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Outdoor recreation has historically excluded people of color. That's beginning to change

Posted December 14, 2021 | By Leah Asmelash |

Visitors at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. For years, recreational parks were luxuries only afforded to White visitors.

(CNN) - In the United States, outdoor recreation and Whiteness have long gone hand in hand.

Dubbed the "adventure gap" or "nature gap," the lack of diversity in outdoor recreation has become a hot topic in the White-dominated space. (In 2019, more than 50 CEOs of outdoor retailers signed a pledge to work toward diversity and inclusion in the outdoors). Conversation about the disparity picked up among industry leaders and enthusiasts alike after the racial justice protests of 2020.

Though visitation data to national parks does not include breakdown by race, activity numbers by the Census Bureau don't exactly paint the most inclusive picture. White Americans vastly outnumber people of color in outdoor activities like fishing, hunting and wildlife watching, according to 2016 data from the Census Bureau, and numerous studies show that people of color are less likely to use public parks and outdoor recreation compared to White Americans.

Oftentimes, these findings are simply attributed to income level or cultural differences -- brushed off with a "Black people don't hike," or similar dismissive reasoning.

But the truth behind the gap in outdoor recreation, like so much in the US, has its roots in systemic racism, said KangJae "Jerry" Lee, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, who studies race and outdoor leisure.

"If we start connecting the dots," Lee said, "the issue becomes excruciatingly clear that historical institutional racism has banished people of color from the great outdoors."


How the outdoors became racialized

Back when the Pilgrims first arrived in North America, the reverence seen for the outdoors today did not exist, Lee told CNN. The wilderness was viewed as a dangerous place, something that needed to be tamed and cultivated to survive,he said.

But that changed in the 1800s, when urban White elites began to romanticize nature, viewing it as a wholesome environment (think of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, who were both writers at the time).

With that romanticization, came racialization, according to Lee.

"(Some White elites saw) the urban environment as dirty, unhealthy, filled with lots of immigrants and people of color, whereas green spaces were clean, quiet and for White people," Lee said.

And this was a widespread belief. The environmental movement held close ties to eugenicism, and the first head of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, was active in the eugenics movement. Madison Grant, another famed conservationist who was instrumental in creating Denali, Olympic, Everglades, and Glacier national parks, claimed the Nordics were the superior race and saw parks as a way to help Nordic descendants thrive, according to Lee's research.

"They had no interest in serving people of color," Lee said. "Some of them even viewed parks and outdoor recreation as a tool for maintaining White supremacy, and believed White Americans could cultivate tough and boisterous characteristics in the outdoor environment."

Members of Full Circle Everest Expedition, which will become the first all-Black team to attempt to summit Everest in 2022, gather for a photo.

Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw the establishment of many national parks, did so over fears that the White race would become inferior if they became too soft, according to Lee's research.

When the National Park Service was founded in 1916, Jim Crow laws had already been implemented in the South, and other racist laws and customs kept Black Americans out of these parks. Even when the NPS officially desegregated its parks in 1945, local ordinances still sometimes barred Black people entry, Lee said.

Instead, Black people were only permitted to use the "Negro areas" of White parks or parks built only for Black people, but these were few and far between and, often, not exactly in good condition, said Lee. Lewis Mountain Negro Area, in Shenandoah National Park, was one of the first of such "Negro areas," opening in 1935.

A sign at Elkwallow Picnic Grounds in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, reads "Picnic grounds for white only."

In 1952, while there were 180 state parks in nine southern states available to White people, there were only 12 for Black people, according to Lee's research.

Latinos were also banned from using these parks in places like Texas, Lee said -- further preserving these outdoor spaces as privileges only afforded to those of European descent.

"Outdoor spaces weren't just coded as White, they were White," Lee said. "They were defined and managed as White spaces."


Racism's impact on today's outdoors

Trends nowadays -- of lower participation by people of color in outdoor recreation -- reflect much of this prior racist history.

Nicole Boyd and Narshara Cade co-founded Black Girls Hike RVA in 2020, as a space for women of color to enjoy and experience the outdoors. Twice a month, the group -- typically about 25 people -- go on hikes and other outdoor adventures around Virginia.

Though many women have hiked with Boyd and Cade over the last year, they say one woman stuck out to them. She was an older hiker, in her late 60s, and she told them a story about trying to enter a state park as a young girl and not being allowed, because it was segregated.

Narshara Cade and Nicole Boyd co-founded Black Girls Hike RVA in 2020.

"Think about every generation not being able to go to the park, not being able to experience those things, that affects an entire generation of people," Boyd said. "So it was great to hear, but it was hard to hear, too."

But, Boyd continued, now the woman could experience the outdoors, with a group full of other Black women -- and that was special.

Some researchers, Lee said, have argued that the reasons for the racial gap in the outdoors are because of cultural differences and lack of resources -- outdoor recreation, after all, can cost money, and parks can be far away from cities where many people of color are concentrated.

But, Lee said those reasons don't paint the whole picture.

"An important question we need to ask in this argument is why are Black and Hispanic people experiencing higher poverty rates, if money is such an important aspect?" Lee said. "The answer is racism."

The same can be said about why so many people of color are in cities, or why some may not grow up with an emphasis on outdoor recreation. It all comes back to the legacy of institutional racism, Lee said.

Members of Full Circle Everest at Mount Ranier National Park in Washington.

Outdoor spaces aren't always safe for people of color either, and the fear of encountering a racist crime can significantly deter some from participating in outdoor activities, he noted. The incident in 2018 when a White woman called the police on a group of Black people having a cookout in a public park, is one example, as is the White woman who called 911 on the Black birdwatcher in Central Park in New York last year.

Other encounters can be violent, even deadly. Earlier this year, two elderly Korean Americans were punched in the face while on a walk in a park in California. And last year, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while on a run near Brunswick, Georgia.


Movements to diversify the outdoors

Even so, conversations about who gets to enjoy and have access to the outdoors remain top of mind as a number of people call for dismantling settler colonialist and racial capitalist ties outdoor recreation and the industries associated with it have maintained by erasing contributions of Indigenous people and people of color.

And things are slowly changing.

Through groups like Black Girls Hike RVA, Outdoor Afro, or Indigenous Women Hike, Lee said he sees the emergence of a social movement to change the idea that outdoor recreation is only for White people.

Members of Black Girls Hike RVA, during a recent trek.

Eddie Taylor is a climber with Full Circle Everest Expedition, who will become the very first all-Black team to attempt to summit Mount Everest in 2022. Representation is something the team talks about frequently, Taylor told CNN, as most people both in the US and in Nepal don't necessarily associate Black people with climbing Everest.

"(Our expedition) not only changes the US narrative of climbing, but it also kind of changes what's going on over there," he said, speaking of Nepal. "This is an expedition made up of people who aren't typically on that mountain or in that space."

Taylor hopes the momentum of 2020's protests keeps going, and pushes groups to make more efforts to diversify outdoor recreation.

But Lee noted that a lot of these initiatives come from the bottom-up. He told CNN he'd like to see more changes from the top, both by hiring more people of color in positions of power and by highlighting contributions made by people of color in cultivating the great outdoors.

Many people, for example, may not know the role of Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers, who did significant work in maintaining national parks, and Black members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built and renovated many state and national parks at a time when they weren't legally allowed to visit them.

"Unfortunately these histories are largely neglected, so highlighting this history by people of color, I think it's extremely important," Lee said. "I think that will be an effective way to dispel common misconceptions."

And eventually, it could lead to the nature of outdoor recreation changing for good.


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