Author Talks: What it means to run ‘while Black’
December 13, 2022 | Interview
Activist Alison Mariella Désir [right] dismantles the Whiteness of long-distance running and the dangers of taking up space as a Black person in America: “There’s nothing micro about these aggressions.”
In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Alison Mariella Désir about her new book, Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built for Us (Portfolio, October 2022). Since the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Désir has sought to bring awareness to the systemic inequities threatening Black runners, and Black Americans overall, and to help non-Black folks learn ways to promote equity in their communities. An edited version of the conversation follows.
What prompted you to write this book?
The book tells my personal story of what it’s like to move through space in a Black body. The inspiration for this book really was me having my son in July of 2019. I went through postpartum depression and anxiety, and I finally felt able to be in the outside world in February of 2020, about seven months later. Shortly after that, I found out about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
While my whole life I had known and felt the pain of Black and brown people being killed by vigilantes or being murdered by police, now that I had a young Black son, I had a vision of what the rest of my life would be: constantly worrying and having fear over what could happen to my son.
I started to think about that experience and how unique that is to being a Black person in this country, and I wrote an Op-Ed. In the Op-Ed, I talked about the unique experience of being a Black mother, of being a Black woman, and of the dangers—physical and psychological—of moving through space.
That Op-Ed went viral, and I found that many White people were shocked, confused, had never really heard that experience. In that moment, I said, “OK, I have to write this book. I have to share what it’s like to move through space. I have to share what it’s like to be in an industry that centers White men in a space where Black and brown people don’t have the same access or opportunity.”
In that moment, I put pen to paper, and it mostly flowed out of me.
What is the meaning of the book’s title?
The title initially was The Unbearable Whiteness of Running. About midway through writing the book, I decided to change the title to Running While Black, because I thought that Running While Black really captured my experience.
What I wanted to do through the book was humanize and share the experience of moving through space in a Black body and bringing awareness to folks who are non-Black of what that’s like and what it means for us. There’s still a chapter in my book called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Running.”
And in that chapter, I talk about, “What is the culture of running? How does Whiteness show up? What does it mean that most running races are disproportionately White? What does it mean that most people who have power in the industry, whether they are CEOs of brands, businesses, or events, are White?” The unbearable piece of it is that the industry and the community are disproportionately White, so that chapter still gets that in there.
McKinsey Consulting’s brand is basically High IQ: McKinsey tells you that it will throw a lot of the smartest, most fanatically hard-working young MBAs against your problem. (Lots of folks with experience with McKinsey have highly different opinions about what exactly it is that makes McKinsey its money, but that’s what it more or less tells you is its strategy.) So why does McKinsey go out of its way to associate its brand with Alison Mariella Désir?
While she might strike you as kind of an obvious dimwit, keep in mind that you are an iSteve reader. In contrast, to the typical 2022 corporate executive who might someday pay McKinsey a lot of money, she probably seems brilliant. After all, why else would McKinsey associate themselves with her?