Race and privilege in the outdoors

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.

Photo: Kat Patterson

Looking inward

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.”

Photo: Alexandra Lev

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.

Sign advertising the Lewis Mountain Negro Area in Shenandoah National Park, 1930’s

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: 

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:

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. 

4. Vote

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. 

Posted in , on November 2, 2020
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9 Comments

  1. Liz “Rest Step” Fallin on November 2, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    ALDHA-West had a great webinar this summer, “Thru-Hiking while Black,” with Chardonnay and Akuna. Highly recommended.

  2. Russ Bailey on November 3, 2020 at 2:33 am

    Not all of us could afford to buy the necessary gear to camp, climb, ski, or hike, or anything else we wanted to do in the outdoors as kids. Let us not confuse poor with black. 85% of park employees are white? 76% is white so the number is off but not much.

    • JP on November 3, 2020 at 9:39 am

      If you’re going to quibble, please provide a source. From the linked article: “Over 83% of the agency’s more than 21,000 permanent and temporary employees are white, according to data the service provided to E&E News.”

      See: https://www.eenews.net/image_assets/2020/06/image_asset_85365.png for the breakdown they were provided.

      If you have ever been to Shenandoah National Park, you may have been past Lewis Campground (the historical signs in the pictures with this are no longer up thank goodness). In short, there was one designated campsite – and one picnic area – in the park for black people. The rest were for whites.

      See: https://www.outsideonline.com/2401541/shenandoah-national-park-segregation-history for more information.

      • Colin on November 3, 2020 at 11:41 am

        I’m glad to see this on Andrew’s website. As a half white half Latino Canadian, I’ve struggled with my place in the outdoors and my relationship with the growing movement to make it more inclusive.

        I grew up with the privilege of family already active in the outdoors. My white dad and his family had fishing rods, canoes, backpacks etc and could show me how to use them. I also had “cover” from a lot of the prejudice we see in the outdoors because I was surrounded by an extended family with blue eyes, light skin and light hair.

        But, as I started to recreate solo as a brown man I start to see just how hard society can make it for BIPOC communities to feel at home in the outdoors.

        A few years ago, I was out by myself birding with a large telephoto lense. I was taking photos from a frozen lake with some cottages around the shoreline, which I’d done many times before with my white family members. This time, as I go back to shore there was a police officer waiting for me. He seemed incredulous that I, a brown man, could be out birding. He insinuated that it was more likely that I was taking photos of empty houses to break into. He asked more questions until I politely asked if I was free to go. He said I could go, but that he was keeping an eye out for me.

        Just this past summer, I did a 600 kilometer hiking and packrafting trip solo. I had just landed at a river take out when a police officer came down and started asking me questions. Are you fishing without a license? Are you paddling without the required safety gear? What are you doing? Do you have anything you want to tell me? The questions continued until I asked, am I free to go officer? To which he responded, “You are free to go but I wouldn’t stick around here. Your stuff might get stolen.” The whole experience was hostile, the tone was threatening and the underlining message was you aren’t welcome here.

        But after several of these solo encounters I still can’t place why I’m not welcome. Do they think I’m indigenous, Latino, or just plain different?

        Now, I’m trying to figure out how to give BIPOC community members what I had growing up, mentors who have the skills and equipment to help them enjoy the outdoors. But, I’m at a loss for how to make outdoor spaces feel more welcoming. I hope future BIPOC don’t need the “cover” of white friends and family to not get harassed, but I’m not sure how to make that happen.

  3. Kyle on November 3, 2020 at 10:32 am

    This is how I see it, from my local perspective. The people I find outdoors are usually a reflection of the people living nearby, at least for day-hikers. Not everyone has the leisure time and budget to travel to one of the more isolated National Parks.

    Camping or hiking on the other hand has a bit more of a barrier to entry, since it needs time, budget, and some skills or familiarity, which usually comes from family or close friends. Good to see organizations helping to lower that barrier to entry. Now is a good time for people to see the outdoors as a fun and affordable alternative for all.

  4. JJ on November 3, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    Although white, middle-class, over-educated, etc., and with all the privilege that entails, I sure am fortunate to have grown up fairly poor in rural Appalachia. I now live in a small, rocky-mountain city (pop ~30,000), and although it’s not a tourist destination like other mountain-towns, it’s still shocking seeing the hundreds of dollars worth of down and waterproof gear worn by folks to go to the coffee shop. Much less out on the local trail system, where bikes often cost more than my beater car. I’m far too frugal to be tempted by that herd consumerism, but I have (white) friends who are intimidated to get into certain activities because of that nonsense. Like an adult first-time hunter I know who actually waited to go because she had to save money to buy FirstLite camo (the elk I’ve taken with my thrift store clothing must’ve been tame). And she was white. I can only imagine the perspective from a minority.

    In addition to the gear, another huge class divide I’ve noticed is the whole concept of “recreating” and being an “outdoor enthusiast”. I can’t offer a minority perspective, but for rural, poor white people, those terms are alien. Growing up, whenever I heard them (which was rare), it was always confusing — are these different things than what we’re already doing outside, all the hunting, fishing, picnicking, gardening, small livestock, bonfires, and just general shenanigans? And therein lies the rub. Although everyone seems to “recreate” in my small city, far fewer than in rural Appalachia have daily business outside — the woodpile, the weather, the neighbors, the creeks nearby. Instead it’s food at the grocery store, heat from the thermostat, zipping around everywhere in the SUV, screens at every corner and in every hand, and then load everything up for an “Adventure” 3 hours away on the weekend. Glacier! Yellowstone! Yosemite! Alaska! It must be epic, have powder, and perhaps some stoke. As if there’s no other way to have the natural world feature predominantly in one’s life.

    That clownish adventure mindset is a big barrier for many to get into things like backpacking and cross-country/backcountry skiing. I’m not optimistic about it changing, as long as “outdoor enthusiasts” and “outdoor brands” continue the divide between their adventures and their day-to-day life.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 3, 2020 at 2:28 pm

      The differentiation you make between outdoor enthusiasts and people who simply live outdoors is both real and important. When I see an applicant for one of my guided trips who explains that they grew up fishing and hunting and running around in the woods as a child, I know that that person is going to be much more comfortable and generally skilled than someone who has done a handful of trips in a national park but otherwise lives in an urban area.

  5. Luke on November 6, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    JJ and Andrew both have good points. There is nothing wrong with being an “outdoor enthusiast” but is a choice, i.e. you are spending your leisure time and money to get outside. It is a game for people with disposable income who often have the most expensive gear and their own subculture. The apparent barrier to entry is high if you are from the city and aren’t comfortable outside.

    The flip side is many of these “outdoor enthusiasts” have very little in the way of actual skills because they aren’t really accomplishing much. It’s pretty easy to hike up a 14er and post an Instagram in your $300 jacket. By playing up the expensive gear and how “epic” the hike was this group unintentionally scares people off who might otherwise grab a thrift store hoody and go for a stroll up a local trail.

    I had a funny example of this recently. I took a group of Native kids out to hike on a glacier. For them its not big deal, just something to do on a slow day. After all they live there. The playground is probably more dangerous in winter then that glacier is in the summer. Anyway we encountered a guided group with helmets, boots, ices axes etc. Clearly they were treating the glacier like it was an Everest expedition. The guide (not a local btw) almost blew a gasket when she saw the kids laughing and running on the glacier. I got a lecture about safety until I cut her off. I basically said the native kids had been climbing around on glaciers for 5000 years and her input was neither needed nor appreciated. Maybe I was a bit rude but the control freak attitude was rubbing me the wrong way.

    Bottom line is that a lot of people could do more outdoors, they just need someone to give them the confidence to go out and try it. Money is nice to have but really its not a barrier unless you want to outfit yourself for something new like a thru hike or an Elk hunt. Most people have a water bottle, jacket and school pack. That will get you going on a local trail IF you feel comfortable hiking it.

  6. Russell J. on November 9, 2020 at 10:58 am

    An interesting topic I had not, as a white guy, thought much about. On one hand, my daily life is filled with diversity, living in one of the most diverse counties in the United States. My neighborhood is a collection of people of every race, background and creed. The public schools my kids attended never had a majority anything. They were about 25% each black, white, Asian and Hispanic. It’s not unusual when I’m out and about to be one of the few … or only … white people in a restaurant or store. It has never phased me, and I rarely notice it. I’m not trying to position myself as some type of woke white guy or SJW – I’m neither. Diversity is just all around me, and I don’t think much about the topic at all.

    On the other hand, after reading this I realized that when I am hiking or backpacking, I almost never see anyone but other whites. (That is, when I see anyone at all – I prefer going where I am unlikely to encounter anyone at all, regardless of color.) And even though one of my most enjoyable outings in the last few years was with three other white guys and a black guy, seeing POC in the outdoors is still the exception.

    So, part of me wonders if I should really care. After all, the outdoors is open to everyone, and people can choose to enjoy it or not. So I don’t feel the need to wring my hands over it. But selfishly, I think the reason I should care is because of demographic trends. That is, POC will sooner or later outnumber whites. And they will also increasingly be in appointed or elected positions that determine the fate of the outdoor spaces I love. How or why will they be inclined to advocate for more open spaces if they’ve never really enjoyed them and have no appreciation for them?

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