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Unequal Access: Outdoor Recreation and Race

Unequal Access: Outdoor Recreation and Race

Art by Lizzy Dalton

Historically and currently, “the outdoors” and the mainstream environmental movement have been disproportionately white and affluent. In the Outdoor Foundation’s annual Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2016, the Youth and Young Adult Participant Demographics reflected that the outdoors is indeed overwhelmingly white: 71% to be exact. 8% were African American/Black, 7% were Asian/Pacific Islander, 12% were Hispanic, and 2% were labeled as other. One look around at all the people participating in the outdoor scene begs the question, “Why are the outdoors so…white?”

Instagram, a primary means for marketing in our modern world, reveals who the outdoor industries are trying to attract. It’s no secret. We are bombarded by image after image of hip, young white people decked out in the latest gear surrounded by breath-taking scenery. What are the underlying components that make such an image possible? Who is the person, what are they wearing, how did they physically get to that location, and what circumstances allow them to be there? Time, money, resources, education? What does such an image say about our culture, our ethics, our values? How does this overwhelming whiteness in the outdoors affect our perceived reality? What are the implications and problems of this rampant whiteness?

James Mills, a freelance journalist and creator of the blog/podcast series The Joy Trip Project, writes in his essay, In Search of Diversity in Our National Parks, “As a person of color with 20 years’ experience in the outdoor industry, I’ve long wrestled with vague notions about the racial tensions in this field. Despite a successful career, unfettered access to professional opportunities and no practical limitations on my enjoyment of the outdoors, I have always had a terrible feeling that I don’t belong.” Although there are no signs that state “Whites Only,” or “Minorities Don’t Belong Here,” there is still this undertone of the outdoors as white space. It is true that there are no physical barriers or signs that discourage blacks, asians, or hispanics from entering the outdoor space, however, barriers don’t have to be physical to exist.

Navigating the emotionally tumultuous waters of race is not easy, but Carolyn Finney, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky, brings light to the many intricacies of this issue by bridging the fields of environmental history, cultural studies, critical studies and geography in her revelatory book, Black Faces, White Spaces. Finney analyzes film, literature, popular culture, historical movements such as the establishment of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in order to illustrate the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America. 

In her book, Finney talks about a time when she spoke at the University of Vermont to an audience of academics who were largely white. She shared a story about a man who traveled across America by foot for twenty-two years in order to raise environmental awareness. For seventeen of those years he did it without talking. This man, John Francis, earned his Ph.D. during this time, became a representative of the United Nations, and was one of the original drafters of our oil spill policy. She ended by telling her audience that Hollywood will be doing a movie about him, and commented on how revolutionary it will be to see a mainstream movie highlight a black man walking across America in the name of nature. A woman in the crowd raised her hand and said, “Well-uh- I’m not sure how to say this, but I have to tell you that as you were telling the story about John Francis, I just assumed he was white.

This woman, who so bravely raised her hand and allowed herself to be honest and vulnerable, expressed the root problem and basis of Finney’s work. We carry assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions about our very foundational understanding of environmental thinking, of the outdoors, and how we think of ourselves in relationship to the wilderness. Where do these assumptions, beliefs and perceptions come from? Most prominently, our constructions of ourselves come from history and media. We have to start questioning our cultural narratives, how they are constructed, “and the power they have to dismiss and make invisible, ‘Others,’ (Finney). 

What keeps black people and other minorities from going into the wilderness, from partaking in the national parks, state parks, or public lands in America? Returning to James Mills’ essay on the absence of black people in the outdoors, we hear about Felicia Richard, a 53-year-old African American schoolteacher who reflected, “I’ve never been to a national park. I just never liked the idea of all that camping…But then I saw Oprah went to Yosemite, and if Oprah can do it so can I.” Mills points out that her perspective changed once a prominent African American citizen was seen enjoying overnight camping. “With the right role models, encouragement, information and positive exposure, there’s no reason in the world why more people of color can’t spend time in nature — and enjoy it,” continues Mills.

Mills calls for “positive exposure” of people of color. In a way, the media’s lack of covering positive stories about people of color in the outdoors is keeping black people and other minorities out of wilderness. The way we teach history has a huge affect on this problem. In our retelling of history white people are the settlers and the conquerors getting out in the wild and blazing new trails. However, this story is fraught with violence. We have squashed, ignored, and silenced the voice of black people, Native Americans, and other minorities. We do not tell their stories, and if there are no stories about these groups and their relationship with the wilderness, then inherently we will not think it natural for those people to be associated with nature. 

Role models are those who we look to for inspiration. They tell us that we can do whatever it is that we dream of doing. For instance, in my personal experience growing up as a girl I often heard the tired cliches that boys are better at math and physical activities. I did not think I was athletic in the slightest, and therefore, never tried to be. It was when I saw women doing big things in climbing that I thought to myself, well, then I can do it too. It was revelatory for me to think of myself as an “athlete” once I started climbing. Perhaps if there were more stories from prominent black figures in the outdoors, then black people would think it a possibility to have those experiences for themselves. 

This feeling of not belonging that Mills and Finney speak of, along with the fact that many black students and adults have stated that the outdoors and the environmental movement feels like a “white thing,” should cause us to examine our relationship with the outdoors. A huge shift needs to occur. As white people who go freely into the outdoor realm whenever we please, we need to question the systems that allow us to do this. If we do not acknowledge and discuss this racial divide of access to the outdoor space, then we implicitly reinstate the invisible, but very much real, oppressive barriers that people of color experience in the outdoor arena. Finney states, “By excluding the African American environmental experience (implicitly or explicitly), corporate, academic, and environmental institutions legitimate the invisibility of the African American in the Great Outdoors and in all spaces that inform, shape, and control the way we know and interact with the environment in the United States…Where we are situated in our lives informs the narratives that we construct about our place and who we are in relation to self and others,” (Staehli and Martin 2000; Haraway 1991). 

Our idea of “wilderness” has been manipulated, shaped, and primed by the embellishments and downright lies from false accounts of history, beginning with Christopher Columbus’ explorations. Our mainstream, public-school history only tells one story: the story of whiteness. This is how we have come to our conscious, or subconscious, perceptions about who cherishes nature and who belongs in it.

It was the Homestead Act of 1862 that allowed European immigrants to rush out West, grab land, and secure a home for five years. However, in their “adventurous spirit,” Europeans pushed the First Nations people out, and exploited black people. Black, free men were by and large restricted from Homestead Grants, necessitating a sharecropper livelihood. Environmentalists such as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt created a "rhetoric of wilderness conquest, Romanticism, Transcendentalism…,” Finney writes, which have been maintained in magazine advertisements and NPS brochures, reflecting the white-washing of nature. John Muir preached preservation of the lands that were public treasures for everyone - every American citizen. But not really because at the time, enslaved people were living under the threat of Jim Crow segregation. 

Black environmental engagement is affected by collective and personal memory, group trauma of slavery, and the history of Jim Crow laws. Finney points out that a history of lynching and injustice have led to a suspicious attitude towards "White spaces." African Americans' "cognitive map" of the environment and society is how conclusions are drawn about the outdoors being a White people thing. Throughout the painful history of segregation, African Americans became "psychologically divorced" from the environment, as they were slaves working the land, knowing the land well, but never reaping the rewards. Environmental alienation in this way still maintains and affects African Americans' cognitive maps to this day. Finney calls out a cognitive dissonance happening in America. We say these spaces are for everyone on paper, but in actuality they are not.

There are no obvious heroes or villains to this problem. One nuanced factor that affects the absence of people of color in the outdoors is gentrification. When marginalized people are literally on the margins we don’t think about them. Out of sight, out of mind. But we need to question what is out of sight. With gentrification, (which is modern day oppression and colonialism in full force),  comes the plague of poverty and houselessness. People of color are most affected by gentrification. If people of color are more likely to experience poverty then this means that they are condemned to a life of struggling to survive. The only way people are able to enjoy the great outdoors is because they have the free time, leisure, and money to be able to travel. They have the means: a car, a plane ticket, etc., and the savings that they accrued from their above minimum wage job to buy the gear.

If we want to help our country, our planet, if we want to improve our quality of living by preserving the lands we love, then we better start talking about conservation and access in terms of who gets access and how. Mills points out, “As the demographic landscape of the nation shifts toward a non-white majority, the conservation movement's current lack of racial diversity could become its downfall. Environmental groups will need minorities (who will soon become the majority) to support state and federal legislation to preserve our wild places.” The Park Service and other conservation agencies are working to diversify visitors and employees. As we see our country’s demographics changing, the parks are trying to get minorities on board in order to garner more support, but we have to get history right first. If the goal is totruly preserve wilderness for future generations, then we need to advocate for the inclusion of all peoples from all backgrounds. Each of us can do simple things to become advocates for equality in the outdoors. By simply growing an awareness about these issues, acknowledging what is going on behind the scenes, and questioning our filters, we can make huge strides towards a more unified and just future. 

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