“And Over Here, We Have a Negro…”

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pia_29_postIt just happened again. I belong to a fairly upscale gym chain that has locations all across the country. I go back and forth between New York and Los Angeles frequently, and I’ve also visited two of this gym’s Chicago locations. At this point, it’s happened many times on both coasts and once in the middle of the country, so what I’m about to describe is neither a regional quirk nor any one individual’s folly.

I am generally one of few black members at the gym, at whichever location, and often the only one. And without fail, every time one of the white Membership Advisors is giving a tour to a black visitor, the Membership Advisor goes out of their way to say hello to me. Every time, without fail.

Now, I’m a faithful parishioner at the Church of Nuance, so I’m not exactly ringing alarms or trying to get Al Sharpton on the phone over this. I don’t consider it an OUTRAGE or an OFFENSE, per se.

Now, I’m a faithful parishioner at the Church of Nuance, so I’m not exactly ringing alarms or trying to get Al Sharpton on the phone over this. I don’t consider it an OUTRAGE or an OFFENSE, per se. But it is . . . questionable. Curious. Irksome.

My first thought is that even though they use the somewhat pretentious term “Membership Advisor,” these people are really in sales. Their “advice” is that you buy a membership from them. They’re selling memberships, so they need to sell the gym as the one facility that will suit all of your needs and provide what you’re looking for. What a Membership Advisor says and does during a gym tour isn’t personal, nor should there be any intentional insult or slight.

If someone walks into a gym for a tour and says they especially love spinning, the spin studio might be the first stop. You like treadmills the best? Let me show you how great our treadmills are. That’s all well and good, but I doubt a black person has ever specifically asked a Membership Advisor to point out and greet a black gym member during the tour, so here’s where it gets murky.

The irony is that the prospective member on the tour may very well have been thinking it. If we’re going to be spending regular amounts of time at a facility, we might want to feel that particular sense of community. On a much larger scale, this is one reason why some people choose to attend HBCUs. Personally, mine has been the only black face present in many circles and at many facilities that I’ve frequented, and it’s not a good feeling. It’s nice to walk into a place happily and see another friendly black person smiling back. The commonality can be comforting. But at the gym? Hmmmm . . . I also like to see friendly Asian faces. And lovely Latinas. And cheerful Native Americans. And friendly white people. And charming Pacific Islanders. And kind people of Indigenous Australian heritage and . . . okay, you get my drift.

True ethnic diversity is not an easy fix. It’s not about numerical quotas or excitedly pointing out “Look, we have one!”  Genuine racial and ethnic diversity is about inclusiveness, and the white gym salespeople, however well-intentioned they may be, are doing something else. When they make a big show of waving to me or interrupting my workout to chuckle something like “Geez, are those weights heavy enough for ya?” they’re making a performance of my presence. They’re performing “diversity” on the assumption that the black visitor needs to see Another One to feel comfortable. And as I said earlier, that actually might be a concern for the visitor, but unless they explicitly said so and explained why in great detail, the white salesperson is unable to truly identify with that desire for visible diversity, for community and commonality, so they can only speak to it in a way that is presumptuous and grotesque.

The first few times this happened, I told myself I was being overly militant and to take a chill pill and not think the worst of these people. They’re A) doing their job, and B) being nice. Who could be mad at that? Another potential selling point of the gym is how well they get along with their members, so why wouldn’t they make a point of saying hi? Okay, if that’s true and race has nothing to do with it, why do they only walk past other (white) members to beat a path to my weight stack when giving a black person a tour?

Years have passed. I’ve criss-crossed the country. And it just keeps happening. Usually, the black visitor and I exchange lightning-fast knowing looks. We know what’s going on. They’ve probably been someone’s Pet Shop Window Negro too, in some other place on some other day.

This is the kind of everyday oddness about race of which many people are blissfully unaware. I get that it may not be a big deal to some, but it is yet another leaf on the massive tree of Equal Humanity Denied. I don’t exist to make well-meaning white people feel comfortable about the diversity of their surroundings. Sometimes I’m just trying to work out.

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