The Color of Climate

Racism Determines Who Gets to Enjoy Nature

Black people face discrimination and threats just for being outside

Photo illustration. Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

In 2015, Grace Anderson was backpacking through the Sierra Nevada along California’s historic John Muir Trail, minding her own business, when a white person showed up.

“[They] came up to me and were like, ‘Oh, cool. You’re doing a diversity project,’” Anderson tells OneZero. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m just outside.’”

It wasn’t the only time that Anderson, a Black climber and outdoor educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has experienced racial discrimination while trying to enjoy the great outdoors. Strangers have tried to touch her hair and stared at her while she was climbing, hiking, and camping, she says. The staring makes her feel unsafe.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, can I sleep here tonight?’”

Anderson is hardly the only Black person who has faced racial discrimination and threats to their well-being for simply, well, being outside.

Black people living in American cities already have fewer green and natural spaces in their communities. Even when they can access the outdoors, doing so can feel dangerous. Racism makes even recreation a dangerous undertaking for Black people, who often take their lives into their hands when they rock climb, bird-watch, run, or enjoy other forms of outdoor recreation.

And the outcomes of racism can be much worse than the fear that Anderson has felt.

Last week, Emily Taylor, another Black climber based in the Bay Area, said in a video posted to Instagram that a white Berkeley resident shouted the word “nigger” at two Black girls. The girls, ages seven and 10, were part of Taylor’s climbing camp for girls of color. A month ago, a white woman named Amy Cooper threatened to call the New York Police Department on Christian Cooper, a Black man, after he reminded her of the dog-leashing rules in Central Park’s Ramble while he was bird-watching.

And in February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Georgia while he was out for a run.

Tykee James, a Black birder who lives in Washington, D.C., has also experienced racism while outdoors. In early June, he hosted a group of Black birders, including Christian Cooper, for a Facebook Live discussion on “Birding While Black.” They discussed the ways racism affects their ability to bird-watch.

“[We] get mistaken for the other Black birder,” James tells OneZero. “Or because you’re the only Black birder on the walk, you are also the most interesting person. And so everyone is a lot more attentive to you and what you’re doing in a way that’s not friendly but more probative.”

And the racism Black people experience when they go outside could be yet another hurdle to overcome to get access to nature and green spaces, which have been shown to have immense health benefits.

In July 2019, researchers in Australia published the results of a study of the impact of green space on mental health in JAMA Network Open. In the study of more than 46,000 participants, the researchers found that people who were exposed to more trees had a lower likelihood of experiencing episodes of psychological stress. Another study published in the Lancet Planetary Health in November 2019 showed evidence that access to urban green space is linked with lower risk of death. Last year in the journal Science, researchers argued that the positive effects of nature on mental health should be a major consideration in all aspects of policymaking.

“Breonna Taylor was murdered [in her own home] while she was sleeping. Like, if that’s happening, there’s no way we can talk safety in natural spaces.”

“I think there’s a huge benefit from being outside in spaces that feel safe,” Anderson says, “I know for myself, feeling expansive and being able to tap into the adventure and exploration in my mind in those spaces has been really powerful.”

But the recent instances of racialized violence against Black people in the United States are showing that access to nature and green spaces isn’t enough, Anderson says. Black people and other people of color have to feel — and actually be — safe in these spaces.

“Breonna Taylor was murdered [in her own home] while she was sleeping,” Anderson says. “Like, if that’s happening, there’s no way we can talk safety in natural spaces.”

Environmental justice activists like Anderson and James are pushing for more green and natural spaces in communities of color and for those spaces to be accessible and safe, because they understand how vital they are to the survival of these communities. Since the recent uptick in publicized racial violence, there’s been other talk about access to green and nature spaces. Read some other writing on this topic below:

  • Over at Grist, environmental activists Corina Newsome, Jason Ward, and Jose Gonzalez talk about race and green space, with an introduction from Mythili Sampathkumar.
  • Deepa Fernandes spoke to Black and Latinx families in Los Angeles about “nature redlining” during the pandemic for KCRW.
  • Monica Samayoa spoke with Black people in Oregon about their experiences of racism while out in nature for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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