Diverse We Run: Shining a Light on the Richness of Running

If you looked only at popular social media, you’d think runners were a peppy, homogenous, slender bunch, and—yes—largely white. Looking beyond though, it’s easy to see that image is not reflective of day-to-day reality for most runners.

At the Instagram account @DiverseWeRun, Carolyn Su shines a spotlight on diversity and variety in the running community, showcasing runners who upend conventional narratives about who runs and why. By showcasing those running to combat violence against Native American women, ultrarunners of color, runners with disabilities and so many other people, Diverse We Run shows off the many facets of the running community.

Mango spoke to Carolyn about why she started the Diverse We Run account and #diversewerun hashtag in December, 2018, discussing why a lack of diversity has real consequences for the running community, and how all of us runners can show up for each other.

What led you to start Diverse We Run?
I saw a lack of diversity featured in the general running community, whether in social media, podcasts, or print media. I didn’t intend to notice it; I was just a basic consumer of information for a while. It wasn’t until I started to binge-listen to popular running podcasts and follow the popular running hashtags and accounts on Instagram that it suddenly became clear that I was essentially seeing the same images, the same type of runner, and hearing the same story over and over—and none of those images or stories reflected mine. Beyond the physical act of running, I couldn’t relate.

After reaching out to several podcast hosts to inquire about featuring more runners of diverse backgrounds, I learned that the concept was either foreign (no pun intended) or that the hosts themselves did not know where to begin or what to do. “Where do you find runners of color?” was the unspoken question! So I started looking into different hashtags, basic ones, like #asianrunners, #blackrunners, #latinorunners, and from there, I discovered entirely new communities of runners: new faces, new styles of writing, new ways of sharing their running journeys. None of them had the same degree of followers as the mainstream, White runners I constantly saw featured, but they were there, they were also showing up, doing the work, chasing and smashing big goals.

In a society and culture where POC [people of color] stories have long been minimized or erased, I decided to help be a part of the change that I desired to see. If no one else was going to feature stories of POC runners, then I would. So I started @DiverseWeRun.

As a minority of any sort, it can be intimidating to take that first step to speak out. What scared you most about starting Diverse We Run?
That I would just be in an echo-chamber with other POCs. That people wouldn’t take it seriously, or that people wouldn’t see the value of amplifying diverse voices and stories. To be honest, I was (and still sometimes am) afraid that the (White-majority) [Mango’s note: Western!] running community would not see the value of diversity, or regard the account as a nice side project, instead of as a microcosm of our society at-large.

From curating runners’ stories and hearing from runners of color, what have you learned that was unexpected or surprising? 
There’s a lot of altruism out there. POC runners aren’t just running for self-betterment or growth; there’s an inherent understanding that you’re showing up for a greater purpose and hope of making change in the broader community. They’re out there at races, on the road, amidst the trails, and participating in running groups because they (we!) know the value our presence provides, both in showing the world that runners come from many backgrounds and struggles and perspectives, as well as in showing the POC community that there is space for them.

Aside from that, one perspective really opened my eyes—Tammy Shakur, a trail runner, shared how many Black Americans have visceral responses and aversions to being alone in wooded areas (aka, places ideal for trail running), due to the horrific history of crimes that have been inflicted on the Black & African American people in those types of areas. As an Asian American, I had never considered that very real and very valid barrier-to-entry for Black runners, even though I have read countless books and articles discussing race and history in our country. It makes me ask, “how can we change this perspective for Black runners, and how can we make trail running more accessible?”

What do you think are the most harmful consequences of distance running’s lack of diversity? For communities and especially women of color? For the sport as a whole?
At worst? Not recognizing some of the real and dangerous barriers for POCs in running — like safety, especially for women of color, or not getting proper medical attention or training tailored specifically for certain groups. For example, statistically, Black women are more likely to have medical conditions misdiagnosed, from breast cancer to lupus. At best, a running community that lacks diversity will never benefit from the richness of life, growth and progress that diversity offers.

Let’s talk about how race, gender and class intersect. We know that distance running for leisure is not only a pretty white pursuit, it’s a pretty white middle-class pursuit as well. What have you heard and learned from featuring runners outside the modal demographic, such as people of different socioeconomic classes, gender identities, or disability status?
It’s definitely a privilege to run. Another runner, Marcus Rentie, shared that being a “hobby runner” entails many privileges, including: living in a neighborhood that’s safe to run in; living in an area that has access to trails (for trail & ultra runners); having enough income to support all the gear/shoes/equipment needed to properly train for races (and to also cover the cost of race registration and travel!); and having access to suitable healthcare providers and insurance carriers, especially if you’re a para-athlete. Many of those privileges aren’t simply a face-value challenge. There are systemic problems of our society that play into whether or not people have access to those privileges, and it’s not something that is easily changed.

Has Diverse We Run ever received any bigoted or clueless comments? Have you used such comments as teachable moments? What were they?
Thankfully, I haven’t received any egregiously bigoted comments or messages so far, but there are always comments that reflect ignorance and a limited worldview (eg, “Aren’t Black runners already prominently represented in running? They’re always winning races.”). I try to view those comments as opportunities to gently challenge the commenter’s beliefs if needed.

There are times when I have to set boundaries for my own emotional and mental health; someone messaged me once to ask for more examples of how Asian American runners experience any hardship, mentioning how Asian Americans seem basically “White adjacent.” After spending hours composing a reply about the history of discrimination, racism, and exploitation of Asian immigrants in America, to the on-going erasure of Asian American experiences in the present day, to the cultural backgrounds of specific Asian groups…I never sent my reply and just decided to move on.

Instead of (just) bemoaning the lack of diversity in the running community, what are some ways in which runners of color can show up and be present for each other? How do we find each other?
Advocate for and validate each other’s experiences as a POC runner. Don’t be ashamed of being different from the White-majority running community (I know tried to hide and “white-wash” my identity in order to fit into the accepted cultural norms for a long time). Be active in local running communities, and if there aren’t any around you, be active on social media — this will not only connect you with other POC runners, but will benefit non-POC runners simply by getting to know you. Look in hashtags that are ethnic/culturally-specific, like #asianrunners, #latinarunners, #nativewomenrunning, #blackmenrun…etc, or even ones like #myrunninghair!

How can white women runners be effective allies for women runners of color?

  • Understand what it means to DO THE WORK. Too often, White women will say they support diversity but will then essentially ask for the women of color to show up and or explain everything themselves, instead of actively doing the work of researching (books, articles, IG accounts, hashtags), learning, and asking how to partner and support.
  • Intentionally amplify WOC [women of color]. You won’t be minimizing the experiences of White women; you will only be lifting up the experiences of WOC to, at the very least, be heard and visible!
  • On social media, actively comment on, repost, share, and engage with posts by WOC runners. Ask and get to know runners who are women of color. Seek to support them in both their running and non-running endeavors.
  • Follow runners who are WOC—especially if your Instagram feed and Explore page all look homogenous.
  • Listen to and support podcasts by runners of color. [Look for this soon in a Salty Running post!]
  • If you have a wide following in any form of media, consider how you can use your influence and power to make change (and not to simply “promote diversity” superficially). Do you have a regular segment involving WOC? Are there WOC on your core team or advisory board? Do you create content that acknowledges different levels of accessibility and needs for all people?
  • And of course, if you see or hear things being said that are bigoted or discriminatory, speak out.

How do you envision Diverse We Run growing in the future? Where would you like to take it from here?
Honestly, I’m not sure! This started as a project I found meaningful and purposeful, and I have been given amazing opportunities to share about it along the way. I would love to eventually have some DWR meetups, especially since I’m here in Boston, and who knows what else? I’m open to suggestions!

Thank you so much to Carolyn for taking the time to speak with us!

Salty Running is always looking for diverse perspectives. We recognize that recreational(ly competitive) distance running is not currently seen as a diverse sport, but it’s 2020 and we’re not willing to accept that status quo. To find out more about sharing your perspectives, visit saltyrunning.com/contribute.

Tropical transplant to the chilly Northeast. Professional writer and researcher, cantankerous editor, mom to two! inquisitive children, asker of inconvenient questions.

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  1. This is really lengthy and educative. I think there should be a need to foster unity among all runners taking away the cultural diversity and color.