It was a sunny Saturday morning and I’d just walked into the gym. The vibe was buzzing, and I was pumped for the intense, fun workout I counted on every weekend. I had no idea that one of my happy places was about to turn into a danger zone. I didn’t know I was about to witness, once again, why racism persists in the USA.
For a year, Ken’s* weightlifting class was a highlight of my week — and not just for me. Ken’s teaching skill, hot music, and positive energy are contagious, and the people that attended his Saturday class brought high spirits and a commitment to fitness. Many regulars got to know each other by name and socialized outside the gym.
One of my “gym friends” is Keisha, a fellow regular. When I entered the room that morning, she greeted me warmly as she set up her equipment. “Hey Susana, how’s it been?!”
Ken was out of town that day, and Tiffany was our sub. I was stoked. I’d taken Tiffany’s classes for over six years, and not only was she an excellent instructor, she knew me. She always said hello when I took her class if I didn’t beat her to it, and the last two times she subbed we’d chatted.
The previous week, Tiffany brought up an incident that happened between her and a stubborn gym member in another class that I’d also attended. The member had insisted on having the fan blow directly on her instead of on the entire class, even when Tiffany tried to intervene. Even though this happened months ago, she questioned her firm approach, seeming to want reassurance. I told her I thought she handled it appropriately in the interest of safety (heatstroke!) and serving the group.
That morning I said hello to Tiffany as I grabbed my equipment, and her face brightened: “Hi!” She was walking purposefully towards the side of the room where I normally set up, so I asked if she needed help with something. I thought perhaps the fan on that wall needed adjustment.
Instead, she asked If I knew who belonged to an unoccupied station. I didn’t nor did anyone else nearby. She said there wasn’t enough room between the four stations along the wall, and asked the members to readjust and move towards the back.
In front was Tran, a muscular Asian man in his early 30s who’s a semi-regular, but usually sets up in a different part of the room. Behind him was my friend Keisha, a black woman in her early 40s, who was set up in the same spot she always occupies. A young white man was behind her, and behind him sat the empty station that was later claimed by a young black woman.
Tiffany was adamant in instructing everyone to move back, which puzzled me. The normally full class was more sparsely populated that week, and there were no safety issues with how the four stations were spaced. Keisha moved her station slightly, then pointed out that Tiffany wasn’t asking Tran to move, when there was also space in front of him.
Tiffany, a blond white women in her 40s, said she didn’t want Tran to move — she wanted everyone else to move back. Tran said he couldn’t move up because he was too close to the front and wouldn’t be able to see the instructor.
I felt tension building. The danger level was high, given these yellow alerts:
- Poor community member behavior: Tran refused to be part of the solution. He had space to move forward, there was precedent for other members being closer to the mirror, and there was no safety risk. (Also, Tran has a habit of taking up more space than necessary and doing his own moves during the class, rather than the shared choreography.)
- Better behavior: Moving forward six inches. (And paying attention to others and sharing space equitably. Also doing your own moves in the back of the room, or elsewhere outside the shared community.)
- Poor leadership behavior: Tiffany dictating one solution, micromanaging adults in the absence of a clear safety hazard, and only asking 75% of the people affected by a problem to adjust their behavior.
- Better behavior: First best — Explaining to folks the danger or concern, asking them to create a solution, and walking away. Second best — Explaining the danger or concern, then asking everyone affected to move. Then walking away.
- Poor white person behavior: Tiffany not noticing (or caring?) that 50% of the people she was targeting to move were black women. Black people have been forced to accommodate and defer to white people for hundreds of years. Women have been forced to accommodate and defer to men for millennia.
- Better behavior: See above under “better leadership behavior”.
Keisha stood her ground. She calmly pointed out that she was willing to move, but that Tran could also move up. As Tiffany insisted that she didn’t want Tran to move, Keisha became more adamant.
So did Tiffany, who suddenly resorted to, “I’m the instructor, this is my class, you should do what I tell you.”
The danger level rose to orange alert:
- Poor leadership behavior: Not being curious or able to hear reasonable feedback about the impact of your decisions. Leaning on positional authority instead of fairness and problem-solving. Ignoring the larger context of interpersonal and social dynamics. Asserting ownership where there was none (she was a sub, and class regulars had higher stakes in the community).
- Poor white person behavior: See above.
- Better behavior in both cases: See above under “better leadership behavior”.
I saw the racial, gender, and power dynamics unfolding. As the voices and gestures became more animated, I saw an ugly picture emerging where Keisha would be painted as “the angry black woman” or “the problem” and blamed for whatever happened next. I saw yet another black woman having to stand her ground on her own. I also saw a friend being treated disrespectfully.
I walked over towards Keisha and stood near her as the tension rose between her and Tiffany. Tran was no longer involved. Hoping to leverage my white privilege and years of friendly connection with Tiffany, I tried to infuse a moment of calm and clarity into the rising flames.
I said, evenly, “Tiffany, there’s some context here you might be missing. Some dynamics in this club you might not be aware of.”
I was thinking of another incident involving three Latinas where a newcomer disrespected the space of two other members. It all went down just a few feet from the current conflict.
But my words and demeanor made no impact. Tiffany doubled down on her insistence that everyone should move but Tran, and that we should obey because she was the instructor.
- Poor leadership and poor white person behavior: Escalating an existing conflict, and making the conflict about you when that’s not how it started.
- Better behavior in both cases: See above under “better leadership behavior”. Also, taking the conversation out of the room, referring the parties to the club manager, or asking the club manager to handle it.
I don’t remember who walked away first. Either Keisha left to go talk to the club manager, or Tiffany walked away to start the class, but Keisha left the room. Tiffany started to begin the class, but then stepped out, saying she “needed a minute.”
- Good leadership behavior: Giving yourself some space and leaving the situation to get composed. Letting the group know what you were doing.
- Poor leadership behavior: Turning the focus onto you and your victimhood, not the impact that the now-escalated conflict was having on dozens of bewildered people who just came to work out.
Next, I heard murmurs in class, that “Tiffany’s out there crying.” One of my other gym friends, Simone, also a Black woman, walked over to ask me what was going on. As we talked, I noticed the club manager, Gavin, arrive outside the room with Keisha. Gavin is a tall, muscular, tatted-up white guy in his late 20s. Tiffany joined them, and I saw another ugly picture emerging as I watched Keisha talking to the two white people with power.
I left the room and approached the group. Keisha relaxed a little: “And here’s Susana, she saw.” My long-ago mediation training kicked in and I consciously stood next to Tiffany. I hoped she would feel less threatened than she would have with three people squaring off against her.
Nothing new was being said, and Gavin looked concerned. The two women were doing all the talking. I piped in once or twice to say, “That’s not the full picture.”
Gavin was focused on determining whether or not class would happen. There was a room full of gym members waiting to work out, watching the drama unfold. Tiffany said she would only teach the class if Keisha and I left. Gavin said, “that’s not going to happen, you can’t exclude members. Either you teach everyone the class, or don’t teach.”
Escalation to red alerts:
- Poor leadership behavior: Tiffany seeking to exclude and punish individuals who questioned her authority, and holding a group of innocent bystanders hostage to get her way.
- Better behavior: Recognize you’re in no state to teach effectively or serve everyone, and cancel class.
- Poor white woman behavior: Immediately throwing another white person (that you know) under the bus once they “side” with a POC (person of color) or question your approach or power. Taking a situation that wasn’t about you, making it about you, and turning yourself into the victim.
- Good leadership behavior: Gavin listening to all parties, maintaining a calm demeanor, and staying focused on problem solving — especially a solution that meets the needs of most stakeholders. Refusing to violate club policy or be unfair to members to placate a “middle manager” (Tiffany).
- Good white man behavior: All of the above. Also refusing to placate or coddle an overly escalated (and now perpetrating) white woman who is painting herself as a victim of a POC.
Simone joined the group around this time and offered to teach the class. Certified but not currently teaching at the club, she told Gavin she could step in and didn’t need to be paid. Gavin said that worked for him. But then Tiffany headed back inside — apparently to teach the class.
Green flag and red alert:
- Good leadership behavior: Simone offering to help. Gavin going with a workable solution that would benefit the majority of stakeholders.
- Poor leadership behavior: Tiffany going back on her word; she said she wouldn’t teach if Keisha and I stayed, but as soon as her manipulation failed to work on Gavin, she acquiesced. Tiffany insisting on getting her way instead of doing what was best for the majority.
- Better behavior: Walking away, and allowing Simone to bring her untarnished energy into the room to serve the community.
I don’t know how it was finally decided — Keisha and I waited outside the room while Tiffany, Gavin, and Simone hashed things out — but Tiffany finally began to teach. It was already 25 minutes into our hour-long slot. She was terse as she instructed and feigned disinterest, but simmered.
About halfway through class, Tiffany commented that she was going to lift less weight than normal on the next song because she’d spent so much energy dealing with “the childishness” that “was like being in an elementary school.” That angered me, but I glanced at Keisha and she seemed all right. I decided to let it go and keep working out.
However, Tiffany didn’t let it go. At the end of class, she launched a two-minute speech, which Keisha smartly caught on video. She said she hoped people in the class “work[ed] for a manager that backs you up” and that managers “should always back up their people”. She said she may or may not be back, and that the class was supposed to be about positivity and exercise. She said she hoped for an apology.
The force of entitled power and white supremacy was breathtaking. Here was a woman who — after nearly an hour of intense exercise and time to internally recalibrate — was just as self-righteous about her victimhood as she was before.
Catastrophic red alert:
- Poor leadership behavior: Making a snide, passive-aggressive remark with no value other than to hurt and insult. Belittling adults for standing up for what they think is fair or right. Involving an entire group of people in a situation they neither created nor witnessed. Rejecting any responsibility for what occurred.
- Better behavior. Don’t say anything else about what happened. Execute the class professionally. Bonus: Apologize for what the students witnessed and experienced. Extra credit: Say what you’ll do differently next time, then care for yourself and reflect.
I was so angry after this display that I went to Gavin’s office, where Keisha joined me. A few minutes into our conversation, Tiffany barged in a closed door to say she had that she’s fair. She left the office, then stayed at the gym for another 40 minutes.
Red alerts and green flag:
- Poor leadership behavior: Barging in on a conversation between your “boss” and “reports”. Not keeping your word (if you say your shift is over and you have to leave, then leave. But that wasn’t true, just a power move). Insisting your “reports” obey your authority without question, then refusing to obey your “boss’s” authority.
- Poor white person behavior: Insisting loudly on your fairness when confronted with feedback that your behaviors had an unfair impact, especially on POC.
- Good leadership behavior: Gavin disclosing his experiences with Tran and Tiffany with me and Keisha without engaging in toxic gossip or throwing them completely under the bus. Maintaining personal yet professional demeanor. Listening. Not getting emotionally caught up in the conversation or the drama, or allowing it to go on too long.
For two hours in the parking garage, Keisha, Simone, and I debriefed what happened. I mostly held space for two Black women talking about what it’s like being Black in the USA. I listened to the nuances in what occurred in their lives in the week leading up to that day’s events, and in the lives of their family members and lineage since before they could remember.
It wasn’t until an hour into this conversation that I learned I’d missed something. Something happened before I entered the room that morning — before Keisha said hello to me and I said hello to Tiffany.
Tran had set up his station at the front of the room (a station he later granted to a female friend!). When Keisha arrived, she set up behind him in the space she normally occupies. Tran asked Keisha to move back — rather, he demanded. When she said there was enough room for both of them, he said, “you don’t fucking care, then!?” When she neither moved nor responded in kind, Tran went to Tiffany.
That’s why Tiffany was intent on moving the stations, and why she wanted everyone to move but Tran.
- Poor community member behavior: Tran demanding a space instead of asking, making an aggressive comment when the answer was “no” (and to a woman and POC), then going to the instructor. Also disrespecting the norms of the class and where regulars set up.
- Better behavior: Ask politely (“Hey, I’m setting up for my friend, and I’m worried about her being able to see. Would you be willing to move back a bit?”). If the answer is “no”, let it go or move somewhere else. There was plenty of room to relocate.
- Poor white woman behavior: I assumed there was all to the story than what I saw. And I missed what Keisha had been saying about Tran’s behavior because I assumed that happened after Tiffany got involved, not before.
I was glad I hadn’t been more vocal about what happened, since I didn’t have the entire story. I was glad I’d avoided the ally trap of speaking for Keisha. And while Tiffany’s behavior and choices were already unprofessional and inappropriate, I was dismayed to realize yet another layer of:
- Poor leadership behavior: Taking one person’s word for what happened between two people. Automatically taking the man’s word over the woman’s, and the non-BIPOC over the BIPOC.
- Better behavior: First best — see “better behavior” above at the beginning of this article. Second best — ask both parties what happened. Then decide and walk away, or ask them to figure it out and walk away.
- Poor white person/gender behavior: Taking the man’s word over the woman’s, and the non-black person’s word over the black person’s, without exploration.
Unfortunately, the story didn’t end that day. The next week, Ken returned with his usual peppy charm. There were far fewer students, and both Simone and Keisha were absent. A member of the gym leadership team lingered in the back of the room as the class arrived. Then, before starting the music, Ken chided us jokingly: “I leave, and you guys are fighting, scaring away instructors! Let’s just love each other.” I overheard another member nearby referring to the previous week’s incident as “bullshit.”
A part of my heart broke. After class, I went to talk to Ken, who was being monopolized by an older white male member, filling him in on the incident (which he hadn’t fully witnessed from the other side of the room). When I realized this was happening, I gradually inserted myself to add what was missing from the story. I learned that no one from the gym had debriefed Ken, just Tiffany.
Once the other member departed, I let Ken know his words at the beginning of class hurt. I told him I knew he meant well, but painting the incident as the class being the problem instead of the instructor opened the wounds back up. I said if Keisha and Simone had been there, that probably wouldn’t have sat well.
Ken couldn’t hear it. He kept saying his admonishment “wasn’t directed at you, but everyone.” He didn’t recognize that his good intentions didn’t absolve him of responsibility for his negative impact. He didn’t acknowledge that his incomplete, skewed information led him to rub salt in wounds. He said, again, that we should “just love each other” — as if love hadn’t been in the room that day, and that hatred has caused the conflict. As if the solution to injustice is victims’ love for their perpetrators.
The following week, the class was still sparsely populated but I was glad to see Simone. There was no sign of Keisha. This time, there were two high-level leaders in the room, and the new District Manager (DM) introduced herself to the class. Then, she reminded us to respect each other’s space and get along.
I was so angry I left class to go speak with her. I said I appreciated her intentions as an organizational leader because I’ve been there myself, and been a consultant to many like her. I told her how it felt to be monitored for two weeks after the incident. To be told, two weeks in a row by leaders, that we needed to behave. To see no consequences for Tiffany’s behavior.
The DM lovebombed me by saying what a valuable member I am, and that I’ve been a member for a long time (she didn’t even know my name). She said they were only going off what Tiffany said, and the words of her “allies” that came to her defense. I pointed out that no one had asked me for a statement. The DM didn’t even know Keisha’s name.
I sent her my written statement via email a few days later. I haven’t been back to that class.
The Fuel: Why Racism Persists
Racism in the United States is a caste system. The power and perniciousness of a caste system is that it’s deeply ingrained in our individual and collective psyches. It operates without our conscious will. It causes us to view and treat people in black and brown bodies as less deserving of respect, agency, and voice. It causes us to label BIPOC bodies as problems and troublemakers. It makes us grant white people (and men) the benefit of the doubt, second chances, and plenty of slack without question.
Keisha was not consulted, heard, considered, or given the benefit of the doubt. And when she calmly stood up for herself, she was goaded into escalating. When she refused to obey authority for authority’s sake, all hell broke loose. Her crime was that she had violated caste norms by not staying in her “place.”
In a caste system, members of the dominant caste are also punished dearly for violating caste norms. For centuries, white allies and activists have been routinely and systematically subject to epithets, disownment, exile, violence, and even murder for standing with BIPOC people and speaking out against caste. And unlike most BIPOC, non-immigrant white people are completely cut off from our tribal lineage. In some superficial ways we have more to lose when we speak out, because our sense of identity and community is far more tenuous than that of black and brown USians. It’s based largely on loose affiliations, or who we are not (black, brown, immigrant, lower caste). We are raised to think of ourselves as merely a “person”, so after we stick our necks out there’s no clear tribal “home” to return to for care and safety.
Most of my friends aren’t white. After standing up for Keisha, and holding space for her and Simone, I had few people to help unload my own distress. While my pain pales in comparison to the daily brutality exacted on black and brown bodies over hundreds of years, my pain is still real and worthy. It gets added to our collective suffering.
In caste systems, even members of the “lower” castes are indoctrinated to enforce it. That’s how five black policemen can end up beating and killing Tyre Nichols in Memphis, but also get fired in a near-record ten days after their victim’s death. It’s why people in my weight lifting class, including those who didn’t see what happened — even those who were also black and brown — felt compelled to defend and care for Tiffany, and concluded that what happened was “bullshit.”
Caste is why no other bystanders “got involved” that day. I’ve been grappling with racism since I was five years old. I’ve been involved in anti-racist activism since late adolescence, and worked in the diversity, equity, and inclusion field for nearly 30 years until I left in 2021. But it still shocks and disturbs me when white people stand silently by as bigotry, racism, and even murder happen within their sphere of influence, and even in front of their eyes. The white man standing behind Keisha never left his station for the entire 30 minutes of the incident.
As a trauma-informed coach and practitioner, I understand the freeze response that happens to a human nervous system under extreme threat. I know how “appeasement” is a common yet physiologically exhausting stress response in highly social species like humans, when the threat comes from another member of our species who wields greater power. “Getting involved” to stop bigotry and discrimination is too great a risk, even for white bodies, because of the caste system. Our nervous systems know what’s at stake, and how dearly we are punished when we violate caste.
Caste is also why Tiffany — and millions like her — immediately discarded our years of friendly camaraderie and shared racial affiliation. Even when all I did was invite reflection, broader context, and calm. I’d dared to show disloyalty to our shared superior caste, thereby threatening the system.
In addition, caste violations are increasingly threatening to most white people because the system is already threatened. Shifting demographics over the past 40 years and increasing visibility (read: legitimization) of “lower caste” people unnerves us because it disrupts the status quo of the caste system.
Still, I see conflicts like what happened at the gym as healthy signs of new life. They’re signs of nervous systems thawing out from deep freeze. They’re signs that more marginalized people are feeling safe enough to say “nope, not today!” They signal a cultural shift where people are less likely to respect positional authority alone. Whether they’re a fitness instructor or POTUS, we’re rightly paying more attention to a leader’s competence and compassion as an indicator of their worthiness to exercise authority.
And we’re learning that “respect” doesn’t mean “obey my authority”. “Respect” also means “honor my humanity.” People mean different things when they talk about “respect” which often map onto caste and other power dynamics. Keisha — like all lower caste people — wanted her (disputed) humanity honored through an equitable solution. Tiffany wanted her (automatically granted) authority obeyed through other people doing what she commanded. And Keisha not knowing her “place” and getting in line activated a threat response in Tiffany.
But when Tiffany didn’t get her way, she burned everything down. With multiple poor decisions exacerbated by the gym leadership, she harmed several people, destroyed a beloved haven for dozens more, and was excluded from teaching at that gym. It reminded me of something Isabel Wilkerson, one of our most visionary thinkers about racism, said in a recent interview:
“…we are outliers when it comes to generosity toward our own people because there are certain subsets that don’t wish to have others have something if they feel they’re undeserving of it. They’d rather forego it themselves if someone that they feel is undeserving gets something, and therefore we all suffer because of that.”
Sparks can happen any time, anywhere. But unless we stop the flame throwers and take gasoline away from those who would torch the entire forest, we’ll all lose our entire ecosystem.
* Names have been changed to protect people’s identities and honor confidentiality.