I’ll start the conversation: how I’m unpacking my role in exclusive outdoor culture.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Welcome to the new AZ Bike Girl. I’ll explain more about where this blog is headed in the future (hint: training for the 800 mile Arizona Trail Race), but my new motto is to not get caught up in the details, so here we go with the first themed post: Thursdays are for self-education. On Thursdays, I put the 10 million empowerment books I’ve read since COVID into practice, synthesizing major ideas with informed research, and looking for nuggets of truth to take with me on outdoor adventures. Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’” That’s what Thursdays are all about. Today, I’m unpacking my privilege in exclusive outdoor culture.

In this post, I share my journey from savior complex to learning to be an ally of true inclusion in outdoor spaces. I hope you join me in self-reflection. I’m sharing my process because we need to be thinking through our roles and actions right now; we need to be discussing aspects of racism that are too often avoided. This post includes the resources I’ve turned to for advice, all of which are put together by BIPOC led outdoor organizations. If you need encouragement to begin unpacking your privilege, think about Brené Brown’s call to speak up instead of staying comfortable and silent. This echoes what Black Lives Matter is calling on us to do as well.

I have been relieved to see statements from outdoor companies acknowledging the role they have played in the problem while also vowing to do better in the future. However, systemic racism will continue to exist as long as white people (no matter how well-intentioned) are predominantly in the position of creating the space for inclusion and diversity. In other words, we can’t have true inclusion without full representation. This took me a long time to understand.

I was raised in a rural midwestern community where explanations, for fear of rocking religious beliefs and upsetting neighbors, never pushed beyond two dimensions of good and bad, heaven and hell, directly racist or not racist at all. Every year for Christmas, I received a card with an image of a brown child from somewhere across the world looking poor and a little hungry. The card always read that a donation in my name had helped; it served as evidence that my family was not racist. Simple. Two dimensional.

When I moved to the east coast 17 years ago, new friends were quick to point out my approach to doing good was problematic because it amplified my voice instead of the voice of whoever I was trying to help. This kind of do-gooding is often called the savior complex, where the “good person” helps the “disadvantaged person” and she gets credit for helping while the only option for the other person is to say thank you or remain silent. The rules and terms are written by the person in the saving/helping position. Power structures are kept in place because whoever is “doing the good” is positioned to choose who deserves help and how they should receive it. People in positions to “do good” (the word for this is privilege) also have the power to do “bad,” and because systemic racism isn’t two dimensional, they also have the power to do everything in between, which includes making decisions and setting up terms (or systems) shaping outdoor culture.

This is a sticky situation to be in because non-BIPOC individuals who want to help, and who are often leading the charge for DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) in the outdoors, end up keeping the system in place instead of dismantling it. Training new staff in diversity and inclusion curriculum was my favorite pre-season task when I worked in outdoor education, which meant there I was again, feeling good about my work while perpetuating the system that made DEI initiatives necessary in the first place. Basically, training before representation is backward and missing a step.

Marinel de Jesus (the lawyer and entrepreneur behind @browngaltrekker), in an article for Outside, explains the process of dismantling as a “complete overhaul of your company culture and policies that will normalize racial differences as simply an ingrained part of your company’s brand and identity.” My understanding from her article is that getting there will look something like this:

  • Equal POC representation in outdoor spaces, marketing material/social media, and every level within outdoor businesses and organizations
  • Increased DEI training and policies within outdoor businesses and organizations to assist specifically with the shift in power (who is taking direction from who) as well as what this shift means for company culture and branding.

To get through these stages, we need to be really good allies. The leap from a savior complex to ally, though, is tricky. Mine was bridged by an education in empowerment which then took years to reverse. I’m pretty sure this “empowering others in the outdoors” mentality was a product of DEI training being taught to, and by, mostly white staff members. Yes, we had a couple of amazing POC colleagues at the organizations I worked for, and all I can say is: holy shit can you imagine the weight of carrying this on your shoulders? I claimed to be passionate about diversity, and yet if being an ally to students was ever brought up in training back then, it fell on my tone-deaf ears.

I was stuck on empowering others because it felt good. Looking back now, I understand it felt good because it validated my power, which is a red flag in situations where intersectionality and systems of oppression are being overlooked. It wasn’t until I was teaching at Northern Arizona University that a mentor finally called me out on my love affair with empowering my students. Empowering adds to the problem because it assumes the person or group being empowered needs you and your way of doing things and that you ultimately know what is best for them. Empowerment does not leave room for individuals who identify differently than you to assert their values, construct their own approach to rising up, or create solutions without some of you in them. It projects us onto the person we are lifting up, encouraging more people to be like us (working toward our values) instead of the ultimate goal of building a truly diverse and inclusive outdoor community.

Honestly, my BIPOC students were teaching me to be an ally a decade ago, and I was listening, I just didn’t have enough context to understand the full picture. “Chase,” they would frequently say, “why do you think we would ever want to do that?!”. Sometimes, they would say this to me with just a look, a sort of half-smile with raised eyebrows, and no words. They got me every time: I was trying to empower them, which assumed the experiences I found fulfilling (pushing through exhaustion to climb a peak/hike through the night/camp in the snow) would be good for them. Our values were in conflict. I was trying to empower them with my ingrained Protestant values of hard work, discipline, and perseverance; they resisted in moments when their values of community, vulnerability, and play would serve them better. I am so thankful for these students who spoke up across multiple positions of power because the world doesn’t need more “conquering the mountain” and “hard work for the sake of hard work” mentality right now, and also because they were brilliant teachers.

Today, BIPOC led outdoor organizations are armed with online resources on how to be good outdoor allies. The Melanin Basecamp Guide to Allyship in the Outdoors (currently linked in the @melaninbasecamp IG profile) is a great place to start. Please, go read it. As I move forward in my efforts as an ally, these are a few examples of what I will be working on, all of which are inspired by reading the Melanin Basecamp guide:

Respecting Experiences. Some people do not feel safe in the outdoors because of lived experiences where their safety has been at stake. For me, respecting this means keeping my frequent messaging of “be brave and follow my lead doing badass things alone in the outdoors” in check and also acknowledging the privilege inherent in activities like my solo ride down the Baja Divide.

Confronting Bias/Prejudice. Our vision of what outdoor recreation looks like (and of how people should act while outside) makes us inherently biased and prejudiced. In my life, one example of managing this is to create a boundary around who I project my anti-car agenda on (folks in my immediate recreation circle, you’re now my only target). My biggest “whoa, I am such a naive rural Midwesterner” moment happed on an Outward Bound course with a student from LA (on a diversity scholarship) who had not walked off of pavement, ever, until our 3-week course. I learned from her, and have since educated myself a lot, on how infrastructure forces people into cars and also keeps them far away from the outdoors, and yet I still judge people who drive to trailheads, scenic overlooks, and through National Parks.

Ambreen Tariq of @brownpeoplecamping is an excellent resource on why we need to re-think our standards of what outdoor recreation and adventure look like.

Amplify, Pass the Mic, and Support. Normally, I would say my classroom is an awesome space to practice, practice, practice all three of these things, but I lost my job last week. So instead, I intend to focus on amplifying BIPOC voices on social media and ensuring my donations and support go to BIPOC led outdoor, conservation, and COVID relief groups.

Petitions and Pressure. Signing petitions and putting pressure on outdoor companies to act is going to take a lot of allies speaking up. In bike racing, upsetting sponsors keeps most of us fairly silent. I’m lucky to be affiliated with Liv Cycling/Giant Bicycles who are off to a good start by donating directly to the NAACP. But bike companies need to do more. They are often linked to police departments (this means power and leverage in the current situation); also, bikes are selling like hotcakes at the moment, it’s perfect timing to make demands while the industry is doing well. These actions are how we then begin moving from ally to the ultimate goal of activist badassery: accomplice.

@pedal2thepeople has created a really useful email template (linked in their IG profile) to send to cycling brands encouraging them to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and to take immediate action. Divesting contracts and sponsorship to police departments is particularly important right now (divesting and defunding does not mean an anarchist state, it means a complete re-envisioning of what law enforcement looks like, the ACLU and M4BL websites explain this in detail). Fuji suspended sales to police on June 8th and pressure is mounting on Trek, although they are currently resisting action. I have also heard Cannondale is a big distributor.

On the subject of bikes, here are two other POC led biking IG accounts to follow and support: @blackgirlsdobike @allmountainbrothers.

Diving in as an ally means we are going to make mistakes, and owning these mistakes is really important. I likely messed something up in this post, and when it gets pointed out, I’ll be ready with: “I’m sorry, thank you for pointing that out, I will work on fixing it.” Brene Brown’s podcast episode “How to Apologize and Why it Matters” will be useful for all of us allies as we dive into supporting roles we aren’t used to and mess up. Owning our mistakes will get us closer to earning the title of accomplice. Also, Brené’s episode on apologizing will make you want to practice giving a really good one.

I’ll leave you with one more Brené quote from The Gifts of Imperfection: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” Let’s keep meeting our friends at the trailhead, but let’s also be real with them and talk about what we are learning by unpacking our experiences as privileged outdoor recreators.

I’ll be back tomorrow for Friday’s theme “Camp Chef” where I motivate to cook for the first time in three months and share recipes from some of my favorite adventures. Hopefully, today’s workout will help me to start taking food seriously again too. This whole not being interested in food thing is new territory for me, and my AZT 800 training miles are about to increase.

One Comment

Leave a Reply