When Alice Lyn Jasper moved from Brooklyn to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for school, it was the perfect opportunity to dabble in outdoor recreation. But there were a few setbacks: she was new at it, and she’s a woman of color.
“A lot of people made me feel like an outsider for being a city girl and for being inexperienced and not knowing all the technical skills. I enjoyed being outside and wanted to learn, but felt I didn’t fit into this bucket of ‘outdoorsy,’” Jasper said. “It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that’s not OK.”
The fact is, for many people of color, the outdoors is not an escape. The outdoors has historically been a white-dominated space and that history trickles down to the present day, where people of color make up a small percentage of visitors to America’s national parks and monuments.
Unfortunately, the solution to this isn’t as simple as “just going outside” and “ignoring the fact that no one else looks like you.” Trying something new that requires skill and strength is challenging enough, but adding the weight of being the only minority can make for a very stressful experience. As they say, there is safety in numbers.
So, when Jasper received the opportunity to produce and host a television show through WGVU’s Shaping Narratives program, she decided to use her new platform to reframe what being “outdoorsy” looks like and help lead people of color into the outdoors. Earlier this year, the pilot episode of her show “Color Out Here” came to life.
Tourism scholars propose multiple explanations behind the overwhelming whiteness of outdoor recreation. The first is historical. It is essential to acknowledge that our national parks originally excluded people of color. “Some of the leaders in conservationist work in America were huge advocates for eugenics and didn’t want to keep this pristine space for people of color,” said Jasper. “Even within my lifetime, Native Americans have been killed over fishing rights.
“While things are generally safer than they were a few decades ago, there’s transgenerational trauma. People pass those fears onto their kids and grandkids. Even if the younger generations can’t pinpoint where those fears come from, we’re raised to have it.”
The second barrier is financial. “It costs money to have the necessary gear to do outdoorsy things. You also usually need a car to get to those trails and public parks,” Jasper said. “There’s a lot of privilege that goes into outdoor recreation.”
“It can be a walk or bike ride through your city park. We need to redefine what we see as outdoor recreation.”
The third barrier is the absence of representation. Whether we like it or not, the perception of outdoor recreation correlates to advertising used to sell outdoor gear. Activities like hiking and camping have long been marketed as “things white people do.” When a brand’s Instagram feed is filled with images of fit white people, it sends a subliminal message that outdoor recreation is only meant for people that look like that.
The fourth barrier is our society’s rigid idea of what it means to be outdoorsy. “Outdoor recreation doesn’t have to be a 10-day backpacking trip in the backcountry; it can be a walk or bike ride through your city park. We need to redefine what we see as outdoor recreation,” Jasper said.
“You don’t have to be in Patagonia attire to be outdoorsy. Do I have to wear my Chacos with socks every time I go outside? No. I have meetings to go to and work to do. Sometimes, I like to get dressed up and be outside in my office attire. Other times, I’ll go into the woods and come back with twigs in my hair. You can be both. It’s not one or the other.”
In short, the reason you don’t see as many people of color outside is a culmination of many different layers. “Color Out Here” intends to pick those layers apart and share the narratives of people of color taking space outdoors — while acknowledging the fact that we are on colonized lands, founded on the displacement of indigenous people.
In preparation for Jasper’s new show, she went on a 10-day backpacking trip led by the National Outdoor Leadership School. It was the first time it taught a course exclusively for people of color. “The landscape was beautiful, I learned a ton about outdoor leadership and technical backpacking skills — but the most profound part was the community building,” said Jasper. “I don’t know if or when I’ve ever been with people of color for 10 days straight in my life!”
The backpackers still keep in touch to this day — mostly online — and continue supporting each other’s journeys in outdoor recreation. “We’re all reading Adrienne Maree Brown’s book ‘Pleasure Activism.’ In it, she talks about the concept of joyful solidarity, which is solidarity built out of positive experiences together rather than out of resistance to trauma. That’s something I gained from my trip and that I carry with me today. I want to use this show as a platform to help other people see that it can happen for them, too, and increase visibility where it’s already happening today.”
The importance of welcoming everyone to the outdoors extends beyond social justice. Excluding people of color from outdoor spaces means that fewer people join political fights for environmental justice. People don’t protect places they don’t have a connection with, and folks who hike, bike, climb or kayak are more likely to take actions that promote sustainability.
For well-meaning white folks looking to be better allies, Jasper said, “Leverage your privilege to help other people and elevate their narratives. Remember that your way isn’t the only way, there’s not a certain type of person that should or should not be in the outdoors, and, for people of color, it isn’t as simple as just going outside.”
For those in underrepresented groups looking to develop a connection with the outdoors, Jasper encourages joining an affinity group to gain a sense of community and get guidance on the technical aspects of outdoor recreation.
Happy hiking, friends.
Check out Alice’s suggestions for outdoor groups:
Brown Girls Climb
Melanin Base Camp