Ebany Carratt is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, and connection to nature to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.
Today I want to talk about stereotypes. I am sure we have all heard of them, or maybe have even believed one at some point in our lives. Stereotypes are a constant thing in society, but perhaps there is something more insidious hiding beneath the surface. Growing up, I had very few chances to visit a national park unless it was during my family summer tradition to experience the Rockies once a year. Of course, we would go to the small municipal parks around my neighbourhood, whether for birthday celebrations or to feed ducks, but overall partaking in the typical forms of recreation that I think of when talking about the “great outdoors” were few and far between. So in those rare opportunities to go camping or take a hike, I noticed something I found strange at a young age: my brothers and I were usually the only non-white, or even, the only Black people on the trails. When I would ask why this was to my white family members, I never got any significant answers. Maybe there were more people of colour visiting on the days that I was not there? Maybe hiking in the mountains just was not their thing? After receiving answers like this, I just stopped asking these questions and moved on. However, the stereotypes did not end at hiking or going to national parks. By the time I was in university, I had heard it all. Stereotypes like “Black people can’t swim”, “people of colour do not play hockey”, “people of colour don’t like the wilderness” and so on, are just some to name a few.
Thinking of these stereotypes at first, they might seem relatively harmless or even played off as a joke at times, but this hides the fact that they might have real implications. The first time I went camping in a remote area with a few of my friends who are also POCs, I noticed that we were treated differently than how I am treated when I go camping with my white family members. One morning, we talked with an older couple while collecting firewood, and they told us that they had never seen people like us camping before in the area. So they were pleasantly surprised to meet us there and thought others in the area would be just as equally shocked as they were. I don’t blame the couple for their reaction in any way. Like myself, many of my POC friends have also joked about how the great outdoors is not really “our thing” and have struggled to convince others in our communities to do more than just shop in national parks. Yet, letting this stereotype go and not thinking about it on a deeper level does not feel right. The fact remains that I still rarely see people who look like me participating in or being represented in nature recreation, let alone working in parks. So, where do these stereotypes come from
The Roots in Oppression
Nature and recreation are wonderful things. It often shapes who we are as human beings and should be for everyone, so why would a stereotype or a narrative like this exist? Well, as I have learnt through time, there is always a historical explanation. Anti-Black racism and other forms of racial discrimination towards ethnic minorities in recreation have been growing in discussion over the last few years in the United States. For example, the common stereotype that “Black people can’t swim” is linked to segregation and the sometimes violent exclusion of Black people from pools and beaches. However, just like the U.S., Canada also supported segregation against Black, Asian, and Indigenous peoples at places like beaches, hockey rinks, swimming pools, and theatres. Yet, the issue of racism and segregation plays a central role in the history of parks too. According to historians, there have been plenty of instances where Canadian parks would bar people of colour from enjoying recreational facilities, refer to Jewish people and other POCs as “restricted clientele”, or even remove a Black church wanting to enjoy a picnic in nature from park premises entirely. Even worse, one of the most important and internationally revered figures for championing civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., was also turned away from spending a holiday with his wife and their friends at Fundy National Park in 1960. When MLK looked to Canada as a more welcoming country to take a short respite in, our parks turned him away and lost the chance to host one of the greatest icons of the 20th century
Today, despite all these horrific occurrences in our history, some might wonder why Black people and other POCs do not just go out and take advantage of these recreational activities or enjoy parks now that segregation has long been over. Although I understand where questions like this are coming from to an extent, the issue of this lack of representation or participation is far more difficult than it seems. According to research, there is a generational effect from segregation, even when it comes to recreation or enjoying parks. So, think of it this way — if you grew up during segregation and were not allowed to enjoy nature recreation and access to parks was non-existent in your community, you would not participate in those activities and would find other things to do that were available to you. From there on, you would likely pass on the activities you did enjoy to your children and that cycle of exclusion would continue throughout the next couple of generations. Importantly, even after laws were put in place to make segregation illegal, it technically has continued for years after, as many racialized communities still have less access to parks, are often subject to overt and casual racism within outdoor spaces, and have had to adjust to the generational trauma left behind or the general distrust towards recreational activities that have been traditionally barred to them for so long.
Another systemic barrier of what makes outdoor spaces inaccessible to BIPOC communities is within the very nature of white-washing the history of parks. The National Health Foundation notes that “in history books and even in the naming of outdoor spaces, there has been a deliberate and intentional erasure of Indigenous history and ownership of outdoor lands”. This rhetoric has often led to the conceptualization that park spaces are reserved for and owned by European/Christian communities to preserve what we consider as “wilderness” in western society. At this time, we have yet to acknowledge that this thinking, which is still embedded in many environmental movements, was executed at the expense of Indigenous and other POC communities. All of this, combined with a general lack of BIPOC representation in media or at decision making tables, continues to feed these harmful stereotypes and perpetuates the exclusion of many BIPOC communities to this day.
What Can Parks Do to Address Racism in Outdoor Spaces?
Given this idea that BIPOC individuals do not enjoy outdoor recreation, it is especially important to note that many communities of colour do engage in plenty of outdoor activities. For example, activities like barbecues or picnics in city parks are something that many communities of colour participate in and are represented in. However, while outdoor recreation in municipal parks is used where it is accessible, the experience from visiting a national park and being surrounded by nature holds immeasurable value for our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health and should be accessible for anyone, regardless of race or economic background. So, while many may say that “the outdoors do not discriminate” or that “parks are for everyone”, it is apparent that this sentiment does not apply to everyone at this time, no matter how well-intentioned this belief is. Currently, our parks and outdoor recreational systems are built upon the same underlying structures of oppression that have historically governed our society. Knowing this fact means that parks agencies also have a moral responsibility to help dismantle these systems and to encourage true diversity throughout every aspect of parks. Now is the time to push for policies and practices that prioritize racial justice or inclusion and spreads awareness of the many subtle barriers, like stereotypes, that have historical ties to systems of discrimination.
So if you are reading this, I hope next time you hear some strange stereotypes that you will also want to dig a little deeper to figure out where they come from. I know for me as a park leader and as a Biracial Black Woman, I want to make sure that others who look like me or who can relate to my story know that being in nature has always been “our thing”.
- Wiltse, Jeff. “The Black–White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 38, no. 4 (August 2014): 366–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723513520553.
- Cheryl Thompson. “Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land.” Canadian Journal of History 52, no. 1 (April 1, 2017).
- Loo, Meg Stanley and Tina. “Getting into Hot WATER: Racism and Exclusion at Banff National Park,”.https://niche-canada.org/2020/08/26/getting-into-hot-water-racism-and-exclusion-at-banff-national-park/
- MacEachern, Alan. “Restricted Clientele! Everyday Racism in Canadian National Parks.” https://niche-canada.org/2020/09/09/race-revisited-in-canadian-national-parks/
- “Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/racial-segregation-of-black-people-in-canada#:~:text=In%20the%20early%201840s%2C%20when,particularly%20where%20there%20were%20high.
- MacEachern, Alan https://niche-canada.org/2020/09/09/race-revisited-in-canadian-national-parks/
- Wiltse, Jeff. “The Black–White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination.”
- “Breaking Down the Lack of Diversity in Outdoor Spaces.” National Health Foundation, July 20, 2020. https://nationalhealthfoundation.org/breaking-down-lack-diversity-outdoor-spaces/.