Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why Are the Trails So White?

There are very few minorities on the trails. And no one's talking about it.

How many minorities do you see?   Source:
Have you ever looked around you at a trailhead parking lot and wondered at all the pale skin? Or paged through a blingy outdoor gear catalog, and thought to yourself, “Don’t Black, Latino, or Asian people go outdoors, too?”

When I was in the brainstorming phase for this blog, I realized that my assumption about my target audience was pretty reflexive: the average reader would be a college-educated white male, between 25 and 55 years old. Women fitting that same description would be demographic number two. And… that was roughly it.

Which is probably true. Which, in turn, raises the question: “What’s up with that?” Are all outdoorsy people really Caucasian? 

I did some digging. Actually, hours of digging. Based on the articles and papers I found, there’s no room for doubt that outdoor recreation is overwhelmingly a White pastime. There are exceptions (especially in sports that can be more urban, such as road biking) but not many. The further into nature you go, the less likely you are to see someone with darker skin.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that only one in five U.S. National Park visitors is non-White. A 2013 report by the Outdoor Foundation showed that 69% of participants in organized outdoor activities are Caucasian.  Every study or story I could find verifies a drastic imbalance in usage of public lands, and participation in activities like hiking, skiing, or biking. 

The more common explanations for this disparity included travel distance from minorities’ homes to natural settings, and anxiety about feeling unwelcome in a primarily White milieu. An insightful piece from the National Parks Conservation Association goes further back. It explains that, while white people were dropping out of society and reconnecting to the land during the 1960s and '70s, giving birth to the outdoor movement and then building an industry around it, minorities were busy fighting for basic rights like the ability to vote, equal legal representation in a court of law, and middle-class jobs with decent income. They just weren't focusing on buying all the gear and taking a lot of time to wander the backcountry.

That's at least one very plausible reason this whole gap got started in the first place.

And below that, there are touchier questions: Do people of color want more time in the outdoors? If they don’t, would they change their minds if they were given easier access and felt more welcome? Is it cultural colonialism to assume this needs to change?

The stark absence of this subject from major media is as interesting as the question itself. What I found online is mostly years old, and consists of studies funded either by a state or federal government entity or an outdoor industry foundation. I found only two articles in mainstream outlets: the New York Times piece linked above, and a New Republic review of the self-same Times story. Both date from 2013.

If, as is widely predicted, minorities will soon be the majority in the U.S., then the future of our protected lands (and of land as yet unprotected) will very soon be in the hands of people who look different from me. Maybe it's selfish, but I want them to know how precious it is to me, what it can do for their mental, physical, and spiritual health.

Also: for me, hanging out with only white people is boring. I grew up New York City. For all the concrete, noise, and other drawbacks, I did come to unconsciously expect people of all colors and interests everywhere, all the time. When that's missing, I feel like I have a basic vitamin deficiency.

What should or could be done about this? Is the research off-base? Is the trend changing recently?

Questions abound.

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2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation
The Outdoor Foundation

From the Mountaintop
National Parks Conservation Assocation blog, 9/25/13

The New Majority: Pedaling Toward Equity
Report of The League of American Bicyclist and The Sierra Club

National Parks Try to Appeal to Minorities
New York Times, 9/5/13

Outdoor Recreation and Nontraditional Users: Results of Focus Group Interviews With Racial and Ethnic Minorities
General Technical Report, State of California, 2008

Outdoor Recreation in America
Human Kinetics, 2006

Participation Statistics page, People for Bikes web site

Race, Ethnicity, and the Use of the National Park System
National Park Service Social Science Research Review, Spring/Summer 1999

White People Love Hiking. Minorities Don't. Here's Why.
New Republic, 9/6/13

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