Solving the Racism Problem in Outdoor Communities Takes More Than an Instagram Post

American Flag Monument Valley
The flag flutters with a storm on the horizon of Monument Valley, AZ.Ruslan Kalnitsky / Shutterstock

This past Fourth of July, pro skier Amie Engerbretson posted a photo of herself skiing in an American flag top and jean shorts. Her caption described why she always loves to ski on the Fourth but how it was hard this year to find reasons and ways to celebrate. She discussed “the extreme world we are living in,” “the situation,” “our flaws and the things we are getting wrong.” The caption ended with: “With all that in mind, I do celebrate the 4th of July today. I celebrate with an awareness of necessary change and with hope. I send that love, consciousness and celebration to all of you.” The post was liked by over 3,500 people and widely praised in the comment section nearly 70 times.

When the post came across my feed, I knew its intention was genuine and meant to show solidarity, but I also saw how it was problematic. In the comments, a group of people criticized Engerbretson for failing to specifically name the racism that made the Fourth difficult to celebrate. And by then declaring that despite her discomfort she’d celebrate anyway, Engerbretson was criticized for bypassing and being tone deaf. One such critique was deleted because Engerbretson felt it was “aggressive, presumptive, and felt mean.” And that was criticized as well, for tone policing.

In the past, Engerbretson has used her social media platform and position in the outdoor world for climate change and female empowerment, but—like many of us—is new to anti-racism activism. Recently, she committed herself to researching and donating to organizations doing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work in the outdoors, and sharing those organizations with her more than 37,000 followers weekly. She’s reading anti-racism books and articles, following the work of folks like Brooklyn Bell and Rachel Cargle, and listening to podcasts focused on allyship. She amended her contract with Spyder to include mandatory community involvement in diversity initiatives and proposed that all the Spyder athletes do the same. She’s highlighting the work of BIPOC community members in her social feeds. And even with all that, she got this wrong. And she knows it.

“I am in my infancy of the work in learning how to be an ally both privately and publicly,” she told me over the phone. “It’s no longer appropriate to just be an athlete. You need to use your platform, your voice to advocate for things. But at the same time, I’m not a writer, a researcher, a sociologist, a therapist, a social worker; I am not an expert on any of this. I am terrified to do or say the wrong thing. And I know I am probably going to get it wrong more than I am going to get it right. ”

Engerbretson messaged one of her critics and had an hour-and-a-half conversation to understand her missteps of glossing over the issues. “The criticism was that I wasn’t specific enough,” she told me. “I was speaking about systemic racism, the global pandemic, the lack of political leadership. The feeling behind the post was that I am actually not proud to be an American right now and I don’t feel like celebrating because I am appalled at systemic racism and the handling of the pandemic. I am ashamed at our political leadership. Could I have said that very specifically? Yes.”

In future posts condemning racism, Engerbretson says she’ll use more detailed language. “I am going to keep trying, and I am probably going to get it wrong more,” she said. “I learned from this experience. I just have to do better.”

She’s right; we all have to do better.

Those of us—and by “us” in this context, I mean “white folks”—who are trying to move beyond statements of support on social media and to more fully understand our personal biases and blindspots, are discovering a hard truth: Racism and white supremacy within our communities runs deeper than we realized, and the work of anti-racism is more complex than we appreciated.

When outdoor brands, publications, and athletes took to social media in support of Black Lives Matter and condemnation of white supremacy in June, the comment sections did not reflect a unified community (as if wanting to end racism is debatable). Among the praise and support were plenty of racist and bigoted comments. I was appalled and shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. Our fundamental problem with racism has more of a spotlight on it right now, but it isn’t new.

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On July 1, Duane Raleigh of Rock & Ice resigned his position in an open letter to the climbing community entitled, “An Apology from the Publisher.” Raleigh apologized for a clueless and off-the-mark op-ed, “It’s Time To Change Offensive Route Names,” written by Andrew Bisharat, which completely whiffed on the issue of climbing routes with racist names. Bisharat did not once mention racism or white supremacy, but instead focused on how crude and sexualized route names could make children uncomfortable. Sexism and misogyny also has a storied hateful history in the outdoor community, but Bisharat, Raleigh, and Rock & Ice were criticized for a textbook example of racial bypassing.

Raleigh also came clean on his participation in the historic trend of white supremacy within climbing: “I was thinking in part of my past,” he wrote, “because I gave two routes from that era 40 years ago racist and appalling names. The most egregious used the N word, and I am deeply sorry.” Among the many abysmal comments on the article was this: “Are we 5? Why care if he named a route with n_____ in the name 40 years ago?”

We all should care, and not just care: We must work toward a shift in our entire community’s understanding of these issues. And as Anaheed Saatchi wrote in her story, “How Mountain Project Stole From A Woman Of Color & Spent Years Defending Hate Speech In The Climbing Community,” climber and web developer Melissa Utomo is way out in front of most of us in this effort, and has been met with willful ignorance, inaction, and the theft of her intellectual property. Saatchi reports that Utomo proposed to both REI and Mountain Project (REI owned and controlled MP from 2015 until May 2020) a flagging feature for racist and discriminatory route names and removal of bigots and racist in the public forums. It was rejected, protecting the first ascensionist’s route names, even when those names are insensitive at best and outright hateful at worst. Ultimately, Mountain Project launched the feature in June 2020, neither paying nor crediting Utomo.

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In no way am I a social justice expert; I’m guilty of having been apathetic, too quiet, and unintentionally racist. I’ve used words like “tribe” and “spirit animal” out of their intended context. Did I mean to be discriminatory? Absolutely not. Was it still offensive? Yes. And that needs to stop. My privilege as an upper-middle class, straight white male lets me walk around in this world with a blindfold and noise-canceling headphones on. That needs to stop too. And I need to understand how my ignorance has been harmful, and that will be a painful experience.

I grew up just outside of Chicago and attended one of the most diverse public high schools in the nation. I’ve always been proud of that; felt that it—along with a liberal, progressive family—provided me with a sense of equality and open-mindedness. But recently an unfortunate memory sprang from the basement of my mind.

I was 14 years old, a freshman, sitting shotgun in the 1990 burgundy Toyota Camry that had become the hand-me-down “kid car.” My brother was driving us to school. We passed a white kid wearing a First Down puffy jacket. “Hmm, I guess he doesn’t know,” I said. My brother snapped his head around at me, a disgusted look on his face with an intensely furrowed brow, and barked, “What the hell does that mean; know what?” I knew I had said something wrong, something racist. “Know that that jacket is only for Black people,” I sheepishly whispered to him. He yelled at me not to be a racist asshole, and then he punched me in the side of my head. And when I screamed in pain and asked why he boxed my ear, he yelled, “Because it hurts!”

The memory reminds me of something I heard author Kevin Fedarko say about the Grand Canyon and the Trump administration’s attack on the environment, Indigenous land, and our national parks. Fedarko said that hope is hurtful, that it doesn’t lead to action. He said we should feel despair, we should feel anger, and we should use it as fuel.

If white people in the outdoor community want to be true allies, we have to be OK with being imperfect and uncomfortable and wrong. We are going to stumble, we are going to make mistakes, and we will probably offend people while we are trying to educate ourselves and be more outspoken about the bigotry we see in our community.

If that leads to embarrassment or even shame, that’s OK. The most and meaningful personal growth often comes from discomfort. It’s like my brother’s punch to the head—some of this is supposed to hurt, and that hurt can be the fuel we need to help make real change.


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[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story suggested REI owned and controlled Mountain Project upon launch of Utomo’s flagging feature. REI is quick to admit it “should have done more to address the issue of offensive and unacceptable climbing route names when we ran Mountain Project,” and has stated its commitment to working toward a meaningful solution on “the longstanding issue of racist, homophobic and misogynistic route names,” funding an effort to address this issue within the Mountain Project platform; part REI’s broader racial equity commitments announced last month.]

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