"As a Black woman, I didn't know where I could go and say, 'wow, this place makes me feel like they see me as worthy.' I thought it was time to create a fitness space where Black people could go and feel that way."

By Chrissy King
August 24, 2020
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Credit: T'Nisha Symone

Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, 26-year-old T'Nisha Symone is on a mission to create change within the fitness industry. She's the founder of Blaque, a pioneering new brand and facility in New York City intentionally designed to help Black people thrive through fitness and wellness. While COVID-19 has temporarily put a halt on the opening of a physical location, Blaque is already making waves.

Read how Symone's life journey led her to this point, the importance of creating a dedicated space for the Black community in fitness, and how you can help support her change-making cause.

Feeling "Othered" from the Beginning

"Because I grew up in a poor school district, I became aware at an early age that if I wanted access to higher quality services, such as better schools, I had to go outside of my Black neighborhood. It, like many Black neighborhoods, had a failing school district, primarily due to lack of funding. I was able to go to school outside of my community, but that meant I was one of two Black kids in my elementary school.

When I was 6-years-old, I would call home sick every day. There were blatant moments when my classmates would outright say things like, 'I don't play with Black kids,' and when you're 6-years-old, that means everything. Children were also constantly asking me strange things about my hair and my skin. I think what happened for me is that it was so much a part of my life that I stopped recognizing it as strange. That's kind of how I moved through life. I become very comfortable with moving through white spaces and being othered." (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental health)

Finding Fitness

"I grew up dancing and training in ballet and modern and contemporary dance, and my interest in fitness really started with this obsession of trying to fit a particular body type. I've always been thicker and curvier and once I turned 15, my body started changing, and I became totally preoccupied with working out. I would train ballet and contemporary for hours a day, only to then come home and do Pilates and go the gym. In fact, one time I spent over two hours on the treadmill. There was so much that was unhealthy about that mindset and the desire to try to chase this ideal body type. I literally had teachers say to me, 'wow you're so great, your body type is just a little complicated to work with.' I was so conditioned to not be mad at that, but instead, I internalized that something was wrong with my body and I needed to do something about it.

When I went to college, I studied exercise science with the goal of becoming a physical therapist. I was always very interested in the body and movement and really into optimizing lives. Despite there being a side of it that didn't come from the best place, I really did love fitness for the fact that it made me feel good. There was still a tangible benefit that I really valued. I started teaching group fitness classes and eventually decided I wanted to work in the fitness industry instead of pursuing a career as a physical therapist.

From the very beginning, I knew I eventually wanted to start something on my own. In my mind, it was something that would impact my community. To me, community literally meant my neighborhood, and I think that ultimately came from my previous experiences of feeling like I always had to leave my area for access to quality services. I wanted to bring high-quality services to my own Black neighborhood."

From Trainer to Entrepreneur

"At age 22, I started working at a large gym, my first full-time position, and immediately noticed things that made me uncomfortable. But the discomfort I experienced wasn't new because I was so used to being the only Black person in a space. The majority of my clients were middle-aged, wealthy white men. I had to do a lot of maneuvering and trying to fit into those places because my ability to make money hinged entirely on what they thought about me.

The same mindsets and struggles I had about my body type were still present because, at that point, I was working in this mostly-white space, where I often was one of the very few, if any, Black women. Everywhere I looked there were images of thin, white women being praised as the ideal fitness aesthetic. I was athletic and strong, but I didn't feel represented. I was very aware of my body and the ways in which I was different from what many of my clients aspired to be or considered to be ideal. It was this unspoken truth between us.

I was also feeling a lot of pressure, and I experienced constant microaggressions but didn't always have the ability or place to talk about it. And, honestly, I almost didn't want to acknowledge it because I recognized that acknowledging it would prevent me from moving forward. I constantly felt like I was in a position where I had to 'play the game' to succeed, instead of becoming increasingly aware of (and make others realize) how problematic the industry was."

Conceptualizing Blaque

"It wasn't until I verbalized the idea for Blaque, in February of 2019, that it forced me to look back on my experiences with my eyes wide open. I realized I wouldn't be able to speak the truth about something unless I felt empowered to do something about it. At the moment I had the vision to create Blaque, I remember thinking, 'it would be so great if we had a facility where we had access to things that we needed in the locker room—things like shea butter and coconut oil and all this stuff.' I had been working at this gym for almost 5 years, and I'd always had to bring in my own shampoo, my own conditioner, my own skincare products because the products they carried at the gym didn't meet my needs as a Black woman. Members were paying hundreds of dollars a month to be in this facility. There was so much thought put into the clients they served, and it was clear that they were not thinking about Black people when they created this space.

Although these events definitely pushed me, my desire to create Blaque evolved from the need to better serve my clients in my Black neighborhood. This has been a thorough and intense journey because as I started to do the work of understanding why creating Blaque was necessary, I realized how multi-layered it was and how much bigger it was than I originally thought. As a Black woman, I didn't know where I could go and say, 'wow, this place makes me feel like they see me as worthy.' I thought it was time to create a fitness space where Black people could go and feel that way." (Related: How to Create an Inclusive Environment In the Wellness Industry—and Why It's So Important)

The Essence of Blaque

"As time went on, I realized that the fitness industry is part of the problem in many ways. The way it functions exacerbates the issues of racism and the lack of representation. Anyone in the fitness industry who's passionate about helping people — because that's the whole premise, we're helping people live high-quality, optimal lives — would have to then acknowledge that, as an industry, we're only helping certain people live quality lives. If your concern is helping everyone, then you would be thinking of everyone when creating these spaces — and I didn't find that to be the truth in the fitness industry.

That's why I decided to create Blaque, a space for movement specifically designed to serve Black people. The entire heart and intention of Blaque is to break down these barriers that have separated the Black community from fitness.

We're not only creating a physical environment but also a digital space where Black people feel honored and welcome. It's all created with Black people in mind; from the images we show to who people see when they enter to the values and behavioral norms. We want Black people to feel at home. Everyone is welcome, it's not just for Black people; however, our intention is to excellently serve Black people.

Right now, as a community, we're experiencing collective trauma in regards to everything happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID ravaging our communities. In light of all of that, the need for a space for wellness and fitness is heightened. We're experiencing layers of trauma, and there are very real effects on physiology and our immune systems that can further negatively impact our communities. It's really important that we show up now in the highest capacity that we can."

How You Can Join the Efforts and Support Blaque

"We currently have a crowdfunding campaign through iFundWomen, a platform that empowers women with tools to raise capital for their businesses. We want our community to be empowered by being a part of our journey and our story. Our campaign is currently live and our goal is to raise $100,000. While this is no small feat, we believe that we can reach this goal, and it will say a lot about what we can do when we rally together as a community. This is also an opportunity for individuals who are not Black but are seeking to address some of these issues in a tangible way. This is a very real way to contribute to a direct solution to a serious problem. The funds for this campaign are going directly to our outdoor pop-up events, our digital platform, and our first physical location in New York City.

We are in an industry that has really missed the mark on showing up for Black people, and this is a moment when we can change that. It doesn't just affect fitness; it affects all areas of people's lives. We're fighting for basic human rights at this moment and because we've been doing that for so long, we don't always have the opportunity to focus on the things that allow us to live well. That's why it's so important to create a luxury space with Black people at the center." (See also: Black-Owned Wellness Brands to Support Now and Always)

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