Earlier this month, Insider reported that Black employees at Peloton, the fitness equipment company that is also something of a lifestyle company, have been voicing their frustrations to one another and now to management about their pay and pay equity. It’s a peculiar situation at a company that has made prior public declarations of its desire to be an “anti-racist organization” and threw $100 million toward fighting systemic racism in 2020.
“The episode,” Insider writes, “reflects an ongoing problem at Peloton: For all the company’s talk of combating systemic racism, its efforts are too often reactive, in response to a crisis, rather than demonstrating a genuine interest in creating an equitable workplace.”
One of the company’s efforts to combat racism has been its “Breathe In, Speak Up” series, a collection of 14 yoga and cycling classes taught by Chelsea Jackson Roberts and Tunde Oyeneyin, both Black women. The series became available on the platform in June 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
As a Peloton devotee, I had not waded into the “Speak Up” series, because exercise for me is a break from thinking about racism, not a time I want to think about it more. I’m also pretty allergic to corporate signaling when it comes to race—like the “end racism” logos on the back of NFL helmets, or when Nextdoor tweeted Black Lives Matter. But after this new reporting in Insider, I decided to finally try a class. I signed up for a 30-minute session with the theme, “leaning into discomfort,” suggesting that the physical discomfort from the ride would serve as a metaphor for hard conversations about racism in America.
The class, which is taught by Oyeneyin, is structured like any other Peloton ride, minus the usual levity. In between cadence and resistance shifts, Oyeneyin shared personal stories, explained white privilege, and tried to motivate us, both to push harder on the bike and to push harder to talk honestly about white privilege.
One of the first things Oyeneyin spoke about is her belief that saying nothing about racism is worse than potentially saying the wrong thing. I understand what she means. I’ve encountered plenty of white folks who will sidestep discussing racism altogether out of fear of flubbing it. Personally, I’m fine not having that conversation with them, but I suspect Oyeneyin was not really talking to me—she was talking to the white people in class.
Over the 30 minutes, Oyeneyin shared palatable examples of white privilege—situations that would be easy for white audiences to digest. She told a story about two fictional women: Jen, who is white, and Pam, who is Black. Both women are wearing skirts and have a cut on their legs. Jen is able to find a nude bandage, while Pam isn’t. Later, Jen is able to find a birthday card featuring women who look like her and her best friend. Pam goes to the same market and has no success. Oyeneyin reiterates Jen’s privilege but is also careful to add that having privilege doesn’t mean Jen hasn’t worked hard or hasn’t felt any pain in her life—a moment that struck me as conceding too much to a white audience in a conversation that’s supposed to be hard.
While the Jen/Pam stuff was Priv 101, the class itself was physically tough. (For the Peloton-heads here: The first part of the class focused on high cadence with gradually increasing resistance. Then the leg speed dropped slightly, the resistance went up into the 50 to 60 range, and Oyeneyin instructed riders to leave the saddle.) As with most efforts on the bike, it left me breathless. But the physical difficulty of the ride serving as a metaphor for having tough conversations, and pushing through them, didn’t land. My main thought was: “What does me huffing and puffing have to do with white privilege?”
Still, the class is designed to reach people who may not otherwise be exposed to these narratives. At one point, Oyeneyin talked about being made to feel as though she was “too Black.” As a child, she overheard her supposed friends making fun of her dark skin. She recounts getting off the bus, running into the house, and asking her brother how she could lighten it. He, being a child himself, told her to fill a bathtub with bleach. Before Oyeneyin immersed herself in the barely diluted mixture of water and bleach, she decided to dunk her hand for 15 minutes instead as a test. She never ended up dipping her entire body into the tub but said she wonders where she’d be if she had. Oyeneyin followed up with a story about how, when she first joined Peloton, people didn’t take interest in her classes, which led her to wonder if it was because her Blackness and her muscles made her seem “too tough” and “too mean.”
Oyeneyin wrapped the class by saying the presence of the riders who took the class, and thus showed interest in the subject, brought her hope. She added that she even appreciates the people who have posted on social media about not taking her class because they don’t feel any commonality with her. At least she can now approach those people and explain to them how we’re all just human.
That last part gets to why I found the class, and perhaps the whole endeavor, too gimmicky. It was definitely crafted with a white audience in mind, which is fine, since the theme is confronting white privilege. But turning comments from people who were turned off by a class hosted by a Black woman into a teachable moment: Why does any Black person have to step back and make their humanity clear in this situation? There was also a moment when Oyeneyin asserted that racism isn’t all about “Black versus blue,” or Black folks versus the police. And while it’s true that racism is more than police violence, this argument ignores, intentionally or not, that the police are agents of the systemic racism that Peloton is saying it’s committed to fighting. It just all felt a little too pitched at making everyone feel better at the end, which is great for exercising and less great for a seminar on racism.
This is not a knock on Oyeneyin. I have nothing but respect for her for getting so vulnerable in class, and she remains one of my favorite instructors on the platform. But I couldn’t help but feel that her willingness to talk about racism was being exploited by her employer. I went in thinking this was a class I would probably roll my eyes at, but instead it honestly just made me a little sad. I guess that’s one way to lean into discomfort.