People of color or with disabilities are often left out of outdoors articles
Though it won’t officially turn 100 years old until Aug. 25, the U.S. National Park Service has been celebrating its centenary status all year. So have media outlets. Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic, and Outside have published issues with significant space devoted to America’s collective back yard. A number of other travel magazines, from Amtrak’s glossy, Arrive (which, we learned as this article went to press, is folding), to titles published by regional AAA branches, will publish special national parks coverage by year’s end.
Online, attention has been even more lavish, with outlets such as AFAR, BBC Travel, and Travel + Leisure producing ambitious story packages characterized by compelling angles (“A Music Lover’s Guide to the National Parks”; a profile of the system’s oldest living ranger, who happens to be Black) and absolutely gorgeous, “Let’s pack up and take a road trip right now!” photos.
The only problem is, most of the coverage looks like it’s by, for, and about middle-aged white men who have hardcore adventure running through their veins. There are some token exceptions — Terry Tempest Williams, Sue Halpern, and Francine Prose (whose previously published articles for Condé Nast Traveler were all reprised in the magazine’s 2016 national parks feature), and Cheryl Strayed (who wrote about hiking in Saguaro National Park for Travel + Leisure) — but they’re mostly white women.
If you’re a person of color — any color — someone who has a disability, or someone who loves the parks but isn’t a backcountry camper or skilled outdoor athlete, or more so, if you’re any combination of these, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been totally overlooked by the centennial coverage.
“As someone who uses a motorized chair for multiple disabilities, I really appreciate the accessibility and inclusiveness that our national parks offer,” says Courtney J. Hoover, a travel agent from Conyers, Ga., who specializes in accessibility. But, she says, “I do wish that the coverage of the centennial celebration better reflected that inclusiveness.”
The lack of representative coverage can’t be blamed on park usage statistics, because it’s not the case that people of color or people with disabilities don’t visit the parks. The NPS doesn’t collect visitor demographics, but it estimates that 28 million people with disabilities visit national parks annually.
While a number of major media outlets (NPR, The New York Times, and the now-defunct Al-Jazeera America among them) — and even the NPS itself — have noted that the National Park Service has, as NPR put it, “a diversity problem,” people of color do visit national parks. The results of a 2009 National Park Service-commissioned survey indicated that, among American visitors to the parks, nine percent were Hispanic, seven percent were African-American, three percent were Asian-American, and one percent Native American.
An even more interesting data point compared results from an earlier survey in 2000 on park visitation among people of color. It showed a significant increase in people of color visiting, and was so impressive that the authors of the report were at pains to understand and explain it.
If people of color and people with disabilities are visiting the parks, why is it so hard for editors to reflect the full range of park visitors and the ways in which they use parks in their centennial coverage? I asked several of them, reaching out to editors at Condé Nast Traveler and Outside, via Twitter and email. None responded.
“I was raised by parents who were determined to take my brother and me to all the national parks in the United States and Canada,” she says. And she has followed in their footsteps, introducing her own kids to national parks and the outdoors by taking them snowboarding, skiing, rock climbing, and more. Her youngest daughter snowboarded at the age of one and was rock climbing a year later. When her son was two and her oldest daughter was five, she strapped on their crampon footwear traction devices and took them hiking on a glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. They also went snowboarding, salmon fishing, and running with dogs that participate in the The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“I care passionately about getting people of color outdoors,” she says, adding that her time in national parks didn’t only form her path as a nature and travel writer, but have been a profound comfort during personal crises. “My mother and brother died of the same disease,” she explains, “and healing in the natural world became critical in dealing with my grief.”
Despite Oh’s extensive experience in national parks and the fact that she’s an award-winning writer (and a White House Champion of Change), she hasn’t found it easy to place NPS stories pegged to the centennial. She’s pitched top-tier travel and outdoor publications, but says the queries have “either received a pass or an ‘I’ll keep it in mind’ note” from editors.
“This is progress, at least, from no response,” she says. “People of color have always had to fight harder to get representation in media, so it’s not surprising that the same problem occurs in the travel and outdoor industry.” The one piece she has been able to place was with the only publication we’ve found that’s made a visible effort to be more inclusive in its coverage: Backpacker Magazine. The publication has been featuring national parks coverage all year and it has a centennial commemorative issue slated for August.
The centennial coverage is, of course, reflective of mainstream media’s half-hearted efforts to be more representative, both in the types of subjects they cover and stories they publish, as well as the bylines of the journalists filing those stories and the sources they include in their articles.
Duchess Harris, professor and chair of American Studies at Macalester College, says mainstream media have ignored obvious story angles and experts who could serve as sources, such as members of the national organization Outdoor Afro.
“They have more than 60 leaders in 28 states,” she says, who are standing by to be called upon as sources. Harris, whose scholarship includes research about the exclusion and erasure of people of color from public spaces, such as swimming pools, views the coverage of the centennial as yet one more example of mostly white editors acting less out of conscious racism than subconscious blind spots, simply not thinking of people of color at all.
I agree with Harris. As a white, bilingual (English-Spanish) writer and journalist who is connected to various Latinx and Latin American communities, I frequently receive emails from editors who claim that they want to diversify their roster of writers and want to know if I can help them. My answer is always the same. I could easily send them names and emails (and I do make recommendations regularly), but a list of Latinx writers is only a partial solution to a much bigger problem.
If you’re an editor who doesn’t have diversity in all its forms in your own life — not just in your newsroom, but, crucially, outside it — a list is not going to resolve the fact that your worldview has a fundamental structural constriction that will inevitably affect how you conceptualize coverage, assign stories, and edit filed pieces.
For me, the centennial coverage’s lack of diverse stories, voices, and images also hits home in a personal way. My husband, an Afro-Cuban who came to the United States as a refugee, is a photographer who adores the national parks. He has stood in awe at the rim of the Grand Canyon’s gape with our kids, and has hauled his camera gear along trails in 100 degrees-plus weather to photograph red rock formations in Arches National Park. He’s taken miles-long diversions to visit lesser-known parks, such as Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
Though he’s faithfully devoted to city living, he asks regularly when we’re going to plan a trip to Yosemite. If our children — ages almost seven, almost three, and almost two — don’t see people of color reflected in what they see us reading, how will they know that their father is welcome there, that there is a place for their own biracial and bicultural selves in places that are portrayed as all white?
The NPS may have a diversity problem, as NPR contended, but it’s a problem the park service has been working on diligently, mainly through specific committees whose members are tasked with issues of accessibility and inclusivity.
They’ve taken specific, concrete steps to ensure the parks are welcoming to everyone, including lifetime access passes for people with physical disabilities, programming that’s designed to reflect the patterns of park use that survey respondents have shared, and improving the collection and dissemination of stories about the history of people of color within the NPS.
They conduct periodic studies about the perception and use of parks to find out how they can improve. Why can’t mainstream media do the same?
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national parks, it’s worth urging each other to try harder. There could be no greater commemoration of the NPS centennial than making sure everyone who enjoys the parks — and everyone who might if they saw stories and images of people who look like them portrayed in mainstream media — are represented in the coverage.