There’s a look I get from black and biracial women. There’s a look I give black and biracial women. It’s a look of recognition that says: “I see you. You look like me. We share something no one else out here has. We’re the only ones like us out here.”
Last weekend, I was skiing and I got that look from a woman in the bathroom. A few minutes later, we bumped into each other – literally – in the lift line. We smiled broadly; a smile that turned into a cheerful laugh. “You are here. I see you.” We were the only two black women in the ski lodge or the lift that day.
There’s another look, often coupled with answers to delicate questions, that I give queer women. The other day after leaving the gym and waiting for the bus, a stranger asked, “Is that gym ok? Like, their bathrooms?”
I answered, “friendly for us; friendly for all identities.” We each knew exactly what the other meant.
I would never describe myself as “outdoorsy.” That is a term I’ve always associated strictly with white people wearing Patagonia and socks with their sandals. People who like to chat about the greatest hikes they’ve been on, where they are skiing next, and how “intense” their latest encounter with nature was. It is always “intense” or “epic.”When I talk about this with my black friends and family, they laugh. They say I am the most “outdoorsy” person they know. Gulp. I bought my first Patagonia fleece three years ago.
My family didn’t have much money when I was growing up. My single Mom raised us on a teacher’s salary, and I learned to cook by coming up with 107 different ways to prepare discount aisle chicken thighs. Sometimes, dinner was those cocktail weiners in a can with some crackers and cheese. I lived in a lower-middle-class suburb of Boston – where you were told to “weah lay-ahs” when you went to shovel snow, but Gore-Tex was just too expensive. While I theoretically had access to the outdoors and parks, we didn’t have money for outdoor equipment. We didn’t spend our summers camping as a family. On a basic level, my Caribbean family thinks sleeping outside, or hurtling yourself down the side of a mountain on skis, is akin to lunacy. So, being “outdoorsy” was not part of how I was raised.
It was different when I would spend time with the German side of my family – specifically my Uncle Boris. He’s a tall German version of the Brawny Man. He taught me how to hike, chop down a tree safely (he calls this “gardening,”) and shoot a rifle. He took me on twelve-hour bike rides. He encouraged me to spend as much time outside as possible. To this day, when I write to him that I’m feeling stressed, his answer is always, “come over; spend some time gardening in the Black Forest.”
I had the privilege to get a scholarship to an elite east coast boarding school. That was my first real exposure to “outdoorsy” people who weren’t Uncle Boris. They had all The North Face gear. They’d been skiing since they were four. They hiked and biked in “intense” places. They certainly didn’t eat discount chicken and mini cocktail weiners from a can for dinner. Our school dress code attempted to standardize our teen fashion, but wearing luxury outdoor gear signaled their wealth and effortless belonging to a group. I yearned to be like them, to do the things they did.
I quickly became friends with a guy who wore head-to-toe outdoor clothing and wanted my help to ask my best friend out on a date. He rowed crew, was proud of his calluses and injuries, and smelled like a salty body of water. He became my outdoor guru. One afternoon on a walk to class, he encouraged me to “get over yourself” and go on cheap group hikes with the outing club. My fondest high school memory is us sailing his tiny boat to Grape Island in the Boston Harbor and camping there for two days. It was my first camping trip. It was also when I realized that I cared a lot about making sure that garbage didn’t end up in the Harbor.
I also got a scholarship to a liberal arts college in the middle of the Berkshires. Almost everyone there was outdoorsy; freshman orientation was a backpacking trip. But for the first time in my experience, wealth did not correlate to being outdoorsy. I joined the Outing Club and took skiing as a gym class. I started borrowing backpacking equipment, cross-country skis, and snow-shoes. I learned indoor rock climbing and dated a woman who loved to be outside as much as humanly possible. Sometimes, she’d make us sleep outside just for fun.
As I became comfortable thinking that I belonged to the outdoor community, I realized that I was usually the only one who looked like me, and I started to accept that my interests would be segregated – hiking is something I do with my white friends; going out dancing is something I do with my black and brown friends. I shrugged my shoulders and laughed when my black friends teased me that it must be “the white side of you that likes to hike so much.”
I accepted this dichotomy so much that my jaw actually dropped open the first time I saw a black woman hiking on the Long Trail in Vermont. I mean, she was gorgeous and wearing lots of Patagonia gear, but that’s not the whole reason why I was staring. She caught my gaze and smiled. That was the first time I got that look we give. Over the years, the more I got out there, the more I got that look from the other black and brown women that I’d encounter on the trails.
There’s a human need to find people like you doing the things you love; a yearning not just for acceptance, but for owning a shared experience. A biracial, bisexual, immigrant is still an oddity in the outdoor space. I once dated someone (for far too long) just because he was the only black man kayaking on Match.com. My bisexual pride flag is pinned to the outside of my backpacking pack, so that other queer folks know I’m there. I feel that this land – taken and colonized by white men; but shaped by the work of slaves, immigrants, and people who look like me -– is there for me to enjoy and protect.
Twenty years after I first got that look, I now work at the Sierra Club. I have meetings with people dressed in head-to-toe Patagonia. But among my colleagues are queer, black, Latina women who remind me that being “outdoorsy” and being an “environmentalist” doesn’t have a dress code. Yes, we occasionally give each other that look around the office. We crave recognition. “I see you.” Many of us can relate to the dichotomy of growing up and being labeled “weird” by our black friends and family for being outdoorsy. Many of us grew up in communities disproportionately threatened by environmental pollution and want to change that. Environmentalism was never a hobby or a passion – it was survival. We are not derived from Thoreau. Being outdoors is a salve in an ugly world.
I’ve spent most of my free time in the last twenty years taking kids who look like me kayaking, skiing, and hiking. I volunteer for, and donate to, organizations that encourage people like me to get outdoors. When I buy new outdoor gear, I send my gently used equipment to my friend Sarah. She’s the faculty advisor for an outing club at a community college serving mainly people who are growing up in a neighborhood like I did – hopefully with fewer cocktail weiners.
I take my black goddaughters outside anytime their parents let me. I buy them outdoor gear for every birthday and holiday. A few weeks ago, I took the seven-year-old out for what I like to call “Environmental Science Day.” We rented a tandem kayak and paddled around an estuary to see if we could find otters. Initially fearful that we would drown, she started beaming as soon as she saw her first otter. For the next few hours, she would reach back and tug at my life jacket, asking me for more details about the animals and plants that she saw. We talked about how all the animals are connected and how humans are connected to all of this, too. At the end of our trip, we paddled past a black couple in a tandem kayak, and my goddaughter just stared at them. I poked her to get her to stop. Then she turned her head and gave me a wide-eyed look like, “do you see this??!!” I nodded. We didn’t actually need to exchange words. I smiled back at the couple and gave them that look. “I appreciate that you are out here, too.”
Even though they’re only six and seven years old, I’ve seen my goddaughters give other black girls and women we meet out on the trail that look. Already, they know. There’s still not enough of us. Yet, I don’t despair. I’m their Uncle Boris. But better, because I look like them.
Representation matters. My favorite poem – scrawled onto the chalkboard wall in my kitchen is “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton:
“won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into a kind of life?
i had no model.
born in babylon both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up here on this bridge between starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight my other hand;
come celebrate with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”
It’s a celebration of the black female spirit, resilience, and strength through adversity. I try to show my goddaughters that they don’t have to make it up. But, one day, I hope we can get beyond making it up with a little help from straight, white, male, cisgender friends and family members. I want it to be normal that queer and biracial women kayak and hike. I want those little black girls to own the experience of “intense” natural places. I want my queer, black, brown, and biracial colleagues to feel like they are part of a majority at work; to see themselves belonging here. I work actively work a future where wealth and race do not correlate with access and enjoyment of the outdoors. I want my goddaughters to take for granted that there are lots of women like us on that trail. Even if we’re in clearance rack leggings from Target and not Patagonia.
But until then, I see you. I’m grateful you’re also out here.🌲
edited by carmen.