Home Social Construct ‘Working Out is for White People,’ Round Two

‘Working Out is for White People,’ Round Two

by Erika Nicole Kendall

So, Buzzfeed did a thing. I mean, a questionable thing, no doubt, but a thing that definitely has the Internet going nuts.

In the discussions surrounding this thing Buzzfeed did, I saw this comment:

All through high school, I was told that I was acting white because I loved to read. Even now in 2o16 I am told exercise and eating right are for white folks. By friends and family no less.

Now, I’ve written about this before, but I wrote it from the perspective of someone who hears it, stating that you can’t let it affect you and discourage you from doing something that obviously matters to you.

If healthy eating  and exercise are “white people activities,” then there’s a question that must be asked, here:

What are “Black people activities?” The exact opposite?

So… if exercising and eating healthily is “being white,” is it considered “being Black” to not exercise and eat poorly? It’s “accepted Black practice” to develop the accompanying illnesses and problems that come with both? The heart disease, the diabetes, the high blood pressure, the strokes? It’s “being Black” to have mismanaged your health so poorly that you’re on medications the rest of your life? “We” don’t want to claim healthier and more active lifestyles as our own… “we” want to claim the harmful and dangerous and inherently unhealthy habits for “Blackness.”

Don’t get sucked into this stupidity. It is never ever going to be a legitimate way to “question” someone’s Blackness. Don’t ever feel less than what you were born because someone else feels threatened by your desire for change.

Excerpted from “Working Out Is For White People” | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

That’s what I think the conversation should look like from the lens of the person hearing someone say this. But what about the person who says it? What does this all looks like from the eye of the person who believes working out is a “white people thing?”

Why Do People Say Working Out Is For White People? Click To Tweet

I think one of the first things we have to do is acknowledge that the “that’s for white people” phrase isn’t exclusively used on healthy food and working out. When it comes to mental health care in general and therapy specifically, we also say that therapy* is “for white people.” “Reading” is for white people. Golf is “for white people.” In fact, lots of things are “for white people.”

Even now, depending on your life experiences, you might’ve nodded your head at one or two of those—you might’ve believed those once upon a time, or you might believe it now.

One of the things I’ve spent the past couple of years doing is spending time in different cultures and communities, and it’s allowed me to learn a lot about the world and the way people see it. And one of the most valuable thins I’ve learned is that cultures and communities that have been impacted by poverty often see things similarly but, because so many of us have been pitted against one another, we never have the conversations necessary to allow us to learn that.

Why Do People Say Working Out Is For White People? Click To Tweet

Phrases like “that’s for white people” have been uttered many times, and not just by black people. Why? Because “white people” became shorthand for “people with money,” and when the people with money are predominately white, it creates a space where the expectation—on both the parts of the whites and non-whites—that this is a white space, a thing “for white people,” and it solidifies itself.

Let’s not pretend that some “white people” perpetuate this, too. How many of us suburbanite black folks have heard something along the lines of “oh, you’re so white sometimes!” when describing a trait that’s desirable, or “that’s so ghetto!” when talking about something not-quite high quality? We might even shrug it off when we hear it because we know the intentions of the speaker, misguided though they may be, aren’t to be offensive, but that doesn’t change the fact that we heard it.

The “for white people” phrase also gets thrown around a lot when it comes to mental health, too—regular appointments with a therapist, medication to help with any given mental health ailment? Those cost money—money that impoverished communities don’t have.

And, to a secondary point, many communities rebuke things as being “for white people” because they believe those particular things run counter to the culture they’ve used to bond with their loved ones. Many cultures—bound by nationality, religion, race, and so on—eschew therapy because they fear having a cultural outsider tell them that portions of their culture are dysfunctional or should be done away with. The therapist isn’t seen as a person caring for a patient. They’re seen as an outsider passing judgment.

Some cultures even go so far as having their own police and their own health care centers, go to their own doctors—it’s about sticking to your own because the “microaggressions,” the judgment from outsiders, telling you your culture is less than, inferior, dysfunctional is too much to bear.

(If you know enough about the history of economics in this country, you know that efforts for black communities in the US to create our own kinds of these have been thwarted at virtually every turn and in ways we’re only still uncovering.) (Just in case you were wondering why black Americans don’t have these kinds of services of our own.)

It might be an inelegant way to convey it all, simply blaming it on “white people,” but the message is clear: “that’s not a safe space for our kind,” and “they’re going to separate you from us.”

Now that I have a different perspective of why this question was asked—and, yes, I think calling it a “crab in a barrel” situation is a teeny bit reductive—I think our approach to the conversation should be different. If someone tells you “working out is for white people,” let them know about all the incredible black fitness instructors you follow on IG who advertise their morning classes there. If they say that therapy “is for white people,” share with them that we have black therapists and psychiatrists who help you develop the coping skills you need in a world that demands you move forward while it constantly pushes you back. If you hear that something “is for white people,” let them know that black Americans are slowly making inroads in spaces where we weren’t before, and making space for us all to be there, reaping the benefits.

Why Do People Say Working Out Is For White People? Click To Tweet

Do I think the original offending video was worthy of all hell breaking loose? A little bit. As someone who first started her business at 21 and has been self-employed ever since, I was embarrassed for the person  who didn’t understand the difficulty. The questions should’ve been private conversations had with Google, not The Entire Internet. But I, however, am choosing to look at the upside in all this:

At least no one in the video asked the question, “Why is working out considered a ‘white people thing?'”

To me, that signals progress.

Update: Someone on the FB page said something that actually showed me just how universal the experience of hearing phrases like this can be:

I think the same can be said for blue color workers regardless of race or ethnicity. I might be white but I grew hearing very similar things about health and well being and who should focus on it…not me.

I also mentioned above that some of us heard “reading” (and, by extension, talking like you read) is “for white people,” too. I suspect that has to do with having the leisure time to commit to reading and not chores, work, children, and so on. Even today, having leisure time to lounge around and read — particularly if you’re in a city with no public transit —is considered a privilege afforded only the wealthy, something many black folks, unfortunately, are not. Hence, “white people.” That’s where I suspect that came from.

*I realize that the anti-therapy talk is about a bit more than class, namely the idea of being “strong.” That’s another post entirely, though, I think.

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7 comments

Ire'ne Lara Silva April 16, 2016 - 9:29 AM

Erika…thank you for this…It’s part of a conversation I’ve tried to initiate with a lot of people. At the base of it, I think what has to happen is a conversation about love. As poor or as POC or ‘othered’ peoples, we have been so concerned about survival and fighting all those systems and voices that tell us we do not deserve our lives, our safety, our health, or our happiness….that we desperately need to work on loving outselves and our communities. Of telling ourselves and each other that we are worthy of self-care, worthy of better nutrition, worthy of education and access and exploration. That our unloved and maligned bodies deserve to be strengthened and cares for. We must make love acceptable. We must make love our priority.

SourceDuMal April 16, 2016 - 10:59 AM

I definitely think that it’s a “people with money” thing as well as the fact that fitness is a very toxic and insular environment many times.

Whose bodies do we see when you Google “fitness?” Thin, muscular white bodies. They are the face of fitness. And when that image is thrown at you 24/7 as “desirable” and when whiteness is a default, that is definitely a logical mental conclusion.

When I ran my first 5k, I was so happy to see people who actually looked like me on the pavement: black men and women and people who weren’t built like fitness models.

The problem can easily be solved by showing ALL BODIES engaging in fitness without judgment on a regular basis.

But we aren’t ready to do that sadly.

Naylahknee April 17, 2016 - 12:37 AM

I have had people tell me all of my life that I sound white. The food that I eat is “white” – it just gets old and laughable. I sat at lunch the other day eating melba toast with cream cheese and smoked salmon. My co-worker said, thats so white. It is such a shame that this idea that all things good is a white thing…..it’s actually quite irritating…..people need to educate themselves and crawl from under the to rock of ignorance. There is nothing, not a thing wrong with wanting to be educated, eat well, develop your taste for certain foods, be healthy, raise kids who are consciously aware of what is going on, nothing wrong with it. What’s wrong is a society that separates us culturally in little bitty boxes to fit their idea of what’s right. What’s sad is that our own culture perpetuates this type of “that’s white” thinking. Smh. Just tired.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 17, 2016 - 11:11 AM

LOL @ lox being “white.” Just sounds mad “New York” to me. ROFL!

Tabby April 17, 2016 - 3:08 PM

What’s melba toast? I’ve never heard of it, but that’s never stopped me from trying things before. 😀 But more seriously, THIS. Man, I am so tired of hearing that old saw. And yet, since I’ve been ‘othered’ right out of the black community my entire life for refusing to be like the Black people I’m around, it’s hard to try to step out and do one more damned thing that sets me apart. I’m tired of being set apart, you know? On the other hand, I hate how unhealthy I am right now. I’m overweight, I’m tired, I’m depressed, and ye GODS, can a sister just be good to herself for a change?

How do I get rid of the cultural programming that being fat is good? It’s not good, not for me. I can’t bloody /do/ anything because carrying what amounts to a 135lb person in weight is exhausting! I know there are better ways to cook traditional Black Folk Food, and better ways to eat it — I even know how, and like most of it, I just am so defeated right now that I can’t even. Srsly, Erika, mail a sister with some suggestions. And also move to Chicago so I can pester you in person. (Kidding, but only sort of.)

Erika Nicole Kendall April 18, 2016 - 9:58 AM

Ha! <3

Lyn April 18, 2016 - 9:22 PM

I think people are confusing “white” with being (upper) middle class. If you go to a mixed race upper middle class neighborhood on a nice Saturday afternoon there will be more people than you can count out walking, jogging, riding bikes, etc. You won’t find anything of the sort on the other side of town.

You don’t need a ton of money to work out, but running shoes are expensive. Bikes are expensive. Gym memberships are REALLY expensive. And there’s a perception among us black folk, that none of us could possibly have that kind of discretionary income (or time after work if you’re working two low-wage jobs) to buy the tools you need. That’s why I just put some new running shoes on my credit card.

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