Lifestyle Rafting

WHITEWASHING OUTDOOR ADVENTURE ~ The Subconscious Role Race Plays In Our Community

Article by Kelsey Gaffigan, photos from Kosir’s Rapid Rafts.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2016 report, “Caucasians had the highest participation rates and African Americans had the lowest” in outdoor recreation (Outdoor Industry Association 2016). Additionally, in a 1986 study the National Park Service reported that 58% of whites had visited a park whereas only 17% of Blacks had. Yosemite National Park reported that Blacks accounted for a mere 3% of visitors while whites accounted for 80% (Martin 2004).


These statistics point to an overarching trend of lower participation in outdoor adventure by Blacks than Whites. An analysis of media portrayal of outdoor adventure, and how it is situated in deeply rooted historical and social contexts, unveils how wild spaces and adventure sports are naturalized as white spaces/ activities. This portrayal corresponds to the skewed participation rates in outdoor adventure by Blacks and Whites and is maintained by the policy of colorblindness. Portrayals of the outdoors, whether consciously or unconsciously, draw upon a collective revised history (which omits historical stories of black participation in the outdoors), to further reinforce the idea that outdoor sports are white sports.


There has been qualitative data collected on depictions of whites versus blacks in outdoor adventure. A content analysis utilizing stratified random sampling of forty-four issues of Outside Magazine spanning a ten year period (1991-2001) revealed that out of a total of 6,986 pictures 4,602 of them contained images of people. Out of those, only 103 were of black people, and most of these were well known athletes in urban settings (Finney 2014: 78). Not only is there a lack of representation of black people in the outdoors, but when looked at side by side, portrayals of white and black people in advertisements in Outside Magazine exhibited some key differences. In an advertisement for Gor-tex (a premium water-proof material) a white, male climber is featured laboring up a treacherous rock face in adverse, wild, outdoor conditions. Conversely, one of the few advertisements portraying a black person was for a men’s fragrance. In the image, a black model is stripped to his briefs, holding a basketball in his extended right arm while his gaze faces the camera, against a white backdrop (Braun 2003).

A large amount of discourse has focused on how socioeconomic factors are a leading cause of disparity in participation of outdoor leisure (Martin 2004). It is argued that money can buy access to the outdoors, for example, you can purchase lessons, gear, and afford to travel to outdoor areas. While not having access to outdoor leisure certainly is a contributing factor, solely focusing on access misses the crucial point that black people do not have a proper place in the outdoors (Braun 2003, Finney 2014).

While many factors contribute to the naturalization of the white outdoors, the citationality and the history of the portrayal of the outdoors has influenced the narrative we tell about the outdoors, and can be interpreted through “colorblind” politics. Modern Sociological theory commonly acknowledges race as a historical construction. With roots in colonialism and European exploration, the ideas of “race” as a natural hierarchy flourished (Smedley 2012). This endowed whites with a great amount of power. Relevant to the outdoors, is the power and privilege of not being named, and in turn, doing the naming and defining that has been the key player in constructing the idea of the white outdoors (Frankenberg 2012). As a result of the power to define narratives, a storehouse of imagery of the white adventurer has been stockpiled in American collective memory, while erasing the history and the stories of black adventurers.

In his book The Frontier in American History, historian Jackson Turner provides an example of this process. By portraying the rugged individualism of the white adventurer in the American west, while omitting the presence of contributions of Native Americans, slaves, and Hispanics he contributed to the “ idealized image of the American frontier that has filtered into the American consciousness, reinforced by countless novels, TV westerns, and Hollywood feature films” (McNamee and Miller 2014: 9). This reinforcement of the outdoor adventurer trope is why the image of the white climber and the black basketball player in the advertisements “make sense”, without the need for the meaning explicitly defined. Readers viewing the advertisement featuring the climber “can readily draw on other images of climbers – George leigh Mallory, Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner- even if they do not know them by name” (Braun 2003) to situate the meaning of the ad.

For every aspect of the outdoors there is another white adventurer that comes to mind, from Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, Peary, Lewis and Clark, Muir, and Roosevelt while the stories of adventurers of color, like the Sherpas who scale Everest, or Mathew Henson, a polar explorer, are systematically excluded. In the advertisement featuring the black model readers can call upon the common image of the urban black basketball athlete, helping them fit the image into an existing context, but when a black person is featured in nature, it is commonly an image of them working, calling upon imagery going back to the times of slavery (Finney 2014:79, Martin 2004). Therefore, when outdoor adventure is described as citational that “does not mean that it explicitly connects the present act or statement to a prior one, but that it conforms to iterable norms” (Braun 2003). In other words, portrayals of white adventurers today are not citing a specific adventurer or expedition from the past, rather they are calling upon the idea of the white adventurer and European exploration while omitting the accomplishments of black explorers, and even situating blacks in the outdoors in the context of slavery rather than as adventurers.

Colorblind politics are ways in which the dominant racial group (whites in America) understand and articulate our social world as if race is no longer a factor and is “central in the production and reinforcement of the status quo” (Bonilla-Silva 2003: 26). Colorblind politics can be seen at work in maintaining the narrative of the white adventurer. Our society has been able to construct narratives of the outdoors that do not reflect black people in them (Finney 2014, McNamee and Miller 2014). Race provided all groups and individuals with a sense of who they are and how they fit (or do not fit) within the narrative surrounding the great outdoors and how not having access to a history of outdoor adventure means it is likely an individual will identify or see themselves in it (Smedley 2012).

Colorblind racism, namely Bonilla-Silva’s concepts of abstract liberalism and cultural racism, have an impact on the reproduction of this narrative. First, abstract liberalism, akin to the ‘boot strap theory’ tells us that there are now equal opportunities, we must be colorblind, and that discrimination is simply a matter of individual prejudice. Simultaneously it distances ourselves from the institutional policies and cultural discourse founded upon the not-so-distant history of a racialized social, political and economic inequality. It fails to acknowledge that the power and privilege is still being reproduced by the generations of white, upper-class (Bonilla-Silva 2003).

Abstract liberalism is what allows for outdoor magazines to continue the low levels of representation of diversity in their pages, the continued portrayal of the outdoor adventurer stereotype, and the ability to ignore the idea that the outdoors is founded on an exclusionary history that preferences white stories over black stories. Secondly, cultural racism, in essence, is the notion of “blaming the victim”. By “blaming the victim”, whites don’t have to take responsibility for racism/racial inequality, because they don’t have to examine their own complicity in maintaining the dominant status quo of white privilege. Instead, drawing from the “culture of poverty” arguments of the 1960’s, white people can blame the situation blacks face as merely “a cultural thing” (McNamee and Miller 2014; Shipler 2005; Bonilla-Silva 2003). Not having access to a history of outdoor adventure means you won’t learn to see yourself in that culture.

This may have implications on whether or not an individual feels they can achieve the first ascent of a mountain or land themselves a spot on a polar expedition. For example, a person who loves fly-fishing, when asked, may report that they learned the skill from their father who learned from their father, and so on and so forth. In the same breath this person may say that black people simply do not have an interest in the outdoors and that this lack of interest is just cultural difference. They therefore fail to acknowledge their privilege of having access to a history that included them (and previous generations of their family). This access afforded them the vision and technical resources to pursue the sport of fly fishing yet they fail to acknowledge that black people have historically been omitted from the narrative of adventure, which impacts their ability to pursue outdoor sports (Smedley 2012; Bonilla-Silva 2003).

There are consequences in terms of participation in how the media perpetrates the constructed idea that nature and the outdoors are white spaces. Martin writes about three potential consequences of the existence of a racialized outdoor leisure identity. First, the stereotype that black people, in general, do not participate in outdoor recreation may in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One expedition member from the first all-black expedition to summit Mount Denali, articulated this point concisely by saying, “think about the story mountaineering has been. It’s been mainly white males… and if a little black girl were to look into mountaineering and hear that single story, she would probably say ‘I don’t have much of a place there’” (An American Ascent). As a result she may not pursue mountaineering which means that no little black girls in future generations would have her story to claim as their history, thus repeating the cycle.

Second, if outdoor recreation and outdoor spaces are both culturally defined as white domains then it is reasonable to assume that black people may not participate for fear of perceived (or real) discrimination (Martin 2003). Finally, some black people may internalize the notion that outdoor recreation is for white people and therefore, they may avoid participation to avoid being shunned by other black people or, because it conflicts with their understanding of their own identity (Martin 2003). Additionally, outdoor adventure and outdoor education claims to build leadership skills, confidence and many other “soft skills”. These skills translate into cultural capital and give individuals another tool in their toolbox to climb to the top of the “American dream” (Shipler 2005).

It is an injustice that these transformational/skill building experiences are culturally only available to white Americans, and that this single story dissuades that ‘little black girl’ from feeling she has a place, or a right, to have access to these experiences. The outdoors can bring purpose and joy into individual’s lives.
The “great outdoors” are constructed as white spaces. This lack of representation discounts the experiences of those who do participate, while simultaneous dissuading participation from black individuals who don’t see themselves as having a place in the outdoors.

The Editor has stuck his boat…

EDITOR’S NOTE: DBP Admin Kelsey Gaffigan is an avid boater who has been a raft guide for the last two seasons, working for a company in the Southeast. She submitted in long form the above article as a paper in her Sociology class at University. Look around the river next time you’re out paddling, the photos hung on the wall at your local rafting outfitter, or as you flip through the next Rapid Magazine, and consider her findings and conclusions. 

This may be a uniquely American and European problem; you’ll be exposed to paddlers of color on the rivers of the rest of the world, like in Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, or Zimbabwe, for example. We consciously attempt to have a balanced approach here in this publication, following the example we set since the inception of the Dirt Bag Paddlers Facebook page.

We can do even more. After reading her paper, I reflected on our articles and choices of cover photos for the magazine. In terms of the articles, I was very pleased to see lots of representation of different types of people, befitting an endeavor that boasts of being “The World’s Best Free Whitewater Publication.” However, in terms of the covers I discovered that we were almost exclusively white and male. We will improve this aspect in the new year! I’m thankful to now be conscious of this deficit. 


I went looking through the photos from Kosir’s Rapid Rafts of Silver Cliff, WI where I served as river manager for many years, for pictures to illustrate this article. Kosir’s has been in business since 1975, in a rural area that is almost entirely white. Given that, I wasn’t surprised to find that almost all of the photos were of whites. There was only one series showing a person of African American ethnicity, and I happened to be on that trip back in 2013. It was a Group-On trip organized out of Chicago.  

I also got to thinking about the one ethnic group that DOES defy the trend, the people of Indian descent that go rafting. They make up a significant portion of paying customers around the country here in America. Its unfortunate that they also bear the brunt of racist jokes behind their backs, a shameful secret of the US guide community. But still they come, thankfully unaware of our backwards thinking. I used to be the same way, but I was converted long ago. 

So, there is some more food for thought. Now, back to Kelsey, who added this conclusion especially for this article in DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE. ~ Mike Toughill, Editor-in-Chief

An Addendum:
To understand what can be done to improve the issue of representation and inclusion, we can look at a different case study: white women. Recently GQ did a photoshoot featuring prominent male climbers scaling rocks while their cute female entourage stood around watching, essentially fulfilling the role of arm candy. Outside Magazine did a spoof of this photoshoot and swapped the roles so women were the ones scaling the rocks and the men were looking cute. The results were a hilarious commentary calling into question biases and assumptions about women in the outdoor sports. Take a look for yourself here: .

The outdoor industry has done a great job bringing white women into the fold and they have achieved this through redefining how women are represented (example above) and also doing outreach. Any climbing gym will have women’s climb nights, and groups like Girls at Play (a nonprofit that teaches empowerment for girls through kayaking) work to bring women into the fold. The result: women are participating at higher rates than before, and the narrative that had previously prevented them from participating (women are the cute, meek arm candy) are being called out.

In terms of women of color, the 2016 Olympics showcased a number of powerful black female athletes including Simone Manuel, Simone Biles, and Gabby Douglas. This means that a whole generation of little black girls can look at the Olympics and see that they do, in fact, have a place there. Additionally, the film An American Ascent features the first all-black ascent of Mount Denali, reshaping the narrative of the white adventurer. As you can see, changing the story is important but equally important is outreach and programs that create an avenue for marginalized groups to find their passion in the outdoors. So go forth and change the narrative limiting your friends, and by extension change the world!

Bucking the trend: Indian Americans rafting. 

Work Cited In The Original Paper. 

An American Ascent. 2014. Wild Vision/ Floating point Coproduction.


Bonilla- Silva, Eduardo. 2003. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Landham, Md. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Braun, Bruce. 2003. “On the Raggedy Edge of Risk: Articulations of Race and Nature after Biology”. Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. Durham, NC. Duke University Press. 175‐203


Finney, Carolyn. 2014. Black Faces, White Space: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Chapel Hill, NC. The University of North Carolina Press.


Frankenberg, Ruth. 2012. “Whiteness as an Unmarked Cultural Category”. The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race and Ethnicity, Sex and Gender, Social Class, Sexuality, and Disability. 101-106


Martin, Derek Christopher. 2004. “Apartheid in the Great Outdoors: American Advertising and the Reproduction of a Racialized Outdoor Leisure Identity”. Journal of Leisure Research. 513-535


McNamee, Stephen J, Robert K Miller Jr. 2014. The Meritocracy Myth. Maryland. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Shipler, David K. 2005. The Working Poor. New York. Vintage Books.


Smedley, Audrey. 2012. “Race and the Construction of Human Identity”. The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race and Ethnicity, Sex and Gender, Social Class, Sexuality, and Disability. 51-60.


Outdoor Industry Association. 2016. Outdoor Participation Report.

By Chicago Mike

Editor-in-Chief "Chicago" Mike Toughill is co-founder of Dirt Bag Paddlers and former Peshtigo River Manager at Kosir's Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. He's been Wallacing since 2003.

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