The Red Card: Stress, Race & Self Care (Still Unpacking from Outdoor Retailer)
Fred Benjamin played for The Nuggets. That’s what we heard about him when he came to The Hotchkiss School. He became the coach of the basketball team. He also worked in the Health Department. Fred Benjamin is one of the first people who explained to me the importance of taking care of my mental health, using those words.
In 2006 I was the co-president of the Hotchkiss school. There was an incident. During one of the breaks, I believe it was spring break, a Facebook group popped up called The White Club of Hotchkiss. The explanation on the group referred to the Black and Hispanic Student Alliance. It implied a need for a white club since the Black and Latino students had a club. The poster they used as the group icon was an old KKK poster that said something along the lines of “Come Join the Great March” and had images of torches. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it said, actually, it’s a hard thing to forget. Many students had joined. Maybe about 30. A younger student than me, the brilliant Claire Brooks took screenshots. She then wrote an op-ed and contacted a few of the POC students during the break. Once we got back to school I posted it on the free speech board after we had all spent some time together talking about it. People freaked. They wanted it down. They wanted their faces down. We refused. Public record. If they wanted their faces down they shouldn’t have joined the group in the first place, we argued. In barely 48 hours there was an all-school conference.
I was shaking when I walked to the front of the auditorium. Misha spoke first. That’s what I remember. I was so grateful that Misha, my co-President, a white male, had my back. He had asked me in advance if I wanted to start it off and I didn’t. And now that I’m older I do feel like the fear of looking like the diversity police or the angry black woman was partially why I didn’t want to speak first. From what I can remember, he explained the situation. He explained why we were there. Then I jumped in. I explained why it was a problem. I barely remember the rest. People speaking at mics, people debating what was fair.
After the all-school meeting was over, Fred Benjamin found me and told me to come with him to the infirmary. He said I should take a “red card.” I was confused. At Hotchkiss, a “red card” is what you take when you’re sick, with special permission from the infirmary. It also means you can’t go to practice. “This is a mental health day,” he explained. Then with a smile, “Don’t worry, you can still go to practice.” He explained to me that what had just happened was so stressful and draining that I needed some time to process it. I didn’t really know what that meant at 17-years-old. The idea that I could take a break from the stress of leadership and social tension was a foreign concept.
Now I have a language for it. Self-care. Different people need it for different reasons. Sometimes just the stress of being Black and brown in this country, what we navigate, and the related conversations and explanations is one reason. It was the first time that someone validated for me the stress I felt when trying to represent for all the brown folks in a majority white environment. Before we had a name for microaggressions, they still existed. I’m glad the word exists but it feels so inaccurate. They don’t feel micro when they are happening.
“All the women in me are tired” as poet Nayyirah Waheed put it. And all of my activist and advocate friends who work in the “outdoor” space are tired. We are explaining, standing up, speaking out, we are pushing back and demanding and it makes us vulnerable. It puts our black and brown bodies on the front lines in a historically white space, once again.
On Friday I laid on my bed. Exhausted. In tears. I felt like I was hiding. I lit a candle, burned some palo santo, smoked half a joint, and pulled on spandex. Then sneakers. I ran two miles. I needed the fresh air. I needed to not hold myself to any standards. I ran two miles and got caught in the rain and it felt perfect. But I want to acknowledge that I almost didn’t get out of bed. Yes, my job is stressful. But this conversation is so much more stressful and exhausting. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. And that shit ain’t new either. (cc: Fannie Lou Hamer)
Let’s talk about how standard it is to be a stressed out Black person in this country. A Harvard study in 2017 showed that “the mortality rate among black infants in the U.S. is more than twice that of white infants — in some urban areas, even higher — and a growing body of evidence suggests that a key factor may be stress black mothers caused by racial discrimination.” (Ya i know…i quoted Harvard, my bad). Want some more stats? In 2017 it was reported: “The average lifespan of African Americans is significantly shorter than white Americans, mostly because of heart disease and stroke, which contributed to more than two million years of life lost among African Americans between 1999 and 2010, according to a new scientific statement published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.” They make note of factors related to culture, socioeconomic disparities etc. They also say, “Another potential explanation for persistent disparities across the socioeconomic range in African Americans is unique sources of stress.”
That’s the stress of being black in America. While these studies specifically pertain to the health and wellness of African Americans I feel comfortable extrapolating to include many historically marginalized groups who experience “unique stress” in this country. Particularly African Americans, Latinos and Indigenous folks.
Living in a place like Portland, Oregon adds to some of that unique stress. My “lookedatness” has taken on new levels. I pretty much stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I go but based on my educational privilege and my learned comfort with navigating historically white spaces, it’s usually only so uncomfortable to me. I’ve become used to being one of the few people of color, often the only black woman, in certain spaces.
Recently I was talking to a friend about Outdoor Retailer, explaining how I’m still processing my experience this year and I’m not sure how I feel about it all. (As most of you know, my work is both directly and tangentially related to “The Outdoor Industry”). “Just because you can navigate these spaces doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he noted. He gets it. He’s white and male and works in corporate America at a sportswear brand and he could point out to me that there was stress involved with being one of the only ones in these spaces. Constantly. It was a reminder that I needed.
I came away from Outdoor Retailer wondering if there was a point in being in spaces like that. I honestly don’t know the answer.
This week, a week after I started writing this, Deanne Buck stepped down as the Executive Director of Camber Outdoors. It gives me no great sense of relief or joy. It does, however, make me proud of my friends and peers for all of the pressure they put on Camber to come clean about the erasure of the work of people of color, specifically Teresa Baker and the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge.
What I’ve learned in the past two weeks is that Camber brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to do supposed equity work and workshops with all of these companies. The companies can then check the box and say they’ve done the work. Meanwhile, at Outdoor Retailer, my BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color) friends and I retreat from the main space and find ourselves in hallways recuperating together. I realized afterward that that is what was happening. The large majority of us were not paid to be there and the companies we work for didn’t send us. We were on panels, some that Camber was hosting. I wonder now if Camber charged Outdoor Retailer for the “work” they did there? I’m interested to see what Camber does next. They’ve been paid for doing work while we do it for free in spaces that are highly stressful because we are the only ones. In some ways, they block people like us who are leaving these corporate environments and striking out on our own as consultants, partially because the organizations where we worked were unready to let us do the work that needed to be done. This isn’t hypothetical. And I’m not referring to a singular experience. Companies pay Camber to do the work that they have ineffectually done related to true diversity. This is beyond the work that they set out to do when they formed, at first their focus was strictly on women. Why have we then assumed that they can take on this other work? Why have we assumed that they know what to do about diversity beyond binary gender identities and the related issues in the workforce?
Amanda Jameson stepped down from Camber in light of the recent Camber controversy. Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin left Camber some time ago, it was reading her accounts of the work environment there that helped me take my stand in support of Teresa Baker, knowing this wasn’t really a “mistake” or a one-time offense. Women of color are leaving this woman’s organization that purports to be doing the work for all of us. It looks like they’re trying to change the face and the makeup of those leading the charge. For example, Reggie Miller, an African-American man and the global director of inclusion & diversity of VF Corp. is moving from board member to the board’s executive committee.
I want to see more. I want to see Camber bringing in all the folks they asked to do panels for free to do the work. We actually know how to do it. It isn’t easy for us to be in these places. It is highly stressful. Our people have been taking on this stress and dealing with it for generations. It’s not right for organizations like Camber to profit off of that.
The next steps need to be true inclusivity and true partnership. At this rate, from what I’ve heard has happened behind the scenes, Camber should be begging Teresa Baker to work with them and asking her steering committee to help them with their work. And they should be flowing all those big bucks they get from REI and others into POC leaders and advocates in these spaces who have been carrying the brunt of the stress related to what it means to be anything other than the “norm” in the outdoor industry. For years. If you’re a big company that has been paying Camber, think about bringing in some other folks. Teresa Baker, Scott Briscoe, James Edward Mills, José González, Marcelo Bonta, Erica Nelson and Sydney Clark , Rue Mapp and Jalynn Gough, Vasu Sojitra, the incredible folks involved with Diversify Outdoors, the Avarna Group, Cliff Jones. WHY HASNT EVERY OUTDOOR BRAND EVER INVITED DR. CAROLYN FINNEY TO SPEAK TO THEIR LEADERSHIP AND EMPLOYEES!? (I’m sure I am missing a lot of people, the list is actually very long. So stop trying to cop out like “we couldn’t find anyone.” And there are folks who I’m only just getting to know or who I don’t yet know consult.)These folks are truly making change.
I recognize that I am new here, and I’m trodding carefully and trying to learn, as well as trying to contribute in the best way that I can. And I’m actually a black woman who has been studying representation in media for over a decade! Yet Camber thought they should be the “authority” to do this work?! They were working on women’s equity and then when they heard there was more equity work to do they were just like, oh yea, we can do that for you too BOGO?! (I’m sure that’s not how it happened, but that’s as ludicrous as it feels right now.)
We should be looking at the framework for diversity in this industry. We in this industry should be breaking it down and working with folks who know how to decolonize this space and build it back up through healing techniques, actions and behaviors.
I’m excited to see what happens next. And to see how I can play a role and be part of it. (My chosen role is as a storyteller and in working with the words, on my own terms.)
Power to the people. Likkle but we tallawah. Press on. Rage on.
That’s how we get to “Everyone’s Outdoors.”