The Arizona Women’s Climbing Coalition stands in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. As an organization whose mission is to provide a safe space for all womxn in climbing, we understand that it is especially important to support Black folx. One of our pillars is to provide equal access to the outdoors, but that this is not possible without first addressing deeper societal issues of inequality. Access to the outdoors should be a right, but is currently a privilege.
According to the 2019 Outdoor Industry Participation Report, Black participation in outdoor recreation was the lowest amongst all reported ethnic groups, at less than 40 percent of the Black population. Data from the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service (published in 2018) show that Black folx make up only 1 to 1.2 percent of all visitors to public lands, though according to 2010 US census data, they make up 13.4 percent of the population. Meanwhile, White folx were disproportionately represented at between 88 and 95 percent of all visitors to public lands, though they comprise 76.5 percent of the population.
However, despite low rates of participation in outdoor recreation, Black Americans were some of the most avid outdoor participants. In the 2019 Outdoor Industry Participation Report, they were more likely than other ethnic group to say they were fanatics about outdoor recreation. They also reported the second highest number of outings per participant per year.So why the low rates of participation? According to “Diversity in the Outdoors: Is Everyone Welcome in America’s Parks and Public Lands?” an article from resourcesmag.org by Reyna Askew and Margaret A. Walls, experts and researchers believe the following may be the main barriers to participation:
Affordability and Access. Visiting remote national parks can be expensive and time-consuming, presenting significant obstacles to lower-income Americans, especially hourly workers with limited vacation time. Even closer-to-home sites such as state parks often have entrance fees, and some outdoor recreation activities require expensive equipment.
Early Childhood Experiences. Some experts writing on this topic have highlighted that early childhood experiences of engaging with the natural world can shape a person’s views of self-confidence and enjoyment of nature well into adulthood.
Cultural Factors. David Scott and KangJae Jerry Lee wrote in the George Wright Forum in 2018 that cultural factors provide people with a “template” about the kinds of outdoor recreation—and leisure more generally—they feel they need to conform to. Thus, cultural factors can facilitate participation in outdoor activities by some groups but inhibit it for others.
Discrimination and White Racial Frames. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, African Americans were banned from, or segregated at, public recreation sites, including national and state parks. This legacy lives on, and many minorities report feeling excluded at parks where interpretive exhibits and historical information often feature only white Americans.
Historical Trauma and Concerns of Physical Safety. In a 2018 study, survey participants were asked to describe why African Americans might be fearful of visiting forests. According to the paper, 66 percent of participants did discuss thoughts and experiences which suggest that the historical trauma of slavery and lynchings is associated with the environment for many African Americans.
The fear of putting oneself in harm’s way is very real and legitimate for Black folx, as we have seen very recently in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was the victim of a modern-day lynching at the hands of two white men while he was jogging. To make matters worse, the outdoor recreational industry largely remained silent on the issue, as Black climber Brandon Belcher noted on a recent Instagram post.
“The extra judicial killing of a black jogger in South Georgia should be concerning and angering to the outdoor recreational industry and the communities that support them,” he said. “Yet I hear crickets from most of these type of companies and their athletes, even though jogging is easily one of the most accessible and purest forms of outdoor recreation.”
The silence of the industry demonstrated to Belcher that his community was not prepared to protect him or any other Black folx. He pointed out that their DEI initiatives were meaningless if they choose not to use their platforms to speak against racism. They were not doing anything meaningful to create a safe space for some of their most vulnerable community members.
Belcher also recently appeared as a guest on Kathy Karlo’s podcast, For the Love of Climbing. In episode 17, “What We Know,” Belcher relates his experiences as Black climber in Atlanta.
“[W]hen it comes to climbing outside, I definitely have a heightened sense of where I am at. Coming from the southeast, a lot of our areas are in extremely rural parts of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee. As a black person, it’s like—I lived with this existence every second of my life, so I’m always cognizant of where I am and how people are interacting with me and how they’re interacting with the world around me,” he says in the podcast.
“Every single time I go outside climbing somewhere, depending on the crag: I got my gas stations I go to, I got my restaurants that I go to, I got my places I get my snacks. I usually vet places. Usually, they’re kind of corporate establishments—the quick trips, the CVS’s. But besides that, I’m not stopping anywhere else. ‘Cause I’m not really sure what interaction I’m gonna have with people and I’m not really sure how those interactions are going to dictate how my day goes. Because someone decides to call the police on me—and that is a potential life-threatening experience for someone like me.”
It would appear Belcher is not alone in his trepidation:
The African American population led the way in year-over-year growth in indoor climbing, increasing three percent from 2017 to 2018. And, African American participation saw the biggest boost in first-time indoor climbing participation with a six-percent increase since the previous year. Interestingly, while African American participants have embraced indoor climbing, they have essentially dropped out of outdoor climbing.2019 Outdoor Industry Participation Report
Though the study does not cite reasons for why Black climbers are dropping out of outdoor climbing, given what we know about many Black folx’ relationship with the outdoors, it may be fear that is keeping our fellow climbers indoors.
It is our duty to educate ourselves and to support each other. So what can we do to help our fellow climbers feel safe and supported?
Listen to the lived experiences of others and believe them.
Diversify your feed. Speak out against racism and elevate the voices of Black leaders.
Climbing and outdoors:
Community Organizations and Black Educators:
Donate to causes that support Black communities.
Patronize Black-owned businesses.
Sign petitions and contact your representatives
These lists are not definitive and we encourage you to discover and share your own resources as well.
AZWCC is also putting in work and trying to find ways to make our climbing community a safer and more welcoming place for Black folx. To start, we are taking a stance and finding educational resources to share with our community. We have also made a donation to the NAACP and Phoenix Local Organizing Committee and are finding ways to partner with and support community organizers. We hope you join us in the fight against racism.