I Would But: I Am the Only Person of Color

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How Ambreen Tariq, founder of @BrownPeopleCamping, is overcoming the “minority barrier” in the outdoors

It was a chilly October morning. The kind where you see your breath for the first time that season. A light rain was falling as I crushed gravel under my hurried feet. I was about to go rock climbing for the first time and I was terrified. As I walked up to my women’s rock climbing class, I looked around and noticed I was the only person of color there. As usual. But, for courage, I played like a movie in my mind all the other moments of self-doubt I had overcome in the outdoors while feeling similarly out of place. I remembered all the other diverse and differently abled climbers I had recently met, and gained inspiration from their boldness. I smiled at the group of women watching me walk toward them. They smiled back. “Hi,” I said. “I am Ambreen Tariq. I am a beginner.”

The outdoors can be intimidating for those of us new to it, whether that’s climbing, hiking, camping or anything else requiring skill and strength. Many of us doubt our abilities: I am not strong enough, I don’t know how, I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want to be judged. But add onto that list of self-doubt another major obstacle: I don’t want to be the only minority out there.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park (Photo Credit: Nader Jameel)

The outdoors has historically been a white, male-dominated space. Although we’ve made progress toward diversity and inclusion over the years, the majority of outdoor participants are white, according to the 2017 Outdoor Participation Report. Outdoor media and marketing don’t always reflect diversity either. So, for many of us people of color, venturing into remote wilderness spaces to try something new or challenging, all while hauling the extra weight of being self-conscious or anxious as a minority in the outdoors, can make for a pretty uncomfortable experience. I would but no one out there looks like me. I would but I don’t feel safe being the only minority.

If you have never experienced feeling out of place because of the color of your skin, gender, sexuality or some other diverse characteristic, you may wonder: Why is that even an obstacle? Just get out there, enjoy the outdoors, and ignore the fact that no one else looks like you.

It’s just not that simple. Trying something new—something that requires learning new skills and information—is hard enough. But feeling out of place in a seemingly homogeneous community can put you at a further disadvantage. I have struggled with these anxieties my whole life. As a woman of color and someone who started exploring the outdoors only a few years ago, I often find myself saying no to new outdoors activities because I lack the courage to challenge my self-doubt and to do so while feeling uncomfortable or fearful of being the only person of color in that space.

And please don’t disregard my discomfort with being a minority in the outdoors as a personal flaw that is unique to someone who is overly racially sensitive. Needing community and empathy is part of the human condition.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park (Photo Credit: Nader Jameel)

On a daily basis, I am surrounded by diversity—whether I am at work, with friends or family. Diversity in music, art, food, entertainment, technology, science and travel, to name a few, make every aspect of my life better. People of different backgrounds enrich my experience with their cultural skills and perspectives. And then I go outdoors. I’ve hiked and camped all over this country, and every time, I am one of the few people of color outside. Simply put, being in such a homogeneous space makes me uncomfortable. It’s not how I grew up, and it’s definitely not how I choose to live my life.

I gain inspiration from others in my diverse community and now am able to imagine myself in places where I had long thought I didn’t belong.

I got tired of that lack of diversity. I got tired of feeling lonely and out of place. So, I started @BrownPeopleCamping on Instagram, a digital storytelling project to promote diversity in the outdoors. Through this project, I’ve finally been able to connect with that diverse community of outdoor lovers that I never found in parks, trails or campgrounds, and that I’d never seen reflected in outdoor media or marketing. I’ve connected with thousands of people of all colors, genders, identities, abilities, body types and backgrounds. I’ve finally found a sense of family and that support has helped me develop confidence. I gain inspiration from others in my diverse community and now am able to imagine myself in places where I had long thought I didn’t belong.

Fortified with this newfound sense of community and confidence, I challenge my fears on a regular basis. I proudly ask myself: Are you ready to test your boundaries today?

My first attempt at rock climbing this past fall wasn’t a perfect experience. I fell twice and hurt myself pretty badly. I groaned every time I sat down for the next week. I had scars and bruises in unladylike places. But you know what? It was worth it. Maybe climbing isn’t for me, but conquering my fears and minority status discomfort sure is.

Rialto Beach

Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park (Photo Credit: Nader Jameel)

There is so much joy in the wild and wonderful outdoors. I want anyone who identifies with my story to get out there. Build community and create emotional safety nets for yourself by making new friends and learning new skills. Find your empowerment—physically and mentally. At the end of the day, only exhaustion or the sunset should stop you. But if you have a fresh set of batteries and a bright headlamp, then there’s just no excuse for avoiding your joy. Happy trails, my friends.

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