Recently, on a couple of backpacking facebook groups I read, a post appeared announcing a new group for hikers of color. This was, I thought, excellent — but I also immediately felt a sense of dread, because I was pretty sure what sort of responses the post would incur. I was correct: a tidal wave of resistance in the comments, ranging from outrage about “reverse racism” and exclusion of white people (the new group is intended to be a safe space for people of color and the moderator asked that white allies respect that space), to claims that the new group creates racial segregation where there supposedly was none before, to outright refusal of the very notion that race is a factor on the trail or that racism exists in the wilderness. Why bring race up in hiking groups, many comments (mostly from white people) suggested, when the trail is where we go to get away from race? You’ll never meet anyone as accepting and “colorblind” as backpackers, they insisted, so race will not be a big deal unless you make it one. Why must we bring politics into it, some asked; all that matters on the trail is that we all love hiking. (I’ve seen these kinds of comments before in response to questions about being queer or transgender on the trail, though I recall those responses as somewhat less charged, and more just dismissive, along the lines of “it won’t be a problem unless you make it a problem, just keep it to yourself, no one will care.” Having experienced plenty of anti-trans and anti-queer speech and actions, whether I “kept it to myself” or not (and not everyone has the option of doing that), I found these comments, uh, less than reassuring.)
I don’t have time and space here to address the “reverse racism” issue or the reasons that marginalized groups might benefit from closed spaces and why this is not the same as “segregation” (there’s plenty of easily accessible writing about these topics, though). But I wanted to say a few things about the notion that “we” hike to get away from politics, and the idea that we’re all just hikers when we’re on the trail — the idea that race and gender fade away and cease to matter, which is a topic I’ve briefly touched on before. I mean, of course we’re all hikers, of course we’re all here (on the facebook group or on the trail) because we share a love of hiking. Yes. And at the same time, we all experience hiking differently because race and gender and class and sexuality and disability and citizenship don’t get dropped off at the trailhead. In my experience so far, other backpackers have been quite kind and generous, but consider: how swimming in one’s underwear or skinny-dipping might be a different experience for a trans person; how trying to hitchhike to town or back to the trail might be a different experience for a person of color; how meeting hunters/hikers with guns on the trail might be a different experience for many kinds of people (or, how being a hunter/hiker with a gun on the trail might garner different responses from fellow hikers depending on your race and theirs). What resupplying in a tiny conservative town might feel like for different hikers. How being “hiker trash” and looking “homeless” might not be a fun game for people who are, in their off-trail lives, targeted for arrest under vagrancy laws, sit/lie laws, etc. How going to the bathroom in the woods might feel considerably more vulnerable for some people than others. How some people might feel truly frightened, rather than just irritated, about sharing a shelter or campsite with hikers who make racist or homophobic or transphobic or misogynistic “jokes.”
This is not to say that we can’t all experience the pleasure of “getting away from it all” while hiking. But that pleasurable experience doesn’t mean that racism or sexism or homophobia are just absent from the backcountry. I wasn’t surprised to see the flood of comments resisting the hikers of color group, but I was disturbed by how immediately many commenters simply rejected any connection between hiking and racism. Perhaps it was too difficult to imagine scenarios in which hikers of color might encounter potential risks or barriers that white hikers are unlikely to experience, but even if so, I was struck by how few commenters sincerely asked why a hikers of color group might be important, and how many of them instead immediately discarded the idea that race is a factor in the backcountry.
This vehement denial was especially remarkable to me because the national parks system, the trails, and the wilderness areas we enjoy are built on and through racism. It is incredible to see how many hikers admire and respect John Muir for his environmentalism and conservation work, and devotedly read his books, yet never mention (or aren’t aware of?) his deeply racist descriptions of American Indians and Black people, or the ways that his drive to protect the wilderness — for which we might indeed be grateful on one hand — also entailed the forcible removal of local tribes from land that then became national parks. (For a more extensive historical account of conflict with local people living in the areas that the U.S. government developed into the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon parks, see Karl Jacoby’s book Crimes Against Nature.) While the federal government and many conservation organizations protect the pristine wilderness by pushing out those who previously lived there, other land that houses communities of color is disproportionately the site of pollutants, toxic waste, and other environmental contamination. And so much of the U.S. conservation movement has long been intertwined with population control efforts that are steeped in eugenics.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Finney (in her very readable and insightful book Black Faces, White Spaces) traces the various ways that designated wilderness areas, trails, and parks have systematically prioritized white people as the “general public” that deserves access to and enjoyment of these spaces. For example, she notes that the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act both passed in 1964, and writes that the former legislation assumes “a universality of ideals” about the wilderness “without considering the underlying structural and systemic inequalities that prohibited ‘all men’ from participating in and actively enjoying the American wilderness.” She reminds us that race continues to shape the construction of parks (“Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., the largest urban park in the National Park system, separates Chevy Chase, a wealthy white enclave ‘from the increasingly black neighborhoods’ proliferating on the nearby landscape of Maryland,” she writes as one example). Finney also works against the idea that Black people don’t participate in wilderness areas (she discusses a huge range of outdoors engagement and environmental justice work by Black people historically and currently), but she shows how racial hierarchies always affect this participation. For example, she explains that the Civilian Conservation Corps, an agency developed during the New Deal, segregated its workers by race, and that “many all-black CCC camps were unwelcome by communities across the country, including California.”
These are just a few cursory examples to show how utterly disingenuous and absurd it is to ever claim that race and racism are absent from wilderness areas, national parks, or trails. In fact these places would not exist as they do now without decades of racist policies and practices. If white people are now able to feel that parks and trails are pure and enjoyable and devoid of race and “politics,” it is at least in part because the “protection” of these spaces so often entailed forcibly removing certain groups of people who white conservationists saw as blights on an otherwise pristine landscape. It is impossible to “get away from race” by getting on the trail — at some level, the trail is a legacy of racism. It is impossible to “leave politics behind” by going into the national parks and other designated wilderness areas — these spaces were built through specific political ideologies and practices: they are, at their core, political.
It might be tempting to argue that all of this is in the past, and that in our current moment, anyone should feel welcomed in the backcountry and in the outdoors. Many people have noted that outdoor areas and less-populated wilderness sites have historically been the locations of tremendous violence against people of color (for example, Finney writes that “while most African Americans have never seen a lynching, the act of terror perpetrated on a black person in the woods is remembered both for the place where it happened and the act itself”). But we can also think about how that history carries forward into our present moment. Last year I read a website by a Black man who deeply enjoys running/jogging, but who wrote plainly about how much anxiety it causes him because even when clearly wearing running clothes, people around him routinely think he is (a) running away after committing a crime or (b) running towards them to harm them in some way. (I couldn’t find that website again when I looked recently, but I did find some other discussions about how racism creates barriers for Black men who are runners.) Similarly, I was moved by another man’s account of how race and racism affect his love for and participation in birdwatching. In terms of national parks specifically, a group of women of color professors wrote this piece about why people of color visit the parks in fewer numbers than white people, and they discuss how they and their white colleagues experienced dramatically different treatment from park staff in Yosemite. The founder of The Trail Posse, a website/organization focused on race and diversity in the outdoors, wrote this essay outlining some reasons that people of color may feel nervous about going to the parks (including the sight of Confederate flags on the drive to North Cascades National Park), and how the absence of that nervousness is so often an unexamined privilege for white hikers.
This is not to say that any of these experiences is universal among people of color — I’ve also seen comments from some hikers of color who say they’ve never experienced racism in the backcountry. But it is to say that race continues to shape all of our interactions with the outdoors, just as race is built into the backcountry trails we hike on. I think it’s important to remember, even as we experience the pleasure of it, that this nature is not really “natural” — it has always been political. And that to deny the politics of the parks, of federally protected wilderness areas, of the trails, of hiking, is its own troubling political stance.
ps. A few more great resources on these topics: OutdoorAfro, a national network connecting Black people with nature and the outdoors. An excellent episode of the podcast CodeSwitch, titled “Made for You & Me: Being ‘Outdoorsy’ When You’re Black or Brown.” And Brown Girl on the PCT, one of my favorite hiking blogs precisely because the author talks about race and gender and politics in relation to long-distance hiking. (She’s hiking the PCT right now, and I recently realized that the timing might work out so that we cross paths with her while we’re on the JMT this month! Here’s hoping I can tell her in person how grateful I am for her blog!)
ETA: Also check out this new podcast episode from Sounds of Trail, “The Elephant on the Trail.”