I’ve been in the field of outdoor recreation and education for over five years, and an outdoor enthusiast for much longer. As a child of South Asian parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s, I was born into a family that embraced all that was Americana from the get-go.
You’ve never met a group of Hindus who celebrated Christmas with as much consumerist fervor as ours. You’ve never met a bunch of vegetarians who embraced the McDonald’s sausage McMuffin with such gusto. And you’ve probably never yet met a family who assimilated so quickly to the American outdoor culture, albeit with their own South Indian flare.
The memories of my earliest outdoor experiences can be distilled to these snapshots: sitting in the garage with my dad poring over maps and food lists planning my extended families’ annual summer National Park visit; the moms returning from Costco with a moving van’s equivalent of bulk food and supplies for a family of 20; caravanning a thousand miles with a rented camper and our row of station wagons from our homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to a National Park, stopping at McDonalds and Taco Bells along the way as we listened to classic Bollywood tunes and chatted with the other vehicles
in our caravan on our handy dandy Walkie Talkies; arriving at our group campsite and setting up a home base, complete with an extra large kids’ tent; scents of South Indian cooking wafting from the camper as a grandma (there was at least one grandma on every trip) made a full five-course dinner; the stares of neighboring campers ogling our family as we conversed emphatically in Tanglish (Tamil and English) around the fire; many failed attempts at fishing; one ambitious attempt to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with absolutely no preparation (and which ended in our parents nibbling on carrots and chapstick on the way up because they ran out of food).
There is more . . . but here’s my point: it didn’t take this Indian girl long to fall in love with the outdoors.
Two decades later, I joined the National Outdoor Leadership School as its diversity and inclusion manager and dedicated myself to persuading people of color everywhere that outdoor adventure was for them. I was convinced people of color weren’t participating in outdoor adventure (at least the way I interpreted it), that it was because they just didn’t realize how cool and amazing it was, and that I could easily break down cultural barriers such as histories of oppression, lack of access, and fear of wilderness with words and money. All it would take was spin and some scholarship dollars and the people of color would stream in. Right? Wrong.
Five years later, I am questioning my motives and remembering that my own experience as a young girl of color in the outdoors wasn’t backpacking quietly in remote wilderness cooking dehydrated potatoes and not bathing for 30 days. My own experience was with my family: eating well, camping in relative comfort, being loud and boisterous, and then going home a few days later.
So why has it been so easy for me to slip into cultural amnesia, forgetting my own cultural connection to nature and jumping on the bandwagon of the predominantly White outdoor zealots waving our granola flags and ranting, “Outdoor education must mirror the mosaic that is America! Everyone should want to climb mountains! Everyone should want to poop in a hole in the ground in the woods!”
Clearly, I’ve stopped drinking the Kool-Aid and realized that maybe we just need to be okay with the fact that hard-core outdoor adventure isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.
It’s one thing to want to make people of color aware of a world of possibilities, to put outdoor adventure on their radar, or even to work to create an inclusive culture in the outdoors that is welcoming to everyone. But it’s quite another thing to presume that of all their choices, people will somehow feel compelled to leave the comfort of a roof over their heads to “rough it” in the woods. Camping, like stamp collecting or painting or driving fast cars or dancing, is not for everybody. And. That. Is. Okay.