In the time of COVID-19, statewide stay-at-home orders across the country, and CDC recommendations to wear face masks in public, we’ve seen a proliferation of people spending time in outdoor spaces to escape the daily confinement of staying at home.
Bikers, walkers, runners, Rollerbladers, and canine companions swarm the Denver parks daily to enjoy some fresh air in the spring weather. And yet, something as seemingly simple as going for a run is embedded in systems of power, privilege, and oppression. The safety of your neighborhood, the access to green spaces, the maintenance (or even existence) of sidewalks, and the body you live in all factor into the way someone is able to participate in this activity.
I am a runner. As a woman, there are precautions I consider, I sometimes take, or decide to ignore, when I step out into the public space on my own. I encounter catcalls on my runs regularly, or witness other female-bodied walkers or runners on the receiving end of public harassment by men. There are days when I fear for my safety, and other days when it only quietly crosses my mind before I push it away and absorb myself in my run.
Despite the sexism I experience, I hold an immense amount of privilege in my position as a runner. I live in a well-maintained urban neighborhood within a block of a city park. As a white person, my appearance in a public space does not raise unfounded suspicion or fear in others.
In the time of a global pandemic, my wearing a mask while running is a normal and innocuous occurrence. And likely, in an event where I am harmed or assaulted, there would be no question of what I was doing in that space in the first place. And very likely no delay in justice.
Racism did not take a break in the midst of the pandemic. On the contrary, racial inequities are protruding from every angle of this crisis—from anti-Asian racism to the disproportionate number of black Americans dying from the virus to the complexity of asking people of color to wear masks in public spaces where they already experience racial profiling threats to their personal safety.
The murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man shot and killed in Georgia while he was out for a run in February, is devastating and indisputably racist. His death is a grim and sadly unsurprising reminder of the inequities and disproportionate violence people of color experience daily in this country.
In a time of crisis where people are staying home and feeling more disconnected from one another, it is more important than ever to engage with our communities and challenge systems of inequity. In a time where people are spending more time outside, it is imperative that we demonstrate kindness and empathy, keep our biases in check, and hold one another accountable.
If Ahmaud Arbery’s death, and the deaths of countless black and brown folks at the hands of police and civilians before him, doesn’t leave you shook, outraged, and devastated, quite frankly you are part of the problem.
White folks, it is our responsibility to unlearn the socialization that comes from a lifetime and centuries of systemic racism and violence. It is our responsibility to speak up, speak out, and hold one another accountable, including our local, state, and national representatives. It is our responsibility to use our votes to elect officials who will prioritize policies to improve our health, education, and justice systems.
So many of us take for granted our ability to step out in the world for a run without fearing for our lives. As Kamala Harris so simply and poignantly stated, “Exercising while black should not be a death sentence.”
And yet, these words still need to be said.
Pilar Ingle is a health care researcher and PhD student who lives in Denver.