Multi Sport

Skin Deep | Why The Outdoors Has A Race Problem And How It Can Be Fixed

It's time for the outdoors to rethink its strategy when it comes to ethnic minorities

Featured Illustration: Anshika Khullar

Am I the exception to the rule or am I just looking in the wrong places? Is it conceivable that black people just don’t like the outdoors or is it possible that the UK is simply not interested in seeing people of colour outside of cities? As a black man born and raised in England I’d suggest that the answer, if somewhat complicated, is probably a bit of yes to all of the above.

 England has come a long way in its approach to multiculturalism and race relations since I was a child. We now have black and brown representatives in England’s football, cricket and rugby teams and that’s before we get into the Olympic track and field athletes and F1 drivers who operate at the very top of their game while flying the flag for GB. 

“Why, given the inroads that people who look like me have made throughout British culture, is the outdoors so white?”

Brown doctors, black lawyers, city brokers, actors, judges, ballet dancers, police, journalists, politicians, poets, opera singers and artists; people of colour are represented, to some extent, at all levels of society and professions. However, put that same man or woman on a pair of skis or a mountain bike, on the face of a crag, or on a surfboard paddling out for dawn patrol and it’s a head turner. Why, given the inroads that people who look like me have made throughout British culture, is the outdoors so white?

 As a black male, I like fried chicken and grime. I grew up on an inner-city estate, where I narrowly escaped a life of gang culture, and am a good dancer. Sportwise, I’m naturally gifted at basketball and was generally the first picked for the football team – not least because I was so good at the 100m.

Now, not all of this is true of course. I used to be pretty quick at 100m and, in my head at least, can rock a dancefloor like the best of them. That’s about it though. I’ve never been involved in knife crime, and wear clothes other than black hoodies. Oh, and that limp I walk with? That’s from a snowboard accident I had 20-odd years ago.

Pictured: Phil Young

Of course middle aged white men from the home counties aren’t all bigoted misogynists who voted leave, Essex girls don’t all give it out on a first date, and not everyone who goes skiing sits on a trust fund and has a double-barrelled surname – I can’t be sure on that last one, to be fair, but you get the idea. This, though, is how stereotypes and racism works. Find the easiest target, and paint the whole community with the brush.

“Oh, and that limp I walk with? That’s from a snowboard accident I had 20-odd years ago”

So, let’s get this straight from the get go. Black people aren’t one ethnicity. It’s just a colour formed by the pigmentation in the skin to protect against the sun’s harmful UV. We are as different, within our colour, as someone from Hampshire is to a native of St Petersburg. We have different cultural beliefs, social structures, religious beliefs and ambitions.

Personally, I’ve been a fan of the outdoors for as long as I can remember. From the days I was belly boarding in the white water shore break of South Wales, through to skating full pipes in the Australian outback, on to riding waist deep Japanese powder and swimming in the line-up of Teahupoo (now that’s a good story); the journey has been wild and I’d like to think I’m nowhere near finished yet, but why do I feel so alone in my love of this stuff? What’s stopping us, a group of people united by a higher percentage of melanin in the skin, getting out there and why does it seem that no one is doing anything about it?

Pictured: Sophia Danenberg, first black woman to climb Mount Everest

Unfortunately there is no one answer but the good news is that if an industry that claims to be open minded and accepting of everyone is serious about getting more colour in its ranks then it can do a lot to make it happen.

During my time floating around the media side of the action sports and adventure industry I’ve encountered a number of offered suggestions for why BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people don’t participate in the outdoors. That being said, I’ve not had as many suggestions as I would have liked. The suggestions generally go something like this:

Black and brown people don’t like the cold”

I can’t answer for everyone but towns in Kashmir, India, often go down to -20c and Sutherland in South Africa has an average low temperature of 2c – often dropping below freezing. 

My own ancestry takes in a slave ship from the palm groves of west Africa to lush Caribbean islands, but I was born in London so cold weather isn’t a major issue for me. Sure, I prefer to be comfortably warm than uncomfortably cold but I don’t think I’m alone here and it certainly doesn’t stop me from getting out. It also doesn’t appear to stop practically every outdoor clothing brand from spending R & D cash and marketing budget to convince the market that their product will keep you dry and warm too. 

“Sophia Dannenberg was the first black woman to climb Everest in 2006”

“People of colour don’t really do mountains” 

Just google the highest mountains in the world and see how many of them are in Europe or North America (spoiler alert: none of them). Asia is killing it in the mountain game and even Africa, not primarily known for its mountains, has 31 peaks over 4,000 metres and Ethiopian highlanders live at about 3,530 metres above sea level.

African climber Sibusiso Vilane is one of an elite group of climbers who have conquered the seven summits and Sophia Dannenberg was the first black woman to climb Everest in 2006, although chances are you have never read about it. In 2019, 44 of the 76 woman to get permits to climb Everest were non-white. 

Credit: Tyler Nix

“Black people don’t like the water”

In 1837, James E Alexander wrote a ‘Narrative of a Voyage of Observation among the Colonies of Western Africa’. In it, he writes “boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf [wave] and then came rolling in like a cloud on the top of it.” This is, of course, a report on surfing off Ghana almost 200 years ago. You can bet they were surfing for a long time before James turned up as well.

“Black people don’t really ride bikes”

Try reading up on Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, an American world cycle champion at the turn of the 19th century who had the audacity to be both black and awesome on a bike. When you’ve finished doing that, look up Justin Williams and the Legion of LA and see how he approaches road cycling. 

“Yeah but you’re not like ‘black’ black”

Seriously, what does that even mean?


I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the internet going through comment threads where various editors have expressed an uneasiness at the whiteness of the outdoors. In their copy, they typically tend to pose a question, have a stab at some of the causes, and then open it up to the floor. The comment sections are always an interesting read and tend to fall into three categories. 

  • The Mindful

“I’ve never really thought about that, but yes you’re right.”

  • The Couldn’t Care Less

“This is bullshit, we don’t need to read this stuff. Just get rad dude.”

  • The Deniers

“There is no problem, nothing is stopping anyone from going outside.”

To those of you who fall into groups one and three, I’ll attempt to explain some of the reasons why the outside is so devoid of colour and maybe a couple of ways it can be addressed. Group two will no doubt transition into one of the other groups in due course.

“It’s very difficult to be what you can’t see”

By far the biggest barrier to inclusion in any sport is representation. In other words, it’s very difficult to be what you can’t see. It’s taken someone like Tiger Woods in golf, for example, to shift attitudes and make black membership at golf clubs a thing. For many years, Augusta in Georgia, the venue for the US Masters had a “white golfers, and black caddies” only policy.

In tennis, black tennis stars like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Cori Gauff and Naomi Osaka have all cited the Williams sisters’ dominance and visibility as a key driver in their own sporting careers. In both of these examples mentioned above, there has been a dominant parent who pushed their children to the extent that their brilliance has allowed them to break through the social barriers put in front of them. They then excelled to such an extent that their respective industries were no longer able to ignore them. 

Pictured: Marshall “Major” Taylor

Although my knees and ankles may claim otherwise, I consider myself lucky enough to be of an age where I can remember the late 70s skateboard craze. Everyone had a board and at the weekend my grandfather would take me to Skate City in London to gingerly ride the blue bowl, or to South Bank where I’d roll down the smallest slope and avoid getting run over by one of the big boys. It’s hard to explain how big skating was in those days but if you were between the age of six and 22 you probably had one. It was a great time. Skateparks sprung up all over the country and it bought communities together in a way that really had only happened before through music or art. 

“It was mind blowing, a brown Mexican kid redefining what I thought the kids hobby of skateboarding was”

Skateboarding turned out to be a fad. It was hard, people hurt themselves, and attention was soon switched to frisbees and yo-yos. My cheap mass produced plastic board, like everyone else’s, ended up at the back of a cupboard or at the local tip. 

Fast forward a decade, I was visiting a friend who worked in a North London BMX / skate store. While looking up to a wall covered in colourful boards, I saw a video of legendary skater Tommy Guerrero riding the streets of San Francisco. It was mind blowing, a brown Mexican kid redefining what I thought the kids hobby of skateboarding was. I bought a board there and then, and threw myself headfirst into the game. I have often wondered if something else had been playing on the VHS whether I’d still have bought that board.

Pictured: Tommy Guerrero

Once in the grasp of this maverick culture, my friends and I would continue to look towards America to get our fix of skateboarding and shortly after snowboarding as well. America was where the magic happened, and where the wizards were predominantly white males. At the time, I never really questioned the ethnicity of the riders. Why would I? I was learning ollies and grinds with my crew, and raging on European pistes with bleached hair and a “fuck you” attitude. I was living in the here and now, with no desire to understand why there were only a handful of other people out there who looked like me. However, I now have a theory and it’s one based on America, and the west’s, long history of oppression. 

Slavery lasted from 1619 to 1865, with the Jim Crow laws running in the southern states of the USA from 1877 to 1965. Black people, as you’ll know, were taken by force from West Africa in slave ships to work on sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations owned by rich Europeans. Once there they were beaten and traded until, one day, someone in power decided that this wasn’t all that cool and put an end to it. The southern states were pissed that they couldn’t legally keep slaves (they’d fought a Civil War over it), and so new laws – the Jim Crow laws – were put in place to state that although you couldn’t own slaves it was still pretty OK to be racist. 

“Relationships with the outdoors were stifled into almost non-existence”

Jim Crow laws encouraged segregation in restaurants and schools, black people were banned from living in certain parts of the city, they weren’t allowed to vote and were subject to regular lynchings. In the context of this conversation, they were also banned from a lot of National Parks. Relationships with the outdoors were stifled into almost non-existence, with the idea of leisure time away from the protection of your community a life threatening risk. With generations of families subjected to inhuman cruelty in the fields, did they really want to go back there?

In this environment, it is no surprise that people of colour weren’t rushing to the local surf break in the 50s and 60s, the trails or rock faces in the 70s, or even the slopes in the 80s. To that end, is there any surprise that the magazines or films of the time didn’t feature people of colour?

Pictured: An old National Parks sign in ‘Jim Crow’ America. Credit: NPS Archive

If you were like me you got info on your sport by flicking through a mag, seeing a video, or hearing your friend rave about something. There was no such thing as Instagram, Facebook was just a meaningless word, and even the internet was the stuff of sci-fi novels. For a person of colour, the chances of seeing any media featuring non-white protagonists was incredibly slim and as such these sports simply didn’t register as viable options. 

These days, skateboarding can claim to be pretty progressive. It wasn’t always like this however, taking the rise of street skating and the game changing talent of Guerrero, Ray Barbee, Mark Gonzales, Ron Allen, Sal Barbier and Stevie Williams amongst others to shift perceptions. Their undeniable skill made the industry media take notice, and the gates were opened for other non ‘white dude’ skaters. The fact skateboarding has a relatively low cost of entry, with terrain that can be generally found outside your house, undoubtedly helped it. 

“Many accept that the UK has an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia, fuelled by a right wing media, running through it”

What about pastimes that aren’t so easy to access though? Street skating has the advantage of using an urban environment as its medium with ledges, curbs, handrails and stairs serving as the canvases where we can let our minds run free. In the UK, it’s worth remembering that the best part of 98% of BAME live in multicultural cities; cities that offer safety in numbers. 

If I want to go hiking or a go for a gentle ride down some country lanes, it would seem that in this ‘age of woke’ there is nothing obvious to stop us. However the UK comes with its issues that are scored heavily down lines of ethnicity, grounded in colonialism, and played out constantly through casual, cultural, and systemic racism. 

Pictured: Brexit countdown in Parliament Square

13% of the UK, around eight million people, are BAME and more than three million live in London alone (that’s about 41% of London).  If you take a look at regular advertising or marketing this number is clearly not represented. Although London is one of, if not the, most integrated and multicultural cities in the world it is also a good example of how racialized spaces in the UK, and across Europe, have become. Just look at the next hoarding going up around a new office construction, and you’ll see what I mean – the minority percentage  shown definitely isn’t 41%. Stuff like this means we start to form mental images of a location’s characteristics, and this comes with its own sense of racial hierarchy. 

Many accept that the UK has an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia, fuelled by a right wing media, running through it. It’s rooted in a vision of empire superiority and manifested itself, most notoriously, with Brexit. 

Most POC are likely to encounter racism of some sort on a fairly regular basis, it’s part and parcel of living here and something incredibly difficult to comprehend if you haven’t experienced it. It doesn’t matter if you are a Premiership footballer, a corner shop, or even if your husband is sixth in line to the throne, it’s the bitter pill that comes with the territory regardless of where you were born, the level of your education, how you assimilated and how you try to behave. If you look different, you sadly get treated differently. 

“Most of us were born here, and know nothing else. We are born in the city where our parents, or grandparents, decided to move to”

Bringing this back to the idea of hiking and getting outdoors, look at it like this. If the countryside is seen as the epitome of Englishness, the thought of venturing into the countryside – which is almost 100% white in both its marketing and residents – is close to inconceivable for many. If it’s racist in the city, what must it be like in rural places? We are at a stage where POC have essentially been urbanised.

Many of us have come to the UK to be closer to loved ones, because we were fleeing persecution, or, in the case of the Windrush generation, because we were invited. Most of us were born here, and know nothing else. We are born in the city where our parents, or grandparents, decided to move to. When they arrived their thoughts were not about walks in the Lake District, or trips to the Cornish coast, they instead revolved around paying for rent, food, and finding somewhere to educate their children. 

Our lack of presence in the outdoors is not, as is often perceived, a rejection of the countryside and nature. It stems from the unknown and concerns about how people see us, and respond to our presence in that space. We suffer from intimidation in cities, where more people look like us, and this becomes amplified when we are in isolation in a ‘foreign’ environment with people who look at us as outsiders. 

Pictured: The Lake District. Credit: Jake Colling

We have lost our connection with the outdoors to such an extent that we have been made to think it was never ours to like in the first instance, something that is affirmed by the outdoor media. Brands and organisations simply don’t sell ‘rural’ to minorities. We are, instead, only sold ‘urban’ and this is, in my opinion, where the main issue lies. 

If every image I see of someone hiking a mountain, running trails, or pinning a corner features a white person as the protagonist, how am I ever going to believe that it’s a space I can inhabit? If every time an outdoor brand wants to use a model that’s black or brown it’s set against a graffiti backdrop, what kind of message does that send out? To me, it says that I can wear the product in the city in the context of fashion but that the outdoors is off limits. 

“We have lost our connection with the outdoors to such an extent that we have been made to think it was never ours to like”

Even now, with decades of adventures under my belt, I struggle to see what attempts industry media have made to make anyone who doesn’t fit into a certain narrative feel welcome. Is it any surprise that so many young black kids are choosing football over the outdoors? Are the ads lingering threads of a colonialist attitude or is it, as I suspect, simply that people don’t get it? 

Whichever way you look at it, the end result is that the outdoor industry is depriving hundreds of thousands if not millions out of the joy that our sports can provide. They’re also, of course, losing out on our money as well. It seems short sighted. Why sell a jacket for a fashion moment when you can sell a whole lifestyle, and have a customer for life instead?

Screenshot: ‘Brotherhood of Skiing’ (a short film by Wild Confluence Media)

With the promise of anonymity for those I spoke to, I reached out to a number of governing bodies in the UK and asked what they are doing to encourage diversity in their respective sports – the response was unexpected; everything from “We don’t have the resources,” and “Yeah, well we’re just a bit shit at that really,” to “Honestly, we just pay lip service to it as we won’t get government funding otherwise” and “We’d love to do something in the future but we’re focusing on para inclusion at the moment.”

In fairness, everyone I spoke to was very honest and the impression I got was that it would be nice but they’ve got enough on their plate already.

The brands I spoke to were a little better, but still off the mark. I asked one well known outdoor and footwear brand if people of colour were allowed to wear their product as I struggled to find anything on their website to suggest we were. It didn’t go down well, and we agreed to disagree.

“The industry has got very good at talking to itself”

Another brand, global and one of the best in diverse representation, admitted that one of the problems they face is trying to get images of POC past the all-white decision makers. They have recently run a campaign led by a black woman, despite the argument put forward by white male marketers that the model wasn’t “an elite athlete.” To their credit, my contact responded with “how do you know.” The ad ran and was ultimately a success.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the industry is knowingly racist and I personally have seldom come across overt racism. I do, however, think that the industry has got very good at talking to itself; laying down unwritten rules as it goes. 

Do we really need to wait until we get a Tiger or a Serena in skiing, or road cycling, until the outdoor industry sits up, takes notice, and changes the way it sells itself? Or will a Nike or adidas step in with their billions and make the decision for them as they have in other sports? Perhaps social media and online will take it out of the traditional brands’ hands altogether, creating new values and a fresh aesthetic for the outdoors.

Look at what Run Dem Crew did with running and the connections that Melanin Base Camp are making in the USA. The majority of the brands that are currently considered the go-tos in outdoor started out with a few passionate people creating a movement around a common purpose. Do those same brands want to be relevant to new groups, or will those groups just go off and do it themselves?

It’s time to reframe what the outdoors looks like. There is room and, more importantly, an appetite for people of different colours, ethnicities, genders and abilities to be represented. 

“Help us get some skin in the outdoors and reconnect with nature and the environment”

If you don’t really care about race, if it doesn’t impact on your life, or even if you disagree with what I’m saying, just think about how the outdoor community are currently falling over themselves to claim that we have to do everything in our power to save the planet; that there’s too much plastic in the ocean and our glaciers are melting.

Why should the millions of inner city ethnic communities across Europe give a damn if your hedgehogs are dying or that there’s tampon applicators in your surf break? Especially if they’re not made to feel welcome outside of the metropolis. 

Help us get some skin in the outdoors and reconnect with nature and the environment. This is not only important to the individual and society as a whole, it might also give the planet a fighting chance of survival. 

You May Also Like

Doing It For The ‘Gram | How The Rise Of Instagram Has Changed Travel

The Last Resort | The Swedish Ski Town That Opened Its Arms to Refugees

Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.