Black People Don’t Ski
(…Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Winter Olympics)
“For above all, in behalf of an ailing world which sorely needs our defiance, may we, as Negroes or women, never accept the notion of — ‘our place.’”
In the Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now there’s a famous oft-quoted moment when Robert Duvall orders his reluctant soldiers to paddle-out into the waves during an active artillery shelling. His men argue that the point break is held by the North Vietnamese military. Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore barks back, “Charlie don’t surf!” Where I grew up in Northern California, an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe, there was a similar saying about black people hitting the slopes. You could easily hear it said in Duvall’s voice, “Brothas don’t ski!”
As a boy, there were two things I knew about Lake Tahoe ski resorts. One, way back in the day, the Winter Olympics were held at Squaw Valley. People mentioned that a lot. And two, the only time you ever saw black people on the snow was on Martin Luther King Weekend. That was it. Kinda like reparations on ice. For one day a year, black people would get chair-lifted up to the mountaintop. For one day, and only one day, you can find lots of black people enjoying the snow, looking clean in their winter wear, having fun on the wintry slopes. Black folks showing up on MLK Weekend is a popular tradition at ski resorts from California to Canada. In fact, it’s also kind of a joke. Playing with this trope, in the first season of Black-ish, the show devoted a whole episode to the family’s annual MLK Day ski trip. It’s very much a thing.
But then, for the rest of ski season, the mountain resorts return to normal. They go back to being whiter than the NHL All Star game. Other than the annual MLK Weekend, ski resorts typically stay whiter than a picture of Taylor Swift dancing. Super white. Which means, I guess, I also knew a third thing: ski resorts were not a place for someone like me.
I am proud to say that didn’t stop me from wanting to be there. What did stop me was the fact my family did not ski or snowboard. I had a fifty-fifty chance since my mother’s white. But she’s not that kind of white person. She didn’t even want to drive in the snow. We were beach people. Even in the winter. Especially in the winter. But like I said, I didn’t let that stop me. One day I got lucky, a friend’s family invited me to spend a weekend with them at a Lake Tahoe ski resort. And it wasn’t MLK Weekend. Naturally, I leapt at the chance like Gregory Hines executing a perfect pirouette in White Nights.
My friend’s family recommended that I take a ski lesson so I didn’t hurt myself or do something life-threatening like crash into a tree. Apparently, every year, people die from slamming into pine trees. I’d never heard that. But I wasn’t scared. Which is why, when we arrived at the mountain resort, I decided I didn’t need to waste any time taking any bullshit lesson. Keep in mind, I’d never been on skis before. Not once. But I figured the best way to learn how to ski was…to ski. So, that’s exactly what I did. I got outfitted with some rental skis and turned myself loose on that fresh powder.
With my rental skis strapped-on, I was ready, set, and determined to show all those lovely white folks that I could ski just like them. To be honest, being the only one on the mountain, I felt like I was representing all black people. So you know, I wanted to be slicker than Fred Astaire on roller skates.
For my very first run, I got in the shortest line. It was a double black diamond run. This meant absolutely nothing to me. No one had told me what the black diamond symbol meant. According to this handy online guide to ski resort symbols: there are green circles, blue squares, black diamonds, double black diamonds, and orange ovals. It’s like Lucky Charms cereal but for signage. The green circles are for beginners; blue squares indicate intermediate level; black diamonds are advanced; and double black diamonds are expert level. The orange ovals indicate a dangerous barrier like a cliff. That means, for my very first run, I got in line for a ski lift that was headed up to the peak of the mountain.
I figured this all out once I was on the ski lift, after it kept climbing, higher, and higher. When I looked up as far as I could see, the overhead cable lines of the ski lift disappeared into the clouds. Literally. The best part was how the ski lift took forever and a day to get to the peak. Which meant I had plenty of time for this irrational fear to creep up my spine and take over my mind. Which it did, like an icy snake — it slithered up my backbone and coiled around my brain. I was seized with a proper panic. A reptilian fear. I’d triggered my survival instinct. Adrenalin tickled through my veins. And I no longer cared about impressing white people. Now I just wanted to make sure I didn’t die.
That’s when the ski lift reached the end of the line. I felt my skis touch snow and then I sorta slid off the lift. Alone. My friend had opted for a different lift line. He was somewhere way down there. Somewhere else on that mountainside of white people. I knew not to look down, or to think about what I was about to do. With an overconfident adrenalized push of my ski poles I set myself into motion.
Within seconds it felt like I was flying, face-first down the mountain. A freezing wind slapped against my cheeks. I crouched down on bent knees and did everything I could to imitate a skier. The sounds rushing past my ears were amazing. Like a soft natural symphony. Adrenalized as I was, every single sense I had was dialed all the way up. It felt like riding on an existential razor’s edge. But since I could neither fight nor flee to survive, in order to not die, I had to ski. So, ski I did. Like I’d been doing it since day one. And the only way I stayed upright was thanks to sheer expectation. There’s no other explanation. I should’ve fallen early when I hit my first mogul field. But with bent knees I just absorbed those bumps like a lifted truck.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
Then it was back to downhill speed.
The chilled wind stung my cheeks and chin again as I saw trees in the approaching distance. I had no idea how to turn. That wasn’t an option. So I did what any plum fool would do. I aimed right between them. I was shocked when I squirted through the pines and hit a small lip and was suddenly in the air. That was a terrible new development.
I pulled my skis up and waited for the ground to grab me again. Which it did. I hit hard and slid off to my left, on just one ski, the left ski, somehow I got the other ski down, and then I lifted the left one, which caused me to slide onto the right ski, and sorta veer my way back into the groomed section of the ski run. I put the left ski back down, balanced myself, and then kept on racing down the mountain.
My new problem was all the white people. They were everywhere. And I knew they certainly didn’t expect some out-of-control black kid to come zooming at them. “Surely he’ll turn,” they’d think. But no, he did not. He could not. So I slid over the skis of one dad. I heard him yelling horrible things as I slid on down the mountain. But I had much bigger problems than some racist dad calling me names that rhyme with gold-digger. I was still focused on not dying. Or killing some innocent fallen white person by gouging their head with the tips of my skis, since I definitely couldn’t avoid them if I tried. And on I slid, representing all black people. I stayed busy trying not to die, which, if you think about it, really does represent all black people.
Somehow still upright and skiing, I’d made it to halfway down the mountain. I saw where the other chair lifts let skiers off, and I felt a little better that I’d made it to the advanced skier section. It would be easier than where I’d come from. This much I’d figured out. But I still couldn’t turn or stop. Which was way more of a problem as I rapidly approached where the beginners ski lift was letting off waves of kids.
Now I was less worried about dying, and far more worried about killing an innocent white kid. Thankfully, none of those puffy jacketed little kids crossed my path. I slid through their clusters of bodies and somehow made it to the bottom of the mountain. Only one problem remained.
I still had no idea how to stop. I kept thinking about some snow plow idea I’d heard mentioned and seen people doing. It’s like a wedge, I guess. I sorta imagined you had to cross your skis in front of you. But I figured if I tried that I was guaranteed to go tumbling ass-over-tea-kettle and smash my head into the ground.
In front of me there were two big crowds of people, waiting in line for two different ski lifts, and there were all the people milling around the open air entrance to the resort, as well as the ones gathered around the giant stone fire circle. But there, directly in front of me, was a small lake surrounded by a low white fence. I knew what I had to do.
My pride was reluctant but that icy snake of fear squeezed down on my mind. There was no denying it, my survival dictated I do something drastic. Since I didn’t know how to turn or stop, I did the one thing I did know how to do. I threw myself at the ground.
I hit hard, I skipped, bounced, then rag-dolled down the mountain, leaving a yard sale of ski equipment in my wake. Finally, I stopped tumbling. I was maybe ten feet from the white fence. I lay there with my face in the snow. Everything hurt, but nothing felt broken. The snow was powdery, fluffy, and soft. It was like how I’d heard it would be on the best days. It was like sleeping on a frozen cloud. And then I heard the choruses of laughing white people. That sucked.
But, despite their mocking sounds, I lay there, and felt like I had come, I had seen, and I had conquered that mountain. Somehow I had lived through my stupidity. Somehow my arrogance hadn’t killed me. And I didn’t even care that all those white folks were losing their shit laughing at me. It was an epic crash. Who throws their body at the ground? Silly as the sight of me and my yard sale of ski equipment was, I still felt like I proved that black people do in fact ski.
Before my disaster on the mountainside, whenever I thought of black people and winter sports, like most folks, I thought of that popular punchline of my childhood: the Jamaican bobsled team. And it felt like whenever someone mentioned them, or Cool Runnings, the Disney movie they inspired, the subtle message was: black people don’t belong on the mountain. The subtext was black people aren’t winter sports people. Black people on ice sounds ridiculous. Everyone knows we get real cold. We hate that. Which is true. Generally speaking, black people avoid the cold whenever possible. But it’s not like you won’t find black people in Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, all places that are colder than a penguin’s ass in winter and every year get blanketed in snow and ice. Yet, still, there’s a cultural perception, a stereotype, that black people wouldn’t be caught dead where there’s snow. That is, unless it’s MLK Weekend.
This unquestioned cultural bias, this general misbelief, is why I love to see in this year’s Winter Olympics in Korea, a wave of black women and men competing for gold medals. Unlike the Jamaican bobsled team, none of them feel like a ridiculous stunt, or a punchline perfect for a silly kids movie. Like the brother, Jordan Greenway, a forward on the US Men’s Hockey team, these Olympic-minded black folks came to win.
One of my favorites of the black winter olympians competing is Maame Biney. She’s eighteen years old and is the first black woman to qualify for Team USA as a speed skater. Her skating looks smoother than a ball of mercury rolling down a sheet of chilled silk. She’s considered a solid chance for a gold medal. You can easily see why. Here’s a video of Biney absolutely crushing it in her Olympics trials:
And she’s not the only black speed skater. Erin Jackson just joined her on Team USA. Jackson’s in Korea to represent America as a long track speed skater. The first black woman to do so. Jackson had only been skating long track for four months when she qualified for Team USA. Watching her skate is like watching Picasso paint. It’s just a flawless flow.
There’s also 2013 Rookie of the Year, Aja Evans, who’ll be competing in the bobsled for Team USA. This will be her second Winter Olympics. Evans won bronze at Sochi in 2014. And this Winter Olympics she wants gold. Check how hard she trains in the video below. Her unwavering determination for excellence is a form of beauty in action.
There’s also a wicked women’s bobsled team from Nigeria. Their names are Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga, and Ngozi Onwumere. The three are legit formidable competitors. They’re certainly no joke like that laughable Jamaican bobsled team. These Nigerian women did not come to Pyeongchang to play games or look cute. They came for gold. And I love them for their unabashed desire to stand atop the medal podium as the best in the world. Their sacrifices for excellence are a powerful inspiration for girls and boys all around the world.
This sort of representation may not mean a lot to you, it may seem like a neat trick that black folks are lining up to compete for gold medals in the Winter Olympics now. But for someone like me, it’s way more than that. For some of us, it’s still indescribably powerful to see black faces in unfamiliar spaces.
In the self help world, there’s a saying: If you can see it, you can be it. And it’s true. It’s biologically true. Thanks to mirror neurons in our brains, when we watch someone do something, we can actively imagine how it would feel to do that same thing. It’s a core component of how we learn. And psychologically, when you see someone who looks like you do something, you can more easily imagine yourself doing that same thing. There’s a reinforcement that it could be you. This is why representation in media and culture matters so much.
For the little black boy who braved that double black diamond ski run, it would’ve meant the world to him to see so many black athletes in the Winter Olympics. It would’ve made me feel like I belonged on the mountain, too. Instead, I nearly killed myself and a few white strangers in order to feel like I belonged. Watching the Winter Olympics is way safer. And way more fun.