As an American, I write through an American scope on what, unfortunately, isn’t a uniquely American problem.
The Black Lives Matter movement has radically exposed the underbelly of racial prejudice in the United States and across the globe. But criminal justice and economic systems aren’t the only perpetrators of racial injustice.
Public lands agencies and outdoor recreation are steeped in the same prejudicial spirit that all Western institutions are based on: Hoarding of resources, capital, and power for the White majority.
Globally, outdoor recreation of all sorts is unquestionably a whitewashed world.
Outdoor recreation is just one of many areas where the legacy of purposeful exclusion of minorities is still very tangible. Even when discriminatory practices are erased from the letter of the law, the spirit of their enforcement — undeniably swayed by the cultural legacy of oppression — slams the outdoors shut for the majority of people of color.
Minorities in the woods: By the numbers
A literature review by the Journal of Environmental Management found minorities are far less likely to visit U.S. public lands. From 1999-2010, 93% of visitors to lands managed by the National Park Service were white, and from 2010-2016, 95% of visitors to National Forests were white.
The Journal suggests the overwhelming whiteness of public lands is owed to access and economic issues, cultural preferences for recreation, and discrimination (both active and legacy).
In broader outdoor recreation in the U.S., 70% of participants are Caucasion despite people of color (POC) comprising 40% of the population. In the UK, a mere 0.8% of National Park leadership and 1% of all national park visitors are from BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) backgrounds.
There are growing trends in aggregate participation rates in the outdoors, but people of color do not represent growth proportionate to their share of the population.
POC historically don’t have access to natural areas. Even today, POC are three times more likely than white people to live far away from accessible natural areas. In the UK, 98% of Black households live in urban areas far from National Parks.
Countless factors contribute to historic chasms between minorities and nature, including socioeconomic status, cultural differences, discrimination, and institutionalized racism.
A legacy of subjugation, from slavery to recent redlining and discrimination, ensure people of color are denied income and opportunity parity. Lower income and opportunities mean more hustle, less reward, and no time or resources for the luxury of a hike.
Even minority people with discretionary time and income aren’t choosing to head to the woods. As this article points out, assuming they will is anglo-confirmative bias, normalizing white values as a standard for others to follow.
Outdoor recreation is born and perpetuated as a White man’s sport, though it is assumed that entry is a level playing field. The opposite is true: The values associated with outdoor recreation were created out of White identity.
Those values are perpetuated to be the standard: If it’s good enough for White people, so it is for all people.
The fact affluent minorities choose not to spend their hard-earned income and time in the woods points to an important fact: Outdoor recreation is dependent on more than resources to get there, but also the culture surrounding it.
And one thing is clear: Financial and time barriers aside, the history of public spaces is not the history of minorities.
Out-of-doors as a white man’s world: the origins
The White experience is the way the environment is represented, examined, and understood. From the earliest proponents of public recreation to the modern establishment of public park systems and environmental protection laws, the White understanding of the outdoors is how contemporary Americans grasp the environment and their place in it.
The minority experience — and in the United States, the Black experience in particular — are very different from the White perspective. The Black experience in most postcolonial Western cultures is that of exploitation and lack of ownership. To assume these contextual histories aren’t relevant in outdoor engagement is akin to saying racism is dead.
The very creation of many national parks across the globe arose from colonialism and purposeful exclusion of minorities. In America, national parks were constructed explicitly to promote nationalism and American identity.
At the time, that identity was that of the White male. Many of the patriarchs of America’s public lands were racist, from Theodore Roosevelt to conservationist pioneer Gifford Pinchot (Roosevelt and Pinchot had fond opinions toward eugenics). Even the beloved John Muir was known to spout a biggoted vituperation now and then.
The founding of American public lands to promote national identity were drawn up by White men who firmly believed that the American identity must be Northern European. These men were a product of their time, but that is not an excuse, especially when the foundations they laid are still keeping minorities out of the woods.
Naturally, if given a choice to engage public spaces, minorities may see little reason to sidle up to a tradition that, for most of its existence, purposefully excluded them. And when they do venture out-of-doors, they’re often viewed with suspicion, reinforcing negative associations with being outdoors. So minorities seek other means of leisure, and miss out on the raw beauty of nature untainted by colonialism and racial prejudice.
The benefits of being outdoors are the same regardless of race or ethnicity, but the social constructs guiding social groups into the woods are very different. These constructs — and the stories that build identity — are historically designed to perpetuate White hegemony.
Those who don’t interact are dismissed as “uninterested,” further alienating them from outdoor recreation. The history of public parks in America and elsewhere and persistent prejudices against people of color reinforce each other.
As the United States’ first African American director of the National Park Service noted,
“If you say over and over again that black folks don’t like parks because they’re not in the parks, the park service people begin to believe that and the black people begin to believe it themselves … It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, to a lot of people’s satisfaction, quite candidly” – Robert Stanton, qtd. in Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces.
University of the Pacific’s Matthew Charles Goodrid interviewed 12 black Millennials about their perceptions of and experiences with the outdoors. Three themes emerged: A hierarchy of outdoor recreation, outdoor recreation being a “White” activity, and outdoor-related trauma. He concluded,
“ … [T]he low participation rates of African Americans in outdoor recreation is a complicated social phenomena that is connected to multiple facets of oppression … These three tiers together make the participation in outdoor recreation a different and complicated experience for African Americans.”
To this day, there is still a perceived threat of violence in the outdoors from generational trauma. Lynchings, manhunts, and other acts of violence regularly occurred in wild spaces, and are still a part of the shared heritage for Black citizens.
Recreationally-related violence is still alive and well today, poignantly and painfully exhibited by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery during a nightime jog.
Generational trauma, persistent recreational violence, and purposeful exclusion from outdoor recreation are powerful social factors keeping minorities indoors. Sadly, this means the system as it was designed by its biggoted founders is working as intended.
It can and it must be remade!
Opening the doors to minorities
Race is not an objective reality, but a social construct. If the barriers to outdoor recreation attached to race can be created, they can be uncreated, too. But it will be complicated.
In disassembling the centuries-old constructs of oppression of the global south at the hands of the global north, we must recognize the very real implications of that system, and how deadly they can be.
Cultural preferences are not the chief reason why people of color aren’t visiting public parks and lands. Institutional barriers and learned cultural responses rooted in Anglo Normativity are keeping millions from enjoying the great outdoors.
Pretending it doesn’t cheapens the sense of urgency to enact change in outdoor recreation systems. The immense physical and emotional value of visiting sprawling wildernesses is too great not to open to all peoples.
Breaking White-centric narratives and their legacy gatekeeping strategies are worth it to achieve this end. Ushering POC into natural spaces is low-hanging fruit.
The outdoors are a place for reflection and crafting identity independent of social constructs and oppression. For centuries, this has been a White luxury. For the rest of human history, it must be a universal human right.