March 22, 2019
Dear Jenny Bruso,
How can cis white dudes help make trails and the outdoors more inviting and open for women, POC (people of color), trans and queer hikers?
-Trying Not to Suck
I was really excited to get this question. A dude who doesn’t want to be a jerk? Excellent! But then I started feeling kinda...eh. Not about you, but about how willing I feel to give someone a cookie for wanting to not be the worst. People shouldn’t get cookies for valuing equality, yet I see it all of the time on social media. Some athlete or outdoors figure finally finds out about the diversity conversation, built on years of labor done by oppressed people, then cobbles together a few sentences about it in an Instagram post, and everyone applauds their compassion. They aren’t actually doing anything. Not even uplifting those doing the work. They don’t call things by name: racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, etc., to avoid discomfort. Anyway, I’m bitter. But I still want to give you a cookie because I love talking about this stuff.
I know you asked specifically in the context of the outdoors and I’ll get into that, but really, isn’t what happens out on the trail the same stuff perpetuated in the rest of our lives? Here’s an extremely pared down Ally 101:
- Believe people's’ stories when they tell them without question. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Your opinion of their experience has no value and it’s ok! It isn’t about you. De-center your feelings.
- Get comfortable with the reality of privilege. We all have it. Some forms are more valuable than others. Question yourself often about what kind of access and advantages you receive because of it. Being white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, educated, not poor, etc. are all examples of privilege. Having privilege doesn’t mean your life doesn’t suck sometimes, it simply means you are given more tools to navigate through certain experiences than those who don’t have the same privilege(s).
- Be ready to be wrong. Often. Don’t let your ego or good intentions block you from receiving criticism, even when it’s coming from a place of anger. Listen first, react later. Impact > intent.
- Make space for people’s anger. Don’t tone police under a guise of civility and positivity about things that are neither civil or positive. It’s silencing.
- Don’t use phrases like “I have a black/queer/disabled/etc. friend” to justify a point you want to make.
- If something seems oppressive, talk to your white cisgender friends and consult the Google oracle before asking friends experiencing oppression to provide emotional labor for you.
- Be of service. Ask how you can support them and then follow through.
- Accept that speaking out against oppression will make people in your life uncomfortable or angry. Bring up these issues at work, home, family gatherings, etc.
- Use social media to share posts about these issues to create further reach. So often these conversations are being had in vacuums. Expecting oppressed people to do the real talk keeps the burden squarely on them.
- Throw expendable dollars, regularly, at single-issue organizations founded by people directly doing the work of dismantling injustice and/or providing resources to those lacking. Local orgs are great places to start as opposed to large charities.
To get more specific about the outdoors, all of the usual suspects are at play: classism, racism, sexism, and so on, but colonization is a major piece that doesn’t come up enough. It’s deeply ingrained in the foundation of this country. The selling and partitioning of land not belonging to the colonizers and the displacing and murdering of indigenous people has gone on in various forms for hundreds of years. Our National Parks were built on this displacement! You’ll find colonial undertones within conversations about the environment, “public lands,” conservation, land overuse, etc. by implying “new” people to the outdoors are trashing these lands we love so.
Outdoor media and culture are behind on everything. Making outdoor spaces safer for oppressed people takes first admitting these spaces are inherently hostile by the means with which they were created. Yes, there’s more representation of people of color in media, but that doesn’t mean they’re being invited into the boardroom. There’s still extremely little representation of queer and trans people, disabled folks or anyone who wears plus-sizes. These powerhouses are doing more to support the work of outdoor affinity groups and organizations, but they still shy away from naming the historical and institutionalized oppression informing these problems. We won’t change anything at surface level. Here’s how you can go deeper:
- Self-education is necessary. Dr. Carolyn Finney has an amazing book, Black Faces, White Spaces, covering and addressing lack of representation of Black people in outdoor recreation, environmentalism, and the legacies of slavery and racial violence that have shaped cultural understandings to the present.
- Change your feed, change your life! Follow organizations and affinity groups on social media, especially on Instagram, addressing outdoor issues. The outdoor fantasy reel has been done. Normalizing the image of everyday people sharing their adventures can do a lot to reshape our ideas about who is getting out and how they’re doing so. Some of my favorites are @indigenouswomenhike, @brownpeoplecamping, @theventureoutproject, @browngirlsclimb, @melaninbasecamp, @wilddiversity, @queernature and @nativewomenswilderness. Oh, and @unlikelyhikers. Most of these can be found on other platforms, too.
- Again, financial support is always a good call, but only for organizations, groups and people doing grassroots work. Most of the groups/orgs I named above accept and rely on donations.
- Acknowledge the land you recreate on. Who are its original stewards? What do they call these lands? Native-land.ca is a great resource. Be sure to explore the links they provide.
I know, this is a lot, Suck, it’s probably daunting, but you asked and that’s the first step. Now you’ve got to back it up. You have no reason not to now. Proceed with courage, humbleness and love. I believe in you.