Ahmaud Arbery and Whiteness in the Running World
The response to Arbery’s murder highlighted what I already knew: the running world is deeply divided by race, and we must address it
This Sunday marks my first Mother’s Day. Nine and a half months ago, my son Kouri Henri Figueroa came into the world via C-section. This caused me the greatest pain of my life, followed by a few months of darkness from postpartum depression, but without a doubt, it has led to the deepest sense of love I’ve ever felt. In such a short time, I’ve learned so much about him. I understand his different cries (for the most part), I can recite all of his likes and dislikes (he loves vegetables, hates fruits), and he amazes me daily as he discovers new parts of himself and the world. I imagine that none of this is particularly unique to any mother and baby relationship. But what separates me, and other Black mothers like me, is that we are plagued by the question: At what point will a white person see my son as a threat, and attempt to murder him?
When I hear the story of Ahmaud Arbery, a man who committed the crime of jogging while Black, I see Kouri. Ahmaud was a 25-year-old Black man who laced up his shoes to go running near his home in Brunswick, Georgia, this February, unsuspecting that those would be his final miles. He was hunted down by a father and son—who later said he looked like a burglary suspect—and shot twice, in broad daylight. When I look at my beautiful, unique baby boy, I see the faces of all of the other beautiful Black and brown babies that grew up to be discarded and murdered at the hands of police and white supremacists. Will Kouri be 12 years old on the playground, like Tamir Rice? Or will he be blessed to make it to young adulthood, only to then be gunned down, like Ahmaud? I spend a lot of time—too much time—imagining the scenario of my son’s murder, and how I will respond. Will I have the poise and composure I’ve seen so many Black mothers have during their prime-time interviews? Or will I fully embrace the burning rage I already feel and take homicidal action myself? A part of me fears that I will one day have to find out the answer to this question.
The first time I heard of Ahmaud’s murder was after reading The New York Times piece in late April. There was a part of the article that stuck out to me, where it seemed like Ahmaud’s mental health was being called into question and used as a justification for why he was shot: “[The prosecutor] noted that it was possible that Mr. Arbery had caused the gun to go off by pulling on it, and pointed to Mr. Arbery’s ‘mental health records’ and prior convictions, which, he said, ‘help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.’”
As a mental health advocate with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, I immediately wondered how the prosecutor got access to his mental health records, and how a man who was clearly gunned down was somehow now being held responsible for his own death. The video of the incident—which later circulated widely on social media—showed what I had known immediately: Ahmaud had fought for his life in his last moments on earth. Unarmed, and approached by two unpredictable white men wielding deadly weapons, he made all efforts to protect himself in a nightmare scenario.
Over the following days, I had conversations with many Black and brown runners about the fear and trauma this case reignited in us: we already knew that doing normal, everyday things could make us targets of police and vigilante violence like this. But this one still hit us too close to home, at a moment where the world was already in chaos thanks to COVID-19. We discussed the disproportionate death toll of the pandemic in Black and brown communities, and the over-policing in Black and brown neighborhoods. This case is exactly why we never go running alone at night—and this is why we fear wearing masks to cover our faces, even though we know it is to protect us from another deadly threat. I thought about a movement that had emerged recently in the running community—one that was concerned with so-called runner safety. Where were their voices? Where were their outcries? But the larger running community—the white running community—remained silent until yesterday, two and a half months after Arbery was killed and nearly two weeks after The New York Times first reported on the case.
It was suddenly more clear to me than it has ever been in my seven years founding and leading running movements: there is a deep divide within the running community across racial lines, one that we do not address.
I fumed quietly until the horrific video was released earlier this week. I gathered myself and watched the video—a mistake—and took to social media to call out the running media and finally ask: Where is everybody? This lit a fire in the global running community in a way that I could not have predicted. Suddenly, there was viral interest in what had happened to Ahmaud, and cries for justice from people who boldly admitted they had never heard of Ahmaud before. (I wondered: But don’t these same people read The New York Times?) The responses were mostly appropriate, but all too late. And, I worry, they were just a moment in time, rather than part of a commitment to dismantling white supremacy and the systems that make a murder like Ahmaud’s possible—and even despicably mundane.
For too long, the running community has pretended as though it were possible to keep politics out of running. As if, somehow, running is the great equalizer where people can come together and compete on an equal playing field, transcending all markers of identity. The truth is, when I go for a run as a Black woman, that in and of itself is a political act and one that puts me at risk—fearing for my life. As long as we live in a world steeped in white supremacy—and we do—being a Black woman will never be separate from my identity as a runner. I often think of this quote, from the hip hop artist Guante: “White supremacy is not the shark, it’s the water.” White supremacy is not just two white men with hate in their heart hunting down Black men, white supremacy is also the initial, prolonged silence from sports publications on Ahmaud’s murder.
But I would not write this if I were not an optimist. After all, there is a version of the future where Kouri lives a long and full life. So what can we do?
It is time for white people in the running community to cultivate a white identity that is separate from white supremacy—that means committing to antiracism and social justice. There are two great books I recommend to start with in this process: White Fragility and Me and White Supremacy. It is time for white people in the running community to take each other to task in spaces and rooms where there are no Black people or other people of color. If you, as a white person, ever find yourself in a place where everyone is white or mostly white—including at your workout—then there is a problem and you are perpetuating it. And it is time for white people in the running community to recognize the humanity of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color and raise up our stories as if they were their own.
If you found yourself uncomfortable reading this, please know that my discomfort writing this far exceeds yours. To what extent am I now a target for speaking truth to power? I don’t know how my words will be picked apart and shredded, and which doors may close as a result of writing this. What I do know is that I am speaking passionately from the heart about difficult things. And I don’t have all the answers but I am willing to do the work. Are you?