How to Deal with Racism in the Outdoors

 Leah Keinama and her children experiencing the outdoors (Photo courtesy of Leah Keinama).

Leah Keinama and her children experiencing the outdoors (Photo courtesy of Leah Keinama).

“Representation matters,” we continue to chant. It’s a line we have been saying over and over and over again. Until recently, it has seemed to fall on deaf ears - on the ears of those who claim no disparity in opportunity, and then voice surprise in seeing black women do some math problems on a big screen.

Since becoming more and more passionate about the outdoors I’ve become invested in showing that women of color can be and are outdoorswomen. My friends and I could fill page after page with the prejudiced comments that have been said to us as we shopped for camping gear, swim wear, boots, and bikes:

“I didn’t know black girls swim.”

“The Nikes are over here.”

“Won’t sweating make your hair frizz?”

Often times the speaker doesn’t realize the error of their ways, and doesn’t skip a beat as they voice their surprise at seeing a black person shop for a climbing harness.

When you grow up black, you get really good at feeling like you should explain away and excuse incidents of racism to save the feelings of others who have deemed their feelings and experiences as more valid than yours.  

The online comments are even worse. I remember watching a video featuring a climbing club from New York called Brothers of Climbing. This amazing group realized the lack of representation in the sport of rock climbing, and created a club to motivate people of all races from their city to take part. The video briefly touched on how inaccessible or unwelcoming the outdoors community can feel when you’re the only brown face in the crowd. Instead of listening to these first hand accounts and thinking, “Wow, that’s something I’ve never experienced and therefore know nothing about. I’m glad that today I learned something about someone else’s struggle so I can be more inclusive going forward,” people on social media did what they always do, and made everything about them.

Me monsters everywhere who had never been in a position to experience racism suddenly became experts about how it doesn’t exist in the outdoor community--how it’s all in the heads of those who want to cry victim.

 Photo courtesy of Leah Keinama.

Photo courtesy of Leah Keinama.

Of course there is no physical barrier keeping people of color from simply going outside and experiencing all the wonders that nature has to offer, but there are many subtle, and often overlooked encounters that often make us feel less than welcome. (I’ll leave racist housing practices that still segregate minorities and limit access to safe green spaces for another day).

A few months ago I was at a Cabela’s, a large outdoor retailer, with my husband and mother who are both white. We all branched off and explored the store on our own. After awhile it slowly dawned on me that none of the employees I came across had acknowledged me. Not a single smile or hello. At first I thought I was just being overly sensitive, but it kept happening. I would say hi as I walked past an employee, and they would ignore the gesture. I walked the whole store, and encountered over 10 employees. Not a single smile.

I met up with my mom in the women’s clothing department, and as we walked to the archery section, one of the male employees who had previously ignored my greeting, looked at her, smiled, and asked, “Can I help you find anything, ma’am?” I couldn’t believe it. At that point we had found my husband, and I told both of them what happened. They both said that that had not happened to them, and that everyone they passed greeted them politely, and most offered help without having been asked.

As I left, I was both angry and sad. I forgot about the items I had considered purchasing, and went to the car. I was no longer thinking about the boots I needed, or that Sea to Summit sleeping pad that was magically comfortable. I just wanted to go home. I know that not all Cabella’s stores are like this. I’ve been in others where everyone was lovely and helpful. Maybe it was the area. Maybe it was the way the stars aligned that day. When you grow up black, you get really good at feeling like you should explain away and excuse incidents of racism to save the feelings of others who have deemed their feelings and experiences as more valid than yours.  

The point of this story is that people have the power to take something you love and make you feel like you have no right to be there based on their own limited ability to relate to a single external variable like the color of your skin. For people of color, this happens much more often than many of our white counterparts care to acknowledge or admit. As a woman of color, I face racism regularly. It is the elephant in the room that everyone believes will vanish if they ignore it long enough. It hurts when it happens. It hurts even more when people, even friends, deny that it did simply because it’s not something they have seen or heard, so they do not understand how it can be so prolific.

Trust me when I say that there is racism in the outdoors community. Trust me when I say that I do not always feel welcome in the establishments that provide the gear I need to engage in my outdoor hobbies. Trust me when I say that I do not always feel welcome on the trails I love (I have conducted the same smile/greeting experiment while hiking, and I am received much less warmly than my white friends).

The outdoors do not always feel like a great place for a woman of color because of the other people who occupy, and in most cases have ownership of that space. The same people who claim there is no barrier are often the ones building the fence while denying they’re holding a hammer and nails.

But no matter what people say, or how minorities are treated, we are here, and we are making progress. We hike, bike, climb, swim, run, and so much more. We aren’t always featured on magazines, we are rarely sponsored or highlighted, but we are just as capable and we are making a difference.

If my journey has done anything, I hope it has inspired a child who feels unwelcome to lace up their boots and go climb a mountain. People may fail you, but nature will never treat you differently. It will demand the same from you, and reward you with just as much. Let its beauty fill your heart, and breathe new life into your soul.