Written by James Lee
It is obviously a time of unease in America with regards to treatment of racial minorities.
Whether it be a young jogger shot like a dog in the street in Georgia, or a man having his neck crushed by a police officer in Minneapolis, or a birder having the cops called on him after simply politely asking someone to put their dog on a leash, these recent events have laid bare the vast disparity in the amount of fairness and justice afforded to black people and and other POCs (or in their case, the lack thereof) that white Americans have long taken for granted.
It is an unfortunate truth that racism has been an ever present force in our country, upheld by institutions designed to maintain the status quo and refuse to change. There is a double standard in our country where minorities are both judged with much stronger scrutiny and far harsher punishment than white people, and this isn’t some phenomenon isolated to a few highly publicized incidents, this is the norm.
This is particularly true for POCs who seek to use the many incredible natural areas across the country. Speaking from personal experience as a black man in a predominantly white career field and often working in overwhelmingly white areas, I have long envied the sense of security and ease that my white colleagues must feel when they venture outdoors. To work and dwell in outdoor spaces without fear of judgement or baseless retribution, and to rejoice in studying and celebrating public lands and natural areas must be quite wonderful.
Do you think my fears are unfounded? What if I told you that have been personally threatened with firearms for trespassing, even when I was not? Or if I was politely explaining the field work I was performing to a suspicious landowner who took a photo of me without asking when she suspected me of some sort of wrongdoing? Because both of those things have happened to me, and instead of letting myself be angry at them for their unkindness towards me, I instead have to be grateful that things didn’t escalate further in either such situation, and be thankful that I simply still have my life and health.
And it isn’t even always direct interactions, in fact much of the hostility POCs face in America is passive and atmospheric in nature. Even during my last field job in northern Georgia, I can recall peacefully driving through that countryside and marvelled at the beautiful scenery of Southern Appalachia, only to have my reverie broken by the sight of a Confederate flag. Or the many instances where I’ve politely waved and smiled at people I’ve come across who instead ignored me at best and glared at me with contempt at worst, as if I were not welcome in those places.
This is not to say that I have never had positive interactions with non-pocs while performing field work or recreating outdoors- quite the opposite, I’ve had many. But there is no guarantee that I or other POCs won’t be confronted with hostility or violence when we go outdoors. Understanding this fear is part of the reason participation in outdoor recreation is dramatically lower among black people and other minorities than it is for white people.
And while we’re at it, let’s address why a lot of these areas are so overwhelmingly white in the first place. Why are there so few black farmers? What happened to the descendants of the black and Hispanic cowboys and homesteaders that once settled across the rural areas of America? Or the descendants of the Chinese immigrants who toiled in mines and built railroads that stretched across the west? Or the myriad of indigenous peoples who inhabited this continent for thousands of years? Once they lost their utility to white settlers, they were hurried away with violence, and now are assumed to be “ignorant city folk” by many of those still living in rural areas (or in the case of indigenous peoples, cruelly stripped of their ancestral homelands and placed on reservations). And that is why so many POCs feel unwelcome in such areas.
A lot of people are saying things like “we need to have a conversation” or are asking “what are we gonna do”, as if the answer to these issues we’re facing are arbitrary and must be determined by some great convention, but to me they’re fairly simple and apparent: We need to dramatically adjust social systems and institutions to be fairer for everyone, and dismantle the institutions that cannot be changed.
We need to recognize how historical oppression and bias are still strong and pervasive to this day, and make active efforts to combat them both through legislation and cultural change. We need to hold police officers to a much higher standard, and hold them accountable to the communities they’re sworn to protect, so that they don’t abuse them.
To the naysayers who might say “if you don’t like it then leave”, I say this much: no. I have as much a right to work and dwell in these places as you, and while it may not be as safe or welcoming for me to be doing so, going outdoors is what I love to do. I grew up spending countless hours in the woods near my home, which was a massive influence in why I became interested in pursuing wildlife as a career in the first place. Everyone in our country should have the same luxury of going outdoors and utilizing public lands and not being afraid of other people in doing so.
This is my voice, a black voice, and I’m not sorry about it.
For more of James, check out @jamesleeeeinthewild on Instagram