In the wake of protests over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, public awareness has grown significantly on race inequalities and racism in the outdoors. Ahmaud Arbery’s case speaks to the difficulties BIPOC face in engaging in simple outdoor activities, such as going for a neighborhood run or bird watching in the park like Christian Cooper was doing in Central Park when he was racially profiled by a white woman (click here for an overview of that incident). These incidents illuminated the misconception that the outdoors are welcoming to everyone.
In the midst of a pandemic when many families are choosing to adventure in nature, it’s all the more important to learn how we can contribute to creating a more just society where all people feel welcome to participate in outdoor sports and activities.
A Brief History of Racism in the Outdoors
There is a long history of exclusion from outdoor recreation on the basis of race in North America. For decades, Black people were banned from using outdoor facilities such as swimming pools, parks, campgrounds, beaches and trails. When they were finally welcomed into outdoor spaces (in designated areas only), officials still found ways to exclude Black people such as by making bathroom and water facilities inaccessible from the designated Black campgrounds. Restricted from using public pools, Black people often swam in dangerous waters, which consequently led to many drownings. While this may seem like it happened a very long time ago, some of these segregationist practices remained in place well into the 1960s and 70s.
An important consideration when examining the history of racism in the outdoors is the interconnectedness of environmental and racial justice. Mainstream environmental activism and conservation movements have historically been driven by white people. One consequence of this is that the activism has created blind spots and has not benefited all communities. Great conservationists in the US’s history and leaders in environmental activism, many of whom were responsible for creating our national parks and nature refuges, openly promoted white supremacy. In fact, the establishment of many U.S. national parks involved the strategic displacement and erasure of Indigenous people who lived on and stewarded the land for centuries.
Current State of Racism in the Outdoors
Here are four (of many) reasons why racism in outdoor activities is still a prevalent issue.
- Access to facilities and services is still limited for Black communities. A poignant example of this is the lack of swimming pools near majority Black neighborhoods. Compounded with other cultural and socioeconomic factors, the consequence is the disproportionately high deaths due to drowning among BIPOC children.
- The values of BIPOC are not represented in policy making circles. Not including BIPOC voices in nature conservation efforts results in systematic “environmental gentrification of communities of color”.
- Racist societal symbols show up frequently in outdoor spaces. Hikers and campers have often documented seeing the Confederate flag on trails or have noticed landmarks themselves named after white supremacists. Rural spaces are more white and lean more conservative; therefore, it is more likely to see symbols of white supremacy in these spaces.
- Many BIPOC simply feel unwelcome in outdoor arenas. While white outdoors people typically have to think about the dangers or wildlife, when a person of color prepares to go into nature, their first thought is often the dangers (or lack of welcome) from white folks they might encounter. Take, for example, this story where a Black hiker says she has to go out of her way to not seem out of place so that she would feel accepted in the outdoors, or this story of an accomplished runner feeling compelled to say “hi” to and smile at everyone in the neighborhood to avoid anyone feeling suspicious of her.
Individual and Societal Efforts to Implement Anti-Racist Philosophy in the Outdoors
Efforts are already underway to make the outdoors a more welcoming place, and much of this effort is a direct result of recent activism. The National Parks Service is promoting diversity and inclusivity, and taking an anti-racist approach to attracting visitors. Parks and landmarks in North America are revisiting names associated with slavery, racism, or violence against BIPOC and more individuals are acknowledging original Indigenous and First Nations land owners. Leading outdoor brands have also signed a pledge to increase diversity within their executive leadership team, although the existing lack of diversity in the outdoor industry means that these companies are still a long ways away from making this a reality.
However, through the efforts these leading brands make to showcase and support BIPOC outdoors enthusiasts, the hope is that more BIPOC will feel that the outdoors is also a space for them. This is where you, our white readers in particular, have a role.
Here are four distinct ways in which we can contribute to positive change towards racial equity in the outdoors:
- Confront your own biases about who the outdoors is for: While we may not think of ourselves as holding racist ideologies, we are conditioned by society to allow our biases to dictate where certain people belong and where they don’t. Confronting our biases and doing the hard work to become anti-racist is one way we can avoid being in the position of automatically resorting to suspicion upon seeing BIPOC enjoying the outdoors. An example of hidden bias is how the Leave No Trace philosophy has been used by white outdoors people to police how Black and brown people show up in the outdoors (check out this Melanin Base Camp article to learn more). It’s an example of how white people act as “gatekeepers” of the outdoors and, often unknowingly, creating barriers to people of color.
- Identify what you don’t see about inclusivity in the outdoors: It’s difficult to see where others’ might have barriers to entry–even in the outdoors–if you don’t have those barriers. Find out how you’ve unknowingly been a part of experiences that leaves people out. For example, if you personally are trying to get people outdoors, do you reach people who are not white?
- Diversify your information about the outdoors: Follow organizations and people of color that are actively making the outdoors more inclusive. Expanding your sources of information can give you insights into the unique challenges BIPOC experience in the outdoors and helps you see outdoors philosophies from a new light (e.g., the Leave No Trace example from above). American Trails has published a comprehensive list of these organizations that can help you get more engaged.
- Get involved in advocacy to make change: Many collectives work to support and empower BIPOC outdoor enthusiasts. The comprehensive list from American Trails mentioned above is a place to start to decide which organizations to support. In addition to donating to some of these causes, we can also share some of their social media content to amplify voices which #diversifyoutdoors.
For all the things that have a place in the outdoors, racism is not one of them. As Covid compels us to travel in nature and ‘Opt Outside’, let’s individually take steps towards inclusivity in outdoor spaces to benefit society as a whole.
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