The Privilege of Running: Gendered Experience in Public Spaces
Gary C. David, PhD, CCS
If I had to pick a moment to mark when I became a runner, it would be 1996. That was when I ran my first marathon in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. It is an arbitrary point in my timeline for sure, as I had been running shortly after I learned how to walk, starting playing sports, and throughout most of my life as an active person. But running and being a runner are two different things. The former is an activity; the latter is an identity. Being a runner means more than just running; it goes to it being integrated into your sense of self. While others bemoan running as an arduous endeavor only taken on when being chased, runners seek the solitude of running. The experience of being out there on the road, on the trail, by yourself to find joy in the exertion and generally just work things out physically and mentally.
I started being a regular running in an unintentional way. My wife and I were dating, and she came from a family of runners. She would regularly go on runs by herself early in the morning, in the dark. While this gave me less concern when we were living in our small college town, it gave me alarm after we moved back to the suburbs of Detroit. Even more alarming was a series of rapes that were occurring in our town of Royal Oak. There was no way that I was going to let her run by herself. Off we would go in the mornings to run together, me as her chaperone. As a result, I became a runner.
Never once did I really reflect on her needing a chaperone beyond this situation. Going with her was due to some predator who was out there, an anomaly in what I considered to be a relatively safe environment. Even though, as a sociology major and PhD student, I was well versed in all issues of privilege, I never reflected on my privilege as a male in public spaces. Growing up around Detroit, I was always taught to have a sense of awareness of my surroundings. But this was always the exception for when you were in “bad areas,” or some crime spree was happening. I did not consider it as a constant state of experience for women in all public spaces. Even though I knew that privilege existed, I was blind to my own.
Flash forward many years later. Now as a professor of sociology, I routinely talk in my classes about privilege, power disparities, and structural inequalities. I am aware of this more than most by virtue of my training, and my own sensitivities. Even with this, I still fall prey to my own blind spots of privilege. For instance, I was speaking to the mom of one of my daughter’s friends. She is a runner as well, and we lived in the same town. We were talking running, as runners will do. I said, “Have you run on the trails around town?” We are lucky enough to have some great little trails in our town that you can explore and get away from the roads. I find the woods absolutely restorative. If I am away from them for too long, I get twitchy and unsettled. Running in the woods is an essential part of my identity as a runner. And I wanted to share those wonderful experiences with her in our conversation.
“I don’t like to run in the woods,” she replied. I had heard this before from runners. There are those who only run on the roads, put off by the uneven terrain, the twist and turns, the variable pacing required, and the sometimes unpredictable conditions. I figured she was a road runner, and not a trail runner. “Why not? You would really like it,” I persisted, thinking this was my chance to convince her and open up her running horizons. “Because I’m afraid of being alone in such a secluded spot,” she responded.
It was one of those moments when something right in front of you is revealed to you for the first time, even though it was always there to be seen if you only knew how to look. Of course. She is afraid of being alone in the woods and risk being attacked. I reflected on how many times I ran in the woods. Never once did I worry about my safety. Never once was I concerned that I might be attacked, that someone might lurk around the corner, come up from behind me, see me as a target. I could just go out of my door and hit the trail, leaving my cares behind. I never thought about women runners whose experiences mean they always have to carry cares with them. It was an important lesson to learn.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion online of the murder of Molly Tibbetts. Ms. Tibbetts was murdered during her evening run, when a man approached her, harassed her, and then killed her. This led to a flood of commentary from other women on what it is like to run while female. A search under the hashtag #runningwhilefemale provides a glimpse into this experience for those of us who do not know what it is like. Author Erin Shumaker notes, “There aren’t good statistics on how common it is for women to experience violence while jogging, but your risk of being the victim of a violent crime while running isn’t high. Women being harassed or watched while running outside, on the other hand, is all too common.” It is a world that those of us who are not women don’t have to deal with.
Today when I talk about the concept of privilege in my classes, I make sure to emphasize the taken for granted male privilege that men have in public spaces. The exercise I use is simple. First, I ask only the men to raise their hands if they ever intentionally parked under a street light when parking in a parking lot. Then I ask them if they ever parked under a light during the daytime when they knew they would be leaving when it was dark. I also ask if they ever noticed if a street light was out in a parking light. Second, after none of them raise their hands, I ask the same questions of women. Every hand goes up. Third, I ask the men why they never considered street lights in parking lots. The response invariably is, “Because I never thought about it or had to worry about it.” Exactly. That is privilege. That you do not have to worry about it means that you are in a privileged position compared to those that do. You might not have asked for that privilege, or done anything to put that privilege in place, but you benefit from it just the same as a man who experiences male privilege.
The next question I ask them is, “What do you then do about it?” You might not have asked for it, and never realized it, but you have always benefited from it. Now that you understand how it works, you can continue to benefit from it and do nothing. Or you can work to actively maintain it. Or you can do something to change it. If you see it as problematic that certain groups of people have a imperiled experience through no fault of their own, then the choice is to do something about it.
The other piece is to consider how privileged experiences shaped our perceptions, or general awareness. The question I ask students is, “If you had a committee of only men designing parking lots, do you think the lighting configurations would be different than if women were included?” “Of course,” is the answer. Therefore, it is important to have diversity in these committees so that a variety of perspectives and experiences are included. Based on their experiences, they are going to see the same thing from different perspectives, and that is going to result in a product or environment that serves more people.
At the same time, it is not enough to design to make up for the disparities created by privilege and power disparities. The better longer term solution is to work to end it. But at least as a first step, recognizing the privilege that we might each benefit from, and doing something about it in our own lives, is a good place to start.