Whiteness in the Outdoor Industry
Cover Image Courtesy of Nora Jameson Photography.The video below was created to explain the interruption that took place at the American Alpine Club's Craggin' Classic climbing festival held in Smith Rock, Oregon September 15-17, 2017.
[Image description: Erin Monahan gets escorted out of the tent as people in the audience look on and Tommy Caldwell and event organizer laugh and seem unsure about what to do.]
Whiteness is upheld by all white people. White supremacy is ingrained in the founding of America. In "Settler Colonialism Then and Now: A Conversation Between J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Patrick Wolfe," Patrick Wolfe discusses how white people in Australia are settlers, though we can extend this to America as well. White Americans wouldn't be in the positions they are in today had Indigenous peoples' not had their land stolen. We are existing on somebody else's stolen land. In terms of material goods, financial security, and ease of moving through the world, white people owe their claims to any of these things due to the ongoing process of colonization. White people are the beneficiaries of the dispossession and continued elimination of Indigenous people. White people may be reluctant to this and they may not want to believe it. But it is true.
White people need to take responsibility and be accountable for their positions. The first step is acknowledging that they are settlers. It may be a hard pill to swallow for some to accept that just because you were born white that this means that you are indeed an oppressor and a settler. But on the flip side, being born black, an immigrant, or Indigenous in America means that you are fighting for your right to own land, to have job security, to have a family, to feel safe walking down the street without threat of being stopped by a police officer, or without being gunned down.
Too often it is common to find an article or blog post that talks about American history as if colonization is a thing of the past and as if the original inhabitants are absent. Sometimes the narratives put forth a mystical kind of rendering about Indigenous people as if they have somehow "disappeared." However, Indigenous communities are still around and thrive to this day despite this erasure. Indigenous peoples live in America as doctors, lawyers, teachers, environmental activists, car mechanics, therapists, etc. We find this erasure in the discussions surrounding hot topic political issues like Devil's Tower, Bears Ears, or the recent events in Payahüünadü (Owens Valley) when the American Alpine Club chose to prioritize the Los Angeles Water and Power Department (LADWP) over the Indigenous leaders in Bishop, California. This last incident was a slap in the face because the LADWP has been funneling water to Los Angeles since 1913, starting a water war that has decimated resources for the people of Payahüünadü. This is ongoing.
Whiteness is so ingrained in our behaviors and consciousness that we have organizations who think that they are so good-intentioned that they couldn't possibly be impacting marginalized communities in any negative way. Yet, marginalized voices still have to fight for their voices to be heard.
Colonization continues through the continued confinement of Indigenous peoples on reservations. White people have cleared the territory of Indigenous peoples in order to make room for industrialization and settlement. The settler society has made this process appear fair and legitimate legally, but the contracts were written by and for white people. Though the rhetoric may seem genteel, it is no doubt genocidal. The bureaucracy of our government plays charades of respecting Native communities, but it has effectually led to dispossession. Simultaneously, during the reconstruction period of America, African Americans were considered a political and economic threat to whites. Southern whites needed to find new systems of racial and economic control, which led to Jim Crow segregation laws. As Patrick Wolfe describes, the process was two-fold: the elimination of Indigenous peoples in tandem with African enslavement. This produced surplus profit for the colonizer. The way whiteness functions today is also through the creation of "aliens" and "others," which is the outcome of blood quantum debates.
Whiteness is a system of domination. It will not be dismantled by "baby steps." Genuine change will not be brought about by converging with the same, old oppressive systems. Real, lasting change will not come until we address racism and white supremacy in our behaviors, language, and organizations. White people need to acknowledge and confront their inherent racism. Whiteness is upheld by campaigns like the North Face's "Walls Are Meant for Climbing" - what kind of racist bullshit is that? Invasion and colonization is happening now and coming to justice does not mean granting everyone who is brown or black or Indigenous the privileges of whiteness. It means abolishing this absurd and violent system of white as supreme. The system in place now is a white colonialist process that serves no one, but white people. What we need is Indigenous sovereignty.
The outdoor industry has an exact hand in the ongoing erasure of Indigenous people. It very much writes Natives out of existence. The contemporary implications can be seen everywhere in the media and at events, which bolster the absence of Indigenous voices and narratives. There are Indigenous organizations, however, who are changing the script like Indigenous Women Hike, Natives Outdoors, Indigenous Rising, and Honor the Earth, to name a few. Let us never forget that we are not here because of natural progression and pastoral homesteading, but that we are here, as Patrick Wolfe describes, through invasion as a protracted structure, not a single event.