Local Scientist Faces Racial Discrimination at Fitness Center

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My name is Dr. Vinit Sharma and I am a Computational Scientist at UT/ORNL Joint Institute for Computational Sciences, Oak Ridge National Lab, Oak Ridge, TN.

It’s been over 8 years since I moved to the United States. For all these years, I kept growing my awareness and appreciation of cross-cultural, cross-continental understanding continually . As a student, researcher, mentor, teacher, collaborator, I worked with a diverse population and learnt to be accepting of others and respect not only individuals but also the views of each and every individual regardless of race, gender, disability. I believe that working/interacting with diverse individuals is helpful not only for the individual, but for the institution and for overall society.

Knoxville prides itself on having a diverse population from more than 100 countries and I never ever thought I would experience what I recently did.

On Wednesday (Feb. 12th, 2020), for the first time in my 8 years of living in the United states I was the victim of a hate incident at a place which also entertains a diverse population a “Health and fitness club”. The name of the facility is Fort Sanders Health & Fitness Center in Knoxville, TN.

I believe a fitness club is the place where you can find diversity in all aspects. Moreover, It’s the place where most of the visitors spent at least 1-2 hours on a daily basis.

That evening as always I entered the health club and before starting my routine work out, I kept my few belongings on a bench. A gentleman was already sitting on the same bench. As soon as I placed my belongings on one corner of the bench, this person threw my phone, keys and other stuff on the floor. When I saw my stuff on the floor, I tried to talk to him. My intention was to know why he did this. I found this person in locker room. As soon as he saw me, he started saying, “I did that to you. you people deserve that” he started abusing me; mother *******, sand n*****, son of a ***** and calling me names. His remark was “you know you are minority”. He was so angry that could have harmed me. As He started approaching me I was concerned for my safety and at that point I asked him that we talk to the facility manager.

I immediately contacted the front desk and reported this incident to the shift supervisor. The Supervisor called the security. Security went to look for this guy with me in the locker room, but he was not there. When we came back to lobby, people who witnessed this incident told the supervisor about this guy. The supervisor confirmed that she had identified the person. She asked me to leave my contact information and said someone will get back to me. I left but couldn’t control my emotions. I felt like crying (actually I did cry) and came home.

Honestly, I couldn’t sleep that night. Next day, first thing in the morning I went to the health club to report this incidence to the manager. The response I got from him was shocking at the same time is was very disappointing. I explained the incident to him and mentioned that honestly, after this incident I don’t feel like coming here again. He said he is sorry about the incident and will get back to me by evening or within 24 hours. Finally, when I was leaving, he asked “Are you planning to come back?”. I was surprised with this question and when I understood his concerns, I told him “If you see this as a solution I will stop coming here, but I will let other people know about this”. “We have 11,000 members”, he said. By this time, I was at the door of his office, I turned around and came back. All I wanted was for them to issue a strong statement condemning the incident. But that request was falling on deaf ears.

It’s been almost 48 hours, since this incident occurred and I am still shaking inside & out.
This is serious, not because this happened to me. But this can happen to anyone who looks different. To feel the threat, you don’t need to experience it most of the times, just watching such situations unfold can do the damage. Specially in a place where individuals of all age groups including old people, kids, pregnant ladies are present. These kinds of incidents can be traumatizing for everyone.

I used to read about similar incidents and used to think “the world is full of nice, humble, caring people” why one should care about these people. You encounter them once in a while, most of the time for not more than 5-10 minutes. Compare to good people around you these are very few in count. But a personal encounter to the situation was a different experience all together. Now I know how it feels. These 5 -10 minutes can make a big difference. It’s very difficult to find the words to express my emotions. I am asking that you join me to call of action. Through this entire incidence what has been the most discouraging is the way the management at the fitness center have handled the situation. My requests to the Fort Sanders management are as follows:

* Issue a strong statement condemning the incident that occurred on Wednesday February 12 at the health club. Statement to be circulated to the entire membership to assure all members that the health club welcomes all individuals irrespective of their ethnicity, race, culture, sexual orientation or religion.

* Include language in their new membership contract that any acts of discrimination based on ethnicity, race, culture, sexual orientation or religion will not be tolerated at the health club and serious actions will be taken against any individual exhibiting discriminatory behavior towards other members.

Please make your voices heard by signing this petition so the management team at Fort Sanders Heath and Fitness club hears us loud and clear that acts as such will not be tolerated in our community.

“Together we are stronger”