like that. I was much more clever and funny and charming,
Karina Inkster: You sure were, Ren. You know what? We're going to link to those at the show notes. If our listeners want to go check those out, they're easily accessible.
Ren Jones: And, I got the book. I got the book! I meant to tell you that weeks ago; I got the book that you sent me. Thank you so much.
Karina Inkster: For our listeners, Ren was actually a contributor to the brand new resistance band book that came out. I'm glad you got it. Thank you so much also for your contribution there. That was excellent.
Ren Jones: It's helped it's me because my gym is closed, obviously. Even my apartment centre (gym) is closed, but I have bands!
Karina Inkster: You have bands! You basically have a whole gym in a bag now.
Ren Jones: Basically! Thanks to you. Thanks to the No-Bullshit vegan.
Karina Inkster: Well, Ren, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was fantastic speaking with you. These are of course issues that we all, not just as fitness professionals, but as humans need to be considering right now. I'm really thankful for the opportunity.
Ren Jones: Hey, thanks so much for having me. It’s always a blast. I was better than Jonathan Goodman, too. Tell him I said that.
Karina Inkster: I will!
Ren thank you for joining me on the show, once again. It’s always an enlightening experience speaking with you. Head to our show notes at nobullshitvegan.com/077 to connect with Ren. Thank you for tuning in and hope you'll join me for my next episode.