Not everyone in the Boldly Went community is an economically comfortable white person. But let’s be honest, while we're aiming for a broad audience, at this stage we’re not that much different than the outdoors community as a whole in the US - disproportionately Caucasian and affluent - and we can pretty safely file this post primarily under white people talking to white people - but hopefully in a productive way.
This week in "well actually"...
Outdoor Retailer 2018 - the most economically important event in the outdoor community in North America - was last week in Denver, and Twitter was predictably abuzz with excitement. And while it's usually not our favorite platform, even we were sucked in.
One of the more lively topics was around diversity in the outdoors community, and Katie Boue, who I don't know but seems like a cool white lady, tweeted a quote from Jaylyn, a member of Native Women's Wilderness asking for others to stop it with the recent trend in the outdoor industry of using the word “tribe” to refer to their group of friends or Instagram followers, because it has a complex history and emotional importance for Indigenous peoples. Katie's point was “Yeah, that seems reasonable. We should probably listen to Jaylyn out of basic human decency. It's not that hard to pick a different word”.
But predictably enough for anyone who's been on Twitter for even two minutes, that kicked off a huffy debate among white people about how “well actually” here are all these reasons Indigenous people shouldn't be offended and (fill in emotional smokescreen intended to convince ourselves why it’s justifiable that we’ll choose, again, not to consider Native concerns.) Katie’s point was “let’s listen and be respectful”, and while it seemed like most people agreed with her, some misguided tweeters felt compelled to tie themselves in embarrassing knots in order to explain why, no, they wouldn’t listen and be respectful.
From a grand perspective, this dynamic is not surprising. If those kinds of attitudes didn’t exist we wouldn’t still be having these conversations, and they are a predictable outcome of any situation where one group holds undue power over another. Some in the group in power will want to justify why they shouldn’t question their position or acknowledge the ways that they harm others in order to maintain what they have, and will decide it's the (tweet) hill they want to die on. Men do it in #metoo conversations, white people do it in pretty much every conversation about black people, people of Spanish descent do it in conversations about people of indigenous descent in Latin America... Pick a power imbalance, you'll find the same dynamic. It’s so common that I’d bet you a sandwich that there are 100 grad students working on sociology theses about it as we speak.
These types of conversations have to be emotionally exhausting for members of marginalized groups, and are embarrassing as a white dude, but they are also maybe, hopefully, part of the process of establishing that at least some of the majority will listen when the minority speaks up. The more that happens, the more we’ll feed a cycle where traditionally marginalized people’s voices will be trusted, and more people will speak up, and society will have more of the conversations it needs to about race/sex/class/money and the dynamics of the tyranny of the masses in general.
And while it's hard to be optimistic about social forces these days, the fact that some of the most fervent discussions coming out of OR have been about diversity is maybe one indicator that at least some tides are turning. Maybe the most important point of analysis from the Tweet thread: it had a ton more likes and re-shares than comments from huffy white people.
Q. In this context, what's a white boy to do? A. Make yourself useful.
It's really that larger context that has me furiously tapping away at my keyboard on a rare decent Seattle winter day when I would rather be outside. It seems that social tides are turning in ways, and in places, and it seems like there's potential to contribute to that change in positive directions. So rather than just blowing more hot air into a Tweet-storm, I've been reflecting on the question of what white people in the outdoors community can do, at the very least, to stay out of the way of progress, and ideally to contribute to it at a moment when times, they are a changin'..
This issue was on my mind before Angel pointed me towards Katie's Tweet, because earlier in the week I read an excellent analysis of the Outdoor Retailer experience by Marinel de Jesus at Brown Gal Trekker. She's a lawyer turned dirtbag who's worked for years on issues of inclusion and exclusion in both politics and now the outdoor community, and her sense coming out of the convention was that the primary barrier to people of color who want to have a voice at a place like OR is financial, because the fundamental question among power brokers (who are predominantly white, and predominantly male) is "what's in it for the bottom line?"
We should be clear that OR is primarily a business convention aimed at making money, so the focus on finances is predictable, even if the idea that money should be the prime motivator for human decision making is obscene. ("The love of money is the root of all evil..." and all that.) But let's also note that there's something importantly concrete being pointed out here - that human beings, at their base, are motivated immensely by the question "What's in it for me?" While most of us also have compelling and competing motivations towards altruism and others' interests (and OR isn't a person), self-interest is a normal and healthy part of being human. We all have to survive somehow.
In a similar vein, and inspired by Marinel's suggestion, what I would like to propose is that white people who want to work on diversity issues treat people of color and other traditionally underrepresented groups in our community like human beings, by assuming that they, too, have the same instincts as those CEOs and care what's in it for them.
A diverse crowd would be hanging out with us if it weren't a better option not to.
Maybe I'm projecting here, but it strikes me that, because white people are defining the conversation, a large part of the discussion around diversity in the outdoor community (as in the white community as a whole) is motivated by the desire to achieve goals that actually aren't that helpful for people of color. Cynically but honestly a lot of people in the outdoors community talk about diversity because we don't want to feel like we're racists, or we don't want other people to think that we are. A bit more charitably, but not much more helpfully, a lot of people have accepted diversity as a theoretical "good" to be pursued for its own sake, and see the glaring whiteness of the outdoor community as a problem to be solved by sprinkling in as many different types of people as possible. While I do think, for a variety of reasons, that diversity in communities is a fundamental good, at some point you have to ask yourself what's in it for them.
The reality check here is that whatever benefits people from marginalized communities might gain from being involved in outdoor recreation, and from being a part of a diverse outdoor community, in its current configuration those benefits aren't generally outweighing the costs. Concisely, a diverse community would be hanging out with us if it weren't a better option to not hang out with us.
And the corresponding truth: if we want diversity, the outdoor community has to make it our goal to provide actual value for people's lives who are underrepresented in it. You have to give people a compelling reason if you want them to hang out with a bunch of people who aren't like them, take up new activities they aren't normally involved in, and spend a bunch of money in the process. Even more so if they're also going to have to put up with the same kind of "well actually" BS we've already talked about.
So what’s this look like concretely? Don’t ask me!
No really, don't ask me. I'm a psychiatric nurse, so I might be reliable enough as an interpreter of basic human motivations, but I am clearly not the one to provide insight into the nuanced cultural barriers and benefits of the outdoors for people who aren't hetero white dudes, so I'm not the best one to tell you what white people should do to make what we're doing more appealing/marketable/accessible to any other group of people.
Part of this is for the benefit of my kind. White dudes have been publicly embarrassing ourselves for generations by offering terrible advice on what's good for (fill in the blank people group). One of our friends, Sonya Pevzner, reporting from OR on Facebook, noted that just the other day a white guy explained the lack of diversity in the outdoor community, in all sincerity, as a result of the fact that black people don't like to be cold. I'm trying to avoid doing any more damage to our collective reputation.
But more importantly, the best place to get insight into a person's values and motivations is from the person themselves. That's true for individuals and collective communities. And luckily, 36% of the US population has perspective on what it's like not to be white, 51% has perspective on what it's like not to be male, ~10% has perspective on what it's like not to be cis, and 20% have perspective on what it's like to have some kind of disability. There are a lot of people to consult before that list narrows down to healthy white hetero male me.
Even more luckily, there are already a lot of people writing about the barriers to participation - and the redeeming values - in the outdoors community from a variety of perspectives. The aforementioned Brown Gal Trekker is a great place to start, as is this article on diversity from Climbing Magazine. Joe Gray has spoken in interesting ways about what it's like to be a black mountain runner, Jenny Bruso is writing brilliantly about being a "fat, femme, queer" hiker, Temporary Provisions does an amazing job curating posts from a diverse group of travelers and vagabonds, and Sonya Pevzner is doing great work writing about dealing with mental health issues in the outdoors community.
And of course, if you're not a jerk about it, you could also just ask your friends what they love about the outdoors, or what keeps them away. No one owes you an education by virtue of being different from you, so remember this isn't about you. But people tend to feel good when people take a genuine interest in their experience, and like sharing their expertise with their friends and adding value to the lives of people around them. Again though, I'm definitely not the person to tell you how to talk to people about these things. Luckily, lots of more qualified writers have made insider information readily available.
What I can tell you, from having read a few things and talked to a few friends, is that the mainstream white outdoor community does have a lot of avenues to provide benefits to people outside of it. As Marinel de Jesus illustrated in her article on OR, on the industry side, we're the gatekeepers of money, influence and power, so we're the only ones who can carve out space for diverse voices to be heard. While there's a lot of talk about changing attitudes, those types of concrete resources are where the rubber hits the road, and by and large, we control them.
And I can tell you from conversations with friends in Latin America that shifting even a small percentage of the resources available in the North American outdoor community south would dramatically change the lives and prospects in the outdoor/environmentalist communities there. Connectivity and travel are easier than ever, and there's huge potential to positively impact international communities by traveling to places like Mexico, Nicaragua, and Bolivia to do the things you were going to do anyway.
But I'm getting side tracked here and starting with the advice. I really don't want to be prescriptive, other than to say that if we want to focus on diversity in the outdoor community, let's start by figuring out how to make ourselves useful. Let's figure out what resources we have to contribute in real, concrete ways to the people's lives that we want to be a part of our community. And to do that, let's start by letting a broader range of people define the problems and solutions than the old regular power brokers.
The world is problematic and chaotic and we’re never going to “win”, but there are also signs that cultures are changing in a way that provides room for potential progress in a lot of interesting areas. If we're not pushing towards what's right and good in this context, what are we doing with our lives? Mean-tweeting?
Angel and I have always had some degree of Social Justice Warrior instinct, but these have been particularly heady times to start a business. We solidified the idea for Boldly Went a month after the 2016 elections drew into sharp relief the racial, sexual, social and economic divisions in our culture, and our entire premise as a business is that diverse voices and connections are valuable for the outdoor community. I'm guessing that if you're here, you agree. We usually try to end blog posts with some kind of call to action. For this one, I really just hope readers (whatever your color or background or other identifiers) will 1) think about the resources you have that could make the outdoor community a more appealing place for a broader range of people, and 2) start by reading some of the linked writers to get perspective on the nature and scope of the challenges in our community for people who might not be like you.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.