“Mr… (labored breathing) the police… are up ahead… We should… stop running.”
Without breaking stride, a smile stretches across my face. One that I would soon realize was an embarrassing display of both ignorance and insensitivity.
“It’s all good, Rooby… They’ll see that you’re with… me and they won’t… think anything of it.”
In my mind, I put two and two together. He’s Running While Black, so he has a valid reason to fear the police. But I’m his white running coach, so I inherently understand that he is completely safe while exercising alongside me.
“Plus it… looks like they’re just… helping with school dismissal.” I add, unsure if I’m trying to ease his discomfort, or my own.
We continue forward at the same pace, our bodies in near-perfect unison – from foot strike to breath rate, knee drive to arm carriage. Even though we’re completing the same activity in the same late fall 40 degree conditions, we’re dressed quite differently – he with khaki school pants and a cotton hooded sweatshirt (no gloves, no hat). Myself with Brooks shorts and a Patagonia windbreaker (yes gloves, yes hat). As I give a subtle hand gesture to acknowledge the officer on the side of the road, I notice that Rooby turns his head the other direction to intentionally look away.
This is the moment I realize – for the umpteenth time during my nine year teaching and coaching tenure in the inner city of Bridgeport – that despite our nearly identical actions, I carry a privilege that he does not. It’s not a privilege I’ve earned. It’s not something I’ve paid for. It’s merely something I’ve been born with, and something he has not.
After another block of silent jogging, he utters, “Mr… I really hate them.”
This time, I don’t smile. This time, I don’t brush it off.
Unsure of how to ask the question I truly want answered – one that will acknowledge the fact that I appreciate the work of 99% of police officers, while also recognizing that my athlete has clearly experienced personal or familial trauma related to law enforcement – I finally settle with, “And why is that?”
“Because Mr… they’re racist.” he manages while swerving beside trash cans and recycle bins that are confusingly left in the middle of the narrow sidewalk.
My conflict-averse personality hates the word racist. It’s been tossed around so much on nearly every media platform since COVID and the global lock-down, BLM and the riots, MAGA and the insurrection, Kanye and the Death Con 3 tweet, that… well, I’d rather just lead a life by example that supports racial equity then try to argue with people who have already firmly rooted prejudices baked into their character. Which might I add, is rarely a fault of their own, but rather that of the previous generation, and the one before that, and the one before that, and so on and so forth.
But my desire to steer away from racially-charged situations, as I’ve learned over the past few years, is actually one of the most unintentional, yet equally harmful, continuations of white privilege and racism itself. If I bury my head in the sand and avoid every conversation regarding the subject, then my life will continue to move forward without issue. But this is not the case for the athletes on my team. Nor the students in my school. Nor the citizens in my community. And so I must know more.
“Did something happen to you… that makes you say that, Rooby?”
My upbringing – white parents, suburban town, well-funded schools – taught and reinforced the importance of respecting authority. And despite the maniacal actions of officers that led to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, I truly believe that 99% of the individuals uniformed in blue strive to act dutifully for all, not just for those with white skin. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that that thought itself is yet another example of my own white privilege.
“Yes, Mr… they’re always bothering us… for no reason… Last night they were… yelling at me… telling me to get down on the ground… put my hands where they could see them… stop talking back to them…”
Suddenly, I’m no longer talking to the happy-go-lucky Rooby I thought I was. This isn’t the same 17 year old Haitian immigrant that loves to make people laugh. This isn’t the same 5 foot nothing ball of muscle that asks to hit the weight room after 30 or 40 minutes of running every day. This isn’t the same jovial running supporter that screams at the top of his lungs for every single athlete – teammates and opponents alike – at all of our cross country meets. No. This is a new version of Rooby that I haven’t heard before. The fear in his voice and the anger in his soul cause him to charge faster down the road – I’d imagine without even realizing he’s doing so.
“Wait… wait… last night?!.. This happened to you… last night?!” my breathing rate quickens just to keep with his pace.
“Yes, Mr… right outside the store…I had sandals on… and it was cold out… so I was running just to… stay warm when they… started yelling at me… and I was scared so… I got down and… they told me to stay and… not to move but… then I got cold so… that made me angry and…the food was sitting there…right beside me… getting cold too and… my family didn’t know and…”
With each broken phrase, I can envision the tears welling in his eyes without even needing to look at him. Or maybe it’s my own tears I’m envisioning. I want to cry for him – I genuinely wish I could. But I’m not a perfect human, and I still have decades of misinformed, misinterpreted, and poorly presented ideas to unpack surrounding masculinity, athletic toughness, and the bottling of emotions. Which, I’ve only recently realized, have combined forces to virtually switch off the functionality of my tear ducts, even during moments when I’d like to switch them on again.
“Hold on, Rooby… Let me… get this straight… They did all that… to you because you were… running home from the store?” I nearly trip over a jagged piece of sidewalk, ruptured half-a-foot off the ground thanks to the behemoth roots of a tree that sits beside it. Which is not an uncommon occurrence when running on sidewalks in Bridgeport. Even though my athletes have never heard of Jim Walmsley and Western States, or Courtney Dauwalter and UTMB, they’re far more prepared for technical terrain than their suburban counterparts who train on synthetic tracks, newly paved streets, and carefully groomed trails.
“YES, Mr… they said something about… a robbery and a knife… at the store that I left… and I told them that… it wasn’t me but… they wouldn’t let me go and… my house was right there just … barely around the corner but… my family didn’t know and… I was so cold and… just so angry…” his voice tapers off as his cadence slows dramatically. He may not have intentionally picked up his pace just a few moments ago, but that subconscious action doesn’t magically override the physiology of exercise.
“Jeez, Rooby…” I reduce speed alongside him, “I would be very… VERY angry by that… as well and… I just can’t imagine that… if I were in your… I mean if I were there with… … … I guess I’m trying to… I’m just… … …” I can’t find the words I want to say. Probably because they don’t exist. We plod along silently as I search for them. But there’s nothing I can think of that will correct what’s happened. “I’m sorry, Rooby… I’m so sorry that happened.”
As a runner, I have an admitted inclination toward control. If a run feels too uncomfortable, I can slow down. If all systems are firing smoothly, I can speed up. If my muscles feel extra sore a few hours after a run, I can employ any combination of proven recovery tactics. Unfortunately for me, and every other runner with a similar frame of mind, in situations like this – where I’d like to take action in a way that will guarantee desirable results, but not knowing what those actions are, where to find them, or if they’re even grounded in reality – I’m left frustrated, confused, and entirely empty inside.
“Did they end up… letting you go home?” I finally break the silence, still plodding quite slowly.
“Yes, Mr… but I still don’t like them… I told them it wasn’t me… but they didn’t listen and… I was so cold because… of my sandals and… the food got cold too and… I just HATE them, Mr… they always be… bothering us and… for no reason it’s… just not fair.” he puts his head down and once again switches gears to return to a respectable pace.
As I follow suit to stay on his shoulder, I can feel that he actually made the conscious decision to speed up this time. Unlike when he did so moments ago out of anger and fear, and unlike when he slowed down out of lactic build-up and strained respiration. In those situations, he lost control of his body. But in this one, he has regained it.
Initially, I admire his determination to get back to a speed that requires legitimate effort. But after another block or so of unwavering silence at this tempo, I recognize the greater symbol of it all.
Rooby’s experience the night beforehand rocked his world – understandably so – just as his recollection of the events rocked his afternoon workout today. But it’s his conscious – and definitively NOT subconscious – decision to keep moving forward, whether despite of, or in spite of, the extremely traumatic experience, is the part that’s worth sharing. This is the unquestionable toughness that every inner city child holds.
It doesn’t show when our cross country team finishes the regular season with a 1-12 record. Nor does it show when the football team concludes at 0-10, or the volleyball team at 3-17. But perhaps this story will shift a perspective or two on why those records exist in the first place, and why they shouldn’t be attached to our athlete’s abilities, either on the field or off of it.
When an athlete from my team can’t run two blocks from the store to his house at night without being stopped by the police (and accused unrightfully, and left out in the cold, and treated as an inferior), then he’s clearly toeing every cross country and track start line at a disadvantage.
When an athlete from my team can’t find more than 30 meters of smooth, unruptured sidewalk within a 2 mile radius of the school (and no track, and no field, and no trails on campus either), then she’s clearly unable to complete the same speedwork training as her competitors.
When 90% of the athletes on my team have never participated in organized sport until the 9th grade (and never worn a uniform, and never had a paid coach, and never met a college athlete), then they’re clearly lacking the experience and representation that their opponents have been gifted.
As you can surely imagine, the anecdotes could go on and on and on, and if you really want to read the full list, just wait until the year 2040 when my book is released after retiring from teaching. Kidding, but not really.
The intended takeaway, I suppose, is that despite my athletes competing in the same game that I enjoyed when I was their age, and my father when he was theirs, as well as the same game their peers from Fairfield and Trumbull and Westport enjoy, they’re forced to play it under a different set of constraints. And not just with cross country, or football, or volleyball, but with the game of life itself.