Historical racism outdoors
The great outdoors has not been difficult for BIPOC communities to access, but discriminatory practices and persistent cultural beliefs may have caused them to become less accessible throughout US history.
“If we think of the Great American Cowboy, these people were black and Mexican,” said CSU Fullerton’s Nuñez. “These weren’t necessarily the white cowboys we see in spaghetti westerns.”
Relationships between people of color and nature evolved as powerful players in US history shaped the country and its landscape in their favor.
The country’s first white settlers colonized indigenous lands and communities; In the 19th century, some whites romanticized nature in contrast to urban areas, which were largely populated by blacks and immigrants and were often seen as unsanitary. Even President Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the national park system reflected a desire to keep masculinity alive specifically among white men, Krymkowski said.
Such discrimination and exclusion throughout history have left black communities fewer opportunities to explore interests in outdoor pursuits like hiking, he said.
The legacy of these patterns is still evident today. Over the years, black Americans ages 29 and older have faced higher death rates from drowning than their white counterparts, a fact, Krymkowski said ties directly to the segregationist policy in swimming pools.
Incidents like the 2020 racial profiling of New York bird watcher Christian Cooper, in which a white woman called the police, reveal for some a pattern of ongoing racism in nature.
For many communities of color, the outdoors can also pose a real threat.
“I’m from the south,” said Powell of the Refuge Outdoor Festival. “We had really serious consequences if you went into the forest alone. Or people were taken alone into the forest and – when they came back – came back traumatized.”