It’s awkward to talk about race: let’s do it anyway
Ayesha McGowan invites us to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable if we want change to happen
Words and interview: Emily Chappell and Danielle Welton
Ayesha McGowan is on a mission. When she exploded onto the US racing circuit in her mid twenties, winning a state championship in only her third race, she quickly noticed that she was the only person of colour on the scene and started asking why. “I think African-American women aren’t cycling because they don’t see anyone who looks like them doing it,” she declared in a BBC segment (above).
Being by nature a problem-solver, Ayesha set out to fix this in the most obvious and ambitious way she could find. “I’m going to be the pro that I couldn’t find in the sport. I owe it to all the little girls who look like me, who have the potential to become great.”
A master of words
In addition to this candid can-do attitude, it is her powerful articulation of potential solutions that has really struck a chord across continents. In a speech to the National Bicycle Summit back in March, she opens with: “There is a beauty to sitting in discomfort and challenging yourself to really think about who you are and how you operate. I’m asking you to let in the discomfort of being tasked with creating more representation for people of colour in the cycling world. Then I want to ask you why that feels so challenging.”
In an open letter, published in Bicycling earlier this year, it is bike brands who Ayesha is inviting to take a look at themselves. In the piece, McGowan describes reaching out to cycling companies whose marketing campaigns had attempted to represent a more diverse community, but who hadn’t gone much further than including a few more women in their images.
Rather than merely pointing out this oversight, however, Ayesha is refreshingly pointed and proactive, offering up a list of ten practical ways in which bike industry professionals can do a better job of promoting diversity.
She starts with a challenge: “If you need a reference for how poorly underrepresented minorities are in cycling media, visit the websites or social media of most bike brands, and play the representation game:
a. How many clicks or images until you spot a POC?
b. What’s the ratio of POC to white folks?
c. Repeat a and b with WOC.”
McGowan is a solutions woman thanks to her years of experience as a pre-school teacher. “I’m used to helping kids figure out problem-solving techniques using obvious solutions that aren’t yet obvious to them, because they just haven’t gotten that far. I guess I take a similar approach with my advocacy – my approach is: Hey guys, it’s gonna be OK! This is what we do.”
She insists that to reach a moment where all of us are finally equal, we first have to think in terms of equity. True equality, McGowan argues, is not currently possible for women of colour, “because men and white people have so much of a headstart. The idea of equality won’t rectify all the damage and deficit that’s already been created. So, I think equity – giving woman, giving black people and women of colour that extra push – is necessary before we even think about equality.”
A different take
One of the ways the bike industry can achieve this, Ayesha believes, is by using representation to change and expand people’s ideas of what a cyclist might look like. “If you only see middle-aged white men on fancy bikes, then that is what people think a cyclist is. Or, if you see a woman on a bike and she’s described as a cyclist – then maybe that’s what a cyclist is? Right now though, a cyclist isn’t a black woman on a bike.”
Bike brands – in their choice of models and ambassadors – play an important role in defining what makes a cyclist, offering up role models around which the rest of us can begin to plot our own identities. Ayesha points out that currently, images of people of colour in the cycling industry are almost always there to represent some sort of charity foundation.
As part of her brilliant Bicycling.com article (which everyone must read), she warns against tokenism: “Including people of colour is a start, but it’s important to make sure those representations… don’t play into common stereotypes. For example, a lot of POC representation in cycling content depicts at-risk youth and/or impoverished communities. These… should definitely be represented, but we shouldn’t forget there are also thriving communities of colour… that participate in the many disciplines of cycling. Show different types of POCs as you would for any type of cyclist.”
Isla Rowntree, founder of Islabikes, took a fresh look at her brand’s marketing strategy after meeting Ayesha at Cycling UK’s 100 Women In Cycling event.
“[Ayesha] explained how exciting it was for under-represented groups when they see ‘someone like me’ in a mainstream brand’s advert,” explains Isla. “In not representing all types of people, we are giving out the message that certain activities are not for everyone. As well as being unfair, this is bad business. She motivated me to up our game.”
Combining the intellectual rigour and political passion of a civil rights activist with the gentle touch of a primary school teacher and the winning smile of your very best friend, it’s hard not to be inspired and motivated by what Ayesha has to say.
In the words of Ayesha McGowan: “It’s awkward to talk about race. Let’s do it anyway!”
Get more from Ayesha here