I camp (and glamp). I hike. I kayak. I chase waterfalls. It’s my thing and I love that I’ve been introduced to this wonderful world of outdoor recreation. I’m still learning and becoming more immersed into this world and loving every opportunity I get, but there is one glaring element that can’t be ignored.
I’m often the only black person in a group or a conversation or space related to the outdoors or adventure travel. Because of that, my experience and concerns are drastically different from those of my counterparts. No one wants to talk about it but we should. Without acknowledging the difference in experiences how can we ever hope to evolve and grow?
I came across an article about a Sacramento family that had a horrific experience at a campground in Nevada. According to news reports, they were verbally assaulted with racial slurs and harassed by a group of white campers that did not like their presence there. Things escalated and it is alleged that one of the white campers threatened the staff of the campground when they tried to intervene.
Allegedly, he then threatened the family, brandishing a shovel! It sounds like scenes from a movie set in the Jim Crow days right? Surely something like this wouldn’t occur to a black family camping in 2015? Black Family Victims of Hate Crime
It can and it did.
As a black woman who is an avid supporter and advocate for encouraging African-Americans to experience the great outdoors, this one hits home for me. My frustration, anger, outrage, and hurt abounds. Having someone attack me or assault my family is a very real fear that weighs on me every single time I decide to go for a hike, or plan a camping trip with my son, or travel to a new destination. However, I’m always cautious and I do take measures to protect myself and my family as much as possible wherever we venture.
As a woman, I’m often fearful about doing certain things alone and I take as many precautions as I can. However, as a black woman I have yet another set of circumstances to consider. I have to reconcile that as much as I love being in nature and seeing the world, there are those who whole heartedly believe someone like me has no right to be there — simply because I am black.
Fortunately I have never had an instance of mistreatment or racism at all when “camping while black”. (See Solo Camping Trip) We have gotten the occasional stare that may have lasted a bit longer than necessary but nothing beyond that, and certainly nothing that made me fearful or uncomfortable. For the most part my interactions with the outdoor community have been friendly and helpful.
Ok let’s be candid, maybe too helpful at times. You know, it’s the unsolicited help with a hint of disbelief or assumption that I couldn’t possibly know what I’m doing and it must be my first time. Saying hello and small talk is fine, but lingering to probe and question why I’m there is where friendliness becomes microagression and bias.
I’ve been around long enough to know that they mean well so while it may annoy me sometimes I generally accept their advice and go on about my journey. Generally speaking, we just want to be treated like anyone else you ecnounter and not treated like you’ve spotted a rare game on safari.
An incident like what happened to the Sacramento family makes it very hard to persuade people of color to step out of their comfort zones to try a new outdoor activity, especially during this time where we are fighting to have black lives valued like everyone elses.
Even the circumstances of this event caused me to immediately question why the Nevada County Sheriff officers that responded to the distressed calls of the family found that brandishing a shovel as a weapon at women and children was not cause for an immediate arrest. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t pretend to know every law, however I’ve seen others be arrested for far less than that.
I can’t help but ask, if the roles had been reversed and this was a white family being harassed, would an arrest have been made? We can’t say for sure. However, I am happy to know that after further investigation criminal charges will be brought against the alleged perpetrator.
The effects of an incident like this can be even more far-reaching and damaging than just the immediate damage done to this family. One of the most disappointing things I read on the various online articles about the incident were comments that overwhelmingly questioned why this family would go camping in the first place.
This sentiment was expressed from readers of all races, including other black people. People said things like, “See that’s why we don’t do outdoor stuff” or “Black people don’t camp anyway”. This negative stereotype that certain activities are not for us or off-limits to us is the very thing I’m fighting against.
Camping while black shouldn’t be this anomaly or strange occurrence. Enjoying nature or traveling to a lesser known destination shouldn’t produce admonition and insulting commentary or worse, question your perceived blackness. No really, it has happened to me. I was told traveling to find waterfalls was a “white people thing” and I must not be a real black girl. Needless to say, I had to set them straight.
I have found that one of the many reasons for this lack of diversity in outdoor recreation is simply fear. We fear being the only one that looks like us and in my experience we usually are when it comes to doing outdoorsy activities. We fear how we will be treated by others who may think we don’t belong. We fear trying something when we don’t have friends to do it with. We fear trying an activity or a sport where we have no experience.
Those fears plagued me through all of my 20s. There’s just something about the clarity you get in your 30s and I decided that I would not miss out on doing things that interest me simply because it’s not common for someone like me to do them.
However, since starting the Misadventures of an Outdoorsy Diva blog, I have found that the interest in the great outdoors DOES exist in our community after all. The more I shared, the more people expressed an interest in experiencing these activities with me. I started to plan group outings with my local Facebook group, Adventure Is A Lifestyle, or offer suggestions for others trying to plan an activity.
Ironically, I found out that someone didn’t attend one of my events because she was worried about being the only white person. That’s really a shame because she missed out on a chance to not only have that experience, but to meet some really great people and expand her view of the world.
I also joined other like-minded communities like Outdoor Afro, Bucket List Beast, and Black Adventuristas and found black and brown folks of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds that share my love of the outdoors.
I would hate to see more black families deterred from experiencing outdoor recreation because of the fear of racism. In fact, I hope it has the opposite effect. An ugly incident like the one that occurred in Nevada should be an impetuous for more of us to get out there and show everyone that we belong in this space too.
There isn’t a monopoly on the great outdoors. It is for all of us to enjoy. I hope the family that had to endure this night of terror will not let this keep them from doing something they genuinely love and enjoy. I pray they find the courage to press on anyway.
If hate and bigotry prevents people from experiencing all of the beauty and serenity and amazing experiences that await us in the world, that would indeed be a travesty.
I know many of you will read this and think, wow I guess I never really considered how different the black experience doing things I take for granted as normal might be. Here’s how you can be an ally:
1. Be friendly and welcoming when you see a brown face out doing an activity. But try to withhold the unsolicited advice unless you see us doing something glaringly wrong or something that could harm us of course.
2. Invite your black friends out with you to try something new or just share about somewhere you’ve gone with them! If they say no, it’s ok but you tried. My love of kayaking and interest in visiting the National Parks is single handedly due to a former coworker of mine who showed me his pics and told me of his adventures and it really made me want to give it a try. He’s now one of my biggest supporters and readers and I really appreciate him for leaving that lasting impression on me.
If you don’t have any black friends then that’s a whole other posts. I can’t really help you with that. Broaden your circles!
3. Advocate for diversity in outdoor and travel advertising because both industries suck at that for the most part. Hey brands I’m looking at you! I’d be a great kayak model!!!
4. Speak up and speak out if you see mistreatment of anyone at anytime. If you encounter someone being harassed stay with the person and try to bring them along with you if they are comfortable to get them to a safe place.
For those of you that frequent the outdoors what has your experience been when camping while black? Or frequent travelers of color, have you ever experienced discrimination because of your race, sexuality, or religion? Does an incident like this deter you or frighten you from continuing to go into those places where you are the only one that looks like you?