Words Aren't Enough This Time

Supportive social media posts are a start. But as the country protests yet another Black man’s murder, the outdoor industry has to take a stronger position against structural racism.
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black squares

This past Tuesday, black squares took over social media as brands and individuals paused their posting to amplify Black voices and organizations speaking out for racial justice. Among the companies observing #BlackoutTuesday were some of the outdoor industry’s biggest names, including Black Diamond, Eddie Bauer, and Salomon.

But though it has invested in equity, diversity, and inclusion over the past several years, the industry is ill-equipped to mount an organized response to the escalating police brutality and racism that haunts the Black members of its community. Today, on what would have been EMT Breonna Taylor’s 27 birthday, it’s time to face facts: Unless the outdoor industry is willing to stand against oppressive power structures in society at large, it will never be able to address its own racial inequities in any meaningful way.

While the global response to George Floyd’s murder is due, in part, to a confluence of factors—a pandemic ushering in record unemployment, back to back videos of anti-Black violence, a president who divides more than he unifies—the conflict we’re seeing now has been simmering below the surface of our society for years, and the outdoors are no exception.

Twice this year, we’ve had to watch Black people in the outdoors suffer violence from others who assumed they didn’t belong. We’ve watched as Amy Cooper weaponized her whiteness in Central Park against Black birder Christian Cooper, calling the police just because he asked her to keep her dog on a leash. Mr. Cooper was vindicated, but the story doesn’t always end that way for Black people recreating outside. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, the country bore witness as two men hunted him down during his daily jog, trapping and killing him as he fought for his life.

The trauma of watching Black people killed on video while doing the kinds of things you like to do wears on you. Daniel “The Blackalachian” White, a thru-hiker and speaker who’s active on Instagram, temporarily gave up on social media to avoid the despair of seeing Black death flooding his feed.

“I had to check out of social media, because every day I look it’s a new body. I’m trying to avoid it and it is still popping up in my timeline,” he says. “I can’t escape it.”

No matter how supportive, no social media post—no black square or statement of solidarity—can fully address something as horrifying as Black bodies lying in the street, or the very valid rage born from hundreds of years of inequality and oppression. They’re just words, and words themselves don’t necessarily lead to action. The country, and the outdoor industry, has an urgent anti-Black racism problem, and the solutions offered in letters from CEOs aren’t going to make it go away.

That sense of urgency is what led Grace Anderson, co-director of PGM ONE, an environmental summit focusing on Black, Indigenous, and people of color, to write a post of her own: “Outdoor Industry: We Don’t Want Your Hashtags, We Want Action!”

“I’m exhausted,” she says. “The past response [from the outdoor industry] has been really weak and passive, and the conversations that we need to have still aren’t being had. I'm ready for the next step.” To Anderson, that means thinking bigger.

"People love to hop on that diversity and inclusion train or whatever the buzzword is now,” she says. “I'm more excited about people's understanding of racism, how that works, and also how that ties into prison abolition and police brutality." If outdoor businesses are serious about taking action, she says, they need to fund organizations fighting white supremacy and divest from those that prop it up. For years, the industry has fought for environmental policy and conservation; now, it’s time to bring that same fervor to fighting against policies that threaten Black lives.

Still, even on social media, there are some small signs of progress. Outdoor companies are no longer afraid to say that “Black Lives Matter.” Some have even pushed their audience further on social media by calling out white supremacy and police brutality by its name—though even those well-meaning posts can be a source of trauma for an already battle-weary Black community, as racist followers push back.

Gearmunk, an app for “authentic gear reviews to help outdoorsy people spend their money,” has taken its responsibility to advocate and educate seriously. When the company posted a Black Lives Matter statement on Instagram on May 30, it was met with the same mix of support, vitriol, and trolling that other brands saw. Gearmunk decided to engage the hate directly, challenging ignorant comments and deleting violent or openly racist ones instead of leaving them unmoderated.

Vice President of Digital Strategy Jenna Celmer said the company felt it was critical to push against those harmful narratives to stop them from becoming another trigger to Black readers.

“There are a lot of passive users on social media,” she said. “This is a teaching moment that someone else could be scrolling by and see.” Their work didn’t go unnoticed: When Daniel White came back to social media, he said, he appreciated how “really vocal and really clear” Gearmunk’s team was.

There’s no escaping the present moment and all of the ones that lead us here. Today, on Breonna Taylor’s birthday, I’m struggling to reconcile how a first responder lying asleep in her own bed died from 8 bullets from officers at the wrong house—all of them still employed by their department. As a Black woman running an outdoor nonprofit, I’m struggling to contain an anger and fear so persistent it leaves me sleepless and sick to my stomach. Yet my conviction remains unchanged: The outdoor industry exists within our society, and America’s problems with racism are the industry’s problems too. Until it’s willing to stand up to them, it can’t hope to change itself.