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More Than Running: Tiffany Chenault | Salem State Sociology Professor and Black Girls Run Boston Chapter Leader

“The more I ran, the more questions I started to ask about this space. When I would run, I never saw anyone who looked like me. I am an African American woman. I lived in a neighborhood that is not African-American and is a predominantly white and Latinx population. Running in the neighborhood I started to wonder, ‘Do black women run? Do other African American people run? Because I’m not seeing them. I knew I couldn’t be the only person to run. This kind of peaked my curiosity and the questions that I had about this space.”

Tiffany Chenault is a sociology professor at Salem State University and the Black Girls Run Boston chapter leader. She is also working on a book about race and its place in the running community.

Dana and Tiffany discuss how she found the sport and her initial reaction to seeing very few women like her on the starting line, what got her hooked (she’s now run 46 half marathons in 46 states) and the changes/conversations that can take place to do better.

Note: This conversation was recorded before the death of Ahmaud Arbery sparked a greater conversation about diversity, race and representation in running.

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More from this conversation…

– “I’m a sociologist and what I study is community, race and inequality. I’m studying these things all the time. I teach it. I research it…Understanding the city of Boston’s layout. Even though we’re a diverse city, we are still a racially segregated city. I would purposely go and run in different neighborhoods just to hopefully find other people who looked like me and to see if they were running…I realized that certain neighborhoods have certain access to green space, bike spaces, walking spaces and other communities do not. There’s more access to Y’s or gyms. All of these impact.”

– “There’s this stereotypical image of what a runner looks like or what a female runner looks like – tall, thin, ponytail and all these things. I’m 5’1” and 3/4ths and 150 pounds. I’m all curves. Not only do I not see anyone who looks like me when I run racially but also physically. Where is a mirror image of me? I was looking on the internet and I put ‘Black girls run where are we’ and found there’s an organization called Black Girls Run. It’s a national organization that tries to get other African American women motivated to running and also to curve the health disparities that are in our communities with obesity and diabetes.”

– “For me, as I started this journey, there were two things.  I wanted to understand how the running industry viewed black women specifically. I started looking through Runner’s World and Women’s Running. If these are the bibles of the industry, how do they view non-white women? I started looking through the magazines and I was describing what was in the magazines and still wouldn’t see anyone who looked like me. I had one of my undergrad students do a content analysis of just the cover over a 30 years time span. Is there any diverse representation? Surprisingly in 30 years, there was like five or six. That was one of the things I found.

Two: How is the industry welcoming to other women? As I’m looking at products, I notice if you have long hair there’s the cap that you can put your ponytail in and these different things. For many African American women, we have hairstyles such as braids, locks and we have natural hair that baseball caps don’t fit. The wraps you can put around your hair don’t fit. We need a silk scarf sometimes around our heads to help prevent sweat and damage to the hair. There’s the politics of hair in general.”

– “I know that African American runners – specifically recreational long-distance runners – are very few. I think it’s less than maybe two or three percent but it’s really hard to gauge because when we sign the race form, they always ask for your age and gender but they never ask about your race. We can never get a full and accurate account so that we can document the number of participants and we can see the diversity or lack thereof.”

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