The Whitest Thing I Do
Taking the high road to racism, in the Rockies
There’s this new show that just showed up on Netflix. It’s called Seinfeld.
Wait, it’s not new?
I guess I was otherwise occupied raising a family and earning a living between 1989 and 1998, when the show aired, and aired, and aired. Now I have 180 episodes to enjoy, which should get me through the extended pandemic and then some.
In season 2, episode 3, a suitably “nothing” plot unfolds when Jerry spends a lot of money on a very 90s suede jacket. It looks great on the outside, but has a pink-striped lining. For the next twenty-two minutes, the lining surges to the fore in a number of incidents. Hilarity ensues.
But while I was laughing, I was also thinking: That pink-striped lining has quite a bit to teach us about race in these supposedly post-racial times.
Block that metaphor, right? But hang with me for a sec.
Earlier this summer I had an assignment from Backpacker magazine, to write about stupid things white people say to people of color when they encounter them in the wilderness. I won’t steal the mag’s or my own thunder; the article hasn’t been published yet. But in the process of my research, I learned that the difficulties of Hiking While Black are the pink-striped lining of the great outdoors. It’s supposed to be concealed, but once it’s brought to your attention, you can’t help noticing it.
And unlike Jerry’s jacket, it ain’t funny.
I knew what I was getting into with this Backpacker assignment, having signed on for a pandemic’s worth of book groups to discuss Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, and the uber eye-opener White Fragility, by Robin D’Angelo. Racism education has been the other thing, aside from video streaming, that has been filling up my Covid downtime: Opening my own myopic eyes to see the hideous lining of our beautiful society.
Like many white people, I began reading White Fragility with a smug “I don’t see color; I see people” attitude. Surely, this book wasn’t going to be about my white fragility. I didn’t have a racist bone in my body!
Then I found that exact disclaimer in D’Angelo’s list of unhelpful things white people say. Pronouncements like that dismiss the fault lines of race in our society. After all, if you don’t “see” race, you don’t have to do anything about it.
Anything good on Netflix, instead?
Other catchphrases on D’Angelo’s list of racial dismissals have also passed my lips. For instance, “I judge people by what they do, not who they are” and “I marched in the sixties.” As if either of those disclaimers can help address 400 years of slavery, violence, and disenfranchisement?
Maybe I did have something to learn about race, after all.
About fifteen minutes into my research for the Backpacker article, I was stunned — stunned! — to learn that my favorite leisure-time activities — downhill skiing, x-skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, backpacking — are about the whitest activities there are.
The 2020 Outdoor Participation Report shows that in 2019 Blacks comprised 12.4% of the population, but only 9.4% of outdoor participants. Latinx people were 11.6% of the outdoor crowd, but 17.9% of the population.
When I summit a Colorado Fourteener, the view is overwhelmingly white. Why would that be?
I interviewed many of people of color for my article. All of them were outdoor enthusiasts and inclusivity activists. I kept on hearing similar tales. Several of my interviewees reminded me that the Underground Railroad was essentially a hiking trip, undertaken under mortal threat. And they reminded me how Jogging While Black can be a fatal event. And of that birder-of-color in Central Park, who had the cops called on him while in search of the 210 species taking wing there.
Birding, in fact, is another “what white people like” activity. I should know, because I’m an avid avian fan, too.
This chart, from a 2011 Fish & Wildlife survey, shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Among the 20% of U.S. citizens who enjoy birding, the vast majority are white.
Which is why I was so taken by an article I read from Rocky Mountain PBS, called “The Black Sherpa.” It details Evan Gill’s successful quest to summit all 58 fourteen-thousand foot peaks in Colorado. Gill, a veteran, struggles with anxiety and depression. Hiking is his therapy, supported by the group Vibe Tribe Adventures, an outfit that strives to support people of color in the outdoor.
First, they need to feel free to hear the call of the wild, rather than a call to the cops.
Vibe Tribe outfitted Gill with useful gear, and mentored him through his early missteps on the trail. Despite having climbed forty-eight more Fourteeners than I have, he still feels like a weirdly visible presence out there, like a guy with a pink-striped down sweater from Patagonia.
But he belongs. Black hikers matter.
I’m late to the game in discovering that it could be any other way, just like I was late in “discovering” this Seinfeld character. But now that the racial disparities outdoors have been pointed out to me, I hope to walk the walk — and hike the hike — of outdoor inclusiveness, as well.
As a first step, I recently joined an effort from the Cottonwood Institute to help city kids get into the mountains. And there are many more steps to take.
We all need to climb higher together.