When you think of rock climbing what image comes to mind? Is it some burly guy hauling himself up a rock face? Or perhaps a svelte woman suspended high above? But have you ever stopped to consider their skin complexion? In one of earth's most natural activities should the color of one’s skin even be a factor? Try a Google image search of “Black rock climbers” and observe the results. How do we as Black men, and Black women feel? How do we compete and how do we stand out without being ostracized by the Black community for enjoying an activity that 'Black people don't do'? How do we combat this stigma while setting an example for future generations? Climbing is a sport that should be colorblind. It's a sport that has the potential to acknowledge an individual’s achievements on the world stage irrespective of race, color, or creed. Climbing has always been the sport for me despite the fact that my race is grossly underrepresented.
The story's the same for many of us; we walked into a climbing gym and were instantly captivated. Many of us were, and a few still are, intimidated by watching our peers climb at what seems to be an unattainable level. We promised ourselves that one day we would climb as hard as our new heroes. Unlike certain demographics, we can’t go home and google “rock climbers” expecting to see faces similar to our own. Instead we find articles discouraging us from climbing: “Black people don't rock climb,” “Black people don't belong in the outdoors.” Black people have cultural anxieties and self-imposed historical cultural barriers that have taught us to fear the outdoors. We’ve been scolded by white people for infringing on this “hallowed” space. But we need to break down these barriers and set an example; remove the negativity and replace it with our faces.
We need to cultivate a welcoming environment, to see other minorities thriving in order to set an example of acceptance. Being "the only one" is not enough. Individual stories of accomplishment are not enough. I long to see people that look like me finding their place and truly feeling comfortable within the climbing community. A lack of both leadership and fellowship has discouraged many of us from actively trying or progressing.
Walking into any gym is intimidating, especially when you have no idea what you’re doing. We all remember "rainbowing" up our first V0/1 or 5.7. We spent countless hours grinding away until we got our first V3/5.11. With this victory came the knowledge that our hard work and dedication had finally paid off. Feeling more confident in ourselves than we had ever felt before, we armed ourselves with the knowledge that we were capable of accomplishing great things. No longer were we bound by “I can’t," but freed by two words “I will." A sense of pride from overcoming boundaries enabled us to accomplish things we had once thought impossible. New friends cheered as we sent a project, and eyed up the next hard problem. Suddenly climbing V9/10/5.13/14 was no longer beyond our grasp but well within reach.
My message is for those few who chose to persevere and train hard, who chose to be the lone Black guy in the gym while enduring loneliness and social isolation: don’t settle for being a participant when you could be an advocate for future generations. We need a spokesperson: someone who can help bridge the gap between individuals who are often ridiculed, and the climber we all aspire to be; someone who can step up and show the climbing community that the lone Black guy in the gym is not a fringe outlier, but a presence to be recognized and a portent of change to come. Our hard work does not mean any less than that of other climbers. We have a responsibility to show the next generation of Black climbers that, regardless of cultural bias, they should feel confident of their place within this community. We felt ostracized so others wouldn't have to. Don't feel compelled to participate in certain sports or social activities simply because other people who look like you are being glorified for doing so. You are not obligated to be on anyone's court or field. Your only obligation is to find what makes YOU happy. It comes down to making a simple choice: do you want to climb?