There are two rules that Malcolm Ebanks strictly adheres to while running. Always make sure he’s visible to everyone around him (especially the cops) and always make sure he has his ID on him.
“It’s my body in a white space,” the 52-year-old said, when describing his focus on safety while running outdoors. His pre-run ritual also includes an inner dialogue — a self-assessment on whether he’s in the right mindset to not just run, but potentially encounter whatever or whoever comes his way.
Whether the sun’s shining, or the wind’s just right, is inconsequential. In a town like Riverdale ― a hilly, wealthy, and predominantly white community in the Bronx where Ebanks often runs ― the simple act of getting some cardio and endorphins could put him in bodily danger.
Running in Riverdale is scenic and economically prudent compared to an Equinox membership, but there’s a tradeoff. Passersby often stare or cross the street when they see the lithe runner hitting the pavement. He once even got “pulled over” by off-duty cops in unmarked vehicles, he said, who first told him that he shouldn’t run around Riverdale, then inquired about his identity. “I’m not shocked, like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’” Ebanks said. “The way that the system is. It’s supposed to happen to me.”
Unlike gear-heavy or expensive sports like cycling, golf, tennis and CrossFit, running only requires two things: a sturdy pair of sneakers and a place to run. But for Ebanks and many other BIPOC runners, a safe space is a privilege, not a right.
Systemic racism and institutionalized white supremacy have long politicized the act of moving through certain spaces for BIPOC. It’s a fact that brutally awakened the nation after three white supremacists murdered Ahmaud Arbery nearly three years ago.
“People are still comfortable with that notion — like, ‘As long as you know your place, we can get along. But just don’t come into my space,’” Ebanks said. “There’s a deep history of that.”
That history is evident in the very origins of recreational running in the U.S. In 1967, U.S. Olympic track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman co-wrote “Jogging,” a manifesto on running’s benefits and ease — ease for a white audience, that is. “Jogging is free. It is convenient and enjoyable. It is safe,” the book commands. Meanwhile, a 2020 study revealed that nearly 40% of Black runners reported feeling unsafe. And, a Runner’s World survey in 2021 found that 60% of women have been harassed while running.
After Bowerman’s book, the white and the wealthy quickly adopted jogging in their everyday routines. A 1979 Washington Post article even explicates the average American runner of the time: “He is white, white collar and well off. He earns about $30,000 a year and probably has a graduate degree. He eats meat, does not smoke and his resting pulse is 52 1/2 beats per minute. He is the average runner.”
That description is nearly everything that Latoya Shauntay Snell — and her huge and loyal following — isn’t. “The first things that people see in me are the heavy descriptors. She’s Black. She’s a fat woman. She’s queer, she’s very loud, and she has no problem with using profanity,” she said. “When someone sees a runner like me, they’re just like, ‘That’s a list of no’s.’”
Despite all that, the Running Fat Chef founder woke up one morning in 2020 to find herself on the cover of Runner’s World that celebrated her platform. It was a triumphant middle finger to the white establishment who told her that she couldn’t be in this space. Amidst the racial conversations and protests that were happening at time, though, Snell was justifiably cautious. “Am I really here because I just happen to be the poster child of a fat Black female runner that doesn’t look like everybody else?” she wondered.
The moment reinforced her belief that doing the work goes beyond putting someone on a magazine cover. “It is not enough to say, ‘You’re allowed to come in.’ We’ve always been allowed to come in,” she said. “We forced our way in, otherwise we wouldn’t even be this far.”
While it’s worth celebrating the path that BIPOC, queer people and women have forged in the space, the sport still has much to contend with. Lucía Caballero, 25, hails from Chile, where she competitively ran throughout high school. She came to the U.S. to pursue Division I college running — only to find that she was one of two people of color on her team, and that many of the runners came from wealthy backgrounds. The isolation and exclusion she had to face drove her to not only quit, but also stop running altogether.
“I had never felt excluded in the sport until I came to the U.S. and realized that distance running especially is an extremely white sport,” she said.
The numbers back up Caballero’s experience. In 2022, NCAA collegiate indoor track and field, the sport Caballero competed in, comprised 61% of white women and 59% of white men across all divisions. That demographic goes beyond the collegiate level, too. According to a 2022 running study conducted by nonprofit Running USA, of the survey’s 5,500 respondents, 20% are Hispanic, 7% are Black, 5% are Asian, 2% are Indigenous and 60% of respondents reported being white. While there clearly is some representation in college athletics, anecdotal evidence shows that the racial disparity widens post-college. After Caballero left her college team, she didn’t think she’d want to run again — and she didn’t for three years. That is, until she moved to New York City and found comfort in the form of running groups.
Like Caballero, Ebanks has also found a sense of belonging in running clubs. “I have never really experienced going out to a run crew and feeling like I don’t belong because I’m a person of color,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about New York — people just want to run.”
Both Ebanks and Caballero are part of Bandit Running, a Brooklyn-based running collective and high-performance apparel brand. They’re fairly new but well-known in New York for a community-centered approach to the sport, from soliciting feedback from their runners who wear-test upcoming products, to bringing members together via pre-race events and pop-ups.
“Bandit’s a small company that uses New York as an incubator,” Ebanks said. “They’ve done a great job of just saying that you don’t have to be fast, you don’t have to be sexy. You don’t have to be this, you don’t have to be that.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that discrimination towards BIPOC and their intersectional identities are non-existent in running groups. Ebanks, Caballero and Snell’s running experiences have also mostly been in New York City. And while it’s notorious for its deep income inequality and clusters of segregation, not all cities boast having the diverse population it does.
But there are plenty of ways that running groups can be more inclusive — starting with membership fees, which are dues that help pay for club trainings, social events, merchandise, and more. Offering flexible payment plans or subsidies makes the sport more accessible to folks who aren’t able to pay these costs, which sometimes skyrocket to hundreds of dollars, at once.
Financial inclusivity is only one piece of it, though. The joy of running can sometimes rely on both having someone to hold you accountable and finding a safe running route. It’s critical for clubs to not only be intentional about who they’re inviting, but also make everyone feel welcome and heard — attributes that many BIPOC and intersectional runners have found in identity-centered run havens.
Those interpersonal relationships also push members to be the best versions of themselves — so, take the time to invest in each other above all. The support Caballero has gotten from other BIWOC runners is not only what pushes her, but it’s also a reminder that showing up for herself pays it forward for others.
“Seeing other Latinas and other women of color running fast and being competitive — it makes me feel like I can also do it,” she said. “I want other women joining those groups to see me and think the same thing, turning it into this cycle.”
Run groups should also foster meaningful relationships with the space they trek through. When passing through communities, particularly ones that are low-income or majority BIPOC, it’s not enough to finish that run, then go home. “As much as the space gives to us, we are also responsible to give back to the space — and that includes like all of the people who live in that community we all benefit from,” Caballero said.
Snell agrees. “Make that introduction: ‘Hey, my name is such and such. I would love to be a patron at your business. I would love to find some way to bridge the gap between our communities.’” That’s doing the work, she added.
If there’s anything that Ebanks, Caballero and Snell all share, it’s that their wills to run are just as tenacious as their wills to unapologetically take up space, both for themselves and for the people who come before and after them. The act of running alone is an emphatic declaration that, yes, they belong — in this space and in history.
“If I think about my story alone, it gives me enough rage to be here,” Snell said. “We have no choice but to be here. Our running is revolutionary.”