How does one defend outdoor communities: climbers, walkers, kayakers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, and those beyond, such as Saturday morning Park Runners, cyclists, triathletes, trainspotters, against the charges of economic privilege, ‘whiteness’, and that these communities both consciously and unconsciously exclude minorities?
If you think no defence can be made, then stop reading here, but if you take umbrage at the charges, then read on.
This defence has been a long time coming, the above narrative – which has been slowly building in the climbing and mainstream media – one that I’ve been trying to ignore, waiting for someone else to speak up. Unfortunately, coming from The North – and working class – I lack the capacity for shame or guilt, or tact, so I guess it’s down to me to say something in our collective defence.
The main reason for not wanting to defend the outdoor community, one I’ve been part of all my life, is that it is not a golf or polo club (no offence intended), but overwhelmingly centre or left-leaning, progressive, and inclusive. The majority of people you meet in the outdoors – locally and globally – are working people, or in education, or retired; the majority, highly educated, or skilled, many working in the public sector: teachers, doctors etc. For this reason, anyone reading the charges against them, is already positively inclined to nod and plead guilty. Yes, they know they’re not guilty, but agree – collectively – the outdoors is a place for a middle-class elite, who are unaware of their unconscious biases, white privilege and hostility to minorities; after all, isn’t that what George Mombiot says? If they were very progressive/mad they might also go further, and point out the racist and colonial history of many of the sports we do, demonstrate toxic masculinity, how we fail to recheck our actuality and see how we marginalise people who are crap at stuff, but I won’t, as I think it’s best not to stray too high into the branches of the crazy tree.
So, as you can see, I’ve not wanted to defend the outdoor community, as I expect my help will not be welcomed by many of the accused, and certainly not the accusers.
But seeing as you’ve made it this far, I’ll crack on.
People are free to disagree with the following views, just know I’m not naive, or ill-informed, or in need of educating via TED videos on white privilege. I’ve been writing and talking about these issues for a very long time. If people want to disagree with me in a constructive way, then send me an email, and I’ll try and respond in a way that’s helpful to us all, and not just another comment section gang bang.
Before I start, let’s set some geographical boundaries. What we’re talking about is the outdoor communities in the English speaking world, a place increasingly undermined (I think) by well-meaning social justice advocates and self-elected identity politicians: so North America, Britain, and Australasia; not necessarily the wider world. This is important, as often this kind of debate is muddied by people drawing in the oppressed and marginalised from nations that can only be viewed as not sharing Western values, which in this case is about respect for the rights of others, both legally and morally. This is important, as you cannot have a conversation on this subject if people try and draw in evidence that has nothing to do with the discussion, distant crimes and victims, as doing so is cheating, designed only to win a short term ideological argument, not about basic human understanding. I take the view that the freedoms people have in the English speaking world are the exception, not the norm. This is something you realise as soon as you go beyond its borders and bubbles, something Malcolm X understood, when he travelled to the Middle East and Africa. Many of my views are based on no longer living in an English world, where people are so pampered they fight over pronouns, hand gestures or memes, but in a place where women actually do live under a patriarchal system, where a social caste system is in force, surrounded by countries where to be gay is a capital crime.
Secondly, although I would class myself as coming from a low socio-economic group, I’m going to try and stay away from the autobiographical as much as possible, to make it about ‘us’ not ‘me’; but my background – with its lack of privilege – I didn’t have garlic until my twenties – means although I have every reason to stick in the knife to the middle class – it’s the reason I’m willing to defend my betters.
For the sake of brevity, although there are many articles I could try and mount a defence against, both the well-intentioned, and the hysterically insane, I’m going just focus on one: the 2019 UK government’s ‘Landscapes Review’ report, who’s focus is “the next steps for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England”. My reply to this document perhaps provides the basis of a defence by other outdoor groups in other countries.
The focus of the ‘Landscapes Review’ document is ‘national landscapes’, its aim to set out, ‘big ambitions, so they are happier, healthier, greener, more beautiful and open to everyone’. In the document, which contains some helpful ideas, the following paragraphs stand out that feed into this narrative:
“We are all paying for national landscapes through our taxes, and yet sometimes on our visits, it has felt as if National Parks are an exclusive, mainly white, mainly middle‑class club, with rules only members understand and much too little done to encourage first-time visitors.”
A second notable paragraph continues:
“Many communities in modern Britain feel that these landscapes hold no relevance for them. The countryside is seen by both black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and white people as very much a ‘white’ environment. If that is true today, then the divide is only going to widen as society changes. Our countryside will end up being irrelevant to the country that actually exists.”
On the subject of governance in the National parks:
“Lacking in diversity – they suffer from the same demographic biases as most authorities in England, lacking proper representation across age, gender, ethnicity and (dis)ability. Collectively they have an average age of 64 years, have a big gender imbalance (with almost 2.5 males to every female) and shockingly, have only 0.9% representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic members.”
This is followed up in the final summary:
“Of the almost 1,000 people on National Park and AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) boards today, the great majority are male, many are of retirement age, and a tiny fraction is of black, Asian or minority ethnicities. This is wrong for organisations which are funded by the nation to serve everyone.”
I’m sure many people will see nothing wrong with these statements, but anyone who pays close attention to how social justice works, will see this as just phase one of a strategy - intentional or knot - that will only be destructive.
First of all, I’d say the document, appears to have had little oversight by anyone brave enough to defend the outdoors against these charges: organisations, groups, the general population, or give a rational explanation to these issues. The reason for this is the general cowardly nature of public bodies and organisations, how no one dares to object, while anyone who does, is pushed out or sent to the gulag (Northumberland). In the document, there is mention of ethnic groups being ‘cut off’, ‘disconnected’, about ‘barriers’ and ‘the Club’. It’s very easy to take on these words and phrases without question, but in matters of language, you must always ask: who is doing the cutting, creating disconnects and these barriers?
The document does not stop there but paints a picture of the outdoors a little like the Summer Isles, from the film ‘The Wicker Man’, where these brave civil servants – on an away day to the Lake District – experience the true horror of outdoor bigotry. There is even a line about taking ethnic minorities into National parks and having to stop filming “to minimise stares from passers-by.” (A rational person would ask if people were just wondering what was being filmed, not who were being filmed).
Before we set about recruiting Freedom Riders to help protect minorities in the National parks, it’s worth – in the UK context – considering some data on the subject of ‘whiteness’.
As much as I hate writing down the words: black, white, Asian, it’s unfortunately essential to do so, in an age where race and gender have become the ID cards we’re all increasingly forced to carry, and consider, in everything we say and do. Looking at the last UK census (2011), 87.1% of the UK population was white, 6.9% was Asian, and 3% black. Now, once you realise that ‘white’ people make up 98.19% of Scots, 96.6% Welsh, and 98.28% of the Northern Irish, we’re really only talking about England as having any substantial minority population. Of these minorities, almost all live in the big cities, with the majority living in London, which has a minority white population. This means that the cities are racially diverse and multicultural oases, while the countryside is not. This is generally true in all Western nations, as well as in most countries beyond. We see the same primary factors in political divisions globally, whether it be the US, Australia or Turkey: rural monoculturalism vs metropolitan multiculturalism, progressivism vs conservatism.
But are these census figures correct you might ask? Well seeing as government policy at the local and central level is based on them, meaning education and health, you’d hope so, but only a civil servant would tell you they are correct. In reality, the truth in England (not Wales or Scotland), is somewhere BBC sitcom reality, a multicultural paradise, and Children of Men, but only in the big towns and cities.
Why do so-called minorities tend to live in cities? I’d suggest that contributory reasons are social, historical and cultural. Overall complexity can mean that resistance to change via outside intervention may be considerable. How convenient for policymakers and social justice advocates to ignore such complexity in favour of simplistic quick fixes. Of course, these quick fixes never work. They come and go like headlines and sound bites.
It’s also worth stressing that statistical classifications such as ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ are not discrete entities in practice. Even in a small city like Sheffield, the Somali, Pakistani, Chinese, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Bangladeshi and Iraqi communities may have little in common and can even be hostile to one another. These national groupings may also become even more fragmented by factors such as income, caste or class.
Merely categorising people into big, overall blocks can be a severely limiting way of regarding them. Once again, these blocks will tend to fragment into much smaller, but more meaningful, groupings, most often a group of one. An example would be the disabled community, which is not a community at all: a blind woman having little in common with a man with multiple sclerosis, each person totally isolated from each other. What both of them have – what all of us have – is a common humanity which transcends any attempt at grouping.
To ignore the individual and to ignore cultural dimensions (e.g. South Asians may put family before mountain biking and prefer a trip to the seaside) is not only erroneous; worse, it is dehumanising. The elephant in the room – the default position held by those who speak on behalf of minorities – is that they make the assumption that all minorities are poor, and so living at the edges of society, which is simply used to offer legitimacy to ideological positions without regard to the damage it does.
Certainly money – or poverty, the lack of money - plays a huge role in access to just about everything, from owning a bike to going to the swimming pool, to heating your house. But neither affluence nor poverty is necessarily dependent on the colour of your skin. People who push convenient yet simplistic narratives really should question their motives. (Are they more bigoted than those they accuse?) In any case, the issue of poverty is somewhat beyond the control of the outdoor community, or even the state, apart perhaps from local charities and groups which work with young people. Certainly, all of us should support such initiatives as best we can.
Certainly there can be hostility towards outsiders in the countryside; generally, people in small communities are cautious and suspicious of others not like them. This is something which can take many decades to change. However, it doesn’t mean that these people are necessarily hateful or in need of re-education.
Are people more hostile to minorities in the outdoors? Dubious. Sure, there will always be dangerous and hateful individuals wherever you go, who will target you because you’re different, taking out their anger on you. But they’re individuals, not necessarily indicative of groups; we are beyond torch-wielding mobs in the Dales and valleys.
Often part of the rationale behind travelling to remote places is to engage with people who are very different to us. They may never have drunk a latte, eaten an avocado or had an email account, but they might also have never met anyone who isn’t like them: black, Asian, or white, and the things they say or do will be alien and unexpected.
You stroke a thousand dogs in your life, why do some of them bite?
Yes, I’ve heard of people treating someone who’s black or Asian rudely, but I also have social justice friends (before it was a thing), who’ve spat at someone’s door because they had a Tory sign in the window. People are just shit sometimes.
Also, there is the indulgence that people in the West can wrap themselves in flypaper and go through life decrying how many flies they pick up. Victim culture is toxic, the over-sensitive just as prone to judgement and bigotry as a paid-up member of the KKK. Everyday shit that happens, the disappointment, every slight and angry word, is not always down to the colour of your skin. An example of this was when my wife and a friend once told a guy not to throw a banana skin off a viewing platform in Squamish, Canada, only to be accused of being racist, under the assumption they only told him off because he was Asian.
Another factor which is rarely understood is that generally, the countryside, especially mountain areas, are some of the poorest places you will ever find, be that Nepal or the Highlands of Scotland. Yes, the rich might wish to buy fancy houses and tourists visit the honeypots, but, for the majority of the population, the environment is one big factory, where money is short, and opportunity virtually non-existent. The connection between the people and the land is often not one of love and commitment, but of servitude. These communities, the ones who cannot learn to exploit the outsiders, are always going to be prone to feeling even more impoverished by outsiders, with their seemingly limitless leisure time and money. It is like walking onto a deafening, dirty foundry floor to take a selfie and feeling unwelcomed by the rough men who have to spend their lives there.
And then we have to question simply being different. There’s always a cost which cannot be legislated against. This, I am afraid, is human nature. If you’re a black climber at a climbing wall, a woman in a wheelchair trying to find her seat in a cinema or a seven-foot trans guy, people will notice you. But ask anyone who’s visited China what it feels like to be European or black. Visited Africa, and if you’re white, everyone shouts “Mzungu!” at you, want to touch your straight hair, say you look like a zombie. Sometimes being different both scares and excites simultaneously. It’s not always a racist thing unless you want it to be, or something to be offended at, unless you want to be, it’s a human thing, a childish thing.
As for the running of things, that our wild places are dominated by this old white male elite, well so are model railway clubs, and probably for the same reason. We are not talking about the South African legislature but some God awful low paid - or voluntary - management role, that is only ever a source of constant criticism; trying your best to steer the underfunded park through a never-ending storm of apparatchiks and lobbyists. Why don’t we have more women, black, Asian or minority ethnic farmers? Because it’s a shit job best left to old white men, who more often than not, retire by blowing their brains out with a shotgun.
I’d also be very wary of anyone who likes to divide up people by race, who talks about people in terms of quotas, ratios and percentages, such people should never be given power over any human being, and posted to some far off place away from the rest of us, and confined to spreadsheets.
So how do we go on?
I believe in building allies and playing a long game. I believe that slow, organic growth and consensus are how you create a better world. For these reasons, I feel that the contributions of hustlers, know it nothings and unelected spokespeople tend not to build consensus but to destroy it. Such people tend to be righting personal wrongs and disappointments (or exploiting them in others), and, in the process, they dehumanise both the question and the answer. To overcome the alienation of one small group, they alienate everyone from each other. I’m also not a fan of state meddling either, as the constant turnover of governments means they rarely have a significant investment in anything difficult or meaningful. This leads to terrible short-termism, where social programs and great leap forwards spring up with dubious goals, bringing to life NGOs and lobbyists who promise to create short term results, but die as soon as the funding stops. For example, the big push for more women in climbing seems to have come about due to demands from the Sports Council, funding dependent on public bodies tackling an issue that is not even clearly defined, paying no attention to how social change is bringing this about, instead, creating a mad scramble for cash for dubious projects, schemes and new positions, money better spent on long-term projects where everyone can benefit, access, or investments in buying wild places. The same is true with the current focus on disabilities, which people see as being a sign of progress. In reality, it’s a requirement for entry of climbing into the Olympics - a bureaucratic exercise.
Where the change would best be served is in education. Imagine if all children (white, black, blue, green) had one week a year in the outdoors: camping, climbing, getting wet and cold, with their phones taken off them; daily or at least weekly exposure to nature as part of the curriculum. This kind of thing would revolutionise how British people viewed the outdoors; yes, British people - not British minorities. These children would have a chance to consider their place and value in nature and to one another. But such a project would require central and local government taking it seriously. Instead, it looks as though every child will be granted the opportunity to sleep under the stars for just one night.
As for adults, what is often forgotten by social justice advocates and agents of change, is that people are adults. They have self-advocacy; they have complex reasons for their goals and actions. It’s not for you to judge a person because they prefer to play football, snooker, cricket, go fishing, do a park run, or simply use their leisure time to play on the X-box and then go to the cinema, rather than climb a mountain. Yes, they might tell you they feel like Snowdonia is a ‘white club’, when you ask someone’s opinion in a city street, but they are wrong. Did any civil servant go speak to the Indian family on top of the Old Man of Coniston, the black guy at the Castle climbing wall, the multitude of nationalities gracing the summit of Arthur’s Seat every single day? Is the view of someone who chooses to feel excluded - and demands that other people fix it, with no thought of the cost to society - worth re-engineering the entire world? What if they never had any motivation to do anything in the outdoors anyway? What if it was all about ‘rights’ and not about actually going out and getting cold, wet, dirty and knackered, but actually, they just like playing Fortnite.
For me, and for many others, the outdoors has always offered an escape, a place where people can be equal, where money often means surprisingly little and where rich men envy the free time of the poor. With your hood up, everyone looks the same. The outdoors has been the making of so many of us. The dysfunctional have learned to become functional; the narrow-minded have been forced to broaden their outlook. The outdoors offer boundless opportunities to those who seek them. Often help is freely given by strangers from all walks of life. Historically many outdoor communities have been welcoming to anyone who wished to join in. They do not ask you what gender, race or sexual orientation, your politics, what papers you read, or even if you can read it all. There are no rules, dress codes, or direct debits, and you are free to join and free to leave. Yes, the outdoors can ask a lot of a person, but as for the communities who cherish them, they only ask people to have respect for where they are, and who they are with.
Most of all, the outdoors is an escape from all that is bad about civilisation, even about being a human in the 21st century, so it’s something worth defending from ideologues and their good intentions. And so, on that note, I’ll leave you with the wise words of Norman Nicholson:
“Mountains should not serve as an escape from reality. They are surely an escape back to reality.”
[Note: This piece was offered free of charge to several large outdoor media sites, and climbing organisations, some who had previously published social justice articles. All of them turned it down, so if you agree with it, then please share it.]