White supremacy and microaggressions are ingrained in our society—and outdoor culture—but, if we all are aware of our actions, we can move forward.
In 1997, I worked as a full-time counselor at a summer camp with a Native American theme. Campers were divided into the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Muskogee tribes. Throughout the week, children would compete in activities to try to win the coveted “tribal shield.” The camp’s talent show was held in an auditorium described as the “air-conditioned tepee,” and every week counselors would perform a fake Native American love story during a ceremony called “The Pageant.” I participated, even wearing a feathered headpiece designed for female counselors while the male counselors wore headdresses. I still think about the children I worked with and the harmful stereotypes I helped perpetuate among them.
During this time in my life, I was woefully unaware of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people in the U.S. The camp’s activities not only gave campers an inaccurate representation of Indigenous customs; they also helped perpetuate the idea of the “extinct Native American.” These harmful stereotypes disrespect and degrade Native people.
In my early 20s, I worked at an environmental education center that hosted an event known as the “Underground Railroad Activity.” Students would pretend to be slaves in a traveling choir accompanying their master. Toward the end of the activity, a lantern would be lit and a quilt hung to signal that the students could enter a safehouse, where they waited in a dark room while the local “police” visited the house looking for escaped slaves. The folks upstairs would yell that they knew slaves were hiding in the house, threatening to find them and take them back. The activity concluded with a short discussion that lacked any semblance of depth or nuance. By participating, I was complicit in how this activity impacted both the students and myself.
Years later, I was again challenged in a different way. The director of a new environmental organization where I was working would bring her dog to work. The dog noticeably only barked at Black people. She sometimes referred to her pet as her “little KKK dog,” saying it had a “bad experience” with a Black person. One of my colleagues, a Black man from Philadelphia, eventually approached me about the director’s reference. I shrugged and told him that it was okay. “It’s just the South,” I said.
In a moment when I should have supported my fellow Black colleague, I excused the director’s actions, minimizing both of our experiences. In a way, I thought that I was protecting my colleague. The director’s behavior was reprehensible on many levels, but I was worried about the ramifications of calling it out publicly. By shrugging off my colleague’s concern, I was actually protecting the director’s racism.
Public Lands are often developed through the same legislative systems that once prohibited Black people from entering certain outdoor spaces. Under these same systems, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) are often forced to assimilate in order to survive—such as by subscribing to white supremacy. Although accountability for upholding white supremacy is absolutely necessary, BIPOC survival is often bartered with our ability to conform.
These previous events are all prime examples of structural bias and assimilation to white supremacy. Albeit subconscious, I acknowledge that my participation was in alignment with white supremacy. For BIPOC, the risks for addressing racism are astronomically different. I could’ve been the one who lost my only source of income, socially outcast, and suffering the consequences for confronting bigotry, while the perpetrator might not even receive disciplinary action. This is the narrative for BIPOC across industries. The outdoors are no different.
Reading the literature of those at the margins of these systems and seeking out intentional affinity groups help to build courage and community. Still, education and allyship are only one part of the solution.
While remembering our past wrongs is important, it’s also important that we answer these wrongs with vigorous action and change. If you have any semblance of power in our white supremacist country, you can act now to elevate the perspectives disregarded in key business decisions. We can’t dismantle the systems that continue to harm us if those at the margins of our society have no seat at the table.
I—like everyone on this journey—am still in the process of unlearning some of the problematic behaviors that our white supremacist society encourages. I’m not perfect, but I’ve come a long way. Everyone is affected by white supremacy. Nobody’s perfect. Therefore, we’re all capable of growth and change. Acknowledging our past transgressions is the first step.
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Cover photo: “KWEEN“ stands for Keep Widening Environmental Engagement Narratives—something we all work together to achieve.