Like many people in quarantine, every day I find some time to hide from my children and hop on to my Peloton, the stationary exercise bike with built-in internet-enabled spin classes that has become a must-have for some people during this time away from, well, everything.
I love my Peloton, which (despite the hefty price tag) has more than paid for itself in burned calories and much-needed zen. And I am clearly not alone.
Indeed, despite a very wobbly IPO back in September, Peloton's stock has surged to record highs during the pandemic — almost doubling its price — valuing the company at more than $10 billion. (Comcast, the parent company of NBC Universal, is a shareholder.) And whereas Peloton was losing luster before the COVID-19 crisis, it now reports both a backlog of bike orders and 2.6 million members logging on to their classes each month. The bike is so coveted, wrote The New York Times this month, that even as millions lose their jobs, thousands of others are “panic buying” Peloton bikes to keep in shape while gyms remain closed.
But the more I use my Peloton bicycle, the more I don’t feel so good about the company behind it. Because just as their now-infamous holiday-season ad last year convinced many people that the company had an unacknowledged gender problem, their video and music programming suggests to me — as an African American — that they also have an unrecognized race problem.
It's not that Peloton the company is actively racist or has even failed at being #woke; a quick spin through Peloton’s app or blog reveals that the brand is intentionally including racially conscious content throughout their marketing materials.
The problem is more subtle. With each bike priced at over $2,200 (their treadmills start at over $4,200) plus $39 per month more for those streaming classes, Peloton users are typically demi-1-percenters, with cash to spare and homes spacious enough to house those speedy racers. And, in fact, Peloton CEO and co-founder John Foley said those users were his target demographic in a 2016 CNBC interview: "These are people who have children, live in suburbs, have nice homes, they have the money and space but don’t necessarily have time."
Those users also must now find free hours to actually ride their bikes or run on their treadmills in between other lock-down demands, whether work video conferences or Zoom classes for the kids.
So, with both money and time to spare during this pandemic, folks like me confirm that Peloton users are unlikely to be low-wage essential workers and, though the company hasn't released racial demographics about its users, its CEO's own description of his target demographic suggests they are most likely disproportionately white. And this upper middle class "whiteness" informs everything I've experienced about Peloton’s almost cultish community.
That community mostly connects during Peloton rides (or runs), which are streamed into folks’ homes on screens mounted on the front of their equipment. They all have cutesy names that indicate effort level and music genre — think "30 min Pop Ride," or "45 min HIIT & Hills Ride” (a pun playing off the acronym for high intensity interval training and the fact that you'll be hearing whatever is atop the Billboard charts at the moment).
This is where the race issue becomes most apparent, because Black instructors offer rides filled with typically "Black" music (rap, Caribbean or hip-hop) while white instructors offer ones with mostly "white" music (rock, pop and heavy metal) — though the thought that white people don't work out to rap or hip-hop music and Black people don't use rock or pop music to fuel their sessions in 2020 is laughable.
The deliberateness of those choices becomes more apparent in the playlists of the rides with musical themes from a specific decade, whether the 1970s, '80s or '90s. Also taught by mostly white instructors, such rides feature popular era hits — but from predominately white bands. So the '70s-focused rides are all classic rock and a bit of country, the '80s-rides are full of New Wave and the '90s-classes are big on grunge and Dave Matthews. It's as if Black music — let alone disco or Tejano — simply didn’t happen during these years.
And, when Black music does appear, outside of hip-hop or rap used in regular playlists by instructors, it's often part of a more specialized class category, such as the "Groove Ride."
What’s going on here? How is it that in 2020, Peloton apparently thinks that only caucasian teachers can work with "white" music and that playing hip-hop or rap can only be done by Black folks? And why can't decade-based classes feature music from every race? No one would complain about a little Living Colour to smooth out The Cure, some Isley Brothers with their BeeGees, or some Lenny Kravitz with their Foo Fighters.
Also curious — and curiously concerning — are the ways in which white Peloton instructors take on the affect of typical African American cultural tropes, using phrases like "go gurl,"or "yassss b----es" to whip their riders into a frenzy. Yes, I realize that Black-inflected drag culture is now mainstream thanks to "Pose" and "RuPaul’s Drag Race" and that digital culture can often transcend traditional notions of race, but absent actual Black people, this type of cultural appropriation and tone-deafness feels woefully out of touch at a time when class and race-based inequalities are literally killing thousands.
What also concerns me is the way in which African American instructors — particularly African American male instructors — engage their mostly white audiences with a type of contrived "brother from another mother" banter that almost feels as if they’re trying to make those riders “Black by association.” It’s clearly playing into a certain kind of white fantasy, like when suburban white kids think they’re ‘hood because they can quote Jay-Z or fleece-wearing tech bros imagine themselves players because they worship Kobe and can afford front-row Lakers seats. White folks might fall for those coaches' banter, but real brothers would destroy them for fronting — which is why I suspect they’d be less inclined to perform this way if more Peloton riders were actually Black.
In this era of senseless death and mass unemployment, whining about an overpriced exercise bike program admittedly feels manufactured and churlish, but that doesn't make it less necessary. And, nearly three months into quarantine, Peloton is probably the only reason I’ve not gained weight. But with its outdated optics and oblivious racial dynamics, the being part of the community feels like participating in peak #whitegaze.
Besides, as recent fashion faux pas prove, companies anchored in elitism and exclusivity get away with racial insensitivities precisely because their products remain so unattainable to minorities and the masses. That is precisely why those of us lucky enough to afford such indulgences cannot simply ride along silently. Sure, I don’t expect Peloton to suddenly initiate company-wide sensitivity-training or overhaul their online programming just because I find it problematic. But I would like Peloton’s nearly all-white executive team to consider that even in this period of unprecedented growth, it might be time for a racial rethink.
Year ago, my Black Baptist grandmother used to muse that “the most segregated hour in the United States is Sunday at 10 a.m.” Decades after desegregation, she understood that America’s churches had yet to dismantle the historical divides between black and white. Today, churches may remain just as divided, but, personally, my most segregated hours feel like the hours I spend each week on my Peloton.