Paddlers of Color: Meet Rashid Clifton
It isn’t very often that I get to meet other paddlers of color. I have been following Rashid on social media for a while but last race season I finally had a chance to meet Rashid. We both competed in the "Greatest Show in Sports", a local name for the the Green River Narrows Race. Held just outside Saluda, NC the race attracts class V kayakers from around the region and world. They test themselves against the rivers power and against the friends and family they paddle with. Just two hours from Charlotte the river, and the race, aren't too far a drive for the Charlotte native who has completed two Green Races in his six years of kayaking.
Rashid grew up recreating in North Carolina and the surrounding areas. He has been kayaking whitewater since 2012 after starting to work at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. Since then he has become a regular face in the crowd of boaters who frequent the renowned classic grade V section of the Green River, the Green River Narrows, as well as surrounding rivers. After talking for a few months about paddling and boating plans I asked if he would be willing to speak about his experiences as an outdoorsman and paddler of color.
So, lets start with your name and where you’re from.
My name is Rashid Clifton and I was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. I work as a GIS analyst for ESRI. I love to be outside and I like whitewater kayaking. I’m just a guy who loves the outdoors. Sometimes I feel a little uncertain about the direction of life overall, but the things that keep me grounded are what I know about myself. I love to be outside. I love to go camping, hike with my dog, and to breathe in the fresh air. Whether that's walking in the neighborhood or traveling to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the outdoors is where I feel certain about things.
What is important to you about the outdoors?
The grounding aspect and the connection with being outside or traveling. The uncertainty can be unnerving in other areas of life whereas I feel like the outdoors are my constant.
How old are you?
I’m 24 now.
Feel a quarter life crisis coming on?
[laughs] Oh dude I think I’ve already hit it!
What has been that crisis?
Basically, elaborating on the uncertainty and such. I feel a little unsatisfied in the direction of my work. I feel I’m not contributing, I’m just working to pay bills. I’m not truly happy behind the desk but at the same time I’m deeply concerned with environmental issues that are occurring now and the work I’m doing affects that in a good way. I feel I need to go out and do what I can but sometimes it feels a little helpless.
What exactly feels helpless?
Like trying to find the balance between the urge to be outdoors and the reality of driving everywhere. I might drive to the mountains every weekend. That’s 100 miles there and 100 miles back. That’s worse when I’m solo driving because like surfing but can’t always get a carpool. It's this burden on my shoulders. I’m trying to figure that out.
I call that specific crisis the kayaker’s paradox. We drive long distances in gas inefficient cars in order that paddle plastic down these pristine rivers we fight to protect. We consume our share of petroleum products.
I get the uncertainty and its a weird time to be alive watching the last 10-15 years of environmental policy and reality occur. We’ve watched our weather patterns change in real human time not geologic time. How has it been out east?
Definitely a bit of the same. I remember growing up that the weather was predictable. It would be hot and humid in summer and cold in the winter (at least in Charlotte). The past few summers have been wild with drought and some large wildfires for the eastern side of the state up near Nantahala and Pisgah areas. This year it’s just been raining so heavy. Some of the heaviest rains from spring into the summer. Creeks that don’t usually run in summer have been hovering at boatable levels all summer.
Yeah, I heard there were natural flow Green laps!
Its been much higher than usual at this time of year: 8-10 inches instead of 5-6 inches with a few 200% laps.
Oh man, tangent but I’m excited for Green Race this year. I want to see it at 200%. But that is a deep tangent.
Haha! Yeah, I could talk about the 200% Green laps all day.
I’m still intimidated by Gorilla.
Yeah it is [laughs]. You get comfortable running but in the back of your head you still feel a little nervous coming through the notch, because you're never really in total control.
Right?! Ok back on track. What piqued your interest in the outdoors?
I grew up skateboarding for a long while. Then when I was about 10 or 12 my family went to the beach on vacation. I thought to myself, “Oh surfing is cool! I want to be in the water.” My dad rented some boards and I caught a few waves. It was the greatest thing in the world.
How did you keep up with surfing while living in Charlotte?
Even though I lived about four hours from the nearest ocean we were super committed to surfing. My dad would drive me out, waking up at 4 am so I could catch some waves, and then drive back the same day. Once I got my driver’s license I would go immediately after my last class got out so long as I had time and the forecast was good.
What made you switch from surfing to whitewater kayaking?
Surfing was just so out of the way that over time kayaking made more sense. The good wave days of surfing were few and far between. I’d have weeks were I’d have school or work and couldn’t make it out on the good days or there weren’t any good days to begin with. So it was pretty inaccessible and a huge commitment even though that's all I wanted to do. I would just get bummed when I couldn’t go. I was in the angsty teenager phase in that way.
That aspect of surfing always bummed me out too, the waiting for prime weather and then having work or school. But you’ve got to earn your turns.
Yeah, eventually I was introduced to the Whitewater Center.
You worked there through high school or college? Did you learn to boat (Whitewater kayak) there?
I worked at USNWC (US National Whitewater Center) for about five years right out of high school then all through college. I left after I graduated and switched to the desk life because student loans started hitting and all that. But I spent a lot of time there and still go often.
How did you end up working there?
My photography teacher—she used to be one of the original raft guides at the center when it opened up. She knew me, knew that I loved sports like that: snowboarding, skiing, surfing. She said, “You need to come out and get a job!” So I said, “ok” and signed up for the first raft guide school of the season.
It was great! I immediately took to rafting and loved guiding. The center had a few Dagger Torrent sit on top whitewater kayaks. My friends and I would just go out and mess around on them. We had no idea what we were doing but we figured it out. We were just having a blast.
So you started raft guiding and playing in whitewater. Did you see kayakers and decide to learn or did someone introduce you to kayaking?
One day in late summer of 2012 I was waiting for my buddy, with whom I was carpooling, to get off work. While I was sitting there one of my bosses; Jacq, she was our scheduler, was practicing some stuff in the main channel—tricks like cartwheels and stalls (maintaining balance facing downward or facing upward with the boat on a near vertical axis) against the wall. I was just watching and she paddled up and asked if I wanted to learn how to roll. I was like “yeah sure!” So I hopped in the boat and tried my hand at rolling but I obviously sucked at it.
That first time is so disorienting!
Yeah, but from there I started practicing, really practicing. Then once I got the roll I had to get down the river. Then once I made it down the river I needed to learn how to actually paddle.
So that’s how you got into whitewater kayaking?
That’s how it all started, when she took those few minutes out of her day to teach me how to roll. And ever since then I was just hooked.
Did the proximity of USNWC to you help?
Coming from a surfing background where I’d try but couldn't get to the beach because of weather, schedule conflicts and the long commute, I would say yes definitely. I could go down the street, 25 min from my house, and go paddle.
Did the two of you continue boating together?
Yes! I’ve had a few mentors over the years but she is still one of my favorite paddling partners. We’ve progressed together and gone on some awesome trips together over the years.
You already had a great connection to the outdoors it seems. Why is whitewater special?
In my interactions with the outdoors I’ve always been on my own program. I grew up skateboarding by myself because it was fun. I’d maybe go with 2-4 friends. Then I picked up surfing but I lived 200 miles from the nearest coastline. I would drive a lot by myself and surf by myself. But then whitewater kayaking happened. You suddenly have this whole family, 400 of your closest friends and you’re all united by what you love. The same mindset. It was pretty incredible to see that something like that even existed, because I had spent so many years of my life pursuing things by myself. To experience such a drastic change was refreshing. I wasn’t searching for it but now that I know it exists it still feels incredible to be a part of it.
It is one of the most welcoming communities of any sport.
It really is. For example, in my opinion, climbing is cool but in the gym people don't really talk to strangers. But when you roll up to the river you're talking to random strangers, they're offering you beer, you're hitchhiking with random boaters. People just have your back. Whitewater kayaking communities are pretty crazy to see and be a part of.
Why do you think that is?
Um, I don’t know entirely. I think that—I don’t remember where I heard it, maybe Hammer Factor with Marc Hunt?—but I remember them saying, “Whitewater makes good people.” In my experience, I’ve only ever found that to be true. Only kayakers, a true kayaker, is going to be a kayaker. If that makes any sense?
I think I get it, but I’m a kayaker.
Yeah, for sure. OK, I guess I mean you really have to love the sport, be committed and dedicated to it to be a kayaker; someone who sticks around long enough to get through all the bad stuff. By that I mean the scares, the stress, the swims and frustration, before you ever start running rivers efficiently and well. I think the obstacles up-front and the amount of personal drive required to overcome those obstacles are common knowledge. When you meet someone you’re like, “Oh. This person. I KNOW what they’ve been through.”
That is a really good way of putting it. Regardless of who is standing in front of us at the “put in” we have a shared experience. No matter where we are we can pretty reasonably imagine what the person went through to get to the point of “hey, do you want to go kayaking?’
Exactly! You have to paddle some cold water with crappy gear and swim and it happens to the best of us!
We’re all between swims! Do you feel like being an African American in the paddling community made you more or less visible or influenced others’ perceptions of you?
I think that being an African American paddler makes you 100% more visible. You stand out amongst everyone. Not only do you look differently, there are not that many people with dark skin who spend time in these rivers.
How do you perceive that otherness?
When I first started I felt like I’d roll up to the river and get some funny looks like “who is this? What are they about? Are they gonna swim?” Not all the time, but I would definitely see people doing double takes at the river.
Does that still happen?
Not so much anymore. That was quite a few years ago. These days people recognize who I am and it doesn’t happen as much. There are a few other African American boaters around this area as well. I got my best friend into kayaking and he is rolling down the Green with me now. There are a few others in the area who are crushing it as well.
Does it feel like the increased presence decreases the amount to which you stand out as a paddler of color?
I feel like its more common to see an African American boater now so we don’t stand out as much. But, our visibility is still 100% because we look different from the majority of the community.
So it sounds like, over time, people became used to your presence. You stuck with it, and folks stopped looking because they had seen you repeatedly.
Yes exactly! Over time they’d seen us, they were no longer surprised to see a person of color on the river. It is a bit of both, I stand out because I look different and have an ethnic name. It’s easy to remember.
At the same time, I had a bit of presence on the river as I was going to the Green every weekend for a while, along with other paddlers that are just as “religious” about kayaking. They were also African American and folks grew accustomed to seeing a larger African American presence on the river. Nowadays, people are less surprised to see me and it shifts from them remembering me because I’m Black to them just remembering this is another kayaker I see a lot.
That is a cool transformation of perspective.
I think it is a little similar to the progression of female paddlers in the sport. You really didn’t have that many back in the day. Anytime a girl would roll up they’d be remembered because they were “the only one” or one of a few women paddlers in the area. Now there are so many more women in paddling in general along with women crushing at all levels of the sport that you don’t hear as much surprise. You know the person, their name, who they are, how they paddle whitewater. Their gender isn’t their only defining attribute.
Why do you think there were fewer paddlers of color and why do think there are more paddlers of color now?
I want to say a few different reasons. The biggest is access. In my example I would never have become a kayaker without the USNWC. I can't overstate the impact of having an artificial whitewater park down the street from my house. I grew up in a major city and while I may have gone up to the mountain and east to the coast, I wouldn’t have been exposed to whitewater. It’s out of the way up in the mountains. Legacy matters. Having experienced friends or family who can expose you to whitewater helps! With no paddlers in my family or friend group, the chances of me becoming a paddler were slim. The intervening factor was USNWC which opened up a door that I wasn’t even considering at the time. Once I got started, the proximity definitely helped. Being able to get out and try to paddle after work made me more likely to stick with it. Proximity enabled me to really learn the sport at my leisure and convenience. It didn’t take me years to get good. I had the advantage of paddling everyday. I got pretty good at kayaking, pretty fast. I think having access and proximity to the river is such a huge barrier. It has gotten a little bit smaller. But I think that is one of the main reasons we haven’t seen as many people of color in the water as you would for a comparable sport.
Proximity to rivers and the access to them are definitely huge barriers to learning. You stuck through driving to learn to surf but also had remarkable opportunity with your family's willingness.
Exactly. Then you start thinking about costs. The sport has a steep buy in. You have to buy a boat, helmet, paddle, skirt, PFD [personal flotation device e.g. life jacket] and then dry gear like a dry top or dry suit [water repellant outerware for paddling afficianados] if you're anywhere that has consitently cold water. Add lessons on top of that. That’s at least five mandatory things you have to get before you can even get on the river and learn on a regular basis. Buying everything secondhand still racks up quickly.
And compared to other sports that's a huge buy in just for gear; not including the logistics of paddling and the need for a vehicle.
Compared to baseball and football where all you need is shoes, a ball, and friends, kayaking is gear intensive, hidden from view mostly, and you have to known someone to get into it. Then you have to work and pay a lot, in money and dedication, to really get good at it. I think those are the big barriers you have to overcome to get into it.
It’s what $500-1000 to get into the sport if you mix new and used gear. Maybe a little cheaper if someone swings you a deal.
Exactly. I spent about 400 on my first set of gear. I bought a Necky blunt, almost cracked.
Do you still have it?
Yeah. Other than that I had a helmet and pfd from raft guiding but I also bought a skirt and a paddle. An old Werner Player with water in the shaft.
As you navigate your future where do you see yourself going in connection with environmental concerns and kayaking? As you move forward are you trying to stay integrated with the outdoors?
Absolutely! I feel like I have something to contribute. I have a solid skill set in GIS. I know the software and the applications and can figure out whatever is to be done. I feel I could use that as a tool for helping address environmental concerns. That could be a site feasibility analysis or working with a environmental non profit that that can’t hire a full time GIS staffer. I could assist in something like that. I could see myself doing that in the future. But as I sit here reading and learning about the current state of things it’s a little burdensome on the mental health. Just knowing everything that's happening makes me feel a little helpless.
We live in interesting times to be sure.
I’ve come to deal with that by enjoying the outdoors. Just going outside and kayaking or whatever. I think I would fall into a sort of depression if I didn’t have the outdoors. It's one of those things where you can fight for the environment a whole lot but become sad because you don’t see any progress happening. I can be doing all that work but not see a result. The minute you put that down and go enjoy the environment you’re trying to protect it melts the fears and concerns. Without being too cliche, it brings me back to why I want to do that work in the first place.
How do you see yourself? As a kayaker? A black man? A human?
I don't see myself as a black paddler or a black man. I see myself as a person who loves to be outside. I see myself as a human being. I’m just a part of the earth. I feel I’m just a human that has a responsibility to look after the earth. Rather than a black guy trying to make it as a kayaker.
Have you experienced racism in the outdoors or any feelings directed at you that would challenge your perception of the community or change how you think others perceive you?
Yeah, I definitely have; there are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head. Kayaking takes you into the rural areas of North Carolina and there’s a long history there. Some of these areas weren’t the most friendly of places for all people. So occasionally you’ll still see things, campaign stickers and flags, that don’t make you feel very welcome when traveling through some areas.
Thats a common thread out west as well. It’s unnerving.
Also when I’m with a group sometimes people will say things like, “You’re the whitest black guy I’ve ever known” or “You’re really good at white people things.” I know they don’t have bad intentions when they say things like that but it is alarming when people do. Whitewater doesn’t belong to white people. By saying “white people things” they’re insinuating that white people DO own whitewater. Its just a sport.
It’s a thing you can do if you want to. If you have the time, access and money.
I think they generally don’t have any intention or think about the effect when they say things like that.
I would agree. It’s not a lesser version but similar to when folks say you’re pretty good for a girl.
Yeah, not a compliment.
Still makes you cringe.
I’ve met other paddlers of color over the years and asked them similar questions And the answers change depend on age and regions. Older paddlers went through a different rough period of America’s history when they were learning to kayak. Very different but also similar to the climate we have grown in. And they’ve also said it's an expensive sport and most people don’t want to do this. But once you’re in the sport the assaults, passive or aggressive, were mostly from outside-in. And if it was from the inside it was addressed.
That’s interesting that thousands of miles apart we have had a similar experience.
Yeah small world eh! Where do you see yourself going with paddling?
I’ve been inspired by Dennis Huntley and other old school paddlers. I had the chance to paddle the New with him and he was crushing in his open boat. Just telling us the rivers history. He knows all of it. I want to be in that spirit and have that history when I’m old. My goal is to have that kind of tenure within the sport.
What do you think will get you there?
I think doing what I’m doing. I’ve been paddling in the Southeast a whole bunch but I want to travel and kayak as well. I don’t see myself slowing down—you’re always learning and not just on the river. I just still want to be getting after it, meeting people and networking. That mindset keeps me going: constant learning. It’s always fresh, it will never get stale.