White child runs through scenic fields collecting wildflowers and stones. White child swims in the lake by her family’s cottage. She slathers sunscreen on her arms so that she doesn’t get burnt.
Black child runs through concrete playgrounds and grips metal monkey bars. Black child spins under the water of her family’s water hose. Black child inhales exhaust from streetcars and buses.
White child roasts marshmallows on family trips. Black child tries to count the stars under the city street lights.
In all of my nearly 23 years, I have never gone camping. Growing up in a predominantly white area and attending predominantly white schools, camping was a glorified activity that I seemed to always be shut out of. Whenever my classmates would get asked by our teachers what they did over the break, camping, hiking, and visiting the cottage were always the go-to answers. It got to the point where I asked my mom if we had a cottage I didn’t know about or if we had ever gone camping when I was too little to remember. The answer to both of those questions was “No.”
Eventually, as I began to ask more questions, such as if we could go fishing, I was brought a new answer: “That’s a white people thing.” From as far as I could see, this was the truth. Whenever I’d asked any of my Black friends or cousins if they had ever gone camping or anything of the sort, I received the same answer. They had never gone camping. They did not have a cottage. Those are white people things.
But how can the entire outdoors be a white people thing? Access to clean water, public parks, beaches and open spaces are considered to be communal goods that every person in Canada has an equal right to enjoy. But this does not seem to be the reality in practice. Numerous studies have outlined the lack of Black presence when it comes to nature and the outdoors. Many attribute this to the assumption that Black people do not have an interest when it comes to nature. I believed this idea for a while as I recall my cousins not wanting to jump through puddles with me or catch grasshoppers. However, this explanation is not satisfactory in the slightest. According to the biophilia hypothesis by Edward O. Wilson, humans are genetically inclined to be attracted to nature. Therefore, it is inherent that we all feel connected to and love the natural world. If this is the case, how come such a large portion of the Black community seems to have such a distaste for the outdoors?
Just off the top of my head, there are numerous explanations for why Black people are not involved in many outdoor events. But if we were to dig deeper, we can see that the idea of Black people being inherently disconnected from nature and therefore less caring towards the state of our environment is an irrational myth rooted in anti-black racism. In her book, “Black Faces, White Spaces,” Carolyn Finney explores the relationship between Black people and nature from a historical lens. The truth is, Black people have always had to think twice about going to certain spaces, even if it is just the park a few blocks down from their homes. I am immediately reminded of the time I denied going on a school trip to Louisiana and how my friend group didn’t understand why I would turn down such an opportunity. Sure the likelihood of something happening to me while surrounded by my predominately white class was very unlikely, but it was still an overarching thought that clouded my mind.
Generations of Black people have been stripped from their native lands, and this massive event severed most relations that Black people had to the Earth. Currently, the vast majority of Black Canadians live within urban areas. A census done in 2016 revealed that 94.3% of Black people in Canada lived in cities. This means that Black people are disproportionately exposed to pollution, lack of access to nature, and higher living costs. Historically, we have always been isolated from natural spaces in order for white society to feel more comfortable. With swimming pools, parks, and country clubs once deemed white-only spaces, how could we possibly enjoy the outdoors? In modern times, the outdoors has still been proven to be unsafe for Black people. Examples of Christian Cooper, who was threatened with violence and arrest while bird watching or Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while jogging outside, prove this. There are many other horror stories of Black people who have been threatened, killed, or made to feel unwelcome in outdoor spaces.
Environmental injustices such as the consequence of toxic air pollutant exposure that comes with living on top of a garbage dump experienced by the predominantly Black community of Shelbourne County, Nova Scotia, or the hundreds of Indigenous reserves without clean water only add to the unwelcomeness of the outdoors. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these injustices as the unequal distribution of parks or spaces of recreation is more apparent.
But despite all the obstacles that seem to separate Black people from nature, we still maintain several practices that keep us in touch with it. From reusing food packages as containers to buying household staples like rice in bulk, keeping plastic bags from grocery shopping, and committing to never wasting food, I learned how to be resourceful and to make something out of nothing. I learned these from none other than my Black mother, who had three other kids to provide for. Not only this, but to say that Black people do not care about the environment is a complete whitewashing of history. The efforts of John Francis, who walked across America for 22 years and did not speak for 17 years in protest of environmental devastation or Sir Lancelot Garfield Jones, who participated in numerous conservation efforts and donated his own land, are diminished when we think this way. Many Black advocates and their work are easily forgotten and overlooked because of this harmful narrative of Black people being disinterested in the environment. However, the truth is, as Black people, we can see ourselves everywhere in nature, from the way our skin resembles the dark tones of the Earth to how our hair mimics the branches of trees. Black people belong in nature. Our relationship, though complicated, still exists. Josina Castille, co-founder of a land reparations organization called Land In Our Names, asserts that it is imperative that people of colour demand reparations in order to heal our relationship with nature. She says that “we have a right to this land based on the fact that it’s our labour that built this country.” When Black people and people of colour can see themselves in ads and commercials that showcase them in the outdoors, or when they see themselves in positions such as park rangers or national park staff, the healing can begin.