The Color Green

Picture a rock climber, a mountain biker, or a Mount Everest trekker.
Picture their build, hairstyle, and race.
Most likely, you’re picturing a burly, bearded man, possibly with a manbun.
Most importantly, he’s probably white.

The overwhelming majority of white men in the outdoor industry has become glaring norm ever since I started seriously trekking into the wilderness and building my resume with outdoor skills approximately ten years ago. As my skills expanded into mountain biking, road biking, and rock climbing, the racial diversity of my peers did not. Even with my liberal university education, exposing me to a higher concentration of ethnic diversity, my outdoor peer group seemed to stay starkly white. While a new wave of feminist outdoor initiatives emerged, leaving me with many more female partners to explore with, the same wave seems to have failed in reference to my multicultural peers.

At first, it seems a little bizarre and exaggerated. It’s completely possible that my normal routines, places, crags, and mountain biking routes lay outside of this diverse sphere. Perhaps, even, it’s the American South that is to blame, with its lower concentrations of black individuals in rural areas.

Although I had hoped to see more diversity, my travels seem to tell the same story. In Moab, Utah, where I camped for spring break, I failed to see a single individual of color in either the numerous crags, mountain bike trails, and national parks that I visited. I failed again in the New River Gorge area in West Virginia, again in California national parks, and again in Salt Lake City, Utah skiing areas.

In 2014, the Outdoor Foundation created a participation report that surveyed the participation in outdoor activities by race, age, and ethnicity. Only 11 percent of African-Americans participated in an outdoor sport, falling drastically short of the national black American population. Hispanic Americans fell short as well, making up only 8 percent of outdoor participation while composing 17.6 percent of the nation’s population.
Why is this gap present? One prominent reason could be socioeconomic equality with respect to the substantial expense of almost every outdoor sport, including most realms of hiking. Starting rock climbing gear settles in at around $150-300, and that depends solely on having another more experienced climber to lead you up the rock and set your route. Trad racks, the equipment needed if you lead a rock climbing route on rock without bolts, will eventually cost you over $500, and that usually heightens with experience.

Mountain biking, another beginner-friendly outdoor sport that’s accessible in most rural areas and closely accessible in urban ones, costs around $300 for a barebones, beginner mountain bike, and it’s debatable if it will stay intact at the bottom of the trial. A good, trail-worthy bike won’t cost approximately $1,000.

Another prominent reason seems to be exposure. Sports like rock climbing, mountain biking, and overnight backpacking are certainly not as readily accessible as sports like basketball and football, which are publicized and heavily exposed in American culture. Urban areas, holding the highest concentration of non-white Americans, seem to be another potential barrier between nature education. Black and colored youth also lack one of the biggest factors of childhood interest, role models.

Kai Lightner, the 17 year old black 10-time national sport climbing champion, is revolutionizing role models for the black community, although culture perceptions have still posed somewhat of a challenge. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Lightner cited the difficulties rock-climbing posed in his cultural community, “When I would tell [black] people that my sport was rock-climbing they would look at me funny, and ask ‘What is that?’ ‘We don’t do that.’”

Companies like the National Outdoor Leadership School , a nonprofit outdoor educator, dedicate upwards of $250,000 to ‘diversity driven’ outdoor scholarships in an attempt to balance the playing field. However, even numbers like these seem low, given the extreme cost of travel, gear, instruction, and gym memberships. How many colored youth is that able to support?

In a community that brands itself as open, inclusive, and beginner-friendly, a stark lack of diversity exists. The exploding publication of outdoor sports, given to the rise of social media, has left behind the African-American and colored communities.

Picture that man again, the climber, mountain biker, Mount Everest trekker. The institutions that carved that image still exist. As individuals, nature-lovers, and adventurers, we need to recognize that the outdoor community has issues. A sustained dialogue and actioned efforts at inclusivity can ensure that the door to the outdoor community stands open to all. Because when you’re in the middle of Arches National Park watching the sunset amid red sand, when you’re at the base of a boulder, your hands caked in chalk and callused, and when you’re riding the switchbacks of a mountain biking trail, it’s clear every one of your peers deserves to experience that adventure, regardless of the majority.
Sydney Halleman is a first-year who rates the TJ lawn statue as V3. Don’t ask.