Standing on top of a wind lip, I could feel my stomach twisting into knots. Looking back, I could see the tails of my skis poised to dip into the snowy void below. All I had to do was lean back and let my harness take the place of gravity for a while. Giving in to the sensation, I slowly rappelled down the slope. Leading up to that moment, I knew what I had to do, but it still made me uncomfortable. It's a feeling we know all too well from being in the mountains. Winter Backcountry recreation is a classic example. The whole notion of evaluating backcountry terrain and its hazards is terrifying when you step back and break it down. But we don't let that stop us. We've created systems and resources to try to understand these risks rather than be debilitated. Why? Because the rewards are incredible, and anyone who's experienced a chest-deep powder day on Teton Pass will tell you that learning to navigate these challenges is worth the joy you find beyond the discomfort.
This kind of thinking isn't just exclusive to snowsports. The outdoors is all about being uncomfortable, and it's something we take pride in. Think back to the campfire and the stories you've bragged about, like that one time you jerry-rigged your falling apart hiking boots with duct-tape and floss so you could finish the last stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. Or how about when you broke your chain while riding Moab's infamous Whole Enchilada and you did your best Aaron Gwin impersonation to get out before sunset. We live for these moments and thrive from the challenges thrown our way.
So what the hell does rappelling into a couloir have to do with racism? It’s about our mindset. Why is it that our ability to handle discomfort only goes so far, especially when it comes to sticking up for others in the outdoors? Why is it that this community, which prides itself on being a collective of problem solvers, innovators, and fearless leaders, has notoriously sidestepped around the issue of racism? Cue the angry responses in our Facebook comments. My guess is that there will be someone telling us to "stay in our lane" or "focus on skiing." Then there's the person who will argue that these issues have nothing to do with the outdoors. "Mother nature doesn't care who you are, after all. Anyone can access these spaces," they'll write.
But pretending that the outdoors has been somehow absent from the effects of systematic racism is not only naive but egregiously untrue. "I think part of the problem with action sports is that it's done a really good job of making itself feel immune from what's going on in the rest of the world," Selema Masekela explains to me over a cup of coffee. "But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Just because we're going out and having the most fun on the mountain doesn't mean we're not carrying the shit from the world with us." And news flash, taking the time to talk about these issues—as hard as it is—won’t ruin your time in the mountains. It will likely make things better for everyone.
Masekela and I caught up while he was here in Jackson, Wyoming for the Natural Selection Tour's debut stop. Unsurprisingly, he was part of the event's broadcasting team, using his skill as a storyteller and broadcast journalist to captivate the audience just like he's always done for the last two decades. His resume is an impressive one, having announced acclaimed events like the X-Games, the World Surf League, and Red Bull Rampage. However, none of this changes the fact that he's still a Black man living in America. "My comment section on Instagram reflects this. People will say things like “I've been a fan of you my whole life, and I can't believe [Black Lives Matter] is what you want to talk about," he says, referencing the moments he's called attention to issues like the killing of George Floyd or police brutality. "If you didn't realize that I'm also a Black man in this body that you've solely identified as your 'bro' and that I might have different experiences from you as a result, then I don't know what to tell you," he emphasizes.
Growing up as the only Black guy in homogenous sports like surfing, snowboarding, and skateboarding, Masekela grew accustomed to hearing statements like "it's cool that you're not a regular Black guy. You're more like us." It wasn't a joke. "They're literally saying you do what we do. This is ours and you're participating in our thing. No, that's not how that works", he explains. This mindset has always saddled Masekela with the pressure to prove why he deserves to be part of this community. When he was learning how to snowboard, the thing that worried him the most wasn't catching his toe side edge or an icy run. It was how people were going to treat him in the liftline.
Comments like the ones Masekela heard growing up are classic examples of microaggressions, which are subtle, intentional, or unintentional interactions that are really covert instances of racism. Masekela has experienced his fair share of those, of course coupled with overt cases of discrimination. When he was a teen, he had the cops called on him while he and his friends were reading Transworld Magazines in a 7/11. The man behind the counter felt they were in the store for too long and reported them to the police. Suddenly they found themselves surrounded by police officers with guns pointed at them. It was the first time he begged for his life. Later, as an adult, he had a similar experience when he was working as a cleaner for car dealerships in Carlsbad, California. While he was cleaning one of the offices, someone reported to the police that they saw a black man in one of the dealerships after dark. Shortly after, the cops burst into the building and found Masekela with his cleaning supplies and vacuum and pinned him to the ground. They spent the rest of the evening investigating how Masekela used his cleaning supplies as a "cover-up" for breaking into the building.
Navigating these underlying biases—whether overt or covert— is part of marginalized communities' outdoor experience. "I would like sports like snowboarding to be the thing that anyone can come to and leave everything else behind. That's why people do these things, to put away all of it. But for marginalized groups of people, we're constantly building contingency plans for all kinds of scenarios," he says. Mountain biker Brooklyn Bell also echoed Masekela's sentiments by sharing her personal experiences on the trail. "You know, going to different trails, I always have this question of "will I be safe?" Sometimes I feel the need to have a "chaperone" with me—like a bunch of white dudes or white ladies—because I've had things go wrong when I was by myself," she reflects. "I've just learned how to protect my energy better and spend time with people who get where I'm coming from." Like Masekela, Bell has also experienced racial profiling firsthand in her community of Bellingham. In an instagram post, she recounts an instance where she was wrongly accused of stealing at a local gas station. Reflecting on the incident, she writes, "I can't outrun racism. A fancy bike, a college education, walking, talking a certain way, having nice clothes, or owning a beautiful home won't change the way our society breathes."
While we choose to claim that the outdoors are these idyllic refuges of escape, many Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) folks ask us to consider this: for whom? In a self-published essay for Hatch Magazine, Black fly fisher and U.S. Navy Veteran Chad Brown recounts having his tires slashed and his truck's brake line ripped out while was out fishing in the remote Oregon Wilderness. He's received death threats for "taking" fly fishing away from white people and told, "this is our sport not yours!" In the essay, Brown writes, "we all love the outdoors and, as Americans, nature is free for us to enjoy. But nature is not free for me the same way it is for white people. I wish I could feel completely at ease when I'm outdoors. I wish I could simply enjoy nature and find healing instead of worrying about my safety—especially when I'm outdoors alone. I still feel I have to earn my right to enjoy the outdoors and struggle to find access that doesn't leave me feeling uncomfortable in wild spaces."
So what can we do to make these spaces safer and more accessible—as so many insist that they are? It starts with acknowledging the problem and looking at the dark history associated with outdoor spaces. The whole idea of connecting with the wilderness and using it as this space for relaxation and recreation is connected to the history of racism in this country. Take the National Parks as an example. America's greatest idea, right? But it's worth checking out the track record of the individuals at the helm of creating said celebrated spaces of wilderness.. Teddy Roosevelt held Indigenous communities in low regard—calling them "reckless, revengeful, fiendishly cruel" outright in his speeches. John Muir's writing, often famous for its lyricism and prose, lacked any flowery language when it came to describing the indigenous tribes of Yosemite. He found them "most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous." There's also the romanticized Madison Grant, who's celebrated with preserving beloved American outdoor symbols like the American Bison and the California Redwood. However, Grant was also an outspoken eugenicist. Grant believed in the idea of "inferior races" often arguing that "Negros” and "Native Americans" threatened the well-being of the white race. We're also all taught in school about how National Parks were essentially created to be outdoor havens for reconnecting with nature, yet we gloss over that these same spaces were segregated until 1945.
These anti-black discriminatory practices have had lasting effects. In 2011, the National Park Service conducted a survey polling the racial and ethnic diversity of National Park System visitors. They found that Black participants were three times more likely to feel unsafe and unwelcome to visit National Parks. It's not just a sentiment held towards the National Park Service; these historical barriers are present here in action sports as well. For example, we love to romanticize '40s and '50s surf culture in Southern California. Still, we don't realize that segregation and racial discrimination barred Black Americans from congregating in predominantly White spaces: pools and public beaches. Unfortunately, these forms of institutional racism, in addition to housing segregation and limited social mobility, have contributed to the inaccessibility of outdoor places for BIPOC individuals. Worse yet, they've also perpetuated harmful perceptions like "Black people don't like to surf" when in actuality, that’s a biased blanket statement and the reality is far more nuanced and complex. To put it into perspective, Opal Tometi, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, used the Nobel Peace Prize as an example. Out of 916 recipients, 16 of them have been Black. Rather than say that the Nobel Peace prize process is racist, she argues that it’s more important to analyze the barriers that have always prevented BIPOC individuals from even making a difference in the world. Taking this big picture approach matters because it shows how systematic racism has kept many individuals from even being considered for such an esteemed prize. In many ways, we should be asking the same questions in the context of the outdoor industry. Mountain guide Zahan Billimora elaborated on this more by saying, “How many Black snowboarders are there, how many Brown X-Games champions are there? If you go down the line, there are very few. Is that because sports like skiing and snowboarding are inherently racist? Probably not. But we play a White game in a White world that is only accessible to people who have enough financial security that they have the privilege to screw off and access the outdoors.”
Despite these hurdles, BIPOC individuals have found ways to move past these limiting stereotypes and barriers, and continue to carve their own paths in this industry. For example, when Bell sat down to watch Red Bull Rampage, an event her sister teased "was just for White dudes," they turned on the T.V. only to see Masekela at the helm of the announcing booth. "It was refreshing and cool to see that," Bell explains. "There's so much more to it 'than Black people don't want to do these things.' Right there my sister and I were proven wrong watching Red Bull Rampage even because Selema Masekela was there announcing. There's so much more to unpack than 'Black people are poor' or 'it's culturally not there' because there are these examples of BIPOC folks who have found a way to be in these spaces," she emphasizes. Masekela also finds hope in other BIPOC athletes carving their own paths in these sports. "The first person that I saw that remotely looked like me was Cab Spates surfing Virginia Beach," Masekela reflects. He stumbled across this tiny photo in a magazine, and after closer inspection realized that the surfer was black. "I was so blown away that a black surfer existed at a higher level. Just the fact that I saw him changed my whole idea of what's possible." Masekela would later meet Spates in Hawaii, and he remembers it being an emotional moment. "I told him, 'you were just as important as Tom Curren or Kelly Slater to me because you look like me." Later when he came across snowboarder Russell Winfield, he cut out his photo and stuck it on his wall. "Seeing him made it feel like there were a hundred of us out there on the mountain," he said and for once he didn’t feel alone.
When Brooklyn Bell had no role models to look to in action sports, she created her own. Meet Bell's hero, Ruby J. Brooklyn Bell photo.
Representation is undoubtedly an important part to making the outdoors a more accessible and equitable place, but it's only one part of this much bigger process. Larger impactful change has to come from all of us. It shouldn't solely rest on the shoulders of Masekela, Bell, Billimoria, and other BIPOC individuals. We as White individuals have a role in acknowledging our Whiteness and how that affects our experience in this space. When Bell first started speaking up about racial inequality she remembers people applauding her work but never jumping in to help. "For a while it felt like people were saying 'Good job Brooklyn—you're the change you want to see in the world," she says. But it often left her thinking "So, I'm the only change in the world? I’m solely responsible for confronting things like racism?" Following the racial unrest this summer, both Bell and Masekela feel like the outdoor industry is taking more accountability for these issues. Some brands and athletes are speaking up, but confronting racism requires work from everyone, and we'll see the biggest change when we all do our part. “Once we can all agree that America has not been a fair place for people of all backgrounds and skin colors, then we can have a big conversation about how we fix this problem. But we can’t fix a problem if some people think it doesn’t exist,” Billimora emphasizes. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation had George Floyd not been murdered in broad daylight by a White cop. As a result, we see companies—that frankly have nothing to do with social issues—speak up and talk about racism,” he says. It's a small step, but it gives him hope. What matters more, though, is what we do next.
One of the reasons Masekela was excited to do the Journey>Reward series was because both he and Jeremy Jones could use their platforms to highlight these bigger issues. "To have someone like Jeremy talking about this—who's an icon and has a fanbase that would like nothing more than for him to go do rad lines and not delve into issues like [Racism]—is huge," Masekela explains. He can reach people that Masekela can't, which goes to show how we all have strengths when confronting this problem.
If all this feels foreign to you, then don't let that be an excuse to sit by and do nothing. In fact, we've got the skill set to take on complex problems like this. "Being uncomfortable is the hallmark of this lifestyle every day," Masekela emphasizes. Our industry knows how to do this. "Don't think about it as some shit you've never done before. Look at it as 'what skills do I have and how can I apply them here' and you'll be surprised how you'll be constantly learning." When in doubt, get yourself a guide—I mean we do it when we're learning avalanche skills or exploring a new mountain. Someone trained in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leadership can break down those barriers and equip you with the knowledge to confront racism. "It helps bring the burden off marginalized communities, and the folks who teach DEI workshops like my friend Kimberly Harris do a good job of making people feel okay with making mistakes or not knowing how to handle these issues," Bell explains.
Looking for a good place to start? Brooklyn Bell hosted a chat with DEI trainer Kimberly Harris on what it means to be an ally. We highly recommend giving it a watch.
Thinking back to when I learned how to ski rappel, I remember how strange and uncomfortable the experience was for the first time. However, the ski guide teaching our group saw that as a good thing. "We progress the most when we're in the space between comfort and fear" he explained to our group before we practiced our newfound skills. The outdoor industry is in that space right now. This moment of addressing racism and inequality is discomforting, hard, and not what we're used to. But that's not a bad thing. It means we can grow and move forward and make this a better space for everyone. Masekela sums it up with some closing words: "Our industry has an opportunity to really be leaders when it comes to what inclusivity looks like. We have the landscape that is literally for everyone. We don't have to change anything. We just have to open and give access."
Listen to Selema and Jeremy's full conversation about racism in the outdoors and other pressing issues in Journey>Reward, presented by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
Radios can be an essential tool in the backcountry. BCA photo. Radios can be an invaluable piece of equipment in the backcountry. Given the choice between standing at the top of a steep bowl or couloir and yelling at the top of your lungs to your ski partner “IS IT SAFE?” or spending a little extra cash on a radio, I think most people would opt for the latter. With an abundant rise of backcountry usership over the last ten years (it’s the fastest growing winter sport) and especially in
“I’ve been in the snowboard industry since ‘93, when I started at Transworld. To be able to have been through all the different layers, working at a magazine, brands, being a team manager, working at X-games starting in ‘99, then working at Red Bull to witness the present and the next is insane!" - Selema Masekela | Red Bull Content Pool/Balazs Gardi photo. Forging a career in an industry as volatile as action sports is a challenge, but if there’s one person who can prove that hard work,
Conditions check at one of the snowiest resorts in the East! | Jay Peak photo. Teton Gravity Research is stoked to announce a brand-new partnership with Indy Pass, the fastest-growing multi-mountain pass in North America, as we embark on a new film project to explore the spirit of independent ski and snowboard areas around North America. will produce digital and social storytelling at twelve different independent resorts throughout the winter season, with a short film to be digitally