Why are outdoor pursuits so white?

I had to scroll through seven pages of white people gazing over mountain vistas before I could find a stock hiking photo featuring someone of colour. And it’s not that my image search is powered by a neo-Nazi algorithm (I hope); it seems to be representative of what’s happening out there in the real world.

Outdoor pursuits are noticeably lacking in diversity. The British countryside is dominated by the white middle classes (and their labradoodles). And that’s not just my cynical view – government figures prove it:

In 2017 a Natural England study found that just 26.2% of black people spent time in the countryside, compared with 44.2% of white people.

Being a white middle class Brit who has lived most of her life in a white middle class bubble, I never thought much about diversity in the countryside until my black American boyfriend came to visit me in Eastbourne, which suddenly felt like the whitest town in Whitesville. It actually is. Around 93% of people in Eastbourne are white, compared to 87% of the greater UK population. When my family moved here from London in the mid-’90s my dad, a teacher, said he was shocked by the sea of pale faces in his classroom. In the city he was used to a smorgasbord of skin tones. While these days there’s a little more diversity in Eastbourne, it’s still weirdly low considering we’re only a couple of hours south of the capital, where just 44% of people are white British.

As a keen hiker, climber and yoga teacher himself, my boyfriend certainly hasn’t let cultural norms or racial barriers get in the way of his interests. In fact a few years ago he started a project called Vibes From The Tribe which is all about encouraging everyone to get involved in mixed movement outdoors. The pandemic put some of his big plans on hold (as it did for most of us) but hopefully soon he’ll be back to organising yoga hikes and other exciting adventures for people of all colours.

While putting on a pair of walking boots and a North Face fleece may not seem particularly revolutionary, for minority groups, it kind of is.

Most people of colour in the UK live in cities. A diversity review commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) found that most people from ethnic minority backgrounds value the natural environment and the slow and simple life of rural communities – but they feel excluded and conspicuous in what they perceive as an ‘exclusively English environment’. I think this is a polite way of saying they’re put off by all those Barber-jacketed toffs careering around country lanes in their Land Rovers thinking they’re the bee’s knees. Although this isn’t supposed to be a blog about white people problems, there is actually a class issue here too. I feel really cross that wealthy people are taking over the most beautiful rural locations across the UK, hiking house prices up and shattering communities with their second homes and investment properties. But anyway, maybe I’m just bitter. Back to the matter at hand.

Sport England research identifies six barriers that stop people from ethnic minority backgrounds spending time in the countryside:

  • language
  • awareness
  • safety
  • culture
  • confidence
  • perception of middle-class stigma.

In America, where racists have guns and an extra-concentrated dose of loony, it’s even worse. When I’m invited for a hike my thoughts are along the lines of ‘lovely, hope the weather’s nice/maybe we can stop at a pub for a cold beer’. For this black American man, it’s a bit different (as revealed in the Guardian newspaper):

A few years ago, a white friend suggested we go on a hike. All the fears I had about being in nature hit me in the face. It’s a very real fear for black people, especially those from urban communities, that bad things happen to black people in the woods, like lynching. It’s something that you see again and again when you look at the history of the civil rights movement and slavery: black people going into the woods and not coming back.

Aaron Jones, 32, Chicago

As much as white people would like to cancel those ol’racist days of yonder, they’re still very real and uncomfortably close. If you were black in America before 1964, you wouldn’t even be allowed to enter a national park, because enjoying nature was an activity exclusively for white people. White supremacy is still a thing. It manifests in violence, injustice, inequality and exclusion. It’s built into politics, education, business, advertising and our own unconscious bias. While a lot is being done to untangle and remove the roots of systemic racism, we’re not in the clear yet. Far from it.

That’s why, if you’re white, it’s important to ask questions like ‘why don’t I see many black people when I’m out for a walk on the South Downs?’. Is this a world I’m happy living in, where outdoor pursuits are dominated by a particular group of people?

I always knew about hiking and camping from commercials and magazines. But the people doing it didn’t look like me. They were white, athletic and attractive. I’d never, ever seen anybody of [sic] color doing it, let alone a black male; I associated the outdoors with whiteness.

Aaron Jones

I disappear into the hills to forget about life and escape humanity’s incessant fuckery for a little while. Luckily for me, nature is where I feel safe (at least for the most part – after all, I am a woman and bad things happen to women in woods too).

Being out in nature is scientifically proven to be good for us, as my homemade graphic below demonstrates:

These benefits should be available to everyone, not just people like me.

The good news is that things are changing. People are campaigning to make it easier for minority groups to get into outdoor pursuits. Zahrah Mahmood is a 30-year-old Muslim woman from Glasgow. She took up hillwalking a few years ago and discovered (after a brief stint of hating it), that she loved it. She’s since amassed over 10k followers on Instagram and now she’s collaborating with Berghaus to help the company develop a more diverse, inclusive image. But what does being inclusive actually entail?

“Posting a picture of a person of colour on your website or Instagram is performative if it’s not backed up by sustainable action. And, actually, it does more damage than good.”

Zahrah Mahmood

While the huge waves of support for BLM last year were powerful, there was also a lot of empty band-wagon-jumping, in my opinion. Brands will do anything for a millisecond in the limelight. While supporting equality and justice is always commendable, doing it just when it happens to be trending isn’t enough. Outdoor brands should be considering every aspect of their business all of the time – not just the images they publish. Are products suitable for people of different ethnicities, cultures and religions? Are guide books written in a way that’s accessible by all? Are price points reasonable?

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like seeing anyone at all when I’m out for a hike – but at the same time, paradoxically, I want to share the joys of nature and it really angers me that there’s a feeling of white people being in charge of that. I think in a world where people’s (especially city-dwellers’) detachment from nature assists in its destruction, it’s now more important than ever that EVERYONE has a chance to see how precious our forests, mountains, rivers, oceans and animals are.

The closer we are to nature, the less inclined we’ll be to destroy it. At least that’s what I hope. In the end, despite our many cultures and colours, we are all one race – and as we continue to hurtle into this environmental crisis we’ve made for ourselves, it’s vital for our survival that we get our shit together and do something about it – together, with equal responsibility.