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“If you really want to be part of our community on campus, you should stop spending so much time with the climbers,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed? That isn’t a place for black people.”
Sitting in the sun outside and enjoying a classic “broke college kid” lunch of eggs and tortillas, I tried to brush off his comment, but it hit like a hammer to my heart. I had set up a dozen rappels in the pitch black with icy fingers, climbed micro-crimps 20-plus feet above a crashpad, pushed myself through countless cruxes with nothing but fear and doubt filling my mind—but this, this was the only instance in my three years of obsessive climbing that had made me seriously question my love of the vertical world.
Although I shared several classes with the commenter, I knew him best for his participation in the African-American community on the Stanford campus. I am multi-racial, and I felt like I hadn’t given enough attention to my mixed identity since coming to college, so I wanted to see how I could be more involved. I had asked him, “What can I do?”—never expecting the answer to be “what can I NOT do.” In fact, having someone else tell me what people of my race do and don’t do only made me recoil further away from the only two communities I had ever belonged to.
Back in my quiet hometown of Novato, California, it was easy to be accepted by the Black community. People knew my family and me; they saw my darker-skinned brother, and while they joked about my being a blondie, I never felt like I had to try to fit in. As I gained consciousness of the world around me, I knew that I was different, but at the end of the day, I always had support from the African-American community if I needed it. At college, even one as liberal as Stanford, I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle for acceptance. When I showed up to Black community center events I was just an “ally,” a curly-haired blonde girl who no one seemed to think could be multi-racial. Instead of finding a home at these gatherings, I spent my time there showing off photos of family members, trying to justify my place. Eventually I stopped going to these events, choosing to find a new home at the climbing wall, a place where the fact that I’m mixed was a brief curiosity, then mostly ignored.
Since I was a small child, I have carefully formulated how I present myself to the world. My kindergarten classmates asked me why I had two babysitters when my grandparents came to pick me up; their five-year-old minds couldn’t understand how I could be related to dark-skinned old people. For the past 17 years, I’ve struggled to bridge the gap between who I knew I was—the daughter of a black and Native American father and a white mother—and how others perceived me. Swinging too much one way felt like I was neglecting part of my background, but the middle ground felt too elusive.
The more I became invested in climbing, the more homogeneous my friend group got. Did climbing rocks automatically categorize me as white? Was I not allowed to be a multi-racial climber?
A research group at Clemson University found that only 1.5 percent of USA Climbing members and affiliates identified as African American. The numbers for mixed race climbers were not much better, making up only 4.7 percent. As I’ve learned from the many times I’ve “checked my race in the box below,” surveys like this don’t distinguish between the infinite possibilities of racial mixing—we’re all lumped into one big category. In a country where non-white people make up 36 percent of the population, these numbers indicate a major disparity in the climbing community. Nothing about non-white people intrinsically prevents them from rock climbing, yet they still seem largely absent from the sport.
The climbing community is incredibly supportive—once you’re accepted into it. I found climbing my freshman year of college when my workout partner suggested I try it. That week, I signed up for an introductory class and was hooked after my first time. But as an outsider, it can be hard to understand. People shove their feet into too-tight shoes only to hang by their fingertips, get battered and bruised, and breathe in chalk dust for hours. Then there are the real obstacles of socioeconomic access: the cost of gym memberships, gear, instruction, and travel. On top of all that, climbing isn’t a sport like football, basketball, or baseball that many Americans are exposed to from the day they’re born. Climbing prides itself on the noble pursuit of going into the wilderness, which is an unusual prospect for a community that has a less-than-ideal relationship with such areas. Only 7 percent of National Park visitors are African-American, according to a 2010 study conducted by the National Park Service.
Race is something that people tend to avoid talking about. It’s easy to misstep, and while one might have good intentions, talking about diversity is an emotionally loaded issue that is easy to handle poorly. As an avid consumer of climbing media, I have seen many articles and online conversations assuring readers that climbing is a free and open sport in which everyone can participate, yet the more I researched, the more I realized this wasn’t the case. When I dug deeper to ask industry and climbing professionals, all cited lack of exposure to rock climbing and low numbers of role models in the upper levels of the climbing community as reasons for the lack of racial diversity.
In the words of James Mills, accomplished mountaineer and author of The Adventure Gap, a book examining the lack of minority participation in our wilderness spaces, there are notions of what black people do and don’t do, and if you do things that are “white,” you can lose credibility in the community. Especially for those that are socially vulnerable, this often translates to aversion to the sport before they even get a chance to try it.
When Kai Lightner, the 10-time sport climbing national champion, started climbing, his peers told him that the sport was not for him. Instead, according to them, he should have chosen something more conventional, like basketball. Kai said these comments made him question his passion, and he almost stopped altogether. Luckily for the sport, he didn’t. Now, at 17, he has become one of the top climbers of his generation.
“Talking about differences isn’t about pushing a wedge between people,” Kai’s mother, Connie, told me. “It’s about saying that differences are okay.”
Shortly after he started climbing, New York City climber Mikhail Martin noticed that climbing was popping up everywhere in the media, but he also noticed something else. African Americans had zero presence.
“I wasn’t raised to venture outside, so I found it difficult to relate to the climber stereotypes I saw every day,” Martin said. “There are barriers the world puts up, and then there are barriers that we put up.” Instead of letting social barriers keep him out of the climbing world, Martin founded Brothers of Climbing in 2012. Based out of Brooklyn Boulders, the group connects minority climbers of all ability levels through gym sessions and outdoor trips. Instead of making climbing seem inaccessible and exclusive, Brothers of Climbing works to bridge the gap by raising the profile of minority climbers.
Climbing is gaining momentum at a breakneck pace. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the leading outdoor trade association in the U.S., some styles of climbing have grown in participation by 16 percent in the last three years, but the sport’s diversity has not kept up. When Mills began working for The North Face in 1992 as a sales representative, he scanned the room at trade shows and conferences, realizing that he was one of the few African Americans in the room, if not the only one. Twenty years later, not much has changed.
“The diversity gap is not going to magically disappear,” Mills said.
Picture a climber in your head. What does that person look like? Sound like? Act like? The institutions that caused this gap in the first place are deeply entrenched and won’t just go away. Instead, we need to recognize the fact that the climbing community does have issues and that we, as individuals and as a group, can move past them. Focused conversation and positive action will ensure that all people have the chance to get outside. Because at the end of the day, when you’re laughing at the base of a boulder, we’re all just trying to climb.