"Black Faces, White Spaces" - Studying and exploring nature while Black - Proceedings
This blog aims to summarise the '"Black Faces, White Spaces" - studying and exploring nature while Black' event (25/10/2021), hosted by the Edinburgh University Geographical Society, featuring Sybil Indeba (chair), Tianna Johnson, Francisca Rockey and Lucien Staddon Foster.
The racialisation of space is a well-documented phenomenon - it determines our sense of belonging, our physical and mental health, and how we get to spend our professional and recreational time. In the UK, Black communities find themselves particularly disenfranchised from outdoor spaces. Such that, just 1% of national park visitors come from minority ethnic backgrounds, and just 26% of Black Brits spend time in the countryside, compared to 44% of their white counterparts.
But why are these spaces so divided? Why do Black individuals often feel like intruders when engaging with nature? How does this affect geographers like us?
To discuss this, Black Geographers' Francisca, Sybil and Lucien met with Tianna Johnson, the founder of the Black Girls Camping Trip, as part of the University of Edinburgh Geographical Society's (@uofegeography) Black History Month campaign.The Importance of Accessing Nature
Nature is an incredibly powerful thing - we find it healing, humbling and often reassuring. Beyond its numerous health benefits, spending time outdoors allows us to switch off from the stress of fast-paced modern life - which for Black people, is a huge privilege, given that 98% of us live in urban areas.
However, access to the outdoors isn't equal, as participation in outdoor recreation and sports activities is limited by numerous gendered, racial, financial and geographical barriers. From the steep equipment and training costs required to participate in many adventure sports safely to the safety concerns regarding racist and sexual violence, many Black individuals, particularly Black women, feel prevented from engaging with the outdoors. The COVID-19 pandemic massively exacerbated this disenfranchisement, as outdoor exercise became one of the only permitted activities outside the home, with little consideration of the privileges of public safety and access to adequate green space.
For geographers and geoscientists, a relationship with nature is incredibly important to both our work and ambition, as marginalisation from particular landscapes is commonly followed by a lack of engagement in the subjects concerning them. How likely are you to care about coastal geomorphology if you've never seen the sea?Confronting White Spaces
Like the outdoors and its associated leisure activities, geography is often considered an overwhelmingly white subject, thus creating disproportionately white spaces in classrooms and universities. These spaces often become breeding grounds for intensely ignorant views and sensibilities due to the lack of diversity and largely unchecked colonial talking points in geography curricula (e.g. the extreme othering of the Global South), further alienating Black and Brown students.
During the session, experiences of insensitivity and alienation were shared across the panel; one participant recalled their lack of 'traditional' hiking equipment on a field trip being branded as "a more urban approach" by teaching staff. Another speaker remembered brutally insensitive depictions of natural hazards and their victims being shown in a classroom, likely deemed ok due to their geographical distance but with little consideration of Black students' heritage and home countries. These experiences are typical in classes where we're often the only non-white people.
In the UK, exclusionary cultures are commonplace, emphasising the need for Black spaces where we can be seen, heard and celebrated, and most importantly, feel safe. It's why initiatives like Black Geographers, the Black Girls Camping Trip, and Black Girls Hike are so important, as they allow us to engage with nature at our own pace, considering our cultures, rituals and reservations, and provide an entry point to dismantling the status quo.
However, it is, of course, incredibly daunting to create these spaces, but it's important to remember that both Black Geographers and the Black Girls Camping Trip started with a single Tweet. Sometimes, just being seen and stating your case is enough to open a dialogue and find like-minded people to grow a community with.Being Black outside of racism
It's also important to note, especially during Black History Month, that Blackness shouldn't just mean the losing side of racism. Groups like the Black Girls Camping Trip and Black Geographers don't just exist as a response to racism - they exist because there are Black people who love camping and coasts and conservation (and all other things geographical).
Black people shouldn't be placed in a box only concerning racialisation, but many institutions fail to recognise this. Sure, racial scholarship-based internships might be paid, remote and tailored for the specific needs of ethnic minority youths, but why are so many conservation projects and experiences based on volunteering, self-fundraising, or unpaid travel? There's a reason why these programmes typically attract white, upper-middle-class students, and companies must not only recognise their role in this but employ fairer, more accessible recruiting practices and forms of work experience.Conclusions
In order to change the dynamics of the outdoor world and all the recreation and scholarship it has to offer, it's incredibly important for decision-makers to recognise racialised spaces and their roles in creating them. But also, we, as Black people, should consider our relationship with space and nature - do our elders, both back home and in the diaspora, have similar difficulties engaging with and embracing nature? If not, where did we learn this exclusion from, and how can we redefine nature in a way that includes us?
Ultimately, finding our position in (and establishing a healthier relationship with) outdoor spaces and nature will likely fall into our own hands. And for that, we must embrace the inspiring grassroots communities and initiatives working hard to re engage Black and Brown people with the outdoors and reignite passion and curiosity for nature.
The following are some great organisations and people doing just this:
Thank you to Francisca Rockey, Sybil Indeba and Tianna Johnson for their participation in and valuable contributions to the "Black Faces, White Spaces" panel event.
Thank you to the Edinburgh University Geographical Society for planning, hosting and promoting the event.
And finally, a huge thank you to the Geographies of Social Justice and the Cultural and Historical Geography research groups at the University of Edinburgh for sponsoring this seminar.