7 Reasons Why Your Outdoor Friends Are Not Good Allies
Let’s talk about a sensitive topic we tend to shy away from. If you’re a person of color active in backcountry outdoor sports it’s possible that your partner is white and most of your outdoorsy friends are too. No, this doesn’t apply to everyone—but it does apply to a lot of us. It’s a simple fact of the mountain towns we live in and how we choose to spend our time. The outdoor communities many of us turn to after work and on the weekends and during trips throughout the year are not integrated. They are very, very white, and often times, we find ourselves as the “only black girl” or the “only Asian guy” or the “only queer woman of color” in the group.
You may gradually find yourself spending more and more time in predominantly white spaces and less and less time around people who look like you. Many of us have diverse circles of friends only on social media and a few times each year, when we catch up with friends from high school or college. It’s one reason why affinity groups and spaces like People of the Global Majority One (PGM ONE), Diversity in Aquatics and Color the Crag are so important.
As individuals we make our own personal decisions about how much time we allocate to shared activities versus shared cultural or ethnic identities. Everyone’s optimal range is different. In my mid 20s, I wanted to spend as much time as possible trail running and skydiving because doing those things made me feel incredibly alive and present! In the back of my mind, I knew those spaces were almost entirely white (in the United States) but I didn’t dwell on it. I also didn’t leave much room for a social life outside of those activities.
After awhile, I noticed that the connections I made at the drop-zone didn’t lead to many close friendships. I was basically jumping with the same 25-year-old brand new white male skydivers over and over. That was fun when I was 25 and we had more in common. But as I got older, I noticed that the people I met up with on the weekend did not: I was still jumping with mostly 25-year-old white guys. The faces changed but that was about it. As the years passed, more of my friends left the sport to raise families or to take new jobs in locations far away from a drop-zone or in search of the next big rush. Skydiving began to feel incredibly socially isolating.
Now, in my early 30s, I really just want to be comfortable in my own skin. I miss the diverse circle of friends I had in college. My priorities have changed, and that’s okay. I’m intentional about spending more time with people who have and embrace intersectional identities like my own. While we absolutely should not let “being the only one” stop us from trying new things, it can still feel lonely and intimidating and socially isolating. Encountering racism or sexism can be especially disheartening, if you don’t know if your outdoor friends will have your back.
So how do you know if your outdoor friends are good allies? And what do you do if they’re not? I have very few answers for the second question, but I can help you with the first. Here are seven reasons why your outdoor friends may be taxing the hell out of your emotional health.
1. They come and tell you about racist comments they overheard and chose not to respond to.
Or they’ll send you screenshots of racist comments on Instagram. They want recognition for correctly identifying the thing as racist, but it either doesn’t occur to them, or they simply choose not to step up in the moment. They aren’t anti-racist around their co-workers or friends or fellow outdoorsmen. They’re silent. They’ve correctly identified you as the person who will say or do something about it, but they’re not willing to do that work themselves. And while your emotional health is being seriously taxed, they send you the right articles and books to aggressively signal their progressiveness—all while doing the absolute least!
2. Your novice mistakes are constantly misattributed to your race or gender.
You biffed one landing at the drop-zone, and now they won’t shut up about how girls can’t fly parachutes—even though your wing-loading is higher than theirs and you’ve been flying high performance canopies since you became a licensed skydiver. You are called into the front office and have to sit through a lecture about safety. Plot twist: Your best friend in the sport is white and male. After he breaks his tib-fib on a reckless low turn, an experienced instructor at the drop-zone takes him under his wing and teaches him advanced canopy piloting, free of charge. His friends laugh it off and six months later, no one is talking about it. That’s called failing up. It’s a special power white cisgender men have. Your mom is originally from the Philippines and six months later, you’re still listening to non-stop jokes about how Asian girls can’t fly parachutes. That’s called racism and sexism. The thought of making another mistake, any mistake, is making you sick to your stomach. Maybe you won’t learn to swoop after all. Maybe you’ll just play it safe for the rest of your life.
3. “Not trying to be offensive, but...” always proceeds an offensive remark.
You don’t want to speak up because the speakers are funny and well-liked by the other bros. Or they took you on your first trad climb and damn if the community isn’t hard to break into. This is your chance! How many more memes about SJWs and jokes about immigrants, and safe spaces are you going to have to put up with? Maybe you’re white passing or not visibly queer and because of that everyone assumes you must be white and straight. So you hear and see everything. Every homophobic joke. Every racist meme.
At night around the campfire, your friend frequently refers to his ex-wife as a “c*nt” or “b*tch” in front of you. You want to ask him to stop, but you also want to say nothing and just be ‘one of the guys.’ You don’t want to speak up and ruin the vibe especially when you’re new to the group and no one else is taking offense. So you just stay quiet instead. He’s never said anything personally offensive about you, so it’s okay, right? You’ll just keep your head down for another few months and you’ll be fine.
4. They gaslight you all the time.
If something racist happens to you at the trailhead, in the parking lot, or in the climbing gym you have no one to talk to—no one who will believe you that is. Your friends don’t understand because they are unable and unwilling to empathize with anything that doesn’t personally affect them. That’s called white privilege. They tell you that you’re misreading the situation or exaggerating. When you get pulled over by cops on the first leg of your epic outdoor adventure, they tell you to brush it off—it could’ve happened to anyone. When you get pulled over by cops on the next leg of your epic outdoor adventure they blame your out-of-state plates. You let one of your friends drive for the rest of the trip and try to forget about it.
When you feel unsafe holding hands with your same sex partner on the trail, your friends tell you to loosen up. They say things like “nature is colorblind” or “no one cares what you look like.” But you don’t feel safe. You’re tired of being stared at. You are scared of being visibly queer at rest stops, gas stations and trail heads. They say you’re being too emotional, or they explain that you’re the problematic one for talking about homophobia so much. Nature doesn’t care what you look like, or who you’re with. Right?
5. They tone police your emotional response to racism, homophobia and transphobia.
You’ve never had so many white people you barely know quote Martin Luther King Jr. at you—usually whitewashed quotes taken out-of-context. Real allies prioritize anti-racism over tone policing how they think people of color should respond to racism, but by now, you’re starting to suspect that your friends aren’t real allies. They don’t understand why you’re crying and don’t feel like climbing after reading about the latest police shooting of an unarmed black man or the unsolved murder of another indigenous woman.
They aggressively tone police you on social media, demanding that you respond to racists in a nicer tone if you expect to be heard. They whine about how safe spaces and affinity groups violate their first amendment rights. They refuse to check other people in the group who intentionally misgender you or who make openly racist comments. They are constantly prioritizing their comfort over your emotional well-being and safety.
6. Your friends confuse being nice with being anti-racist.
You know they’re not the same, but now you’re not so sure if your friends understand the difference. They actively avoid talking about race. They say things like “why do we have to be black and white, why can’t we just be people?” Or they insist that they don’t see color and explain how it’s more important to just be a good person. That matters more than all this racial stuff.
If you mention a creepy interaction you had with someone else in the group, your friend reminds you that so-and-so is a good person with a wife and kid. You’re not exactly sure what that is supposed to mean.
Your friends encourage you to “be happy, and stop talking about race all the time” when you try to tell them about a white gas station owner who accuses you of stealing a candy bar. They think you’re a drag on the conversation when you mention the stares you and your white girlfriend received on the trail. They pass you another beer and someone quickly changes the topic.
7. You are emotionally exhausted from micro aggressions and code-switching all the time.
Your outdoor friends think acrylics are ghetto, so you don’t get them any more. They think your music is ghetto, so you stop listening to it around them. They think your Walmart tent is too heavy and your sleeping bag is too bulky so you upgrade to ultralight gear and charge everything on your credit card. Now you look like you’re ready to climb K2, even though you only car camp occasionally with friends.
You like styling your hair naturally, but your friends think it looks better straight. You like protective styles, but the one time you wore box braids on a camping trip, they asked “how does your hair grow so fast?” and kept trying to touch it. Then they complained that your hair was greasy. They think it’s funny that you’re patting your head and they demand to know why you have to wrap your hair up at night.
New people in the group frequently signal how progressive they are by asking you “where are you really from?” Or they greet you in Spanish to show that they are cultured and self-aware enough to recognize your Latinx surname. But you don’t speak Spanish and didn’t grow up speaking it. Your parents wanted to protect you from the racism they experienced daily at grocery stores, banks and doctors offices for speaking Spanish or having accented English.
You notice that none of your white friends ever get asked where they’re really from. And no one randomly greets them in German or French. But your friends are just being nice, right? And that’s the most important thing…being a nice person.
Your friends mispronounce your birth name so you shorten it to something easier for them to say. They like showing off that they have a Muslim friend, as if you’re a center-piece or conversation starter. They ask a lot of questions about Ramadan and even fast for a few days in solidarity but when you want to talk about Muslims being killed in Gaza or imprisoned in China their eyes glaze over with disinterest.
Okay, so some of your progressive friends are problematic.
What are you supposed to do? It’s not your job to fix them, right? They don’t see race because it’s never been a barrier for them. They don’t like talking about race because as children they were taught that the mere acknowledgment of race, or disability, or any kind of difference is bad. They aren’t arrogant, they just think that if something isn’t affecting them personally, well it can’t be affecting anyone else, right? They center themselves in every conversation because society centers them—that’s why they have trouble making space for others. They were raised to think that their opinion matters most and that racism doesn’t really exist if they say it doesn’t. They are defensive and angry and also afraid of messing up. And they’re your friends. And they took you on your first 14er, and your first snowboarding trip to Mammoth, and you even hiked the High Sierra Trail together. They’re your good friends from college. They introduced you to your partner. They were in your wedding. No one’s perfect, right? Right?