Breaking the color barrier in the great outdoors

Photo by Dudley Edmonson

photo by Dudley Edmondson

A new national conference is set to begin on September 23rd.  A group of African American environmental activists and outdoor enthusiasts will gather in Atlanta Georgia to have a frank discussion on issues of race in the movement to preserve wild and scenic places.  Called Breaking the Color Barrier in The Great Outdoors, this conference promises to bring together people of color to talk about their role in protecting the natural environment for future generations. For details visit www.breakingthecolorbarrier.com

After 20 years in the outdoor business for me this conference is a long time in coming. As a person of color myself I’ve spent my career silently hoping that more people who look like me would find themselves enjoying the wilderness areas I love.

If only diversity in outdoor recreation were simply a matter of race. Then we might just think about ignoring it. Those who take comfort in the peace and solitude of wilderness, mostly white folks, would likely prefer to keep nature’s hideaways safely preserved for their own use. And as long as the growing minority population of black and brown folks elects to avoid these wild and scenic places, favoring instead foreign travel and urban pastimes, what’s the harm?
Status quo relegates African-Americans, Asians and Latinos, for example, to city centers often with limited access to green space. And despite no institutional restrictions today that prevent minorities from visiting their state or national parks, few feel compelled to venture away from their urban dwellings to explore the natural world. To put it simply, many people of color choose not to set out into the great outdoors. The persistent question is “why?”

Research shows ethnic minorities are conspicuously absent among participants of activities such camping, backpacking, rock climbing, cycling, skiing, and others. For more than a century, since the modern recreation era began with the designation of the first national parks, people of color have enjoyed the benefits of an active lifestyle out of doors in numbers fewer than their white counterparts relative to their percentage of the population. Again the question continues to be “why?”

It would seem there are cultural reasons that preclude minorities from taking pleasure in various outdoor experiences. For instance, the 400-year legacy of slavery and forced labor outside was likely reinforced by the post -Civil War and Great Depression era mass migration of African-Americans to major U.S. cities. Traveling from the Deep South to find factory work in the industrial north, Blacks found safety behind locked doors and congregated in urban communities.  But as a population, Jim Crow laws restricted their movements and segregated minorities to ghettos all the way up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Add to that phenomenon multiple random acts of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in the years that followed. This typically occurred often in remote wooded areas beyond city limits, and it’s no wonder African-Americans, Latinos and Asians in this country, historically, prefer to remain indoors or visit urban parks closer to home.

Dr. Nina Roberts

Dr. Nina Roberts

According to Dr. Nina Roberts, a professor at San Francisco State University, people of color have experienced a variety of constraints to visiting national parks and other protected areas that are typically very different from the more traditional white visitors.  A nationally-recognized scholar who explores cultural connections to parks and public lands, Dr. Roberts indicates that “factors such as perceived discrimination, socialization and upbringing, fear of personal safety, concern about not having the right outdoor gear or equipment, and/or lack of knowledge and awareness, are a few of the many reasons provided for lack of visitation to more vast outdoor environments.”

All humans need a healthy ecosystem to survive; similarly, Dr. Roberts asserts that “mental, physical, and emotional health is essential for all humans as well, and the outdoors is one of the best places to achieve these benefits.  We all connect to the natural world in some capacity, so understanding the experiences of people of color, including religious and spiritual connections, will ultimately increase access and open up new opportunities for all people, not just a few.”

It’s important to understand how we come to find ourselves where we are today. Though legal segregation no longer exists and hate crimes are rare, there remains a sometimes mysterious cultural barrier forged in social memory. While collectively we enjoy greater freedom to go wherever we wish, as individuals we might question whether or not we are all welcome when we arrive. Without the safety of numbers and  locked doors to protect them, people of color likely find themselves vulnerable to the wilds of nature. So they may opt to stay home instead, denying themselves and, potentially, future generations the opportunity to establish and enjoy a comfortable relationship with the outdoors.

Long term, the problem of low minority participation in outdoor activities could ultimately impact the preservation of the environment as a whole. As populations of racially and ethnically diverse people continue to increase, it is predicted that by the year 2050 their numbers will exceed those of whites. This is already evident in four states across America (CA, AZ, TX, HI), and the District of Columbia.  If this changing population has little to no vested interest in environmental conservation, how likely would state and federal funding be allocated for continued wilderness protection? It is then that diversity in outdoor recreation becomes far more than a question of race. At that point diversity becomes an issue in the new environmental movement that cannot be ignored.
Plan to attend the Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great Outdoors conference in September or continue to follow this blog for updates during and immediately afterward.

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

12 Responses to “Breaking the color barrier in the great outdoors”

  1. July 2, 2009 at 11:56 am #

    This comment was posted on Facebook by John Davidson

    We ran a cover story on diversity in the outdoors in OR mag a while back. Or did they ditch all the archives at the office when the mag folded? It was a good article. I think Joan Alvarez had the lead on that, not sure. I am not necessarily buying the reasons this author brings forth for low minority turnout in the outdoors. “Social memory” and sense of “perceived discrimination” sound slick, but I think that only serves to devalue other possibilities that actually may be more relevant. If the author assumes that minorities or inner urban populations WANT to go outdoors, then she pigeonholes her search for the truth. Outdoor recreation competes with other recreational activities that are more available and attractive to minorities, such as urban sports like basketball and football. We live in an environment where these sports are sexy & glorified. How does the outdoors compare, either in reality or in its marketing? Also, are we avoiding cultural predispositions to outdoor recreation?

    Those are just some ideas to get the noodle thinking. It’s a very valid concern posed, but more perspectives are needed to tease out the underpinnings of this problem. Assigning so much gravity to racial discrimination is troublesome. I would steer people in the direction of socio-economics, access, and marketing/competition. In fact, this kind of echoes the long standing question, “Why don’t Americans take to soccer?” There may be some parallels.

  2. July 1, 2009 at 11:56 pm #

    This comment was posted on Facebook by John Davidson

    We ran a cover story on diversity in the outdoors in OR mag a while back. Or did they ditch all the archives at the office when the mag folded? It was a good article. I think Joan Alvarez had the lead on that, not sure. I am not necessarily buying the reasons this author brings forth for low minority turnout in the outdoors. “Social memory” and sense of “perceived discrimination” sound slick, but I think that only serves to devalue other possibilities that actually may be more relevant. If the author assumes that minorities or inner urban populations WANT to go outdoors, then she pigeonholes her search for the truth. Outdoor recreation competes with other recreational activities that are more available and attractive to minorities, such as urban sports like basketball and football. We live in an environment where these sports are sexy & glorified. How does the outdoors compare, either in reality or in its marketing? Also, are we avoiding cultural predispositions to outdoor recreation?

    Those are just some ideas to get the noodle thinking. It’s a very valid concern posed, but more perspectives are needed to tease out the underpinnings of this problem. Assigning so much gravity to racial discrimination is troublesome. I would steer people in the direction of socio-economics, access, and marketing/competition. In fact, this kind of echoes the long standing question, “Why don’t Americans take to soccer?” There may be some parallels.

  3. July 2, 2009 at 5:03 pm #

    Your points are very well taken. There are a variety of activities that are more attractive to urbanites than outdoor recreation. The industry is in a constant struggle to keep and retain its audience. The question though is “why is there such a glaring difference between rates of participation between whites and minorities relative to their … Read Morepercentage of the population.” If it was simply a matter of one activity being more sexy than another we would see a even statistical distribution in the number of people who camp, ski, climb etc regardless of their race.

    I suggest there are several other factors at work here. Social memory and the presumption of discrimination are two I believe must be considered. DR. Nina Roberts, a scholar in the field, tracks a variety of different issues that go far beyond the practices of marketing professional and their failed attempts to promote the outdoors to people of color.

    • July 2, 2009 at 5:03 am #

      Your points are very well taken. There are a variety of activities that are more attractive to urbanites than outdoor recreation. The industry is in a constant struggle to keep and retain its audience. The question though is “why is there such a glaring difference between rates of participation between whites and minorities relative to their … Read Morepercentage of the population.” If it was simply a matter of one activity being more sexy than another we would see a even statistical distribution in the number of people who camp, ski, climb etc regardless of their race.

      I suggest there are several other factors at work here. Social memory and the presumption of discrimination are two I believe must be considered. DR. Nina Roberts, a scholar in the field, tracks a variety of different issues that go far beyond the practices of marketing professional and their failed attempts to promote the outdoors to people of color.

  4. John Davidson
    July 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm #

    While it certainly is not my attempt to relegate social and racial issues to the back of the class in the attempt to solve this riddle of the sphinx, I do think it is healthy to explore all dimensions. I don’t think anything of this complexity can be easily explained with a blanket description of the problem since the problem may be different in certain regions. I often have debates with a friend of mine in Missouri. Whenever we talk about racial issues, his perspective is different than mine because he grew up in the South. Since I grew up a native Californian, I was never exposed to the level of racial strife that besets other areas, maybe even still today. So, it’s good to get these perspectives and explore ALL possibilities. Having a background in advocacy and argument, I tend to be critical of one-sided discussions, even within one person’s article.

    For me, I would go include but go beyond some of those main points in the article Kenji posted. I would ask questions like; Do minorities have a desire to engage the outdoors (is it in their DNA???)? does distribution of minority populations limit access? Is there a cultural aspect at play here? (ie: is outdoor rec an American thing, or, do certain races or cultures gravitate to it more than others?) What is the history of outdoor recreation (is it because caucasians as a rule have been doing this longer with more inertia and is it only a matter of time that minorities will eventually join in? What role does media and advertising play in this? What is the relevance of more minorities being involved in the outdoors (I risk sounding jaded here, but I have to be the devil’s advocate. For example, why don’t we ask why are there not more white people in professional basketball or black people in hockey. Maybe it’s just how it is??? Much in the same way I don’t play bingo and shuffleboard like older people do, or shop at Pottery Barn like women do.)

    Anyways, I love a good discussion and hopefully I can bring something to the table. i am sure better people than I have already delved into this I’ll see if I have a copy of that OR mag issue I spoke of earlier. I designed the cover and that feature article, so I have some idea of what it looks like at least. I may be one of the handful of people that has a private collection of those mags from 1994 until 2001.

    Best! Your man with a lighter tan, John

  5. John Davidson
    July 2, 2009 at 6:04 am #

    While it certainly is not my attempt to relegate social and racial issues to the back of the class in the attempt to solve this riddle of the sphinx, I do think it is healthy to explore all dimensions. I don’t think anything of this complexity can be easily explained with a blanket description of the problem since the problem may be different in certain regions. I often have debates with a friend of mine in Missouri. Whenever we talk about racial issues, his perspective is different than mine because he grew up in the South. Since I grew up a native Californian, I was never exposed to the level of racial strife that besets other areas, maybe even still today. So, it’s good to get these perspectives and explore ALL possibilities. Having a background in advocacy and argument, I tend to be critical of one-sided discussions, even within one person’s article.

    For me, I would go include but go beyond some of those main points in the article Kenji posted. I would ask questions like; Do minorities have a desire to engage the outdoors (is it in their DNA???)? does distribution of minority populations limit access? Is there a cultural aspect at play here? (ie: is outdoor rec an American thing, or, do certain races or cultures gravitate to it more than others?) What is the history of outdoor recreation (is it because caucasians as a rule have been doing this longer with more inertia and is it only a matter of time that minorities will eventually join in? What role does media and advertising play in this? What is the relevance of more minorities being involved in the outdoors (I risk sounding jaded here, but I have to be the devil’s advocate. For example, why don’t we ask why are there not more white people in professional basketball or black people in hockey. Maybe it’s just how it is??? Much in the same way I don’t play bingo and shuffleboard like older people do, or shop at Pottery Barn like women do.)

    Anyways, I love a good discussion and hopefully I can bring something to the table. i am sure better people than I have already delved into this I’ll see if I have a copy of that OR mag issue I spoke of earlier. I designed the cover and that feature article, so I have some idea of what it looks like at least. I may be one of the handful of people that has a private collection of those mags from 1994 until 2001.

    Best! Your man with a lighter tan, John

  6. July 4, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    Hello James!!

    I am soo happy that you are doing this blog and bringing attention to the fact that Americans of racially diverse ethnicity and culture are under represented in the use, enjoyment and stewardship of our wild and wonderful public lands system.

    You describe our upcoming conference, Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors, as “A group of African American environmental activists and outdoor enthusiasts will gather in Atlanta Georgia to have a frank discussion on issues of race in the movement to preserve wild and scenic places.”

    I want you to know that this conference purports to do just what the title says, “break the color barrier,” and we would not serve that purpose well if we limited the conference to African Americans. We are embracing the full diversity of the American populace, and showing the myriad, little-known stories of awesome outdoor accomplishments being made by diverse Americans in the areas of conservation, public lands management, academia and outdoor recreation.

    I hope you appreciate the shift in thinking, which has only come about as a result of 14 years engagement with the issue. And, as i pointed out to my colleagues at npca.org board of trustees meeting recently, the diversity we seek is already realized when the most iconic unit of the National Park System, the White House, is occupied by a family of color.

    The conference offers an amazing way for all of us interested in the preservation of our natural treasures to coalesce on their behalf, and on behalf of our people and planet.

    i love you!

    HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY! MAY WE ALL EXPERIENCE THE REALITY OF LIBERTY! JUSTICE! EQUALITY to which we aspire in our fledgling democracy.
    love, audrey

  7. July 4, 2009 at 4:42 am #

    Hello James!!

    I am soo happy that you are doing this blog and bringing attention to the fact that Americans of racially diverse ethnicity and culture are under represented in the use, enjoyment and stewardship of our wild and wonderful public lands system.

    You describe our upcoming conference, Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors, as “A group of African American environmental activists and outdoor enthusiasts will gather in Atlanta Georgia to have a frank discussion on issues of race in the movement to preserve wild and scenic places.”

    I want you to know that this conference purports to do just what the title says, “break the color barrier,” and we would not serve that purpose well if we limited the conference to African Americans. We are embracing the full diversity of the American populace, and showing the myriad, little-known stories of awesome outdoor accomplishments being made by diverse Americans in the areas of conservation, public lands management, academia and outdoor recreation.

    I hope you appreciate the shift in thinking, which has only come about as a result of 14 years engagement with the issue. And, as i pointed out to my colleagues at npca.org board of trustees meeting recently, the diversity we seek is already realized when the most iconic unit of the National Park System, the White House, is occupied by a family of color.

    The conference offers an amazing way for all of us interested in the preservation of our natural treasures to coalesce on their behalf, and on behalf of our people and planet.

    i love you!

    HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY! MAY WE ALL EXPERIENCE THE REALITY OF LIBERTY! JUSTICE! EQUALITY to which we aspire in our fledgling democracy.
    love, audrey

  8. Christina C.
    July 8, 2009 at 12:15 am #

    This issue/question reminds me of one of those aha moments I had as a child, when I discovered that my father knew how to swim and my mother did not. This was about the time we moved to the country in Florida, with lakes everywhere. My mother grew up on a small farm in Michigan. My father grew up in the inner city in St. Louis. Their swimming skills seemed backward to me. Where and how would you swim in St. Louis? How could you not swim in the country? My father was a Boy Scout. Scouts taught swimming, took boys hiking at Chain of Rocks Park and various other things. There wasn’t much opportunity for swimming, especially for girls, on the farm (her brother can swim a little, and hunts and camps). Her activities were through 4-H, and she went for the indoor ones, never taking much to farmwork or large animals. (Other girls in the area did.) If you’ll pardon the personal anecdote, the reason I’m sharing it is two-fold. First, it shows the support and activities we have as children are influences. Second, what’s exotic to us as children can be a terrific pull. What’s familiar and comforting can be, too. But no one wants a busman’s holiday. My father never goes to St. Louis for vacation, my mother rarely goes to Michigan, and I only go to Florida for brief visits. Those places that feel like work, or that people worked to leave (e.g., rural areas) may not seem fun. Just a thought.

  9. Christina C.
    July 7, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    This issue/question reminds me of one of those aha moments I had as a child, when I discovered that my father knew how to swim and my mother did not. This was about the time we moved to the country in Florida, with lakes everywhere. My mother grew up on a small farm in Michigan. My father grew up in the inner city in St. Louis. Their swimming skills seemed backward to me. Where and how would you swim in St. Louis? How could you not swim in the country? My father was a Boy Scout. Scouts taught swimming, took boys hiking at Chain of Rocks Park and various other things. There wasn’t much opportunity for swimming, especially for girls, on the farm (her brother can swim a little, and hunts and camps). Her activities were through 4-H, and she went for the indoor ones, never taking much to farmwork or large animals. (Other girls in the area did.) If you’ll pardon the personal anecdote, the reason I’m sharing it is two-fold. First, it shows the support and activities we have as children are influences. Second, what’s exotic to us as children can be a terrific pull. What’s familiar and comforting can be, too. But no one wants a busman’s holiday. My father never goes to St. Louis for vacation, my mother rarely goes to Michigan, and I only go to Florida for brief visits. Those places that feel like work, or that people worked to leave (e.g., rural areas) may not seem fun. Just a thought.

  10. Wayne Hare
    July 8, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    Thoughtful comments. Thanks. I’ve been aware of and sort of studying this phenomenon for maybe 40 of my 59 years. First and foremost, it is simply time to get beyond studies and thoughful commentary; drop race as an issue; become one America; and get outdoors. The outdoors is a totally equalatarian place. If it rains, you get wet, no matter your color or position back in civilization. So it has the potential to be a perfectly leveling playing field. Not that there’s some great need for blacks especially to get outdoors, but it’s a great place to drop and just ‘get over’ the race issue. Second, as was pointed out, in order to support our public lands and wild places, not to mention solve our environmental crises, we all need to participate – especially as the so-called minority becomes the so-called majority.

    As a U.S. Park Ranger, several years ago I studied a book about law enforcement involvement in shoot-outs. The primary reason why law enforcement so often came out on the short end of these encounters was blamed on a life time of watching television shows where the cops won: Drew their gun faster, shot straighter, fate and God on the side of right. Television had implanted an unshakable belief. Media. In America, rugged outdoor individuals are our national icon. You can watch television and movies forever. You can cruise through all the pretty pictures of the glamorous apres’ski life until you’re blue. You can read black oriented publications forever. You can flip through those cool Patagonia catalogs of people having fun in the world’s most exotic places. And seldom – almost never – will you find a non-white face. I think that’s a very powerful and distinct lack of ‘social permission’ and a strong reinforcement of a stereotype. All anyof us need to do to take advantage of what has been hailed as ‘America’s best idea’ is to simply get the hell out there. Go! Now!

  11. July 8, 2009 at 3:10 am #

    Thoughtful comments. Thanks. I’ve been aware of and sort of studying this phenomenon for maybe 40 of my 59 years. First and foremost, it is simply time to get beyond studies and thoughful commentary; drop race as an issue; become one America; and get outdoors. The outdoors is a totally equalatarian place. If it rains, you get wet, no matter your color or position back in civilization. So it has the potential to be a perfectly leveling playing field. Not that there’s some great need for blacks especially to get outdoors, but it’s a great place to drop and just ‘get over’ the race issue. Second, as was pointed out, in order to support our public lands and wild places, not to mention solve our environmental crises, we all need to participate – especially as the so-called minority becomes the so-called majority.

    As a U.S. Park Ranger, several years ago I studied a book about law enforcement involvement in shoot-outs. The primary reason why law enforcement so often came out on the short end of these encounters was blamed on a life time of watching television shows where the cops won: Drew their gun faster, shot straighter, fate and God on the side of right. Television had implanted an unshakable belief. Media. In America, rugged outdoor individuals are our national icon. You can watch television and movies forever. You can cruise through all the pretty pictures of the glamorous apres’ski life until you’re blue. You can read black oriented publications forever. You can flip through those cool Patagonia catalogs of people having fun in the world’s most exotic places. And seldom – almost never – will you find a non-white face. I think that’s a very powerful and distinct lack of ‘social permission’ and a strong reinforcement of a stereotype. All anyof us need to do to take advantage of what has been hailed as ‘America’s best idea’ is to simply get the hell out there. Go! Now!

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