Rethinking Racial Exclusion in Outdoor Spaces

It’s ironic that America’s most famous wilderness guide, Sacajawea of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, was a woman of color. She and her tribe, like so many other Native American tribes, were ignored and erased.  But tragically, nonwhite minorities have been underrepresented or intentionally excluded from the outdoors in America throughout its history.

Consider this data point: in any given year, less than half of African American adolescents ages 13 to 17 will participate in even one outdoor recreation activity. The issue isn’t that people of color in America don’t care about nature or environmental issues—surveys of racial minorities consistently show they are more concerned than white people about climate change and more supportive of policies to fix it.

So what is keeping people of color from participating in outdoor recreation and enjoying its benefits? As activist and author Glenn Nelson writes, “[b]ecause the outdoors remains a largely white domain, it is up to white America to invite communities of color to enlist us as allies.”

As a privileged white woman well-immersed in the outdoor industry, I know I haven’t done enough to be an ally to people of color. I have sat in countless meetings discussing the future of trail running and racing, but I never thought to broach exclusivity in outdoor spaces.

Dialogue is the first step toward promoting real inclusion and diversity at a much deeper level. Whether it’s in classrooms teaching wilderness first aid, in meetings about the growth of hiking and trail running, or at the kitchen table with loved ones, we must address the issue of race head-on. We live in a society that offers one group of people advantages based on the color of their skin while systematically oppressing other groups.

An example that I had been ignorantly unaware of as a byproduct of my privilege: While the National Park system has been justly known as “America’s best idea,” the parks initially excluded people of color. We must acknowledge that.

Given that history, it becomes easier to understand why nonwhite minorities may continue to feel unwelcome in public outdoor spaces. Educating ourselves about environmental racism, such as the disproportionate pollution burden shouldered by people of color, is important. An appreciation of environmental justice allows us to offer programming that speaks to these communities’ concerns.

I’m no expert. My dialogue and donations don’t feel like enough, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the oppression I have had the privilege to ignore for so long. But acknowledging my privilege and waking up to the injustices that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) live with every day is a step. It’s a tiny step, admittedly—but if backed up with action, acknowledgment is a start.

Achieving equality for all people by addressing racism and racist systems in our country is going to take an enormous collective effort. At a time like this, organizations need to amplify the work and emotional labor of BIPOC who have been engaging in racial equity and social justice for decades.

Change starts at home by educating yourself on the history of racial violence and racist systems in our country. You can get started by choosing which voices to learn from. Sometimes a small shift in what we consume can make a big difference. Here are a dozen names that were recommended to me:

And here is some other reading material on recurring systematic racism in the outdoor industry: