Before Jacinda Ardern’s “They are us” sentiment after the mosque shootings in Christchurch made many people of colour living in New Zealand uneasy, before Taika Waititi spoke out about New Zealand being “racist as ****”, well-meaning white people have likened becoming allies and doing anti-racist work to running a marathon. You’ve probably heard it from a relative, a good friend, the host of a podcast or a politician.
I understand why the analogy is used so widely. Maybe the person speaking or writing is struggling to communicate the magnitude of the problem or the strength required to tackle it; maybe it’s more about the determination to persevere when we don’t believe in ourselves, or the despair we must learn to grapple with when things are too hard and it’s easier to quit… Most people can get their head around the comment that, “This work we’re doing isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon”.
While seemingly benign and useful for most white people to use to get their heads around the enormity of education, self-reflection and action that must be undertaken to dismantle white supremacy in ourselves and society, I want to name what’s sitting insidiously underneath this metaphor. It’s too simple to be helpful. After sitting on this post for nearly two months, I have decided that the saying is inaccurate and harmful when applied to anti-racism work.
I’m writing to other white readers who have started their own anti-racism journey, only to realise that it’s much, much, much harder than they thought, and they’re not getting rewarded for the work they do. When I see the ways white people can weaponise anti-racism work to harm and retraumatise BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), statements like these are part of the cause. Check out Monique Melton’s writing if you’re interested in learning more about this.
You see, likening anti-racism work to running a marathon makes me (the white person) believe the journey of anti-racism is one with a fixed, happy ending that is going to reward me (spoiler: it’s not). It also perpetuates the selfish ways that I demand BIPOC must treat me when I perform anti-racist work, because I have been taught to see myself as the hero of this journey.
We can choose to run a marathon. If we do choose to do this, we sign up for an event and spend time training for the race day. We might have a programme to follow, which is designed to help us achieve our goal. We might get a coach. Our training is highly unlikely to affect others. We run and run and run. We work rest into our schedule because we learn the hard way by over-training and may even injure ourselves. Then, we show up to run the race, and however it turns out, we’ve done it. We’ll likely get a tangible reward for the work we’ve done (a medal) and the chance for bragging rights for the rest of our life – after all, we did run a marathon.
Then, the event is done. Despite common beliefs that training for a marathon takes years, or that all marathon runners talk about is how much they run, there is a time after we’ve run the marathon where we no longer have to run a marathon. We could pick the same goal again, or a different one, or no goal for the time being. We get to choose, after all. But we did the thing.
With anti-racist work, there is no training programme. There is no chance to practise. There is no second go.
You’re going to screw this up. I wish I could say that reading this book would guarantee that you’d never leave a conversation about race feeling like you’ve gotten it all wrong and made everything worse. But I can’t. It’s going to happen, and you should have these conversations anyway.– Ijeoma Oluo
Anti-racism work is not optional. It does not matter that we cry, “It’s not my fault I’ve been born white”. Anti-racism education and activism is obligatory, lifetime-long work for those of us who are white, because it is the price we must pay for the colour of our skin. There is no rest because white supremacist policies and prejudices disenfranchise, suffocate, and kill BIPOC every day. Or rather, when white people “take a break” from anti-racist activism to recharge our batteries, disengaging means that we must acknowledge our white privilege again. Being able to switch off from engaging in racism is the definition of white privilege.
If you are white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of colour to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone.– Ijeoma Oluo
There is no event to achieve our anti-racist feat at, with a roaring crowd cheering us on and a medal at the end. Craving praise or recognition when we publicly complete an anti-racist act is called craving an ally cookie. This is the type of behaviour that exhausts people of colour because it automatically makes our actions, designed to be about the justice and freedom of another, about us – our feelings, our ego, our insecurities, our need to be recognised. Again.
Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there’s little praise to be found, is much more difficult, but much more meaningful… we need to be honest with ourselves and recognise our own inherent biases, before we think about performing anti-racism for an audience.– Reni Eddo-Lodge
Anti-racist educators say that anti-racist work from white people looks nothing like a marathon. It looks like learning and getting it wrong and continuing to try and staying humble and choose anti-racism every day, for our whole lives. Like studying our own country’s racist history. Like advocating when no-one’s watching. Like setting the chairs up before the meeting. Like being aware of the way we are opportunity-hoarding for ourselves or our family. Like using our voice to amplify what marginalised groups have been saying for years. Like engaging in tough conversations with other white people. Like consciously choosing to make the space safe for those of marginalised racial identities. Like constantly examining if we have become the “white moderate who is more devoted order than to justice,” that Dr King so eloquently described.
We do not get to ‘train’ these actions before we start anti-racism work. None of these actions will get us a medal. These behaviours will not translate into a social media post or hashtag.
When we do these things, whether to our face or behind our back we will be called names, have things assumed about our identity and beliefs that are not true, and may be treated differently because of our actions. This is no more than our BIPOC friends and whānau must deal with every single day, simply because of the level of melanin in their skin.
Having said this, I know why we use the analogy.
For most, running a marathon is unfathomable. So is any type of anti-racist work when you are just starting to learn about it. The gap between where you are and where you see you need to be seems too far.
The work is gruelling.
Mistakes will be made.
The work will likely be full of emotion.
There is self-sacrifice involved. There must be.
It never, ever, ever came easy.
But white friends, we cannot allow this way of thinking – this addiction to rules, this fear of being wrong, this demand for an audience, this need for reassurance – to dictate our actions.
It’s on me to educate myself, and my learning will never finish.– Robin DeAngelo
Reni Eddo Lodge writes, “I understand that, after white people begin to get it, it’s even more uncomfortable for them to think about how their whiteness has silently aided them in life… No useful moments have ever sprung out of fervent guilt.”. No one has been guilted into running a marathon, either.
So next time you hear someone use this analogy, you don’t have to take them down. But just remember, anti-racism work is far more complicated than running a marathon – and far more important.