Insiders and Outsiders in the Outdoors

(Elodie Arbogast • The Student Life)

Comfort in a space is a privilege. Like many forms of privilege, it is left unobserved and overlooked by those who have it. People at the 5Cs feel comfortable in the spaces they can claim ownership over, and uncomfortable in spaces where they cannot. 

But those comfortable in a space often remain ignorant of their privilege because, paradoxically, those who are uncomfortable in the space will rarely enter it.

The 5Cs are known for their prominent outdoor programs, such as Pitzer Outdoor Adventure (POA) and On the Loose (OTL), which are some of the most funded extracurricular activities on the Claremont Colleges. However, POA and OTL trips are predominantly white spaces.

Both clubs claim to be accessible: while trips are open to any student wanting to go, not everyone feels the same ease in entering the outdoors. This discomfort is unfortunately caused by existing racial boundaries.

Historically, white people in imperialist conquests have appropriated land as their own. North America rightfully belongs to indigenous communities, yet it has been taken away from them by force. Consequently, a false sense of ownership of nature permeates white America.

Similarly, the image of a modern outdoor enthusiasts is white, as is the historical image of a naturalist. The great icons of nature – John Muir, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau – are all white men. At present, most famous rock climbers are also disproportionately white.

This whiteness manifests in the term “outdoorsy” – a descriptor for those who spend a significant time in the outdoors, who are equipped with the necessary gear, and who feel connected to nature. The image of the “outdoorsy individual” is an exclusive classification that gives white people the authority to venture into the outdoors freely, leaving people of color behind.

In addition to racial barriers, financial barriers also prevent access to the outdoors. Many National Parks are hundreds of miles from large cities. Consequently, only those with access to a vehicle and money for gas will be able to enjoy them. Similarly, only students with economic privilege have the resources to attend summer programs that teach wilderness skills.

Thus, the emphasis on acquiring requisite skills and specific knowledge in order to access the outdoors excludes low-income individuals.

The exclusion is further perpetuated by the use of obscure outdoor lingo in descriptions of trips. No one who has never climbed before knows what a tri-cam, a grigri, or an ATC is. These terms are useful for ease of discussion among those who rock climb, yet remain obscure to those who have not.

Due to the predominance of whiteness in the outdoors, people of color have been denied access to the outdoors. The solutions, however, are numerous.

First, OTL and POA should continually affirm that nature exists as a collective space owned by all by virtue of being human, not by virtue of being white. POA should continue to hold discussions about race and inclusivity in their weekly meetings.

Second, the image of the outdoor enthusiast should not belong to white people. Conversely, people of color should feel comfortable identifying themselves as “outdoorsy”, and white individuals should exert caution as to not dominate ownership of the word.

Third, instead of declaring prerequisites, trips should proclaim their accessibility – their ability to accommodate everyone regardless of experience. POA and OTL should organize more accessible, entry-level workshops and trips that do not require advanced technical skills. Trips should advertise the skills you will learn, not the skills you will need.

Finally, OTL and POA should work with affinity groups to increase accessibility in the outdoors. These outdoor clubs should challenge their members to personally encourage those with no outdoors experience, and those who have been systematically excluded, to join a trip with them or attend a weekly meeting. Friendship can act as a portal to the wilderness for those who have historically been denied the privilege of comfort.