Who Truly Gets to Be Wild in the Wilderness?

In late June on a cloudy afternoon, I whipped a twelve passenger van into a parking spot closest to the trailhead. The seven, 13-year-old girls sitting in the back seat were listless, unwilling to wake up from their coveted mid-day naps. After pestering these girls to get out their tents for the past five mornings, I was running out of wake-up tactics. I pulled up my QUEEN BEY playlist on Spotify and bumped “Love On Top” as loud as a could and sure enough, I was met with a collective groan as sleepy eyes crept open. Each one of them clamored out of the van to grab their lunches and meet up with the other half of our group, but one of my campers Anayah, forgot her rain jacket in the van. I ran back with her, and just as we were about to lock up the van, a white straight couple sitting in the car parked next us rolled down their window.

“Oh this is so nice, where are you guys from!?” the woman asked as she poked her head out of the window.

Anayah looked at me startled, not knowing what to say.

“Oh yeah, we’re from uh D.C.” I responded, reluctant to give this random woman our information.

“Well this is so nice that you guys get to come out here and do this,” she reiterated as she reached her hand out of the window to touch Anayah’s shoulder.

Excuse me, what!? Girl do I know you? Don’t touch her, I thought. But I had to get my white girl voice together and keep it rolling. It really wasn’t a Knuck If You Buck (ft. Lil’ Scrappy) moment.   

“Yeah, definitely it’s really great for the kids… Okay I’m sorry, but we have to get back to our trip,” I said as my eyes darted toward the rest of our group across the parking lot.  

As we rushed to the trailhead, I could tell that Anayah felt uncomfortable. “Nia, why do people always ask us questions like that?”

“Sometimes people are confused when they see a group of us this large out here. They’re not used to it.” I replied.

Anayah and I kept close for the entirety of our hike, but she stayed silent for most of it.  

This was an average day working as a trip leader for CityKids Wilderness Project, a non-profit that transports black and brown students from D.C. to Jackson, Wyoming to experience the outdoors. We hiked, camped, and canoed across Yellowstone and the Grand Teton mountain range, and with each lake, trail, or campsite we traversed we were met with perplexed stares from white onlookers. At least once a day an inquisitive white person demanded to know where we were from and why we were present, crossing personal spatial boundaries in the process.  

When we had a rap battle at our campsite in Yellowstone, the white family across the way made  passive aggressive gestures towards us. While we waited in a parking lot to make our campsite payment, we had a dance party to Beyonce to pass the time. More staring. I took a break on a hike to tie my camper’s purple Air Jordans, and yet another person inquired about our presence. One group of random young white boys even thought it would be funny to videotape our campers without their consent, to mock them as they struggled to hike a difficult portion of the trial.   

Living as a black or brown person, you’re subject to interrogation whenever you deviate from your perceived place in America, whether it’s from police officers, teachers, or curious “upstanding” citizens– the natural world is no different.   

When they see a group of black girls with multi-colored locs and box braids wearing Air Jordans their narrative about nature has been disrupted, and they make a point of letting you know that you’re trespassers. It was clear that they felt ownership over a space that was never ours.

Nature, as it is constructed in the dominant white mainstream, is a place to escape society and reflect upon oneself. In many ways, it is presented as a cultureless “wild” or “virgin” place. If you don’t believe me I highly encourage you to read sociologist Carolyn Finney’s brilliant book Black Faces, White Places: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Outdoors. The “outdoors” as we know them, is socially constructed by culture and media sources like the Sierra Club, National Geographic, and Outside Magazine. Places like Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, and LuluLemon follow suit creating a very clear image of who belongs outside: white, fit, wealthy, healthy, “well-dressed” people looking to get away.

Because whiteness is considered the default in American society, white people are allowed to function as raceless individuals moving with agency through any space, especially the natural world. When you insert black and brown people into that same space, suddenly we’ve polluted an otherwise “pure” place with cultural, racial, and historical implications. As a result, when I enter into a natural space I am met with disdain, confusion, or hostility.

How can wilderness be a space for personal exploration when only certain people are allowed to adequately express themselves and be themselves?

White people have seemingly determined the “right” way to be outside, and there are a few cultural markers that I’ve identified that make this point particularly clear.

Food: It’s all about GORP, hummus, and lentil soup. Anything that can be picked up at the mecca of white wealthy consumption, Whole Foods, fits right in.

Music: Ever notice that when you see advertisements or media associated with nature or wilderness, suddenly the ever present cultural relevance of rap, hip hop and R&B disappears? The soundtrack to the outdoors can only be John Denver, The Head and the Heart, and Bob Dylan.   

Attire: If you’re not wearing Osprey, Chacos, Patagonia, or NorthFace don’t even bother making it up the mountain.

Body Type: Don’t bother having hips or an ass if you’re trying to make it up that mountain either. Leave it to the skinny white girl and her boyfriend.

These cultural markers condition me to believe that when I enter a natural space I am simply lucky that they “let me in” despite my deviance from the norm. Gina Rodriguez, from the wondrously thoughtful and creative show Jane the Virgin, articulates this concept exceptionally in an interview with Latina magazine (skip to 1:57 or just watch the whole interview because it’s great). *Sorry ya’ll. I tried to embed the video directly to this post, but the code they provided wasn’t working. You’ll have to click the link to watch it.*

If you were able to watch the video, you’ll notice that Gina uses the word “domesticate” as a way to explain cultural, familial, and societal conditioning that has allowed her to feel complacent or subdued in spaces where she is the first or only Latina present. In my experience, the same notion certainly extends to a version of wilderness that only allows white folks to be unbridled by society; keeping marginalized folks domesticated so as to preserve whiteness, not just wilderness. Yet Gina urges us to take up space, and get used it.

Every time I don’t fit into those tired crunchy granola tropes I get side eyes from nosy white folks who intend to police my presence. But frankly, if anyone has truly mastered trail blazing, it’s the black and brown folks who are repeatedly told to disappear, but persist regardless. So I won’t let anyone fool me into thinking I don’t have what it takes to hike that trail.

Today, in the words of the great Maxine Waters, I’m reclaiming my time. All the time my ancestors lost tilling the land in fear, instead of enjoying it. All the time I let white judgement inhibit me from being myself outside. This post is a celebration of all the ways that black and brown people disrupt white narratives and make the environment more accessible and nuanced. This is for all the black and brown folks who have been told that their colors, music, culture, and laughter was too loud for the contemplative, stoic wild. This is for the thicc Black girls who don’t want to fit in, and will climb the mountain anyway. This is for the black boys who still want fresh waves outside, and who bring hot cheetos instead trail mix. Who cares if you want to listen to Shy Glizzy on the way to the campsite. Bump it as loud as you can. Take up space and reinvent the space any way you see fit because you are fearlessly adding to the cultural richness of the wild.   

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