Transcendence. It’s a fun word with a plethora of meanings, but one of my favorites is “the state of excelling or surpassing or going beyond usual limits.” Probably because that gives me a slim chance of adequately describing the life of freeride mountain bike coach and anti-racism educator Anita Naidu. Because while mountain biking is the sport where, as the first pro of East Indian descent, she continues to crush barriers, Naidu’s work in the realms of racial and social justice truly do transcend even her gnarliest two-wheeled accomplishments.
Hailing from Montreal and now based in the mountain bike Mecca of Whistler, British Columbia, Naidu’s list of accomplishments is as diverse as they come. Yes, she’s a ripping rider sponsored by Liv Cycling, MEC, Troy Lee Designs, SRAM, Industry 9, RockShox, Clif, Continental and Cush Core. She’s also the winner of a Google Impact Challenge grant, for an app called Services Advisor that has connected millions of refugees with humanitarian aid. And she holds master’s degrees in electrical, environmental and chemical engineering and has met the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment qualifications, which sorta makes sense for such a whiz at defying gravity.
But perhaps the coolest thing about Naidu is how she has used the inroads she has made in the traditionally white male sport of mountain biking to blaze a smoother trail for people of color. Not only does she help brands implement and improve DEI policies, but also her coaching clinics have a game-changing element: participants emerge not only knowing how to ride bigger and bolder, but also how to fight institutional racism. No, really.
When I approached her months ago to be part of the Gear Patrol magazine piece I wrote about the people, brands and organizations pushing to diversify the bike world, I was blown away. Naidu’s responses to my questions were some of the most inspiring and enlightening remarks I’d ever encountered. I knew I would not be able to fully showcase them as part of that package, but I resolved to publish a vastly expanded version of the Q&A online. So without further ado, here’s more of the wisdom she shared. I hope it educates and motivates you too.
You have been fighting to make mountain biking more accessible to non-white non-bros for years. What are the main ways you tackle this challenge?
At the beginning it was about showing up. Long before diversity and inclusion were part of the conversation, just lining up at races beside confident white guys was my first way to challenge inherent bias. I was compelled to smash the narrative of what small brown girls are capable of.
Even today, sometimes it is still just about showing up, and I was honored to receive an invite last year to Crankworx Speed and Style in Innsbruck to compete alongside the world’s best. It held special significance, as it was the first time women were invited to compete on that course in Austria.
Once I became the first professional mountain biker of my ethnicity, the natural next step was to use my hard earned insider privilege to tear down barriers. Doing the best for oneself is a limited vision of what we can be, especially knowing other lives can be made better by the way we live ours.
After working on everything from the global refugee crisis to human slavery to land reform, it became obvious to me that the two biggest drivers of inequality are white supremacy and patriarchy. Living in many different countries and continents allowed me a pan-optic understanding of the global race struggle and how societies fail marginalized people for their most basic needs of belonging and security.
I came to understand that racism and patriarchy must be abandoned if we are to have any hope of tackling universal problems such as access to education and justice, climate change, security and poverty. Dismantling racist structures requires mobilizing communities worldwide and tackling it from every angle. And this influenced my approach — to use every skill in one’s repertoire in fighting injustice.
Armed with activism knowledge from being involved with multiple global movements, a humanitarian career and experience in global policy advocacy, I started working on DEI strategies for all kinds of different companies from outdoor and bike brands to tech startups to environmental firms.
In this context, I help groups with anti-racism education, hiring for diversity, retaining diverse hires, establishing anti-racism internal policies and bias interrupters, marketing and branding — essentially helping them navigate the most challenging aspects of DEI.
And those lessons carry over to mountain bike clinics?
When individuals reach their potential it’s not just they who benefit but the world at large. Coaching anti-racism at high-performance bike clinics all over the world has allowed the mountain bike space to become more porous to the importance of diversity. Not only do I get to help participants achieve their mountain bike goals but also channel their stoke into becoming activists, allies and accomplices to the anti-racism movement.
In these clinics, riders are taught how to rip a corner, do wheelies, bunny hop over a root, ride steeps and catch huge air during the day. In the evening they learn about white privilege, institutional racism and how to help effectively dismantle it.
Many of us don’t get the world we so desperately want, but we can work so that future generations do. Mentoring BIPOCs, empowering them to fight back against a negative group identity and for their place in the world and delivering that message to communities worldwide has been a main focus of the past few years — particularly to young women of color from traditional societies. I want them to know that their disadvantages are not a weakness and to see themselves belonging in gravity sports in a way that wasn’t available to me.
Seeing the fruits of many years of work unfold is immensely rewarding. Watching clients transcend tokenism and saviorism — as they learn to use their capital, platform and skills to cultivate an internal culture and product that is far more inclusive — is truly satisfying. Social contagion is powerful and so many riders tell me how much they now influence their families, friends and workplaces with their new awareness.
But I am moved to the very depths of my core when encountering young dark-skinned women who, already properly offended by their circumstances, tell me I’ve ignited the fight in them. Their ambition and refusal to play in margins signals we have every reason to hold a bold vision for the future.
Would you say unconscious biases are the biggest barrier to change? If not, what is?
One of the powerful ways racism has managed to remain so prominent is due to the myths that only the mean are racist, that racism is overt and that it is upheld by just a few small-minded stuck-in-the-past people. Racism masked in everyday politeness is a major barrier to change, as is the belief that the worst of racism is long in the past.
The idea that racism is a personal function rather than structural presents the biggest threat to its toppling. If we were to look at it on an individual basis then of course, there are some exceptions. But racism is how society functions, it’s a foundational feature.
White people are often protected from racial stressors, which results in their discomfort when faced with the true facts of institutional and systemic racism.
This discomfort insists that it is BIPOCs who are causing racial tension by “making everything” about race and suggests that inequality is something we should navigate by ignoring it, rather than calling it out so we can dismantle it. White discomfort is one of the biggest reasons racism exists and it necessitates silencing the voices of BIPOCs.
Discomfort doesn’t kill, but white supremacy does.
How much progress have you seen, over your pro career and over the past year?
Part of the motivation for my pro career stems from a lack of role models. I was inherently cognizant that the choice to go first was unavoidable. But you go first with the hopes that for everyone after you it will be easier. And now many years later, it is.
For many BIPOCs the truth of who they are is denied all the time. Never seeing yourself in mainstream culture shapes your daily life and makes you question if you are missing something fundamental. For years I had the door slammed in my face whenever I brought up anti-racism or DEI in the outdoors or bike industry. I’ve lost count of the number of times brands, companies and riders blatantly stated they weren’t interested in any kind of anti-racism agenda… as recently as a couple of years ago! They insisted that biking and the outdoors are shining examples of inclusive and positive environments, free of racism, even though the majority of people in the industry and those they promote are white.
Over the years I ignored all those dismissals and went to work setting up my own systems of advocacy. It’s been a huge shift to see the demand for my anti-racism and DEI consulting services exploding both nationally and internationally, from some of the same groups that said a hard no years ago!
Nowadays, due to all those who kept fighting for a seat at the table, there are many young BIPOCs indulging a defiant refusal to be less than what they are. This spirit of resistance is one of the most natural markers of progress.
We are at a racial flashpoint and this is the most allyship the movement has had in centuries. This combined with a new mainstream acceptance of activism has alerted brands and companies that those who don’t embrace anti racism and diversity as a core value will become extinct. During all my years of activism, this is the first time I’ve witnessed industries shift hard and fast.
In the past, it took a while for companies to take action on climate change, sweatshop labor and fair trade. This particular struggle is animated by the lived experience of those who have been fighting for generations and demanding large-scale cultural change. They are saying “ enough!” to inherited oppression.
An idea that has been slower to gain traction is “Nothing for us without us” — essentially the only way to ensure inclusion of the marginalized is to include their insight. There is still a very long way to go in dismantling white saviorism and white fragility. Until this happens any change will only be cosmetic.
A notable paradigm switch is that bike brands and the outdoor industry in general now recognize who they celebrate is critical. Lionizing the self-seeking and self-directed is part of the problem. What happens in the world affects biking and vice versa, so brands must be committed to reflecting the truth of humanity’s diversity. Their athletes must be anti-racist and be outspoken advocates for change.
There was a lot of lip service paid to BLM and DEI by bike brands last summer. How much follow-through have you seen since then? What still needs to happen?
Diversity and inclusion is not about procuring virtue, it’s about creating fairer, more just systems and processes. The purpose of DEI and anti-racism efforts is to rewrite the social contract and that means a collective heroic effort from all brands.
There needs to be a profound understanding that talent is universal but opportunity is not. If the criteria for excellence was intelligence, discipline and skill, women of color would be part of leadership in all aspects of society, biking and beyond.
We are in the middle of a civil rights movement and this should not be viewed as an opportunity to capitalize on the struggle. The primary motivation for any brand or company should be an ethical urge to serve justice, not to treat diversity as experimental or a trend.
If bike companies claim to support diversity activities yet don’t change their internal environments or culture, then it’s just optics, not restorative justice. If diverse hires can’t show up as their authentic selves at their workplace without paying a price or if the complexion of the industry leadership doesn’t broaden, then it’s lip service.
At the end of the day sameness yields sameness — so the most elegant proof that a brand is embracing diversity is when the culture of the leadership changes.
I work with and train numerous companies and organizations to help them understand the difference between performative allyship and genuine allyship. Perfomative allyship doesn’t require building racial stamina and falsely claims to move the needle while upholding structural inequalities. Genuine allyship looks completely different — it empowers BIPOCs.
There is a noticeable difference between the brands that are doing what requires minimal courage and consciousness to do and those that are actually contributing and diversifying in meaningful ways. The perspective should not be, “What can we get from these communities?” but rather “How can we elevate these communities?”
The importance of companies and organizations seeing themselves as critical actors in the anti-racism fight can’t be underestimated. The more they see themselves as contributing agents, the less likely they are to act on greed or power and the less willing they are to accept advantages that come from the mistreatment of others.
A piece of advice I always offer is to remember that racism isn’t a conversation; there are no two sides to the discussion. So brands should not treat anti-racism and diversity education as a box to check but take genuine appreciation in the discarding of racist behaviors. Diversity isn’t the decorative layer but the very foundation.
What gives you hope for the future?
Whenever there is a will to fight and as long as people continue to breathe fire then there is hope. I am a natural optimist and know how important it is to protect that sense of positivity from cynics, because cynicism is the greatest threat to change.
Change arises from the collective power of ordinary people with an extraordinary vision. I find immense hope in knowing that each generation gets it shot at remaking society. The current generation has every capacity to bend the edge of probability because humanity’s greatest achievements are not behind us but ahead of us.
The way a movement changes the establishment is often not felt until many years after its initial inertia. I predict that soon people will be less willing to benefit from systems of oppression and less willing to consume racist ideas.
The best outcome of the current struggle is that we create the conditions for the next generation to rise such that being brown will no longer be seen as a flaw. That we transform this time of historic inequality into inclusion at all levels. Our greatest collective hope is in understanding that while racism may not be your fault, it is everyone’s problem.