After social distancing protocols forced countless Americans into indoor isolation for the winter, many of us are eager to run into the warm embrace of Mother Nature and the outdoors with gusto. While the pandemic has exposed structural inequities in everything from health care to education to housing, less remarked upon has been the institution of the great outdoors. And like most American institutions, outdoor space—and, crucially, access to it—has been socially and physically constructed by white supremacy and settler colonialism.
In his 1869 book, The Switzerland of America: A Summer Vacation in the Parks and Mountains of Colorado, journalist Samuel Bowles III wrote that within the beautiful US outdoors “lie the pleasure-ground and the health-home of the nation.” When European colonists first set eyes on North America, they considered it “undeveloped,” ripe for instrumentalization—never mind that it was hardly uninhabited. Fast-forward several centuries, past untold destruction of natural resources to create often-wasteful urban and suburban sprawl, the patches of nature that seemingly remained untouched began to take on a new meaning.
“The Great Outdoors” was constructed as a place to go to escape the stress of modern life, to be more in touch with nature. We like to think of the great outdoors that this country has cultivated—national and public parks, campgrounds, and nature preserves—as representative of our democratic ideals: They are for everyone. But this belies their origin. Through military and legislative intervention, such as the Mariposa Battalion’s violent raid of the village of Ahwahneechee in 1851, which expelled the remaining Indigenous people from Yosemite, these places were cultivated primarily for white people. Early conservationists like Bowles, or the venerated John Muir or Madison Grant (who wrote one of the foundational texts of the American eugenics movement, The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History), were not shy in advocating racial exclusivity: When they spoke of the importance of nature for our nation, they meant the white nation.
The picturesque image of the American road trip to a national park? It was mainly for white people until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Erasure of nonwhite subjects is inextricable from the project of the American wilderness: The land that the US federal government annexed into national parks became “available” only through the forcible removal of Indigenous people.
The notion that national parks were created for “the enjoyment of the people” implies that these spaces were formerly devoid of people: According to legal scholar Isaac Kantor, all US national parks exist on lands that were inhabited by Indigenous people.
African Americans have a complex history with the great outdoors. Our African ancestors had a deep and symbiotic relationship to nature, and their descendants found ways to recreate these connections in America. And while it was a refuge for socializing outside of the eyes of watchful slave-masters and, for free African-Americans farmers, a source of sustenance and financial independence, it was also associated with danger and violence. It was a site of potential capture and execution, or simply death by exposure to the elements, for runaway slaves. After Emancipation, it became the setting for countless attempted and completed lynchings, primarily of African Americans but also of Latinx, Asian American, and Indigenous people. The complicated relationships that people of color in the United States have developed with the outdoors because of white violence, coupled with the fact that many local parks—and all national parks—either did not admit people of color or, in some cases, segregated them until 1964, rendered it an effectively white domain. White America had time to cultivate popular images of camping, hiking, and kayaking—indeed, to develop an entire outdoor leisure culture, whose participants, they assumed, looked like them.
Even now, the cost of access to activities like camping is prohibitive for a large portion of Americans: Camping equipment can easily run $550 and up. Considering that Black, brown, and Indigenous people are disproportionately low-income, it’s easy to understand why they are underrepresented in recreational activities like this. For the people of color who do have the means and access to activities such as camping, it is not uncommon to hear of reports of racist comments, stares, threats, or violence. (Amy Cooper, anyone?)
Maybe they should ignore the local and national parks and just enjoy their neighborhood greenery instead? Well, there’s a problem there, too. Areas that were redlined—typically neighborhoods of people of color—are less likely to have green space. The dearth of green space in these areas has also been influenced by earlier ideas around policing, which suggested that parks made it easier for people to commit crimes. Current research now suggests the opposite, as long as the space is well-designed and maintained. This issue is particularly important considering the empirical research asserting that access to green space has mental, physical, and psychological health benefits.
How can we make outdoor spaces more accessible and inclusive to all? Here are a few good places to start:
- More representation and inclusion of people of color in media about the outdoors and in nature-oriented organizations and businesses. This means more park rangers and more management roles in conservation and nature nonprofits and businesses. Include the perspective of people of color when considering both the history and the future of conservation.
- Make the great outdoors more physically accessible. A campground I went to last year gave detailed instructions on how to get there via public transit, and picked up and dropped off customers and their equipment to their campsite by shuttle; it also rented out camping gear. These practices accommodate people without cars, who live far from nature, or who are unable to afford the purchase or storage of equipment. Accessibility doesn’t stop there. Gender-neutral bathrooms and accommodations for those with physical disabilities are also a part of the equation.
- Offer affordable trainings and inclusive community organizations that create safe spaces for people of color to accrue the knowledge and skills needed to do outdoor activities like camping. Great examples of inclusive organizations include Outdoor Afro or Latino Outdoors.
- Develop more access for Indigenous communities to utilize these spaces for subsistence farming. This will help Indigenous people not only to feel welcomed into these spaces but also to maintain aspects of their traditional foodways, which are significantly healthier than the processed foods that are easier to find on reservations.
- Support local and national government initiatives to fund the engagement of people of color in the outdoors, as well as the creation of more green spaces in low-income communities. This is particularly crucial given that we know that access to green space is a public health issue.
As many of us—myself included—are itching to be outside in the greenness of summer, it is important to recognize that these are privileges that have not been afforded to everyone. At this moment of nationwide racial justice reckoning, let’s not forget to interrogate the great outdoors. Like many of the most insidiously imbalanced institutions, it may appear neutral or “natural,” but it’s anything but. It’s a man-made construction, structured to exclude. So we must work to make it truly democratic so everyone can enjoy the physical, mental, and psychological benefits of our beautiful land. Let’s truly make it “our land.”