Hiking Is Racist? The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations Comes for Nature

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Are you white? Do you like hiking? If the answer is “yes”, the Sierra Club wants you to know you’re a racist…or, at least, you are aiding and abetting racism.


The Sierra Club is an environmental activist group that also promotes outdoor activities and enjoying nature. Whatever you may think of their political stances, it can never be bad to encourage folks in the digital age to get out and enjoy the God-given world around them. However, a couple of writers had second thoughts about the way we as Americans approach hiking and why it necessarily alienates minorities.

The article is from 2016, but in a recent reread it struck some new chords with me. After all, I am a minority and I do believe wholeheartedly in reaching out to underserved communities to give them a chance to experience things they’ve never really had access to before. I believe the more you see of the world around you the more opportunity will come your way. My husband and I used to lead our inner city youth group and we once took them on an overnight canoeing excursion. We might as well have told parents we were dropping their kids off at the mouth of a volcano. “Black people don’t canoe!” was the popular refrain.

We laughed and we took the kids anyway and it was an amazing time. Some people take the experience of nature for granted. When you see someone really embrace the outdoors for the first time it can give you a greater sense of what too many people in modern American culture are missing. I love the idea of cultivating a love of nature across the entire spectrum of American life.

However, reading this old post got me to thinking – if there aren’t a lot of minorities in one area of life or another does that mean we have to pull out our hair thinking of ways to get them there?


The article’s authors start out by reminding us that “people of color” are supposed to be outside…but aren’t. I think.

It’s fitting that America’s most famous wilderness guide, Sacajawea of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, was a woman of color. But it’s also tragic that throughout American history, ethnic minorities have so often been underrepresented or intentionally excluded from the outdoors.

It was a jarring way to begin a blog post about hiking. I’m still not sure I understand why it’s “fitting” that Sacajawea was a famous wilderness guide. In fact, I’m not even 100% sure that Native Americans care to be labeled “people of color” but this is what white liberals do all too often – stick us all in one category so they don’t have to be bothered with the details of diversity. JUST KNOW THAT THEY CARE!

But let’s take this claim at face value that minorities are “intentionally excluded” from the outdoors. What are you terrible white folks supposed to do about it?

As activist and author Glenn Nelson writes, “Because the outdoors remains a largely white domain, it is up to white America to invite communities of color in, to enlist us as allies.”


Dialogue is the first step toward promoting true inclusion and diversity at a much deeper level. We must address the issue of race head on and understand that we live in a society that offers one group of people advantages based on the color of their skin, while systematically oppressing other groups. For example, while the National Park system has been justly lauded as “America’s best idea,” we must acknowledge that the parks originally excluded people of color. Given that history, it becomes easier to understand why minorities may continue to feel unwelcome in the outdoors.


I’ve been black my whole life. I can guarantee you no black person looks at a National Park and thinks “I don’t want to go there because once upon a time “people of color” were excluded from parks.”

I don’t even know if that’s true, but it doesn’t matter. We’re not wandering around with this race chip on our shoulders 24/7. If you’d turn off CNN once in a while you’d know that. Who is making us feel “unwelcome” outdoors?


Nobody gives a rat’s arse about what white people are where outside. A lot of black Americans still live in urban centers. They don’t like outdoors because they don’t like bugs…or dirt…or squatting to poop. The very assumption that black/minority people are a shivering, huddled mass of frightened idiots just waiting for White Messiah to come lead us into the forest is downright offensive.

Since we’re talking about offensive ideas, here’s another one the authors lay out. They suggest simplifying the language you uppity white folks use to describe hiking.

When promoting outings, avoid jargon in your marketing materials, opting instead for clear, objective terms, such as distances and elevations, as well as qualifiers like “moderate” or “strenuous” that classify terrain, not people. Phrases like “for beginners” may be well-intended but risk infantilizing participants…

Instead use language like “cool” or “beautiful”.


Okay. That’s cool…I guess.

After a few more condescending suggestions the authors end with this quote:

“It’s not a cure for this ailing world. It may not even be a saving grace. But it’s something — something that makes me believes it doesn’t matter if I’m not white. I still count, and I will have my say.”

I hardly even know where to begin. The authors don’t seem to have any self-awareness whatsoever. This quote is a fantastic example. “It doesn’t matter if I’m not white. I still count…” is a statement made from the position of normalizing whiteness as rightness and we need to remind ourselves that it’s okay not to be white. We already know it’s okay not to be white, Karen!

It’s absurd – and to use their own word – infantilizing. The most hilarious part is that they don’t even understand how bigoted they sound.

I love the outdoors. My husband and children love the outdoors. We didn’t need white people to come alongside us and hold our hands. We got there all on our own…because we are regular seeing, thinking, feeling people who see there is such a thing called “outdoors” and choose to enjoy it accordingly.

As a nature lover myself, I am in full support of any group that wants to encourage my fellow Americans to get out into the great outdoors and experience all this amazing country has to offer. It’s good for the soul and our temperaments. What I can’t abide by is this non-stop “soft bigotry of low expectations” that keeps getting thrown at us on everything from SAT scores to taking a walk outside.


White friends, if you like hiking then go. If you think your black neighbor might enjoy a hike, ask him. If he agrees, go have fun. If he declines, go have fun. Believe me, he doesn’t want you standing at his front door lecturing him about the need to invite “people of color” into open spaces. He’s a regular human being. Just treat him like one.

We’ll get outside when we damn well feel like it.


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