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Race And Accessibility In The Outdoors

Race And Accessibility
In The Outdoors

Why we need to do more.

Written by: Thor Tingey, Alpacka Raft CEO & Co-Owner
Photo Credit: Jacob Moon

Over the past couple weeks, Alpacka has shared stories from our friends and partners about their experiences as Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color (BIPOC) in the outdoors.  The packrafting community’s response to those stories has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been some notable outliers. I am writing this message to explain why I have realized it is so important to do more to address this issue.

How did I get here?

I suspect my background is very similar to many packrafters, white (likely male) Americans who think they treat everyone equally and get a little defensive when called out for our white privilege and more so when called racist, especially when we have been conditioned to see racism through the lens of overt white supremacy and violence. And so, in 2018, when I was asked a question on stage at a public forum about how Alpacka is promoting women and minorities, I flubbed the answer because I hadn’t given it enough serious thought, even though nearly our entire leadership team is female and our employees are a broad mix of men, women, white, Hispanic, and Native American. And then in 2019, when Alpacka publicly released its Ambassador Team and was rightfully called out for being too male and too white, I was frustrated because we had chosen people who had made great contributions to packrafting and our team wasn’t any less diverse than other major outdoor companies. And every time I saw the news of a white police officer killing an unarmed black person and not facing justice, I thought, yes, we absolutely have a problem with race in our police and criminal justice system, but I can’t do anything about it.

What was I missing?

A lot of things. Mainly, I failed to recognize how much open and veiled hostility the BIPOC community faces when accessing the outdoors. Instead, I fell into the trap of believing that BIPOC were voluntarily choosing not to do outdoor activities, just like I rarely go mountaineering because I find glacier travel boring. I did recognize that there were economic barriers to accessing the outdoors for BIPOC, but I explained those away by looking at the number of low income white people who don’t buy high end packrafts, bikes, or fly rods but still get outside boating, biking, and fishing.  

I’ve been recreating outside since before I could walk. Yet, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been concerned for my safety from other people outdoors. That is not the experience of the BIPOC community.  For example, our partner Chad Brown is an incredibly inspiring person—he’s a veteran, the founder of Soul River Inc, which brings disabled veterans and kids into the outdoors, a passionate advocate for the protection of the Arctic Refuge, and a Simms ambassador with his own camo. I see those things and I want to be like Chad. Chad wrote a post about his thoughts on the killing of George Floyd and gave examples of how he has been treated in the outdoors:

My car tires had been slashed while fly fishing and my break lines been ripped out of my truck while I was fly fishing on Veterans Day. On social media I was publicly accused of taking fly fishing from white people and was told “This is our sport not yours! And you need to ask permission to fish my river”! I also have received phone call threats when I was told I will be drowned the next time I try to fly fish.

I read that and I feel shame.  I didn’t do those things, but people who look like me did and they did it because of the color of Chad’s skin. And then I read the news of how a multi-racial family tried to go camping near Forks, Washington and unidentified locals followed them from the gas station to their camp, cut trees down across the road, and began shooting and running chainsaws to menace them.  The Clallam County Sheriff’s department is investigating and they don’t have any suspects, but I am sure plenty of locals—white men—know exactly who did it and just aren’t talking.  If it hadn’t happened now, would it have even made the news? Maybe the question we should be asking isn’t why are there so few BIPOC people in the outdoors, but why are there any.

What can the packrafting community do to address the problem?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers, and its going to take time. But you don’t need to have an answer to listen, reflect, and speak out when you see a problem. So here are some suggestions that I have seen:

  • Listen to the experiences of others, educate yourself, and reflect on your own actions
  • Take part in the civic process, vote, and make donations to organizations and efforts to fight racial injustice
  • Speak out both when you see or hear of mistreatment and injustice
  • Be welcoming to others enjoying the outdoors. 

What is Alpacka going to do?

First, we stand in support the BIPOC community, and in protest of racial injustice everywhere. We believe that access to justice and equal treatment under the law are among the most fundamental liberties of our society.  All people deserve this liberty. And yet, all do not receive it equally.  We cannot watch the video of the police killing of George Floyd, which comes after a long history of racism and police violence against POC without adequate justice, without being both horrified by the act and fearful that yet again justice will not be served. We believe that we must end bad policing, which violates our liberties and weakens our society through division, and support good policing, which protects our communities and makes our society stronger.

Second, we want to see the removal of racial barriers to the outdoors, and we will support efforts to break them down. We are open to suggestions on how to move forward, but we are going to start with the following:

  • Listening – We are going to listen to people underrepresented in our community so we can better understand their experiences.
  • Amplifying – We are going to continue sharing those voices on our own platforms to provide the community with the perspectives that we have been missing. For starters, we are adding Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces to our online book selection. 
  • Speaking Out – We will publicly speak out against mistreatment in our community, whenever we see or hear about it.
  • Donating – We will be donating funds to organizations whose mission is more tailored to these issues.

Finally, we are going to ensure that our community interacts with each other respectfully on our platforms. This does not mean we are going to suppress all criticism and debate.  It does mean we will remove comments which are disrespectful or promote well known racially oppressive or insensitive statements. Consider the following examples:

  • You can say positive things about good policing, the critical services that police provide, or call out specific examples.  But you cannot use #bluelivesmatter or #alllivesmatter comments in response to these racial events. While technically inclusive, they’re designed to undermine and delegitimize #blacklivesmatter.  You wouldn’t have used those comments after the country music concert shooting in Las Vegas or the multitude of school shootings over the last 10 years. Don’t use them now.
  • Don’t use misleading statistics. For example: by raw numbers more white people are killed by police than black people.  But by percentage of population, black people are many times more likely to be killed by police than white people.  If you are going to cite the former, you have to acknowledge the latter and meaningfully explain why the former is relevant to your point.

We know we are going to get feedback and questions about this. And that’s fair. The start for us is not being silent just because we’re not sure what to say and we’re worried about messing up somehow. Please join us. And please don’t thank us for work that is long overdue.