No, Where Are You Really From? Pt I

We are not asking for it and women shouldn’t be expected to smile and silently put up with this harassment so we can be part of the skydiving community.

"No, but where are you really from?" is just part of the lived experience of Women of Color in outdoor adventure sports. We're a minority within minority that enjoys both the best, worst and weirdest aspects of giving your heart to the outdoors. Today we're talking to four Women of Color who spend their weekends in free fall from 13,000 ft to hear their perspectives on balancing multiple hyphenated identities in the skies. 

  1. What’s it like being a woman of color in a sport that’s 87% male (according to the United States Parachute Association) and overwhelmingly White? Are there any disadvantages? Advantages? Ever get tired of being the “only one?” We want to hear your thoughts!

Caroline: I have a lot of thoughts here, but I'll preface them with the fact that I love this sport immensely, especially the people and Women of Color (WOC) I've met through it. Skydivers are already a tight-knit bunch: we look out for each other and people, as a whole, are generally pretty fantastic. On top of that I've met some truly wonderful humans that are part of the WOC/female contingent, where the friendships run deep. A lot of this is through our shared experience, through both the stoke and the more difficult things we experience but don’t always feel like we can talk about. As is the case with most communities, there are definitely a few bad apples and isolating moments. 

For example, there's a ton of—and I'm putting it gently—unsolicited and unwelcome advice. Early on I spent about 70 jumps on a larger canopy and got flak from people (who happen to be men) about how I should downsize because I wasn't on a 1:1 wing-loading yet. Interestingly, this unwanted advice was made without inquiry into my currency, exit weight, and previous canopy piloting experience. While this might make sense for a freshly A-licensed, average-sized male jumper, the 1:1 wingloading myth would probably ruin a beginner whose exit weight were, as an extreme example, 120 pounds. Nobody should feel compelled to defend conservative decision-making. To all the small-framed female beginners out there: you're landing your own canopy at the end of the day, so seek the advice of your instructors if you’re being encouraged to do something that doesn’t feel safe for you. Fact check the mansplaining for yourself.

Sexual harassment is also rampant in skydiving and it can come in the form of inappropriate touching and unsolicited comments. It’s never ok to touch someone excessively during a dirt dive or on the plane. It’s never 'ok' for a male skydiver, let alone a Load Organizer in a position of authority, to say to a newer female skydiver on an undie hundie jump, “Why don’t you dress like that when we jump together?” We are not asking for it and women shouldn’t be expected to smile and silently put up with this harassment so we can be part of the skydiving community. At best, the harassment might stem from cluelessness and you can clear the air with a conversation. At worst, it's behavior that is meant to put the recipient of the harassment in a position of helplessness. If you've ever made a joke at the expense of women at the drop-zone, I hope that what we share here gives you pause. 

Thankfully, as long as all of this is going on and we continue to make strides to becoming a more inclusive community, we do have each other. As women and WOC, the bonds we make with each other feel really strong and are almost instantaneous when you discover someone else who has had similar experiences.

Nadia: It can be both a good and a bad thing. It can be a good thing in the sense that you do stand out and people kinda wanna get to know you and figure out why you show up since there aren’t a lot of Women of Color who want to skydive. It can also be a bad thing because there can be a lot of misogyny in the sport. There aren’t a lot of skydivers who understand issues that People of Color face in the US. It’s not something that affects them so many people don’t understand. So it’s hard to talk to your skydiving friends about issues that predominantly affect our community like the prison industrial complex or yet another shooting of an unarmed Black man. Depending on the headlines I might be prioritizing self-care over a weekend at the drop-zone. So it’s a blessing and a curse.

We do have this ‘skydiving-changed-my-life’ positive vibes only unspoken rule. So people are reluctant to break that code by candidly discussing real issues within our sport whether it’s sexual harassment, elitism or lack of diversity!
 Dr. Swati Varshney enjoys a two way freefly formation skydive. 

Dr. Swati Varshney enjoys a two way freefly formation skydive. 

Swati: The biggest advantage is having no line for the women's bathrooms at the drop-zone! But seriously, I love the immediate friendship I develop with women, People of Color, and especially Women of Color that I meet in skydiving. There are so many amazing people who skydive that I may never have met otherwise, and I'm thankful they’re in my life. I try to take it as a compliment when I'm often mistaken for two other South Asian women skydivers – they're awesome. Recently, SIS events with dedicated women load organizers and coaching have helped me make progress with my free-flying skills and encouraged me to be more confident in the sky. 

The disadvantages: So. Much. Mansplaining. I'm keenly aware that I stick out like a sore thumb at every drop-zone and wind tunnel because what I look like. While the overtly racist comments seem to be confined to the older gentlemen skydivers, at the least the ones said to my face, I'm continually amazed by skydivers of all ages who make misogynistic 'jokes' within the first five minutes of meeting me. Bonus points if they get offended when I don't find them funny. What grinds my gears most, though, is the never-ending, unsolicited commentary on women's bodies – we're here to jump, not to be ogled, objectified, and belittled in 'hot-or-not' games.  

 Danielle: I’m 31 years old. I value having a racially diverse group of friends. Skydiving gets in the way of that. You have to choose; you can’t have both a diverse group of friends and skydive every weekend. So that’s the mental calculus I make on the weekends. Thirty eight percent of Americans identify as ethnic minorities but you wouldn’t know it from spending the weekend at the drop-zone. We don't look like America. There are no other African American women skydivers at my drop-zone. There are no brand ambassadors or professional athletes that look like me in my sport. At most drop zones I visit I'm the only Black skydiver and often the only Person of Color. Perhaps as a result, I'm usually mistaken for a tandem; which just reinforces how much I don't fit in. The funny part is that these are the same skydivers who swear that they 'don't see color.' Being "the only one" sucks but what's worse is that my skydiving friends who are White and male generally don't understand what the big deal is and 'who cares if you're the only one?'  Ironically, lacking empathy seems to be a by-product of always being surrounded by other people who look like you. I've never had that luxury. 

I also have zero interest in ignoring sexual harassment in order to be “one of the guys" (been there, wasn’t fun).  Sexual harassment is pretty common. It's not just experiencing it. It's also witnessing it and not always knowing how to respond. Once a student jumper complained to me about being harassed by an instructor and my first thought wasn't what can I do to help. It was I'm brand new here and I don't want to say anything because they'll see me as a trouble-maker. She was asking for help and instead I was centering my own anxiety about speaking up in a sport where women who speak up are 'the problem.' 

 Danielle Williams (Photo credit: Mark Stoddart)

Danielle Williams (Photo credit: Mark Stoddart)

Some of this is an education issue. Training on how to properly respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault empowers both men and women to speak up. If the same thing were to happen at work I know step-by-step how to respond and which resources to recommend because my workplace has intentionally built a culture of accountability, intervention and zero tolerance. Skydiving hasn't done that. My workplace is mostly male but I feel like I have more ownership of that space. When I go to the drop-zone that switches off. At work I know my leadership values my voice and my input and is also legally required to investigate reported sexual assaults. The opposite is true at the drop-zone.

Then there’s the prevailing culture by which male skydivers think it’s acceptable to 1) sexually objectify women skydivers for the purpose of selling gear 2) make derogatory comments about a woman’s appearance 3) make any unwanted comments about a woman’s appearance.

I used to try to brush off negativity to be part of the crowd, but it was not only tiring but also ineffective at bringing about change in the community. We can and must do better to lift up our fellow jumpers to be their best skydiving selves, and that comes through active support rather than passive acceptance of the status quo.

Recently an older skydiver planted his foot in my ass as a way of getting my attention while I sat on the packing mat talking to male friends. This was loudly accompanied by "What's that girl's name? I don't know her name." He did this twice. I finished my conversation, collected myself, turned around and told him "don't you ever ever do that again." You don't touch someone's butt with your foot to get their attention; especially someone you don't know. I was proud of myself for speaking up.

In past years it would have taken me awhile to figure out what bothered me about that interaction. I think the culture won't change until men also speak up. Women are only 13% of skydivers. Change is impossible when men are silent. And in our sport men are silent a lot. That puts the workload on women to teach friends and colleagues that we're not "females" or "sluts" or even "one of the guys." We're not "asking for it" nor are we "pretty good for a girl." Our bodies and appearance aren't topics for conversation and sexual harassment and assault won't be tolerated. There's a lot of potential for change. I'd like to see a future where different identities are also celebrated. I think there's room for everyone in the skydiving community. We have some work to do!

 That instantaneous bond when you meet another woman skydiver! Nadia Mercado jumps with friends in North Carolina (Photo credit: unknown)

That instantaneous bond when you meet another woman skydiver! Nadia Mercado jumps with friends in North Carolina (Photo credit: unknown)

...as a Woman of Color, you have to develop a pretty thick skin; either you learn how to call out sexism and racism or you ignore it and withdraw.

2. Why don’t more Women of Color skydive? Is your drop-zone a place where Women of Color would feel welcome, respected and included? If not what visible or invisible barriers exist?

Caroline: Generally speaking, when there aren't people who look like you in certain activities or spaces, it's hard to imagine yourself there. It's almost like an implicit communication that the people before you who had similar opportunities or limitations didn't make it either. Sometimes those limitations are systemic; sometimes they are self-imposed. I've spoken to a number of women and women of color who simply don't believe they could jump out of a plane and I completely get it, being that skydiving is commonly perceived by the outside world as somewhat of a “man’s sport”—whatever that might mean. That's a real quote from someone who I know didn't mean harm, but the language we use is crucial. When we change the language we use, we change the way we perceive.

I think this goes for most drop-zones, but as a Woman of Color, you have to develop a pretty thick skin; either you learn how to call out sexism and racism or you ignore it and withdraw. It's exhausting. Perris, my home DZ, is incredible in that you can find amazing women to jump with at every skill level and in every discipline. We're so fortunate to be able to build these great friendships, especially because there are just so many badass women who jump at Perris.

However, respect isn't always as consistent as inclusion. When I was just starting out in the sport and still putting my feelers out, I definitely ignored the comments and removed myself from a number of situations. It was so frustrating to encounter these small points of friction almost daily, and that ate away at me for some time. Calling out the comments continues to be tiring, but it's worth it—not just for my own well-being, but to chip away at this barrier for other women too. 

Nadia: It’s harder as a newer jumper to make friends when you move around a lot from drop-zone to drop-zone because people don’t know you. A lot of skydiving guys act like being a girl makes it easier to meet people and find people to jump with. That’s not always the case though; especially when you’re a Woman of Color. We don’t necessarily fit into the popular (White) standard of beauty. I think different drop-zones vary. I’ve been to drop-zones up and down the East Coast including Team Blackstar meetups where I felt incredibly accepted and welcome. It really depends where you’re at. It’s a lot easier to acclimate to a drop-zone when there are already other People of Color there. No one wants to be the only one. When you’re the first Person of Color or the only Person of Color it’s lonely. You also kind of become a token.

Swati: I'll speak to my own experience. It took me a long time to make friends in skydiving. Mostly, it was because I felt like I just didn't fit in, no matter which drop-zone I was at, what kind of jumps I went on, or how late I stayed around the bonfire. In my first year, I remember being told to wear more low-cut shirts when packing my canopy. I remember my biffed landings frequently being attributed to my gender, but not to being a sub-100 jump newbie or a lack of quality canopy coaching. I remember senior riggers and vendors telling me that I couldn't have gear that fit me properly because manufacturers have such a hard time designing for complicated women's bodies; if only I could sit-fly properly, then it wouldn't matter that my brand new, custom-ordered rig flew a foot off of my back. I remember how few people put effort into pronouncing my short, five-letter name correctly. I remember my pony-tails that were torn down so other women could feel my hair. These interactions told me, "You don’t belong here."  

I’ve had many different "home" drop-zones and found that some are better than others at promoting a culture of respect, inclusion, and tolerance, which helps skydivers like me feel less alienated, and in turn attracts a diverse group of fun jumpers. By traveling and visiting new drop-zones, I slowly developed a network of friends with whom I had something in common, whether it was being a woman, a minority, a student in graduate school, or a skydiver who just wanted to have fun on a badass jump without any BS. Those are the people who made me to want to come back and skydive again.

Danielle: So much to unpack, so little time! I think more Women of Color don’t skydive because they don’t see themselves represented in the sport.

Swati: Yes, absolutely! Growing up, I never saw someone who looked like me represented in extreme sports, so I think by default I assumed there was no place for me here.

Danielle: And that’s unfortunate because no one wants to be the only person who looks like them at their drop-zone. All of the videos on Vimeo, all of the skydiving instructors, all of the dropzone owners, all of the Red Bull Air Force, all of the angle and free-flying camps, all of the leadership, all of the brands are White and Male with very few exceptions. That's what you would call a tough field to break into if you're a Person of Color due to lack of representation. So it's understandable that skydiving isn’t exactly a space where Women or People of Color would feel welcome. I think we all agree that one wants to be the only person that looks like them; that's an incredibly alienating feeling. That may just be an unintended consequence. It’s difficult to diversify when your sport is not diverse to begin with. It means that to make any significant progress you have to be very deliberate as a sport, as a business owner, as a drop-zone. You can’t just say “well skydiving is color blind, I don’t know why more Women of Color don’t jump?”

Just anecdotally, the attrition rate for Women of Color within the sport is really high. While we've had a lot of "firsts" I can't think of any Black women who have been jumping for 20 years and are still active in the sport. I don't think that's a "user" issue. I think there are various reasons but one could definitely be social isolation. Every time I open Parachutist and look at photos of a Women’s Record Jump and there’s not a single Woman of Color there it’s a pretty alienating feeling; mostly because it’s 2018 and the and our diversity gap makes us out of touch with the rest of America. It’s also unfortunate because there are so many really good, compassionate people in this community. So how do we fix this?

I think having honest conversations about barriers that do exist within the sport is a start. That’s challenging for a lot of people though. We do have this 'skydiving-changed-my-life' positive vibes only unspoken rule. So people are reluctant to break that code by candidly discussing real issues within our sport whether it’s sexual harassment, elitism or lack of diversity! I think if we look to our right and left other adventure sport communities, like the climbing community are currently having these conversations. And they’re learning and being very intentional about making their spaces more open and welcoming to all people. I think skydiving could learn a lot from those examples.

Generally speaking, when there aren’t people who look like you in certain activities or spaces, it’s hard to imagine yourself there.
 Caroline Hsu poses for the camera after a successful skydive (Photo credit: Dennis Sattler)

Caroline Hsu poses for the camera after a successful skydive (Photo credit: Dennis Sattler)

3. What are you doing to promote diversity in skydiving? Why is it important?

Caroline: I love talking my non-skydiving friends into doing AFF! Otherwise I enjoy getting to know people one-on-one, so I tend to seek out jumps with other women/Women of Color, especially when they're first starting out in the sport. I make an effort to get to know them and invite them to events, to the tunnel, and to meet other jumpers. It's so nice to develop these friendships and it creates space to share our experiences, both the good and the bad. Interactions with the people who simply don't see the big deal can jeopardize our involvement in and passion for the sport. Particularly vitriolic responses can feel like low-key gaslighting and who wants to subject themselves to that? We all do amazing things in the sky and most skydivers I know truly love the sport; we should all have the opportunity to keep this up, ideally unfettered by the negative experiences that unfortunately only some of us share.

Nadia: I talk about skydiving to everyone. I think maybe the reason People of Color don’t skydive in higher numbers is because they don’t see people who look like them. I'm a blogger for Melanin Base Camp and I help organize Team Blackstar meetups with the goal of creating community and inspiring others to get into skydiving. The reason why it’s important is because we can’t expect People of Color to come back and feel welcome if we don’t help them feel welcome. They need to be able to feel like the drop-zone is just as much their space as anyone else’s. It’s also asking ourselves hard questions about how do we make this space more open to other people?

Example: drinking beer around a bonfire is a big skydiving tradition—but I didn’t start drinking beer until I started skydiving. Another skydiving tradition is that you “owe beer” in order to celebrate simple skydiving milestones (or gaffes). Alcohol is a big part of skydiving culture but it’s very specific—not wine or liquor, but beer. Not everyone is into that including Muslims, Mormons and those who just don't drink beer. Then there’s music. It’s usually classic rock, dub-step or EDM. So imagine my surprise, when I went to Carolina Fest (a skydiving event) last year and they played reggaeton! It was so lit! Everyone was happy! It wasn’t just Latinos. White people was happy. Black people was happy. I was happy. That’s just one example of how to be more multicultural. Switch it up every now and then. Make room for other identities and other cultures. 

Swati: I try my best to be welcoming to women and persons of color that I meet at drop-zones and wind tunnels. I used to try to brush off negativity to be part of the crowd, but it was not only tiring but also ineffective at bringing about change in the community. We can and must do better to lift up our fellow jumpers to be their best skydiving selves, and that comes through active support rather than passive acceptance of the status quo. I'm developing the courage to speak up and call out sexist or bigoted comments made either to myself or to fellow jumpers. I know I ought to choose having a hard conversation more often than rolling my eyes and walking away. Moreover, I want to lead by example, showing others that you can be comfortable in your own skin AND also be a skydiver, and that you don't have to give up your identity in order to fit in. To that end, I'm learning to celebrate my individuality instead of feeling so guarded about the color of my skin, the culture I come from, and my personal aspirations. I love the work Danielle is doing with Team Blackstar Skydivers and Melanin Base Camp; it makes me so happy to see more women of color in extreme sports being supported and promoted in my news feed!  

Danielle: I didn't pay her to say that! Thanks Swati! I advocate for diversity in skydiving through Team Blackstar which I co-founded in 2014 with six friends. Here’s why it matters:  

Publicizing my accomplishments and promoting diversity in skydiving may create tensions with the 87% of skydivers who don’t see what the big deal is—who are just fine being in a sport that is almost exclusively White and male. It disrupts the unspoken “positive vibes only” rule by pointing out racial and gender disparities that exist within our sport and asking tough questions. It may even make some people feel uncomfortable. Being in the public sphere sucks. People may point out that my harness turns are not as sexy as I think they are or that I backslide in a stand (I do). My parents will probably remind me that I should be working on grad school applications. 

Yet, showcasing our accomplishments however small demonstrates confidence, resilience and empowers the next generation of Black, Latinx and Asian kids. After all, the adventure sports community is so much bigger than what we do on the weekend. It’s about the stories we tell about ourselves in relation to the Outdoors. We’re using our “unproductive time” (@veedubbayou) in Nature to inspire others; to change the narrative about who’s active in the Outdoors; to change perceptions about Women of Color; to write new stories about our communities and who we aspire to be; to ensure the next generation is represented in the story America tells herself about the Outdoors. That’s the bigger goal. The short term goal is to master my sit to head down transitions because mine are wonky AF.

 Nadia Mercado geeks the camera 13,000 ft over Chester, South Carolina 

Nadia Mercado geeks the camera 13,000 ft over Chester, South Carolina 

4. Which skydiving Women of Color do you follow on social media?

Caroline: I love following @flying_tortuga (Nadia), @kyrapoh, and @lindalittlewing! We need more women of color in skydiving though! I typically use social media to keep in touch with the fantastic humans I've met and flown with, so my following list completely reflects the lack of diversity in the sport. I hope to one day jump with Swati, Nadia, and Danielle and other folks who are involved with @melaninbasecamp and @team_blackstar.

Nadia: I follow @skynoire, @eternalskygirl,@donna.k.kim, @kiana.tyinghershoes, @angelatarahsu! I’m excited to get to know Caroline and Swati. I watched Swati (@more_altitude) in the Project Diversify video this year. She’s a badass free flyer.

Swati: I’m thrilled to see women of color in my news feeds – they inspire me to both love the person I am and to work harder at becoming a better flyer! Some of my favorites are @tambamvu @zainayoga @kyrapoh @skynoire. I’m also a fan of accounts that share images from a diverse group of women, like @adrena_ladies, @team_blackstar, and @melaninbasecamp

Danielle:  I love following accounts like @adrena_ladies because they promote diverse women in skydiving from around the globe. I love following @kyrahpoh and @iflysingapore for the same reason. Then there’s wingsuiter @lindalittlewing, base-jumper @shmemilie, skydiving dentist @marwa_alb and globetrotter @filipinaskydiver! There are few Women of Color in skydiving in the US but, of course, we’re present all around the globe! @kathyatsst from France showed me that Black Women could be amazing free-flyers and freestyle skydivers! @more_altitude taught me that we could fly head down and @tortuga_voladora demonstrates the joy of flying on every jump. Overall I just get overjoyed and inspired by Women of Color skydiving because we get left out of the narrative back at home. We just aren’t present. The image of the US skydiver is still very White and male. There's plenty of room for other identities in our community. We're working hard to change that and to #diversifyoutdoors.

5. So ladies, where are you really from?

Caroline: California!

Nadia: Florida

Swati: Massachusetts

Danielle: Everywhere. 

Thanks for joining us for “No, Where Are You Really From?” Don't forget to check out part two of the series here! Curious about skydiving? Check out other skydiving related articles on our website or visit the United States Parachute Association