Not just exercise. Black fitness stars celebrate and educate.

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Emma Barnett
·6 min read
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A recent cycling class that was part of a Black History Month Celebration Bootcamp was filled with a variety of music by Black artists. At the end, Peloton instructor Tunde Oyeneyin looked directly into the camera and said: “Black is salsa, Black is reggae, Black is hip-hop, Black is house, Black is Afrobeats, Black is country, Black is pop, Black is excellence.”

The 30-minute class was taken by tens of thousands of Peloton members on a platform that reaches more than 4.4 million people around the world.

The music Oyeneyin chose for her classes was intentional. She said she likes to bring the sounds she grew up with to the bike. “I think it widens our aperture and our ability to speak to different communities,” she said.

During a quick stretch that precedes her sweaty, challenging class, Oyeneyin tells riders, “We talk about, often, the struggle of Black people, but it is important that we celebrate, honor, we recognize our resilience as well.”

Oyeneyin shares her personal experience as a Black woman with members, and that experience has shown her how much representation matters in every facet of life. “To be able to wear my hair in a natural state on this platform — that means something to so many people,” Oyeneyin said.

She said she often receives messages from Black users expressing gratitude for her prominence on the platform.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has restricted or shuttered gyms and group fitness classes, people looking for ways to stay fit have created home gyms, turned to streaming classes and have sought the wisdom of fitness influencers. But the most visible leaders in the fitness world don't always reflect everyone on bikes and yoga mats, and that can include a lack of racial diversity when it comes to instructors, some in the industry say. Just like in other industries and institutions, Oyeneyin and her fitness instructor peers know systemic racism persists within their world.

Ashley Mitchell, a wellness professional and the co-founder of the Courage Campaign, said addressing racism within fitness spaces is “not as simple as making fitness free, it's not as simple as hiring more Black instructors.” Mitchell said there is a lot more work that needs to be done in order to see real change.

The fitness world is “just another manifestation of systemic racism,” Mitchell said. “It's about what's in your neighborhood, what's around you. It's about health and wellness marketing. It's about free time.”

Mitchell’s mission through the Courage Campaign is to teach students at under-resourced public schools about courage, resilience and agency through movements, discussion and journaling. She stresses the connection between fitness and activism. “When you feel strong and when you feel powerful, I think that that permeates through other areas of your life,” she said.

While there is hope that the racial reckoning many had throughout 2020 will make a difference, Mitchell says that “we’ve seen a lot of performative actions from fitness instructors and from fitness studios.” Her message to studios and CEOs: step up to the plate. “I would really love to see more. I would love to see better.”

With more people exercising at home because of the pandemic, Mitchell says she is seeing “a lot of Black and brown people becoming entrepreneurs instead of being attached to a studio.” She explains that “people are tired of waiting for someone to give them a chance. We see the gap and so we're rising up, and we're just taking that chance for ourselves.”

Destiny N. Monroe, founder of Raw Fitness and an Army veteran, started her own digital personal training company last July.

“I create my own lane for myself and attract those who want me on their brand.” Her tactics for dealing with discrimination and unrealistic standards within the fitness industry include “having a resilient attitude and just keep pushing forward.”

While some may be realizing the persistence of racism more recently, Monroe reminds them that “Black people did not appear in 2020, we've been here.” Monroe said fitness companies should “include us in, and if not, then we're just going to keep making our own path and making our own way, but the difference is, we're going to include everyone, because that is how you do it and that is the way to go.”

Monroe has nearly half a million followers on her Instagram @dnicolemonroe where she posts daily workout challenges, but she also uses her platform to fight for justice and equality. “Why wouldn't I put my voice out there? Because at the end of the day, my voice, my people, is bigger than this fitness. So I make sure to use my platform in such a way that people notice that we matter.”

Chelsea Jackson Roberts, the first Black instructor for Peloton Yoga, had a full circle moment when the company announced its collaboration with Beyoncé to give students at 10 historically Black colleges and universities a free two-year digital membership. Jackson Roberts, who has a Ph.D. in educational studies from Emory University, founded the Yoga, Literature, and Art Camp at the Museum of Fine Art at Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta.

Jackson Roberts, who also celebrated the sounds of the African diaspora in a recent yoga class, said her prominence on the platform allows her to orchestrate classes that “create an experience that allows people to feel the fullness of their body in that moment, as well as using the breath as an instrument.” She believes the music in her classes is like “a symphony carrying us.”

The music Jackson Roberts uses in many of her yoga classes gives users the chance to celebrate Black culture as she encourages yogis to enjoy an Afrobeats or funk soundtrack while in a downward-facing dog.

Jackson Roberts recognizes the power her presence has on the app as she may be the only Black yoga instructor some users associate with. She takes this as “an opportunity to shift the narrative and a perspective for who qualifies as a knowledgeable teacher.”

Simultaneously, Jackson Roberts understands what her position means to young Black girls who are watching. “How dare I not use this as an opportunity to acknowledge my past in order to get rooted in this moment right now, to make sure that the people who come here after know that there's something here for them.”

Jackson Roberts said yoga is “a way for us to connect our heart, right, to how we show up in the world. It's a great way for us to get anchored in the breath before we speak out to whatever it is that we see.”

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