To be honest, in light of what is happening in our country right now, I had a hard time figuring out what to write about in my column this week. After all, here I am, a privileged white woman who writes about my mountain lifestyle. How trivial is that when hundreds of thousands of people are protesting racial injustice and police brutality? When a pandemic continues to ravage our planet, killing hundreds of thousands and disrupting billions of lives?
My column typically focuses on things like mountain sports, public land access, snow safety, trail conditions, crowding in the backcountry, exercise, health, aging, competition and conservation. These are issues that have seemed important to me in the past, but suddenly feel selfish and insignificant, and so I’m left wondering what I can say that is relevant in today’s world.
Our lives here in the Tetons are very different from what life is like for most of the world. We live in a beautiful place where the skies are clear, the rivers clean and there are millions of acres of public land for us to explore. We choose jobs that allow us to play. We spend huge sums of money on our toys — skis, boats, bikes — things that bring us joy but offer little in terms of making our world a better place. We don’t worry about being pulled over by a police officer for a traffic violation. Sure, it’s a nuisance and can be stressful, but I doubt it has ever occurred to any of us that our lives might be in jeopardy because of the color of our skin. We live in a bubble of privilege and safety. I’ve always known this, but have never really thought about what I can or should do change that situation. Racism and police brutality seemed abstract and removed from my day-to-day existence, and so I did not feel compelled to do anything besides vote and bemoan the headlines. That sounds terrible. It is terrible. My self-absorption and passivity are not something I’m proud of. My silence is a form of acquiescence to things I disapprove of but have done nothing to change.
And yet I’m not sure what I can say or do that won’t come across as smug, patronizing or just plain stupid. I worry that anything I write will seem like an attempt to assuage my guilt by showing people how liberal and woke I am. The only tools I know how to use are my vote, my pen and my pocketbook, all of which seem woefully inadequate in the face of today’s world.
Outdoor recreation, environmental organizations and the outdoor industry remain overwhelmingly white. The most recent figures I could find, said that 78 percent of all national park visitors and 83 percent of the National Park Service workforce are white. Although I do not have any statistics, I would guess that the percentage of people of color who climb, camp, ski, fish, bird or mountain bike are equally low. There are many reasons for this discrepancy. Part of it is financial, part of it cultural, but probably one of the biggest causes is that when a person of color picks up a climbing magazine, watches a tourism promotion for one our national parks or sees an advertisement for a mountain bike, they see white people. Given that, why would they feel welcome or safe venturing into what can appear to be enemy territory?
There are a lot of people working to make outdoor recreation and our public lands more diverse. Locally, efforts are being made by organizations like Coombs Outdoors and SHIFT. Nationally there are more and more groups dedicated to these same goals. Groups such as Brown People Camping, Sending in Color, Natives Outdoors, Brown Girls Climb, Outdoor Asian, Brown Folks Fishing, and the list goes on. These groups have formed for a reason: People of color are tired of being the lone brown-skinned person on the trail, the slope, the crag. They are tired of feeling anxious about their safety because of their skin color. They are tired of hanging out with white people who claim to be unbiased, color blind and welcoming without recognizing just how ignorant those words are in the face of their truth. All of this means that if white people like me want to see more people of color in the outdoors, we have to find a way to welcome them on their terms, not ours.
Blogger John Shin, an Asian climber, wrote on DiversityOutdoors.com in August 2018, “After driving across the continent, visiting dozens of towns, meeting hundreds of dirtbags and spending countless hours alone and living in my head, I finally realized that my inner discomfort is rooted in a feeling of not belonging. The problem is that we live in a society dominated by whiteness, and I will always be othered because I am not white.
“This road trip has forced me to face this inescapable truth. I exist in the white man’s world, but I do not belong in it. Everywhere I go, I have no choice but to come to terms with white supremacy.”
Shin’s words shook me. I always thought that despite the whiteness of the sports I pursue, I, and my friends and colleagues, were open to everyone — that we were bound by our passion and that passion transcended our differences. But I see now how naïve my attitude was. Of course, I could see past our differences — on the few times I have actually encountered those differences while recreating — because I was in the majority. I wasn’t other, so it did not take much effort to accept others. I thought skin color didn’t matter, but of course it does. Otherness is the crux. So what do we do?
I remember once someone told me you can never say the wrong thing as long as you are speaking from a place of love and compassion. When I lost my first husband, I discovered that this was not true. People can say the wrong thing. They may have the best intentions, but their words can cause pain and damage. Where you can’t go wrong, I discovered, was in listening.
I think there is a lesson to be learned here. Right now we should be listening rather than trying to say the right thing. Right now we should be educating ourselves. Right now we should be letting people of color guide us on the way they want us to move forward. We have dictated the terms for too long. My desire to bring more diversity to the activities I love may be a desire people of color share with me, but how it happens is up to them, not me. I can only offer my assistance and my willingness to listen. I have a long way to go before I can truly understand what it really feels like to be judged solely by the color of my skin.
As biracial, lesbian activist Mellina White wrote, “Modern-day racism has the face of COVID-19. It is silent and invisible, but deadly. It is taxing on some communities and almost non-existent in others. If it doesn’t impact your family, you might even suggest it’s a hoax.”
Racism is not a hoax, and while we may not feel its impact on our day-to-day lives, it’s time we understand that absence in and of itself is indicative of our privilege. It’s time we gave up some of that privilege. It’s time we started listening more and talking less.