I looked out over the water and felt my stomach turn. My helmet barely fit over the multitude of two-strand twists in my hair, and I pulled my life jacket a little tighter, checking it for the 20th time.
I, Tierra Hayes, was going white water rafting.
Who knew what lurked beneath the surface of the murky water? What if I fell in? What would my friends say? What would my mother say? I imagined they would chime in with a multitude of I told you so’s.
We all piled into the boats and pushed off from the shore into the choppy waves, and I felt my dread begin to build.
“I’m too black for this,” I thought.
There is a common perception about minority communities in the United States that people of color and the outdoors just don’t mix. And there might be a reason for that.
The other day I was listening to the NPR podcast “Code Switch,” a show run by journalists of color about race and modern society. This particular episode was about why racial minorities participate less in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and exploring national landmarks.
A survey done by the National Park Service in 2009 found that only 7 percent of its annual visitors were African American. Nine percent were of Hispanic descent, and only 3 percent were Asian–all numbers much lower than the demographics of the country. Almost 80 percent of visitors were white.
I know that in my own personal circles, there are just some things we as minorities don’t do or that we have a strong aversion to, including things like many water sports, going into the woods or interacting with wild animals. We have been taught these are just not safe and that we have a little place doing these activities. Our parents don’t really do outdoorsy things, so we have no true example of how to explore and enjoy certain aspects of the outside world.
These trends are grounded in historical context.
Many people of color don’t engage with the outdoors because of their past exclusion from traditional social places, such as pools, in the early and middle 20th century.
According to an article by the New York Times, “Racism at American Pools Isn’t New: A Look at a Long History,” in 1931 a pool in Pittsburg required black people to present a paperwork showing they were disease-free. This method, as well as segregation laws and intimidation, kept many away.
National parks and beaches also tended to be far away from urban centers that many minorities populated, providing less access to traditionally poorer communities.
This isn’t to say that people of color do not interact with nature in conventional ways. Although they may be few in number, as time goes on, the numbers are trending upwards.
Even though only around 20 percent of visitors were minorities in 2009, that number is up from a similar study done in 2000 that showed 17 percent.
There are even websites like outdoorafro.com that seek to link black people in America outdoor activities and services.
Over fifty years after the civil rights movement, minorities are finally integrating into the outdoor culture of the US. Even if it’s going to take some time.
After a few hours, I stepped out of the boat onto dry land. My legs were wobbly, and I didn’t even want to think about what the river water had done to my hair. But I admit it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I hadn’t fallen out of the boat, and, as far as I knew, no parasites were eating away at my flesh. I enjoyed myself and had a good bonding experience with my friends.
And by the end of the day I gained a new appreciation, but I was still me.
“How was it? Would you do it again?” someone asked.
“No way,” I laughed. “But I didn’t hate it.”