For the Love of Climbing: Tokenism in the Outdoor Industry

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What comes to mind when you hear “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI)? In recent years, everybody from retailers to publications has rallied to ask themselves this question. In the May 2018 issue highlighting the “new faces of adventure,” Outside featured Ayesha McGowan, who aspires to become the first female African-American pro cyclist. In July 2018, Teresa Baker launched the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge, challenging brand executives to commit to DEI. And, last October, the second annual Color the Crag Climbing Festival took place in Horse Pens 40, Alabama. Meanwhile, initiatives like Brothers of Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, and Melanin Base Camp have prompted both companies and consumers to reconsider what representation in outdoor spaces actually looks like.

While the industry has started to honor not just racial and ethnic diversity but also women, indigenous rights, LGBTQIA, and differently-abled equality, it’s important that we examine what kinds of waves of change we are creating and why. At this incipient stage, it’s all too easy to misfire.

Take the Camber CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge, for example, relaunched at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in January 2019 and which spurred backlash after claiming to be the “first of its kind”—despite Baker having launched her pledge at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in 2018. Although Deanne Buck, then-CEO of Camber Outdoors, issued an apology, Danielle Williams of Melanin Base Camp and other community members called for Buck’s resignation. “@CamberOutdoors’ actions have shown that they are out of touch with actual outdoor diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) work occurring at the grassroots level across the U.S.,” Williams wrote on Instagram.

Another danger is that of tokenism, the practice of making a symbolic effort—here perhaps best conceptualized as putting a lone person of color on a panel or using a shot of an athlete of color on a magazine or catalog cover, notwithstanding that person’s actual abilities. Tokenism gives the guise of equality without achieving it; instead of repairing inequalities, it turns these efforts into empty and often frustrating gestures. It’s worth questioning companies’ intentions when they ask a person of color to become a brand ambassador. Is this person featured because she’s a cutting-edge athlete or because she conveniently meets an archetypal aesthetic—one that, perhaps cynically, might help boost sales?

Yes, there are people of color who send, shred, cycle, paddle, hike, and more. If #diversifyoutdoors has taught us anything, it’s that we are out there getting after it. But consider the cost of a gym membership and basic indoor equipment (shoes, a chalk bag, a harness, and belay device). And that’s just indoor climbing, not to mention all the gear for climbing outside. Keeping in mind the economic factors, it should be no surprise that the economically disadvantaged, including people of color in poor, urban neighborhoods, struggle to get involved. And so, does placing a moderate climber on a magazine cover fulfill a call to action when it should, instead, be prompting us to recognize the root of the problem: that these barriers to entry are invisible to a privileged majority? Are we simply treating a symptom and ignoring the cause—and if so, what can we do about it?

Perhaps outdoor brands, companies, and initiatives can use their resources and social-media campaigns to focus on actual diversity—and already many have begun. Companies such as Deuter, The North Face, and Patagonia are routinely working to diversify their athlete teams. In 2018, the Climbing Wall Association Summit rallied for their first-ever panel discussion about women in climbing, including a transgender woman as well as women of color. And No Man’s Land Film Festival’s 2018 Flagship Festival in Carbondale, Colorado, hosted women from heterogeneous backgrounds, emphasizing the demand for equity and thus challenging the outdoor industry to redefine what adventure in 2019 will look like.

Here’s a parting statistic to mull over: Roughly 80 percent of people within the United States live in cities. So how, as we become more cognizant of DEI, do we support inner-city kids in getting outdoors? Sponsoring nonprofit organizations within city limits that support these kinds of initiatives, for one. Hiring a diverse, qualified staff, inviting people of color to be on boards of directors for brands and organizations, contracting journalists, filmmakers, photographers of color—these actions separate true diversity from tokenism. While everybody from companies to athletes to everyday consumers is becoming more aware of DEI, today it’s simply not enough to talk about these matters—we instead need to be consistenly action-oriented. 

Podcast producer and freelance writer Kathy Karlo (fortheloveofclimbing.com) lives for rock climbing, sharing doughnuts with strangers, and positive vibes. Climbing is mostly jumping for her, as she has a negative ape index.