Who Are the Outdoors For? Race, Class, and Environmentalism

womeninwoods
Illustration by Maggie Meshnick

On March 8th,  I attended a workshop hosted collaboratively by the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and Brown Outdoor Leadership Training (BOLT) entitled “Women in the Woods: Breaking Out of Gender, Race, and Class Constraints in the Outdoors.” The workshop explored America’s tenuous environmental history and the role that land/wilderness has played in the marginalization of groups like Native Americans, African Americans, women, and more. Today, the facilitators told us, the outdoors is a space primarily for white men; the workshop encouraged participants to discuss the causes of this situation, its consequences, and what we can do to make the outdoors a more diverse and inclusive space.

About halfway through the workshop, the facilitators led a snowball activity in which participants wrote and read aloud anonymous responses to questions about our personal relationships to the outdoors. Participants described growing up camping and hiking, discovering their love for the woods in college, recognizing their socioeconomic privilege, and, most prominently, feeling anxiety about being a woman alone in the woods. Participants were, by and large, white women. This demographic (with the addition of a few more white men) is also reflected in Brown’s outdoor groups in general.

Though it seemed like the workshop facilitators aimed to discuss issues of race and class, the participants nearly unanimously directed the conversation towards gender. Many expressed concerns (their own or perhaps their parents’) regarding the danger of participating in outdoor activities alone as women. Though this sentiment was not necessarily shared by the whole group, it dominated a conversation designed to revolve around the various kinds of barriers to accessing the outdoors. Gender is, without a doubt, not the most substantial of these barriers.

In a report brought up by the facilitators themselves, the Outdoor Foundation found that, in 2013, young people (ages 6 to 24) participated in outdoor activities equally along gender lines. In fact, in the age range of 18-24, 56% of participants in outdoor activities were women. However, in 2013, only 45% of African American adolescents and 49% of Hispanic adolescents participated in outdoor activities, compared to 60% of Caucasian adolescents. Numbers have a limited capacity to tell the whole story of unequal access, but they illuminate the fact that race seems to play a significantly more limiting role than gender.

Part of this inequality stems from the inextricable connection between class and race, meaning that people of color are far more likely to face compounding socioeconomic barriers to accessing the outdoors than are white people. But there’s more to the story, and tracing it back to the legacy of slavery is a useful way to understand these inequalities. Modern environmentalism is rooted in the slaveholder mentality of dominating and reaping the land. This ideology, in combination with manifest destiny’s romanticization of “virgin lands,” produced the transcendental notion of environmentalism that remains today.

This notion idealizes wilderness as an escape from civilization, a space of purity in the midst of the grit and grime of urban life. The unfortunate reality is that most of our environmental problems occur not in the wilderness but in civilization, and these problems disproportionately burden low-income communities of color. Tragically, an environmentalism rooted in binary-driven white, middle-class transcendentalism is incapable of recognizing and addressing these grave injustices.

In the workshop, we discussed the loaded connotations of words used to talk about the environment: the outdoors, nature, wilderness. These words carry with them subjective notions of what counts as “environment,” and, on the converse, what doesn’t.

Who are we excluding when we talk about protecting nature? Conserving the environment? We ought to think critically about why we value certain spaces over others and the implications of these value judgments. If we authentically aim to be environmentalists, we must challenge ourselves to forge a more inclusive and critically conscious version of environmentalism.

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