Environmental Experiences Have Racial Roots

Who gets to be outdoorsy?

I led a group of college students on a field ecology trip to the Adirondacks in the fall of 2016. As I prepared for the trip, it occurred to me that their experience with camping and hiking would vary. Some people are to the outdoors as Beyonce is to the stage, raised in nature’s glow and clad in Gortex as she was in sequins. Others might have a little exposure to nature, like children given wine at the dinner table: introduced early enough to play it cool in later encounters. What excited me were the students for whom the word stakes only invoked dinner or gambling, not shelter. I looked forward to watching their reactions to the torrential downpour we would sleep through and the effusive sun meeting the horizon the next morning. How incredible would it be to witness someone’s nascent relationship with nature take shape?

I realized disdainfully that I would hardly see this moment during the trip—almost every student in the group had already spent plenty of time hiking. Their previous experience with the outdoors was likely the reason they had signed up for the class in the first place. Despite my initial excitement, the excursion ended up only sharpening the point of an old thorn: the racial divisions within natural spaces.  

The students in our group explored the forest with ease, each contact seemingly both familiar and personal.  As I guided them through different ecosystems, I began thinking about the social and emotional capital that these students – who were almost all white and upper-middle class – hold because of their experience with hiking, camping, backpacking and climbing. I was reminded of how people of color specifically have been alienated from nature. Without a mainstream culture that normalizes outdoor activity, it is unlikely (though admittedly not impossible, e.g. myself) that a young person of color would seek to spend time in nature beyond passing through it. History and culture tend to sieve out those who “know” nature and, as in my forest ecology class, impact who may go on to study the environment.

White families populate most people’s mental picture of who uses natural public spaces. This image stems from both contemporary and historical notions of who these spaces were intended for when they were created. Established in 1872 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone National Park inaugurated the world’s first public parks system. When the national parks initiative became a full-fledged National Parks Service in 1916, the parks concept was being developed and promulgated by a certain set of wealthy men, sometimes described as hunter conservationists. Though the intent was to conserve America’s natural spaces for public use, the issue of which public’s use became contentious. As states began issuing Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation following the abolition of slavery, the National Parks System followed local laws and maintained segregation in recreational spaces. Parallel to the legacy of segregation in national parks, African Americans and other non-white people associated nature with potential danger. Hiking while Black in the early 20th century could certainly lead to a violent encounters with white segregationists, and that caution has been embedded in the cultural memory of Black America. While small groups of African Americans were involved in the early maintenance of national parks, non-white employment in the National Parks Service today is dismally low (17.9% as of 2011). Together, these historical factors guaranteed that most African Americans were unlikely to approach natural spaces recreationally, cementing the wariness of many African Americans to the outdoors today.

Some might argue that nature appreciation is only racialized because of longstanding cultural differences between those of European versus those of non-European ancestry. This argument is facile because it flattens the cultural topography of non-white people and neglects the multifaceted relationships that African, Asian, and Latin American and Indigenous groups have built with their natural surroundings for centuries. The present distance between people of color and nature partly results from historic barriers to land ownership in the United States. Thus the reticence of black people towards nature is equally a function of class inequality as it is racial injustice. Landowners in 19th and 20th century America, mostly wealthy whites, were also those with the means to spend leisure time in nature, and for whom outdoor activity marked status. People of color formed the slave and labor classes which were disenfranchised of their civil rights and the ability to experience nature for pleasure. The historical connections between class, fear of racial violence, and nature have shaped the present racialization of who is likely to be “outdoorsy”.

Without my happenstance opportunities to immerse myself in forests, I likely would not have discovered my love for them, and would almost certainly not be an ecologist today. My voice would not be a part of the conversation among scientists who are trying to solve the problems wrought upon the environment. Still, exposure to nature is a social filter through which so many people of color will not pass. The historically imposed distance between people of color and their natural surroundings is widest in the halls of universities. The people and perspectives driving environmental research are homogenized by the same filter that I slipped through by chance.

As I observed the students exploring wetlands, hardwood forests and alpine ecosystems that weekend in the Adirondacks, I listened to their excitement about the curious mushrooms we found, and how beautiful the clay soil felt, and thrill of knowing the names of trees. Herding them back into the van and driving back to campus, I was hard hit by the duality of my happiness and unease. The mostly white makeup of that trip was a result of active historical exclusions. Enrollment of black and brown students in the future would not change without active inclusion effort. By inspecting the roots of this inequity, uncovering its causes, and actively connecting people of color with nature, we can reshape the populations on trails, train new environmental experts, and pursue environmental questions with fresh eyes.

Suzanne Pierre is a PhD candidate in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Check out more from Sue and learn about her research here!