“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time.” — Jesmyn Ward
The idea that people of color are new to the outdoors is absolute trash. That’s the thesis. That’s the facts.
Trying to breathe so I can get this out. I want to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about since I read Dr. Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces. Dr. Finney talks about the kinds of experiences that are acknowledged and privileged in the outdoors. She speaks about how her parents, as caretakers of property and gardeners, spent most of their time outside. Yet in the world of “conservation” their experiences don’t seem to have a place. Finney discusses this in her book and in a recent interview says of her parents who were the caretakers of a large estate where the owner were often gone much of the year, “My father, my parents would never call themselves environmentalists, but I question that. I think there are plenty of people like that whose connection to and responsibility to and understanding of the land and the natural environment around it is deep. They don’t necessarily know it through recreation, which a lot of times in our country is the primary lens with which we decide to have that conversation about environmentalism.”
So many of our politics when it related to the outdoors were created by well-meaning recreationalists, thats what our “fathers of conservation” were and they were often elitists in their pursuits. That’s how our nation’s biggest urban parks were created and when they got too traveled by commoners, the push to go beyond the city for hunting excursion and the like encouraged the elites to go West. I highly suggest The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection by Dorceta Taylor for a deeper dive int motivations and timelines.
While people of color have always been outside, working the land, healing from the land, healing the land, we have never been considered conservationists. Beyond that, we have never been considered a factor. The history of genocide and removal of indigenous peoples on this continent is proof of that. When you are fighting to survive against genocide, disenfranchisement, an orchestrated crack epidemic, a broken justice system, broken treaties, unequal pay, unequal access to jobs, health care, retirement resources, medical assistance…it’s hard to think about recreation. Even though there are incredible stories of individuals and groups who have been some of the most talented athletes and adventurers our country has ever seen who are POC. We’ve been fighting for a long time to get on equal footing in order to have more disposable income to recreate. There are so many more reasons for why we haven’t had spaces to recreate which have everything to do with legislation policing our freedom of movement in this country that Finney outlines in Black Faces, White Spaces.
I find it the same in the “outdoor industry.” There are so many POC who have been spending time outside for generations. But because they didn’t have to buy the newest technical gear to do what they were doing outside, their experiences weren’t included. What about loving the land, loving outside, protecting the places where we love and recreate? Everyone knows that if the face of conservation doesn’t change, the old white guys are going to die and we aren’t going to win against the current powers in charge who are parceling off public lands for oil and mineral extraction interests. This is why conservation and environmental movements, as well as many other industries and economic sectors are realizing that things have to change, because the face of our country is changing. And if you’re surprised and aren’t part of the everyone that knows, its time to get with the program.
In order to win the struggle for a safe and healthy outdoors for all, for clean drinking water, clean air to breather, beautiful places to ski and snowboard, enough water to kayak, enough snow to ski, we HAVE to care for this environment. We can’t care for it without all voices and all experiences. So this notion that POC are new to the outdoors has to go. It is a lie and it is a blockade to progress. Indigenous, black and brown folks have been growing the food, knowing the herbs, burning the sage, caring for the forests, tilling the soil, picking the fruit, digging our toes into the mud, feeling the warm sun on our toasted skin for longer than there was an idea called “conservation,” so the idea that we are the newcomers is bullshit. Remove that idea from your mind. Think instead about this. Black and brown bodies have been brutalized in this country since settlers came to it. (Linking to one of my favorite essays here about black bodies in public space by Elizabeth Alexander.)
The oppression that we faced has meant less income, less job security, less freedom of mobility (physically and socially), less disposable income, less access to safe spaces, less free time, less leisure time based on each dollar not going as far. So we haven’t been able to buy the gear to go do the expensive things like white water kayaking and ultra running and traversing the national parks on family vacations at the same frequency or ratio to White Americans. (also — do not read this as a BLACK FOLKS DON’T. We do all of this and we’ve BEEN doing all of this for awhile also!) At the same time, we were not encouraged to do so, in fact we were discouraged. It doesn’t mean we aren’t “outdoorsy,” it means that the language of the “outdoors” has not been expanded to include our experiences.
Get over the idea that the outdoors is just powder days. Just like how we’ve gotten over the idea that Teddy Roosevelt and his homies killing off all the buffalo makes him one of the fathers of conservation. (I’m being slightly biased here, more reading on the complication between killing animals but saving land here.) That’s right. STOP QUOTING FUCKING JOHN MUIR. He was racist. He was despicable towards Native folks. If your company is printing his dumb quotes on coffee mugs and t-shirts, don’t expect people of color to want anything to do with your shit.
Since The Outdoor Retailer conference in Denver in late January, I’ve felt pretty shaken up. I’m trying to get to the bottom of why it feels so strange and ill-fitting to be there in its current state. Part of that is because I’m sitting on panels trying to get across ideas that to me are so basic, ideas that I believe should be common understanding. But they aren’t.