REI's and Teton Gravity's FAR OUT Plays into Racist Tropes of Discovery and Enlightenment
Racism and ongoing colonization is difficult to overturn largely in part because as white people we don’t realize that our efforts to find “spiritual enlightenment,” or to “just have fun,” or to “explore,” or “recreate,” is coming at a compounded cost to others.
Last fall 2018, Teton Gravity Research (TGR), the global leader in action and adventure lifestyle media, announced its 2018 annual ski and snowboard film, FAR OUT, presented by REI. As cliche as any other outdoor recreation film, FAR OUT aims to put forward notions of “passion” and “freedom.” As the film opens with a Ken Kesey quote and slow-motion scenes of a young white man going from parking lot to airport with an intentional shot of his North Face gear, it’s clear that “passion” and “freedom” is for a certain demographic. This is the willful ignorance of the outdoor industry in a nutshell: white mediocre man with skis and an acoustic guitar paired with a quote about enlightenment -- and don’t forget the perfectly timed brand-endorsement!
Let’s take a look at the opening quote by Ken Kesey: “It isn't by getting out of the world that we become enlightened, but by getting into the world…by getting so tuned in that we can ride the waves of our existence and never get tossed because we become the waves.”
Kesey had a reputation of perpetuating racism and sexism in his books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he also considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, which were both rife with misogyny and discrimination. It’s no surprise that Teton Gravity used a Ken Kesey quote, and that REI co-signed it. The expectation of deep analysis from these platforms is a far-flung dream.
What we see in FAR OUT, as well as the outdoor industry media as a whole, is an extension of the rugged individualism that Herbert Hoover touted. It’s the same spirit of what first inspired explorers to settle the West. The 19th century manifest destiny narrative bled into the counterculture of the sixties, which inspired the quote that FAR OUT used to open the film. Manifest destiny and rugged individualism has morphed into what we see today: modern individualism. The pervasive “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “terra incognita” mentality that litters the outdoor industry informed the filmmakers of FAR OUT.
While mainstream thinking has mythologized the 60s as bliss, excitement, adventure, peace, and love, it’s clear that hippie culture embraced the same narrative that had a hold over the original colonizers, our “founding” fathers. Where the hippies espoused self-reliance and freedom, there was no acknowledgement of the privilege and power that came to those with white-skin. The movement was void of analyzing and accounting for their ability to move from place to place freely without concern for their safety, a privilege not granted to indigenous and non-white folks. For those who considered themselves “hippies,” and as evident with outdoor industry creators and athletes to this day, it isn’t a main concern that their “exploration,” “freedom,” “passion,” and “search for paradise,” comes at the expense of indigenous communities across Turtle Island, the original stewards of land, who are still facing violent barriers to accessing their homelands.
After the film introduced the 60’s inspired quote, the filmmakers wrote their mission as a caption across the screen. It reads like a journal-entry in a scribbled cursive font, alluding to a kind of “Into the Wild,” Chris McCandless aesthetic: “We set out for a wild, unfamiliar place in search of our ‘paradise.’ However, along the way, we discovered another world entirely.”
These films are white-centered, self-serving, and vain because of their glorification of unabashed power and privilege. Outdoor films love to glorify rich, white, male-dominated sports like skiing. In slow-mo no less, (for that real dramatic, epic effect), we watch a man ride a horse into a snowy, mountain town with his skis strapped across his back as if he is a modern cowboy of the “Wild West” assessing his frontier. The only person of color in the entire film is an unnamed Brown woman who is sitting outside on a street as a bike passes by. She waves to someone outside the shot. The dehumanization of Brown people are a common tool for travel and outdoor media. This woman is used a prop, we know nothing about her, and she is simply used for a backdrop to illustrate the “foreign-ness” and “exotic” nature of the place that these white athletes are exploring in order to find themselves. It’s the classic “Hero Journey” trope mixed with “Westerner Finds Enlightenment.” Colonialism is alive and well.
As white people our modus operandi when traveling is to avoid acknowledging our positionality in the world and how our privilege and power impact how we travel. Our ability to freely move across borders when immigrants are being brutalized at our border, as well as our ability to feel safe while traveling abroad, is something we need to address and be honest about. The places we travel to are products of global Westernization and imperialism of which we benefit. When films like FAR OUT talk about “paradise” they actively erase the systemic oppression that very much still exists.
As white people, if we are going to travel in the states or abroad, and make media or write articles about our experiences, we absolutely need to be acknowledging and dissecting the various structures of oppression that are in place and how this impacts our experiences of finding “enlightenment” or “paradise.”
In an interview with Bani Amor, Abena Clarke of MsMovingBlack blog expressed this important message about travel writing:
“The tradition of travelers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe; it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism. Travel writing provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious, or simply ‘other.’ There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.”
FAR OUT is a prime example of this. How else are we perpetuating white superiority in the outdoor industry and what can we do to reconcile this?
Bani Amor is a prolific queer travel writer, photographer and activist who’s writing educates readers about authentic travel and how to be aware of and interrupt colonialist tropes. They wrote a list published on Bitch Media called “Check Yourself Before You Wreck Someplace Else: A Guide to Responsible Summer Travel.” It applies to everybody traveling in any season. Here’s a piece of her advice:
“One of the lasting effects of colonialism is the sense of entitlement many Western and white travelers bring with them on their travels. Avoid an Eat, Pray, Love 2.0 travel narrative and think of the three Cs before you book: connection, communication, and consultation. In terms of traveling abroad, many people tend to travel in groups, through companies or packages or with organizations. If you’re leaving your trip in someone else’s hands, dig a little deeper into their practices to make sure their approach involves consensus with local communities. That’s key.”
I didn’t get the sense that REI or the Teton Gravity crew were prioritizing connection, communication, or consultation when they made FAR OUT. The value of connecting, communicating, and consulting with indigenous communities applies not just to travel media, but also any books written about the land or environment whether that’s a climbing guide book or personal memoir. Making it a point to connect, communicate, and consult indigenous peoples of the lands of which you are taking up space, will help dismantle white supremacist/colonialist ideologies.
Bani Amor reminds us to acknowledge the history and original peoples of the places where we take up space:
“Remember: Wherever you are, you’re on native land. Do some research on the historical relationship between your place of origin and your place of visitation. As an American of color, I don’t take the power of my blue passport and the heavy imperialist history it weighs over others, a history which enables me to be a tourist today, lightly. I find A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn indispensable, and many read Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano before traveling there. And a surefire way to counter the power imbalance of your visit is to seek out activist collectives and organizations in need of funds or volunteers and make a donation to them a line item in your travel budget. If you choose to wield that passport, try to do so in solidarity.”
Over and over again in outdoor narratives white people are the desperate choreographers of ahistorical performances like FAR OUT, which serve one main purpose: to feel good about ourselves. This allows us to avoid acknowledging our ongoing complicity in colonization and systemic racism. With films that erase all context and positionality of the subjects, we can stay married to the idea that we are “good” people just trying to “find ourselves” and be “enlightened.” Our actions and art are not isolated happenings. Everything we do and create are connected to the past, present, and future. If we are not actively engaged in the work of dismantling systemic oppression, we are complicit. Without once discussing the historical context or positionality of the subjects in the film, or of those who created the film, FAR OUT is just another tool of ongoing colonization.
Looking for “a wild, unfamiliar place” is a fantasy created from white people who want to feel like they are explorers of an earth that they have already colonized. It is fantasy because as colonizers we can live in our own world and create our own narrative void of accountability for the impact we have. This narrative of “exploring” and “unknown” implies a sort of innocent searching, but there is nothing innocent about the denial of our role in upholding systemic oppression.
What people behind such films like FAR OUT, and white people like me who travel abroad, often do not consider is how our power and privilege plays a huge role in our ability to explore freely and easily. Have we considered that our freedom to travel, explore, and find “enlightenment” comes at the cost of others? When we live a life dedicated to our individual advancement and enjoyment alone we are actively participating in and upholding White supremacy, and this it comes at the expense and disadvantage of others.
While you prepare to make your next outdoor film or write your next article about the environment or traveling abroad, remind yourself of Bani Amor’s words: “Traveling can be beautiful, and fucked up, and even boring. But when we deny its political implications, we reestablish it as a tool of coloniality and become complicit in its oppressive chain.”