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“We Outside” but do we belong? – Discovering sports, leisure and the outdoors while Black

By Lucien Staddon Foster

For many in the UK, this week marks the beginning of university life; a week shaped by nerves, endless small-talk, and hundreds of enthusiastic society reps encouraging you to try something new. And yet, when it comes to outdoor sports and leisure activities, getting involved can often seem daunting. They can leave you feeling as though you’ve got no place there out in nature, which carries over into sports. The important question to ask when rooting out this feeling is: ‘why are these outdoor sports so overwhelmingly white?’ Where are all the Black people scaling rock faces in Dartmoor? Why aren’t we spending our weekends crashing through Britain’s choppy waters on sailing dinghies?

Is this disparity imagined, or are Black communities genuinely physically, culturally (and emotionally) separated from nature and the great outdoors?

Unfortunately, the UK statistics only confirm these feelings of distance, exclusion and alienation. Black people are missing at every stage of participation and engagement with the outdoors. For instance, just 0.8 per cent of those involved in National Park governing bodies, 1 per cent of summer mountain leaders and rock-climbing instructors, and 1 per cent of all national park visitors are from BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds. [1] [2]

Why is there such a staggering divide? Is nature itself racist? Well, unless you’re particularly well-read on your Environmental Anthropology literature, this seems unlikely – so, what is it? Why the exclusion and inaccessibility?

In short, the barriers limiting Black communities’ engagement with nature and its adventure sports can be linked to four key factors, all heavily coinciding with race: geography, socioeconomics, culture and visibility.

As the vast majority (98 per cent) of Black households in the UK reside in urban settings, often with poor access to local green space or affordable transport links to the countryside, Black people typically encounter nature less frequently than white Britons. [3] [4] [5] Further, many Black individuals in Britain harbour deep anxiety towards the countryside due to its historical lack of diversity and associated racist cultures, often combined with lived experiences to cement these fears. Thus, Black communities have become culturally disenfranchised from the outdoors, with just 26.2 per cent of Black people spending time in the countryside compared to 44.2 per cent of white people, ultimately reducing participation in outdoor sports and leisure activities. [2]

Additionally, participation in outdoor sports is often costly. The price of equipment and training serves as a significant barrier to entry, and rising transport costs make suitable facilities and landscapes increasingly inaccessible. As Black households disproportionately live in economically strained conditions due to lower wages, higher unemployment and the high costs of living associated with city life, nature’s financial barriers typically affect Black individuals more than others. [6]

Many outdoor sports are also plagued with deeply entrenched racist and sexist ideas, which help contribute to a culture of exclusion, ignorance and discrimination. Whether it’s the racially-charged naming of climbing routes (see Wyoming’s “Welfare Crack” or  Colorado’s “Towelhead”) or the requirement for Black sportspersons to constantly prove their right to participate. Black individuals are consistently reminded of their intrusion into these white spaces. It follows that when participation and visibility are minimal, communities are dissuaded from engaging in these activities and thus become increasingly disenfranchised from outdoor sports and spaces.

However, despite the countless barriers and difficulties, there is a rising movement to tackle these issues of inaccessibility and disenfranchisement. Whether it’s helping Black women connect and heal through nature or crushing hillwalking’s status quo as a Muslim Munro-bagger; there are a number of fantastic groups and individuals doing great things for diversity in the great outdoors. I thought I would take the time to spotlight a couple of the phenomenal grassroots projects working to tackle the disparity.

With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to the following:

The Black Girls’ Camping Trip

Started by  Tianna Johnson, the Black Girl’s Camping Trip (BGCT) is a tailored outdoor retreat for Black women and non-binary people that provides an opportunity for Black individuals of marginalized gender to carve out their own space and build their own relationship with the outdoors. With a focus on healing and escaping the pressures of urban living, BGCT allows Black women and non-binary folk to connect with one another and nature in a safe space and redefine what it means to be Black in the British countryside.

Black Girls Hike

Black Girls Hike CIC, founded by Rhiane Fatinikun, is a rapidly growing movement to provide a safe and inclusive space for Black women in nature. By largely focusing on those new to hiking, Black Girls Hike works to introduce Black women to outdoor sports and leisure activities and boost their confidence in spaces from which they’ve historically been excluded. Now, with backing from major outdoor clothing and equipment brands such as Berghaus, Black Girls Hike is redefining what it means to be an adventurer and leading a new movement for Black women in Britain.

The Hillwalking Hijabi (@the_hillwalking_hijabi)

The Hillwalking Hijabi is an Instagram account run by Glasgow’s Zahrah Mahmood, who aims to tear down the status quo of hillwalking, confront the stigma of being a Muslim woman participating in outdoor sports, and ultimately, just enjoy herself in Scotland’s beautiful scenery. Now collaborating with major clothing and equipment brands, Zahrah Mahmood leads a campaign to change the face of exploration and encourage wider participation in adventure sports.

 

While it’s great to see so many adventure sports brands celebrating these projects and spotlighting Black and other racially minoritized sportspeople, the remaining workload cannot be understated. Although diversity in marketing can help widen participation through increased representation, these can often be performative marketing ploys with minimal impact on the larger barriers between Black communities and the outdoors. Without free (or low cost) initiatives to connect marginalized people of all ages with nature, and major efforts to fix the discriminatory cultures within these sports, this exclusion will persist. Addressing the divide must start from the ground up – in lieu of action from governing bodies, we must continue to carve out our own space within the outdoors and the exciting activities it has to offer.

So, this Freshers week, if given the opportunity, perhaps consider trying something new, no matter how daunting it seems. Don’t be afraid to find your own place within these cultures, connect with like-minded people and make our presence known. Further, if you’re in the position to do so, perhaps consider donating towards the fantastic initiatives working to redefine the Black community’s relationship with the great outdoors. Everyone deserves equal access to Britain’s natural environments and all they have to offer, and we must all do our part in the fight to ensure it.

 

References

[1] Glover, J. (2019). Landscapes Review: final report. London, UK: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

[2] Natural England (2021). Visits to the natural environment. London, UK: Office for National Statistics.

[3] UK Government (2020). Defra group equality, diversity and inclusion strategy 2020 to 2024. London, UK.

[4] Collier, B. (2019). Black absence in green spaces. London, UK: The Ecologist.

[5] Collier, B. (2020). The race factor in access to green space. London, UK: Runnymede Trust.

[6] Khan, O. (2020). The Colour of Money: How racial inequalities obstruct a fair and resilient economy. London, UK: Runnymede Trust

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