In this series we have covered a wide range of topics meant to help aid and educate women in preparation for backcountry travel. It was brainstormed a year ago and designed to add to this website a woman’s perspective on some fundamental outdoor topics.
Our final post was to be about “Giving Back” and would have suggested ways to improve the outdoor community with meaningful action. It was an important subject and still is, but then George Floyd’s murder happened. And Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. And Breonna Taylor’s, and so many more.
So, I reconsidered this subject and discussed more timely options with Andrew. Right now it seems more important to talk about how to open up, create space, and acknowledge the closed doors in the outdoors to BIPOC (Black, Brown, Indigenous, People of Color). Recent conversations about privilege in the outdoors are merited, and they’ve forced many people to address their privilege in ways that we hadn’t before.
This topic is not just for women but for all humans, and particularly for the white folks that follow this blog. It may make you uncomfortable at times but I encourage you to read this with an open heart and mind.
My presence in nature has never been seriously questioned, and odds are that if you’re white yours has not been either. I grew up in a mountain community in the Rockies where everyone around me was both an outdoor enthusiast and white. As a teenager I was uninterested in outdoor activities, which felt more like an obligation than something to be grateful for, but the access was still always there if I wanted it.
As I reacquainted myself with the outdoors as an adult, I became guilty of trail judgment. For example, when I saw someone on the trail hiking in non-technical shoes like Converse or Vans, I would think they were ill-equipped, because they didn’t have the right gear. There is something to be said about the right gear for safety purposes, but people should not be judged on whether they have a rain shell from Walmart or Arc’teryx — the elitism needs to stop.
I never understood that white wealth played a dominant role in how my family and the people around me recreated. We could afford to buy the necessary gear to camp, climb, ski, or hike, or anything else we wanted to do in the outdoors. I never considered having access to the outdoors as a privilege because it was a way of life for my family and our friends. I genuinely thought that I didn’t see BIPOC in the outdoors because they just didn’t want to be there. I know now that that way of thinking is wrong and that recreating in the outdoors and having access to gear is a huge privilege.
I currently live in Portland, Oregon, which has become a hub for Black Lives Matter protests. In early June I attended several, and felt an overwhelming sense of community and support for my Black neighbors. I felt safe the whole time and it was a very positive experience for me. The protests in Portland have since changed with small groups of people taking advantage of the movement to be violent and cause destruction. Yet, the fight for racial justice goes on, as I believe it should, in cities across America. But as writer and historian Nikki Brieggeman notes in Why Black People Don’t Go Camping, “The battle for equality does not stop in the streets of Seattle, Portland or Minneapolis; it is also happening in the campgrounds of America.”
History speaks for itself
To understand and actually acknowledge that access to the outdoors is a privilege that most white people have always had, it’s necessary to first look at the history of BIPOC in the outdoors.
Almost all U.S. national parks were originally home to Native American tribes that were forced out with ethnic cleansing to create the pristine appearance of untouched land. Our National Parks have a history of segregation that dates back to 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the creation of the National Park Service and the policies of Jim Crow segregation were widely accepted and promoted within the Parks.
Even with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a lot of BIPOC have avoided National and State Parks, explained by racial and ethnic discrepancies in income, education, and employment that persist in the US. Entry fees and outdoor equipment are expensive, and have increased significantly over the years, making it difficult for lower income families to visit and play.
Most of us that grew up in the outdoors learned skills from our parents — the appreciation for the outdoors was passed down to us. White Americans that are outdoor enthusiasts not only taught their kids about the outdoors but also vacation with them in national parks and other outdoor spaces. Without formative experiences, people lack the skills, knowledge, and the appreciation of the great outdoors in general. The absence of these learned skills often means that many people of color see the outdoors as white spaces that are off limits to them.
In addition, about 83% of park service employees are white, which can give off the impression that nonwhite populations are not as welcome in parks. There have also been several reported incidents over the past decade of racial discrimination amongst park employees suggesting that employees may be contributing to this problem, instead of minimizing it.
What is the solution?
Why should we care about diversifying the outdoors? For starters, when you have generations of people of color that haven’t had a fair chance to recreate and enjoy the outdoors you have a lack of overall appreciation for the outdoors. Less people caring about the outdoors means less people taking care of wild spaces and being responsible outdoor stewards. Additionally, as our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology we see an increase in nature deficit disorder, a term coined to describe how people, especially children, are spending less time outside resulting in a wide range of health issues and a disconnect from our natural world — this disconnect will affect all of us negatively in the long run.
As a straight, able bodied white person I do not know that there is one solution but what I do know is that staying silent is no longer acceptable. Having uncomfortable conversations needs to happen and redirecting your support for diverse business and organizations is also key.
1. How do you spend your money?
Addressing how we spend our money is also important. Does your favorite outdoor brand reinforce systems of racism or are they actively helping to break it down? Beyond their marketing, do they have diversity in their staff? Do they have a statement or commitment to diversity, equity, and/ or inclusion on their website? Have they signed the The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge? Don’t stop asking these questions.
When we talk about representation in regards to media and marketing it’s important to note the difference between representation and tokenism. I have learned there is a fine line between the two. Being inclusive means everyone feels comfortable and that their thoughts and ideas can be heard from within a company. Are you trying to add a black person to your next advertising campaign just to check a diversity box? That is not diversity. Outdoor brands and businesses need to focus on enhancing representation throughout their staff and executive teams, not just in their advertising campaigns.
2. Follow & support organizations
There are a number of awesome organizations that have been working tirelessly for years to increase diversity and representation of BIPOC in the outdoors. This is just a short list but I recommend learning about and supporting the following organizations:
- Melanin Base Camp
- Outdoor Afro
- Brown People Camping
- Latino Outdoors
- Get Out, Stay Out
- Green Youth Foundation
- Outdoor Asian
Uplifting the voices of these groups and many others through social media and marketing campaigns can help send a message that people of color are not only welcome but are already here, in the outdoors, recreating and enjoying all that Mother Nature has to offer.
3. Get educated
So, businesses have work to do, that is obvious, but what about individuals? Each and every one of us has a responsibility to be better. It takes work and it doesn’t end with just reading a book or two or attending a protest. Part of that work is acknowledging your personal privilege, being consciously aware of it, and acting on it by working to correct the inequalities of the past.
While you may think that you have good intentions in saying that you don’t see race or that you are color blind what you are really doing is ignoring the lived struggles of BIPOC. Learning about our racist history is a crucial part of the work and the resources are endless. Here is some suggested online reading:
- Untold Stories from America’s National Parks by Susan Shumaker
- Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks by Isaac Kantor
- How to Be An Ally in The Outdoors by Danielle Williams
- What it Means to be Anti-Racist by Anna North
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
- Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark David Spence
Being anti-racist will not happen overnight. I’ve often asked myself why almost all of my friends are white. Is it because of the community I was raised in? I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that I wasn’t seeing many BIPOC in my life including on my social media, so I changed that. I constantly work to diversify my social media feeds. I started reaching out to people different than myself in the outdoor women’s group that I am a part of, and I have passed up social media collaborations telling brands that it was time for them to reach out to non-white influencers. Every move we make or choose not to make matters.
As white people, if we want to preserve our wild outdoor spaces for future generations we need to listen to the voices of BIPOC, however, it is also not their job to educate us. Take responsibility for your privilege, do the work, and have conversations with your racist family members. Stand up against racist policies that you see happening in your communities and for the sake of everything, vote like Mother Nature’s life depends on it, because it does.