Race and Recreation: An Analysis of the Lack of People of Color in the Outdoor Recreation Sector

Leading 6th graders on a paddle trip down the Yukon River

Outdoor recreation is term encompassing most activities under the sun, moon, clouds or rain. From lounging in the public park down the street, running through state park trails, or mountaineering in remote locations, nearly half of all American’s engage in some form of outdoor leisure. By means of finance, education, necessity or accident, this population is discovering the value of spending time outside, and their numbers are only growing. However, this population is completely misrepresentative of the American population as a whole. In the outdoor recreation sector, there is a massive demographical disparity of people of color. The Outdoor Foundation’s 2016 participation report shows White people dominate this sector of leisure, making up over 74% of Participants (“participation report” 10). How might have social and institutional systems in the United States Contributed to this demographical disparity?


Historical Analysis

For people of color, utilizing public lands for recreation challenges not only the white dominion of those spaces, but a historical relationship developed over centuries of trauma and oppression. In Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney discusses how a collective memory of oppression and violence may affect how black individuals interact with the outdoors. “while diverse, the African American community is arguably unified by enforced subordination and oppression. Specifically, 250 years of slavery and a concerted effort by the United States government and legal system to legitimize Jim Crow laws that have left scars that many are unwilling or unlikely to forget” (Finney, p55). Symbols of natural environments interact with these collective memories to influence the African American experience. Finney writes, “Lynching succeeded in limiting the environmental imagination of black people whose legitimate fear of the woods served as a painful and very specific reminder that there are many places a black person should not go” (Finney, p 60). In addition to instances of violence, slaves working relationship with the land and their growing knowledge of the natural environment also contribute to a collective memory, Finney writes, “Working the land under the threat of the whip and the sun was an integral part of the environmental experience of enslaved Africans. Through day to day interactions enslaved Africans became more knowledgeable about their surrounding environment than their white slave owners” (Finney, p 57) The African American environmental experience revolves historically around how land can be made to produce and benefit certain individuals, lacking points of conservation and leisure.


Physical access to public land and other areas designated for outdoor recreation is critical to personal engagement in such activities. As people of color primarily live in urban centers, their reliance on public transportation increases, making it harder to access protected public lands. To this point, Dr. Roberts and Dr. Drogin write, “We cannot expect women from inner cities, who have had only minimal exposure to outdoor areas through the media, to feel good about adventuring beyond their personal/familiar environment unless there is sufficient time to interact with other areas, develop an enjoyable relationship with the outdoors, and want to explore”(Roberts and Drogin p 17). People of color in urban centers lack comfortable methods of access to our nations larger protected lands, creating an absence of connection with said individuals, and throughout communities as a whole to outdoor spaces.

Economic Means of Participation

Financial stability be it for the individual, family unit or community lets individuals allocate time for leisure activities. Of 21 notable responses in The Outdoor Foundation’s report of Why Americans Didn’t Participate in Outdoor Recreation More Often, 19% stated that participation in outdoor recreation was too expensive (“participation report” 16). As involvement in ones chosen activity increases, expenses associated with gear and travel generally increase as well. In communities of color, which in the united states are disproportionately affected by poverty, economic means may determine one’s ability to participate in outdoor recreation.


As people of color are underrepresented in outdoor recreation activities, cross cultural educational practices are also seldom integrated into outdoor education programs. Although informational institutions in the outdoors are designed for all individuals, they are not always equitable in meeting individual needs. In a study conducted by Dr. Rodreguez of California state University and Dr. Roberts of the National Park Service measuring outdoor program evaluations, “participants favorably evaluated their overall experience. Females were more positive in their overall evaluation of the program than males, and white participants gave statistically higher ratings than their non-white counterparts” (Rodriguez and Roberts p 40). Even in instances where people of color access and participate in outdoor leisure alongside white people, their experience is still mitigated by underlying factors.


From these works we can see several trends and contradictions emerging in the different forces keeping people of color from participating in outdoor recreation. Beginning with the least abstract, a possible connection between economic means and access must be considered when looking at participation. In discussing correlations between financial means and participation, Dr. Roberts and Dr. Drogin point out, “Over the past 20 years, new class divisions within the black community have emerged… Many middle class black women are no longer rooted within the culture of a black working class community.” They continue to point out, “A lack of economic means, however, does not completely explain the disproportionately small number of black women choosing involvement in adventure activities … the outdoors provides an experience that no amount of money could ever buy” (Drogin and Roberts, p 17). Although financial means may allow people of color the possibility to participate in outdoor recreation, the decision to do so is one not often taken by said individuals. Furthermore, as decisions correlate to participation, they may also to access. As means of access broaden for these class divisions, the choice to utilize them becomes the driving force behind participation.

But what factors influence this choice? Finney’s theory of a collective history may explain why more people of color don’t pursue outdoor recreation. As she states, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and decades of violence have created not only a working relationship with outdoor spaces, but also one of violence at the hands of the dominant group. For people of color even basic natural symbols like a tree may historically be associated with lynching well into recent history.

This theory can be carried over to other racial and ethnic groups as well. Japanese internment and the Yellow Peril phenomenon isolated asian communities within ethnic enclaves and from representation in protected lands. In the United States the relationship of Hispanic/Latino individuals to the environment commonly revolves around border crossings and operation wetback. In addition, as a product of the Bracero program, their environmental relationship is closely tied to production and labor. Finally, while Native Americans have held strong connections to wild places here in the United States, boarding schools, genocide and the mass relocation of these peoples has partially dislocated them from their deeply held traditions of conservation and environmental awareness. Roberts and Drogin emphasize the need for connection as a driving force for access. If these racial and ethnic groups have not historically connected to natural spaces through recreation, it follows that they will not begin to do so now.

Even in instances where people of color do interact with outdoor spaces, their experience is often mitigated by a lack of cross cultural practices. As shown by Rodriguez and Roberts, even when participating alongside white people, people of color don’t have the same experience. They point out, “Although SCA leaders were evenly distributed between females and males, more than 90% were white. This may have influenced their ability to communicate effectively with ethnically diverse participants” (Rodriguez and Roberts, p 41) As a vast majority of outdoor educators in this instance, and across the US are white, it is apparent that race plays into the learning experience for individuals of color. Rodriguez and Roberts also write, “Professionals need to bridge the gap between the ideal of wilderness activities available for all and the reality of stereotypes that convey the outdoors as a white privilege” (Rodriguez and Roberts, p14). People in positions of educational power play a major role in how these collective histories intermingle with individuals of color in outdoor spaces. Through their interactions and practices, these educators can either deconstruct these histories or by inaction continue to perpetuate them to individuals of color.

Through these findings and their active connections, I have come across what I call The Poplar Tree Theory: institutions of violence and oppression have drastically influenced the way people of color interact with the outdoors, leading to a disparity of their participation in outdoor recreation as they reconcile with the white dominion of natural spaces. This disparity of participation is perpetuated by the association of natural spaces and symbols, with violence and insecurity along with lack of cross cultural representation in existing outdoor recreation institutions.


Without a historical perspective, individuals and institutions in positions of power cannot be truly affective in introducing people of color to outdoor recreation. Cross cultural representation alongside educational practices must be adopted in order to work with these historical considerations. The outdoors is a place for everyone to enjoy and utilize for personal betterment. By fostering a connection between ALL individuals and natural spaces, we may better protect them for generations to come.

Works Cited

Roberts, Nina S., and Ellen B. Drogin. “The Outdoor Recreation Experience: Factors Affecting Participation of African American Women.” Journal of Experiential Education 16.1 (1993): 14–18. Web.

Outdoor Participation Report 2014. Report. The Outdoor Foundation. 1–44.

Rodriguez, Donald A., and Nina S. Roberts. “Understanding the Influence of Gender and Ethnicity on Evaluations of Outdoor Leader Effectiveness.” World Leisure Journal 47.1 (2005): 32–44. Web.

Finney, Carolyn Marie. Black faces, white spaces: African Americans and the great outdoors. N.p.: n.p., 2006. Print.