“We don’t have a privilege. You bringing race into this is causing division in this community.”
But is it really? I must ask time and time again: is bringing up racial inequalities within the hiking community worth the anguish and vile comments that may follow. My answer will always be yes. Is bringing up racial inequalities that People of Color may face while hiking worth it? You better believe it is.
The system doesn’t discriminate between Black hikers beneath the shelter of the trees or Black folks in the inner city. Everything is intertwined. Blackness is not situational. There’s this ridiculous myth that Black folks don’t want to be in the woods. Every time I read that on some atrocious racist forum or Facebook group page, I want to rip my faded crimson dreads out!
It’s not that Black folks don’t want to be out in nature enjoying the rustle of the vibrant autumn leaves or the smell of a roaring fire; it goes much deeper than that. Because of Jim Crow and segregation laws, Blacks historically were not welcomed in national and state parks. Nature was reserved for the white and wealthy, not the poor and oppressed.
Then comes the financial aspect. For many like myself, affording quality gear and having sufficient funds for a thru-hike like the Appalachian Trail is completely daunting. For Black folks in particular, the issue becomes magnified as you look at the differences in income and gender disparities, wealth, and the cycle of poverty.
I first gained interest in this topic when I posed a delicate question on the Women’s Appalachian Trail Group on Facebook. The question was:
“How do you feel about a GoFundMe in order to help fund your thru-hike?”
I simply wanted to know how the community felt about raising money to help fund your dreams. Fifteen minutes later, I noticed there were over thirty comments that contained a plethora of personal viewpoints. Some comments were in support of raising money through donations and saw no issue in it, but then there were the few stray hairs. Or should I say more than enough stray hairs to turn the whole discussion grey.
“I work hard for everything, you say you’re a social worker and you were a veterinary technician maybe you need to do more work”
“You shouldn’t ask for money to fund a dream, that’s rude. If you can’t afford it, you shouldn't do it”
It was a never-ending stream of ignorant comments with the occasional glimmer of hope when one member brought up income disparities. No one else had thought to check their privilege and realize that yes, inequity is real. These disparities exist in the racist system from which all white people, whether rich or poor, continuously reap the benefits, while Blacks remain oppressed.
It’s not to say that Black folks as a whole cannot be wealthy or afford a thru-hike, but it is an acknowledgement of economic barriers and a system that tries to keep us bound in its weary chains. To imply Black folks haven’t worked hard enough is harmful. For inner city kids like myself, I know all too well that isn’t true. I have worked in places where we were not able to disclose our wages because my white counterparts were making more. My family, like many Black families, have little to no wealth because our ancestors had nothing to pass down from slavery to our grandparents. We inherited nothing except generations worth of the sting of poverty.
The facts continue to remain grim even into 2020.
“According to the Racial Wealth Divide report, the median Black family, with just over $3,500, owns just 2% of the wealth of the nearly $147,000 the median White family owns (...)
Black Bachelor’s degree and Associate’s degree holders earn 27% and 14% lower incomes, respectively, than Whites with the same degree (...)
Racial discrimination in many forms, including in education, hiring, and pay practices, contributes to persistent earnings gaps. As of the last quarter of 2019, the median White worker made 28 percent more than the typical Black worker (Racial Economic Inequalities).”
As a Black woman, I am part of a group that faces even more discrimination in employment, with poverty hitting us even harder.
National Women’s Law Center research shows that “while the U.S. poverty rate for White men is 7 percent, it is 20 percent for Black women, 18 percent for Latinas, and 22 percent for Native American women.”
The system is a cruel and unforgiving monster and racism sits at its heart. With those facts in mind, let’s revisit the question of affording gear.
In the hiking community we are all aware that lighter, higher-quality gear is exorbitant. Those with higher-quality, new, and ultralight gear are overwhelmingly white. Many top brand names in hiking gear target wealthy consumers, and the majority, if not all, of their brand ambassadors are white. Quality tents, packs, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags especially can be hundreds if not thousands of dollars total, and we aren’t including the cost of clothing, cookware, or the hike itself. To hike the Appalachian Trail, you’re looking at $5,000 to $7,000, depending on whether you like to party in town and splurge on town food.
When I started this journey, the first thing on my mind was how I could afford it. To be honest, I would not be here without the sponsors and grants that I have received for my writing. That in itself is a privilege I believe every Black hiker should have access to. It is not a handout, but assistance, taken with the knowledge that the system, regardless of how hard we work, may never allow us to fully reap the benefits of our labors.
I believe that every Black hiker should have access to the same economic opportunities to attain costly ultralight gear. Even if they prefer to purchase used gear, new and ultralight models should still be accessible. Period.
Many Black hikers are working multiple jobs, minimizing spending, selling items in their home they no longer use and reaching out for grants with no avail. Having access to diversity grants and having enough companies and blog sites that offer diversity grants is crucial. These lifelines, no matter how large or small, can really be of substantial help.
And it’s not just the companies who should make these opportunities accessible. The answer also lies within the hiking community as a whole. Allies can help amplify the voices of their BIPOC friends by listening to their stories, sharing job and contract opportunities with BIPOC candidates, and even giving up a speaking or writing engagement to give a platform to those who may have never had one.
Thus, without the help of grants, sponsorships, donations, allies and even used gear, diversity and inclusion on trails may remain challenging for BIPOC as a whole. Thankfully, not all hope is lost. During this harrowing time of civil unrest regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, many companies have taken a huge step forward in healing this community. Black brand ambassadors are named with greater frequency, action aimed at dismantling systemic racism is improving, and our voices are being amplified. Hiking grants and scholarships are being generated by companies and allies alike for those in need. I believe that we can only go up from here.
Ubuntu - I am because we all are.
Shilletha Curtis is a 28-year-old New Jersey native. She’s thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2021 and plans to be the second Black woman and first Black Queer woman to get the Triple Crown. She graduated from Rutgers in 2014 and got a degree in Social Work. She loves her dog, hiking and speaking her truth. Her goal is to bring diversity to the Appalachian trail and the hiking community as a whole. She also loves to do art and skimboard in her free time. Ubuntu!
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