White outdoor sports community can do better

Momoka Sasaki/Staff

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A white runner does not avoid jogging through specific neighborhoods for fear that their skin color may mark them as suspicious. A white hiker does not avoid driving to a trailhead too late at night or too early in the morning to avoid being targeted by the police. A white cyclist does not need to worry that a cop might stop them under false pretenses and accuse them of bike theft. A white person in the outdoors feels welcomed in an environment in which they are predominantly represented.

Ahmaud Arbery was not afforded these luxuries. Arbery was on a midafternoon run when he was followed and killed by two white men, who yelled racial slurs moments before pulling the trigger. Arbery, at only 25 years of age, was killed in broad daylight while exercising.

Christian Cooper, a Black man, was bird-watching in New York’s Central Park last month when he asked a white woman named Amy Cooper to leash her dog. Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper, using her privilege as a white woman in the outdoors to weaponize law enforcement against him.

Racism has seeped into all aspects of life, and outdoor spaces are no exception. This is old news for the Black community, which has long been aware that time spent in the outdoors carries a different set of risks.

At a time when speaking out against discrimination and lack of representation in the outdoor sports community has never been more important, too many brands and athletes have chosen to stay silent. And those who have spoken out might simply be treating Black Lives Matter as a trend — an opportunity to boost sales by feigning social consciousness. 

The outdoors is divided deeply by race, and it has fallen on the shoulders of large outdoor sports companies to make change within their sphere of influence. They have largely failed — action has come far too late and without enough momentum. Words fall flat without donations or systemic change within a company.

Garmin, a company that produces GPS watches used by both competitive and recreational runners, has remained utterly silent, even as protests for racial justice sweep across the nation. This is a particular powerful silence — a company centered around running has failed to even acknowledge the modern-day lynching of Black runner Arbery. 

REI, a major outdoor equipment and apparel retailer, has spoken, but softly. It has announced neither a donation nor a specific equity and inclusion plan moving forward.

On the other hand, Patagonia has laid out more specific plans, addressing racial inequalities that are linked to environmental injustices and accessibility to the outdoors. Known for its progressive values in the workplace, Patagonia donated $100,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and vowed to fortify its efforts to protect voting rights.

“Since 2016, we have dedicated over $4M to increasing support and attention to grassroots groups in frontline communities who are often hardest hit not only by racial injustice, but also the climate crisis, environmental pollution, and now the COVID-19 pandemic,” the company wrote in a recent Instagram caption. “We are committing to not only being more aware of racism and social injustice all around us but actively doing something about it.”

Hopefully, one of the slated changes is an increased effort to hire and promote Blackness in the outdoors. The common denominator among these brands is, in fact, a lack of representation of people of color. A quick scroll through any of their Instagram feeds shows a predominance of white and able-bodied models. The lack of diversity in their social media feeds is reflected and resultant from a lack of diversity within the brands’ leadership. Posting Black athletes on a social media channel is blatant tokenizing if the brand does not support and promote Black employees. 

We should not wait around for establishments that have been established and largely run by white people to make changes when there are Black-owned companies, nonprofits and outdoor athletes that have been getting it right all along. 

But the online community of outdoorists is largely dominated by white voices. It is time for that to change.

White privilege in the outdoors holds implications that extend far beyond the realm of social media — Black people are less likely to be offered jobs or sponsorships with outdoor-minded companies. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. As the stories of Arbery and Christian Cooper have shown us, the consequences of racism can be far more sinister. 

By elevating Black voices, outdoor media can be reshaped to reflect the variety of people who enjoy natural spaces, dismantling the subconscious notion of who belongs in the outdoors and who doesn’t.

Community organizations, companies, nonprofits and educators working to break down barriers in the outdoors and celebrate diverse leadership:

 

Hiking, running and climbing organizations

  • Ambreen Tariq, @brownpeoplecamping
  • Black Girls Run, @officialblackgirlsrun
  • Black Girls Trekkin’, @blackgirlstrekkin
  • Black Men Run, @blackmenrun
  • Brown Girls Climb, @browngirlsclimb
  • Outdoor Afro, @outdoorafro
  • People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature and Environment, @pgmonesummit

 

Surfing organizations

  • Black Girls Surf, @blackgirlssurf
  • Textured Waves, @texturedwaves

 

Educators

  • Alison Mariella Désir, @alisonmdesir
  • Chelsea Murphy, @she_colorsnature
  • Leah Thomas, @greengirlleah
  • L.R., @urbanclimbr
  • Teresa Baker, @teresabaker11

 

Businesses

  • Outdoorism Apparel, @outdoorism
  • Glamourina, @shopglamourina

Sarah Siegel covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].