The Future of Outdoor Representation, Part II
“For people of color, the wilderness is everywhere they look. They don’t need mountains. Wilderness lives outside their front doors. Orienteering skills mean navigating white anxiety about them. They are belaying to effect change. And even then, their efforts might not be enough.
"There are many white people who say they go to the outdoors to get away from it all, of course, and they don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to feel accused. I definitely wanted to write to those people and have them see why this is an important conversation and why this is an important experience. Because most people don’t know.”
- Rahawa Haile, Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker, Class of 2016.
I am a white person who has been trying to "get away from it all".
The challenges I face in the outdoors are of my own invention. The East Face of the Middle, a duathlon biking from town to scramble up a few peaks, the Teton Crest Trail in a day, the Ford-Stettner.
That’s how I tell myself I’m making progress. That I’m respected and have worth.
This is my own paracosm--one of those imaginary worlds we create in our heads as kids, with a rotating cast of detailed characters who make us feel like protagonists. In this paracosm, there aren’t barriers to outdoor access, and skin color doesn’t matter. How could it be complicated? “Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees,” right? And it’s reinforced, constantly--How many times have I heard some variation of the phrase “This (organization/location/outdoor company/college/campsite/crag/ski hill/river/thru-hike) is the most welcoming place in the world”?
In T.M. Luhrmann’s “Worlds Apart”, published in February's Harper's Magazine, she writes, “Being socially isolated can compromise one’s ability to distinguish his or her paracosm from the everyday world.”
I’ll own that social isolation. I didn’t talk about the outdoors with people of color.
If I had, I might have heard stories like Rahawa’s of racial divides on the AT, or Danielle Williams on skydiving as a woman of color, or Ruby Jean Garcia on recreation as the antithesis to oppression, or Marshall Masayesva on the lack of Native American representation outdoors, or Carolyn Finney on who we see in outdoor media, or Tyrhee Moore (above) on recreating in Africa, or Glenn Nelson and Teresa Baker on why they're not going to OR, or Paulina Dao on the diversity dilemma in outdoor media, or Marinel de Jesus on the relationship between inclusion and money in the outdoor industry.
Perhaps the Avarna Group’s Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin puts it best in "Why Black Lives Must Matter to the Environmental Movement":
“We dwell in the environmental and outdoor space, which is not devoid of power structures, privilege and oppression—all concepts at the forefront of civil rights. And we’ve been disappointed that (with a few exceptions) there has yet to be a galvanizing call from the environmental movement or outdoor recreation sector to take action beyond extending condolences.
The folks above are my paracosm-breakers, and I’m lucky to count most of them as mentors.
I’m inspired to turn my complacency (and perhaps you are, too) into a campaign for proportional outdoor media representation for people of color. I’m usually not an overwhelming optimist, but I think we can make this happen, together.
First, the data.
IS THE PATAGONIA CATALOG REALLY SO WHITE?
In talking about outdoor inclusion, I’ve become familiar with a common refrain: “I see people of color recreating all the time! They’re out there.”
Ok, cool. But do they exist in outdoor media, or are we living in an online paracosm? I did my own research.
Inspired by Green 2.0, who quantified racial and ethnic diversity in Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies, I collected data on outdoor brands. My research question:
Do outdoor brands show people of color recreating outside?
Not manufacturing, modeling, speaking, etc. Recreating.
This means I examined every page on the top-nav of a brand’s website. I read their blogs. I checked out their athlete and ambassador lists. I visited their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages. When possible, I looked up their board members, to get a sense of their internal inclusion as well. The full methodology can be found here.
Finally, I took an average of the percentage of people of color shown on each page to generate a total score.
There’s no debate.
With vast statistical support, people of color are woefully underrepresented in outdoor media.
Out of the 20 companies I investigated, 16 of 20 showed, on average, less than 10% people of color on each page evaluated. Most showed zero on most pages. Three companies (Arc’teryx, Mountain Hardwear, and Osprey Packs) showed no people of color at all.
The only major company taking obvious steps to represent people of color in their media and internal leadership is REI.
These brands need to see their results, and know that they’re failing their users.
Leave a comment on the post to @Patagonia and one other company of your choice and write why proportionate outdoor representation is important to you. Patagonia makes the most sense to target because I think they're more likely to change and bring other companies in the industry along with them.
Bonus: Send each of the companies above a Facebook message asking if they’ve read this article, and post a link to the article on their main profile photo, asking if their score is meaningful to them and if they plan to change.
I'll be reaching out to Patagonia with whatever comes out of this campaign. The more people who comment, like, and share their thoughts on representation, the better chance they'll change their ways.
How We Move Forward
Danielle Williams of Melanin Base Camp bemoans conversations she’s had with leading brands about their lack of representation of people of color. “We only take original content,” they’d tell her. “The problem is, women of color don’t use our hashtag.” In response, Danielle actively created her user base, identifying users of color she wanted represented on her page to use her hashtag. “I’d tell them, I love your work, I love your content, and I’d love for you to use my hashtag because I’m trying to create this community and I want you to be in it,” said Danielle. She also suggests that companies pay moderate stipends to users of color for their content or to be a brand ambassador.
To users like you and me, Danielle recommends that we be more open to learning about another’s experience than being constant apologists for our favorite brand. We tend to want to defend our favorite companies with a knee jerk reaction, and assume their motives are pure. Remember this: It’s a lot easier for a brand to pivot their advertising and representation than for a child to grow up feeling excluded from a certain space and activity.
In addition, we should support via social media (and financially, if possible) affinity spaces like Melanin Base Camp, PGM One, Brownpeoplecamping, Latino Outdoors, Brothers of Climbing, Outdoor Afro, Natives Outdoors, the Next 100 Coalition, and the new Diversify Outdoors (above), among so many others which provide a supportive community for historically underrepresented populations. As Teresa Baker and Glenn Nelson write, "If we can’t be written into the script, we might as well flip it. If you can’t join them, beat them." If the idea of affinity spaces is unfamiliar, take a look at this blog post by Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin.
Finally, some thoughts: Marketing shouldn’t leave us with ambiguity whether someone is a person of color: they should opt for up-close face shots with emotion and normalize non-white personalities and appearances with lingering, decisive shots. Or, if their identity as a person of color is not obvious, a brand can include descriptions or narratives that validate/celebrate their identity. Those are the shots and stories that inspire, subliminally or otherwise. Media departments always have a choice, much as they display femininity aggressively in the outdoors via a woman climbing in a sports bra or a ponytail flying out of a ski helmet. The same choice can be made to decisively represent people of color.
In the NOLS world, we're encouraged to communicate openly and clearly about our desires. To have an opinion.
Here's mine: I want a future where people of color grace the covers of Climbing, Trail Runner, and Powder. I want Kai Lightner to be this generation's Chris Sharma. I want Janet Valenzuela to run the Department of the Interior. I want Natives Outdoors to take off. I want equity.
Let's make it happen.
In the comments, give feedback and perform your own Outdoor Inclusion Index audits on companies of note. I’ll aggregate scores and invite companies to respond to their score.
Thanks to Danielle Williams, Teresa Baker, Glenn Nelson, Kenji Haroutunian, Ambreen Tariq, Miho Aida, Len Necefer, James Edward Mills, Scott Briscoe, Katie Boué, and Shellie Keegan for their feedback on this piece, and leadership in general.