CC’s Outdoor Identity: A Racial Divide

At every Backcountry Level 1 Training session at the Ahlberg Leadership Institute (ALI), students do an activity in which they are asked to draw the stereotypical outdoor leader. Depictions often share some common themes: Patagonia jackets, sticker-covered Nalgenes, Chacos, and thought bubbles with catchphrases like “Stoked!” or “Send it!” Another common assumption about these leaders is that they will be white, straight, and from an upper socioeconomic class.

This is, of course, a stereotype, and it doesn’t hold true across the board. However, recent events such as the storm of racist Yik Yak comments last semester have raised serious questions about CC’s inclusivity of students of color and other students who are often discriminated against. As we evaluate CC’s efforts to combat this problem, we must assess whether there are contributing factors in one of CC student’s beloved playgrounds, something that drew many of us here: the outdoors.

Here, I investigate whether the outdoor community and activities are equally accessible to all students, how that affects the campus dynamic, and finally, how we can improve.

I. The Narrative of the White, Rich Outdoors

Last block, Dr. Carolyn Finney, a professor at University of California, Berkeley and author of the book “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors,” gave a talk at CC that addressed the question of whether the outdoor culture contributed to a racial divide on campus. As Finney points out in her book, it’s no secret that outdoor activities have historically been associated with white folks, and this has hardly changed.

City parks, for example, were one of the most segregated parts of society in the Jim Crow Era, and other more rural spaces were dangerous for African Americans who had to fear the intrusion of white supremacist mobs. Nature was envisioned as the dominion of the white man. Case in point: Madison Grant, an early conservationist who played a key role in establishing the national parks system, was a eugenicist who viewed the preservation of this land as a refuge for white people who feared the intrusion of other races into their daily life.

Even today, outdoor activities seem to be relegated to that original rich boys’ club, at least to some degree. According to the Smithsonian, 78 percent of Americans who participated in outdoor activities were white (compared to 63 percent of the nation’s population). A U.S. Forest Service survey found that 95 percent of visitors to National Forests and Wilderness Areas were white. The disparity is heightened when it comes to more “extreme” activities like rock climbing and mountain biking. These pursuits are achievable by people of certain socioeconomic means, as they require expensive equipment, the resources to access training, and proximity to the locations in which to do them, not to mention favorable views of the activity within the participant’s community.

The perception of participation by minorities in the outdoors may be made even worse by media representation. Finney writes, “The representation of environmental issues and the narrative supporting the visual images provides insight into who Americans think actually cares about and actively participates in environmental concerns.” The major outdoors publications, such as Outside, Backpacker, or Skiing, largely present stories, photos, and articles about white people adventuring or trying out the latest gear. One study found that of 6,986 photos that appeared in Outside magazine between 1991 and 2001, only 103 showed African-Americans. This lack of representation in the media reinforces the notion that the outdoors is a space for white people exclusively.

Many outdoor enthusiasts of color thus speak of a barrier to their participation in the outdoors—a feeling of being “the only one” interested in outdoor activities among people that look like them, as African American outdoor activist Rue Mapp puts it. That narrative inevitably influences the level of participation and perception at CC.

II. The ORC’s Efforts

The Outdoor Education program has a statement that reads, “the Office of Outdoor Education seeks to provide inclusive and exciting outdoor experiences for all interested students.”

“I think within ORC [the Outdoor Recreation Committee] the general consensus is that we have a pretty wide variety of participants and students getting involved, but I think we can do better,” said Assistant Director of Outdoor Education David Crye, “I think there’s an overall perspective that to be participating in Outdoor Ed, you have to be white or have more experience in the outdoors or have money. We work hard at trying to fight that.We’re constantly trying to find ways to break down some of those barriers and reach those people that are intimidated or don’t think [outdoor activities] are an option.”

According to Crye, the ORC’s hiring practices for leaders give CC a substantial advantage over other schools’ outdoor programs when it comes to inclusivity. Rather than hire a few students every year to be trip leaders, the ORC has several “leader tracks” that require a certain progression of courses that any student can participate in. Thus, even students who come in with little to no outdoor experience can rise through the levels to become a senior leader within the ORC.

The ORC has also recently undergone several efforts to increase participation from students who don’t fit the previous outdoor “mold.” For example, ORC leaders Rayna Nolen, junior, and Jerry Sukuan Liu, senior, have planned a snowshoeing trip exclusively for minority and international students, and the ORC is trying to increase the presence of these kinds of trips.

“I hope to encourage people to try out something that they have wanted to do in a safe place,” Nolen says. “I would like to see more minority and international students involved in the ORC and I hope to help them do it.” (This trip has since been cancelled due to lack of interested partcipants).

Crye also notes that Outdoor Education has been increasingly collaborating with other programs like the Butler Center and the Office of International Programs, reaching out to their Listservs to publicize events or trips, and incorporating leadership techniques into trainings. All ORC trips are subsidized so that they are much more affordable than personal trips, and Outdoor Education is offering more scholarships and financial aid to needy students. They are also working with the Butler Center to re-vamp discussions of diversity in NSO leader trainings. Even small measures, like asking student leaders to change the dialect of their trip descriptions from vague but common lingo like “Sick Epic Trip” to more realistic explanations of what the trip entails, can make a difference in ensuring that the ORC appears inviting and accepting to all students, says Crye.

Analysis of student perceptions, however, nonetheless reveals a divide. Senior McKenna Asakawa, a Sociology major, wrote her thesis on the role of race and class in student belonging and participation at CC. Her data, collected from a qualitative analysis of a representative survey of students, shows that activities like ORC meetings and trips, hiking the Incline, and skiing are places in which students of color—and especially first generation students of color—feel far less comfortable than white students.

III. The Culture of CC

As Crye points out, even though the ORC has been improving and making strides towards greater representation and inclusivity, the greater challenge may rest with students’ personal lives. After all, a vast majority of outdoor excursions at CC happen through personal trips, contingent upon someone having a car, gear, often a place to stay, and money to spend. Not all students have these resources at their fingertips.

First-year John Henry describes the recent experience of being at one of CC’s time-honored annual traditions, Winterfest, in which hundreds of CC students flock to the slopes and the hotel rooms of Crested Butte ski resort. “I think I was one of two or maybe three people from CC that were of color,” Henry observed. “There may have been another one but that was all I saw… and literally I did not see a single person of color skiing or on the slopes in the entire area.”

This is not uncommon at mass CC events of this nature. Henry points out a further disturbing reality that these kinds of outdoor activities are often tied to copious amounts of drinking and substance abuse—a sort of partying environment that some accept without reservation, but would appear incredibly risky to others. “There were literally hundreds of CC kids running around every level of this hotel drunk, screaming, and doing cocaine and shrooms. Just imagine if all of those people were people of color. It would have been covered by a news station.” But because these events are dominated mostly by white people who feel privileged enough to behave in such ways in a hotel environment, we rarely take a second glance.

This is the kind of CC culture that could prove a barrier to inclusion. Asakawa’s report summarizes, “many interviewees of color saw outdoor activities as exclusionary, white and privileged, and expressed disinterest in participating regardless of the relative accessibility of gear and funding.” The problem isn’t just that students feel the physical barriers to participation in the outdoors—although that is certainly an issue. Students of color also perceive the outdoor domain as an elite white sphere in which they don’t necessarily desire participation.

This factor could turn CC’s culture into a self-perpetuating cycle wherein students largely befriend people from similar backgrounds, reinforcing the narrative of the white outdoors and a white CC. Because CC is marketed and perceived as an “outdoorsy” school, it attracts students who identify as such—students who likely come from wealthier, white families. Students flock to others who have similar interests and the means to participate in these kinds of activities. Then, when it comes time for weekends or block breaks, these students band together to use the resources they already have—cars, money, gear, and experience—for climbing trips or condos at Breck. The outdoors community thus becomes a subculture with a certain image and a reputation about the looks and behavior of its members, down to their vernacular. But curiously, this subculture is still associated with the college as a whole. As Asakawa points out, “by prominently featuring outdoor recreation in its mission, branding, and programming for all students, the college seems to equate outdoorsy-ness with its identity. In doing so, the college may also inadvertently equate ‘whiteness’ with its identity and imply that ‘whiteness’ is required for full community membership.”

With all of the questioning of the college, the reality must come about that CC is changing. Not only is the college becoming more diverse socioeconomically, racially, and otherwise, but its admissions standards are increasing and its national reputation is rising. With all of the change in the air, one must wonder whether CC will lose its prominent outdoorsy reputation.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the goals of inclusion and a thriving outdoors culture are mutually exclusive. The outdoors is part of CC’s sense of place, an emphasis of the college moving forward, and rightfully so. The beautiful Colorado landscape is awe-inducing whether students choose to look at Pikes from campus or climb it, and introducing students to the outdoors can be a vital part of establishing a connection with the environment—essential in today’s continually threatened natural world.

The solution is not to eliminate or reduce institutional support for outdoor programs, but rather to consider the needs of underrepresented students and change the face of the outdoorsy community within CC and the face of CC as an outdoorsy community. In other words, we can improve the inclusivity of the college’s outdoors community without projecting the notion that this community is all that CC is. These efforts are crucial to lead CC into a more inclusive future, both within and apart from the outdoor realm.

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