People Of Color And Being Outside In Nature : Code Switch On this episode, Shereen and Adrian take a look at why being "outdoorsy" can get complicated when you're a person of color in America.

Code Switch Podcast, Episode 2: Being 'Outdoorsy' When You're Black Or Brown

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Welcome to CODE SWITCH from NPR. Coming at you just in time for summer, I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


BLAIR UNDERWOOD: (As character) Hasn't anybody ever seen a black hiker before?


And I'm Adrian Florido. And today on the podcast, right in time - no, I'm not saying right in time for fun in the sun.

MERAJI: Right in time for fun in the sun. Come on, Adrian, say it.

FLORIDO: Did you - no. We're talking about people of color and the outdoors because, you know, Shereen, there's this whole stereotype that we do not go there.

MERAJI: That's right. Take that Funny or Die video we just heard a clip of. It's starring actor Blair Underwood. He's hiking. Everyone's freaking out. They're snapping photos of him. The park rangers are literally chasing him up the mountain.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You just - you forgot to sign the guestbook we keep at the base of the trail.

UNDERWOOD: (As character) Oh, well, is there a law that I have to - have to sign it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Laughter) No. That's funny. No, we just like all the guests of the park to - we just want proof that you were here. This is really amazing for us.

UNDERWOOD: (As character) Hasn't anybody ever seen a black hiker before?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I haven't.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No, this is the first for me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I saw an Asian Boy Scout once.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Are you kidding me?

FLORIDO: (Laughter) I mean, Shereen, that sounds - that sounds so absurd, right - so ridiculous. But here's the thing - there are actually numbers to back this up from the National Park Service.

MERAJI: Yes, the NPS, caretakers of Yosemite and Yellowstone and more than 400 other properties, is turning 100 this year, two days after my birthday.

FLORIDO: A hundred.

MERAJI: One hundred - on August 25.

FLORIDO: You're not turning a hundred, right?

MERAJI: I'm not. I'm turning - let's say 25.

FLORIDO: All right.

MERAJI: I like the sound of that. The NPS, Adrian - it's got a bit of a people of color problem.

FLORIDO: We're not going there?

MERAJI: Yeah, there's not enough of us who go to the parks, who work for the National Park Service or who volunteer.

FLORIDO: And here's the thing - they even have an office to address this. Check out this name. It's called the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion.

MERAJI: Titillating.

FLORIDO: (Laughter) Right?

MERAJI: I love that. So yeah - relevancy, diversity and inclusion. I spoke with its director, Sangita Chari, and she broke down the numbers for me.

SANGITA CHARI: Our demographics for our staff mirror the demographics of our visitors, as well as our volunteers. And what we know is about 80 percent are white. Hispanic, black are about 5 to 6 percent, and then Asians make up about 2 percent of our workforce.

FLORIDO: Eighty percent of the national parks' visitors are white, which really explains why you need an Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion.

MERAJI: It's true. If you want to stay relevant for a hundred more years, you've got to get the changing demographics of America into your parks. You've got to get brown people to come visit your parks. And Sangita told me that they're really pushing to change things from within. They're trying to recruit younger, browner park rangers. And they also want to tell stories that connect people of color to the national parks. But they're still trying to figure out how to do that.

FLORIDO: And so, Shereen, you've done a lot of reporting on people of color who do use the outdoors, but who, you know, do it in their own way. And for a lot of these people, it wasn't, like, always a part of their lifestyles. And so we're going to hear today from some of those people and what they had to say, things like, what's up with - what's up with all those dudes riding about on their bikes in Lycra?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All I ever saw was, like, white dudes - you know, tall, skinny white dudes on the bikes. And so I was like, OK, well, you know, I guess that's another thing white people do.

FLORIDO: And we will get to it after this break.


FLORIDO: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR, and we're back. And we were just saying, Shereen, you've done a bunch of stories about people of color and their relationship to the outdoors. And you did this one story I really liked. It was about hikers who are Korean and Korean-American in Los Angeles.

MERAJI: Yep. If you go hiking in LA, like I do - I'm a hiker - I'm a brown person who likes to go hiking and camping - especially if you go super-early in the morning, you are going to run into a lot of Korean-Americans on the mountain, all decked-out with sun visors and, like, long sleeves. And they are ready to do battle with the mountain and the sun, which is another podcast for another time. And we will be doing that on CODE SWITCH.

FLORIDO: What, brown people in the sun?


FLORIDO: Oh yeah, totally.

MERAJI: Yes, brown people and our fear of the sun. Anyway, I'm seeing all these Korean-Americans on the mountains in LA bust this whole stereotype that only white people hike. And I wanted to know more about this, so I spoke with 27-year-old Moonyoung Ko. She's from Southern California, and she told me I'm not the only one curious.

MOONYOUNG KO: I was having dinner with my friend and her parents, and they asked me, why is it that there are so many Koreans hiking in Malibu? And I said well, you know, the country is very mountainous. It's just something everyone does.

MERAJI: She's talking about South Korea there. Seventy percent of it, Adrian, is mountainous. And hiking's a national past time - so much so that, when politicians want to get people to vote for them, part of campaigning is hiking with people. Can you imagine Donald Trump hiking?

FLORIDO: Yeah, he'd have to go on a not-too-breezy day.

MERAJI: Yeah - or Hillary Clinton.

FLORIDO: Lacing up her tenis (ph).

MERAJI: (Laughter) Her tenis.

FLORIDO: So it sounds like hiking is such a big part of the culture that I guess it makes sense that people, you know, would bring it here when they came from South Korea.

MERAJI: Yeah, when Koreans emigrated to the U.S. in large numbers starting in the mid-'60s, they brought hiking with them. Moonyoung's parents came in the '80s, and she said her dad and mom had a really hard time adjusting when they got here.

KO: If you don't speak the language, if you don't have the right pedigree, people don't view you the same as everyone else. I think nature was kind of their only solace. You know, it was one of those places where you could go where you didn't feel - you didn't feel isolated.

MERAJI: She also told me it was a way that her parents shared their memories of home with her. She's only been to Korea once, when she was four. So being in the outdoors with her parents really helped her understand where she's from. And I related to this story. My dad, who's Iranian - and I've never been to Iran - he spent a lot of time in the mountains in the summertime to get away from the heat of Tehran. And when I was growing up, he loved to take my brother and I out to the mountains and hike and camp, and he would have us play these games where he would put to a tree and we would have to name it. Like, that's a Douglas fir. That's a ponderosa pine. So I loved this story. And it was really strange because Moonyoung ended up taking me on hike to a place called Amir's Garden.

FLORIDO: Yeah, I've been there.

MERAJI: Yeah, it's this oasis in the middle of the park. And it was created by an Iranian immigrant after a big fire in the park. He brought plants up one-by-one and made this beautiful place. And he was Iranian and an immigrant. I just loved how all the connections were made in that story.

FLORIDO: I think this is a big part of the immigrant experience, right - because when I was a reporter in San Diego, I did a lot of reporting on refugee communities there. And people who worked with refugees there found that one of the best forms of therapy for a lot of people dealing, like, with homesickness and PTSD, because they were coming from, like, conflict-ridden countries, was gardening.


FLORIDO: And so there are these gardens in San Diego that people have created where it's - they're basically refugee gardens. And they just go in and they get their plot, and they're growing food from where they came from. And it's, like, a little reminder of home, right? And so, you know, this isn't hiking or biking. But it is being outside, you know, getting your hands dirty, working the land a little bit.

MERAJI: But here's the thing, Adrian. For some people of color, yes, the outdoors is this reminder of home. It reminds them of where their parents came from. But we can't have this discussion about the outdoors and not talk about slavery - black people being forced to work outdoors, tending to fields and livestock. And if they ran away, the woods is where they were tracked down.

FLORIDO: And then horrible things kept happening in the woods.


FLORIDO: People were lynched. They went missing. They were murdered. And this all affects the way that some black people still think of the outdoors. We actually asked our editor, Alicia Montgomery, about this.

ALICIA MONTGOMERY, BYLINE: I would go with a mom friend of mine, and we would go to this local farm. And our kids would pick strawberries, and we'd pay them - pay the farm, like, $10 to have our kids pick strawberries. And one day, our kids were there and, you know, picking crops in the hot sun and smiling and giggling. And she and I just looked at each other, and it was like, didn't somebody fight a war so our people wouldn't have to do this kind of thing? So it's not - it's not always, like, a heavy thing that keeps you away from the outdoors, but it does cross your mind.

MERAJI: And by law, black people weren't allowed to be in certain outdoor spaces for decades. So listen to what Autumn Saxton-Ross told me. She's a leader with Outdoor Afro, a group with a mission to re-introduce African-Americans to the outdoors.

AUTUMN SAXTON-ROSS: You know, I talk about Swope Park. And for me, Swope Park is in Kansas City, and there's this park called Watermelon Hill. And so that was the only place in this park that black people could go to. And so my grandmother, even until the '80s, that was the only place that she would ever go. And that was the only place she would ever take me in the park.

And I think that's important because, you know, we are our parents, our grandparents. We have to remember that we still have people that, by law, could not engage in these park spaces. And maybe that's why we have a different definition of nature - because people were restricted.

MERAJI: She's talking about Jim Crow segregation.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And, like, even today there are places where there are rules that might be for legitimate reasons, right? It's not like Jim Crow segregation, but they still sort of send a message about, like, who belongs and who doesn't.

MERAJI: Give me an example.

FLORIDO: Sometimes without even intending to. So I'm thinking of this pool just up the street here in D.C. - just up the street from NPR. It's a public pool, and there's this big sign out in front that basically says what you can and can't wear. And one of the things you can't wear to the pool is jean shorts.

And I get that there's a reason for that, right? If you're wearing your jeans all day, you can't go into the pool with them. But if you ever go to a pool in Southern California, lots of Latino kids are in the pool wearing their jean shorts. So if you see a sign like that, it's kind of saying oh, this isn't really for you.

MERAJI: And another example of that - right around the corner from my house there's this beautiful grass field. And there's a big sign of, like, what you can and can't do on that field, and one of the things is you can't play soccer.

FLORIDO: You can't put a beautiful field anywhere in Southern California and expect people not to play soccer.

MERAJI: Especially the Latinos.

FLORIDO: (Laughter) So there're all these examples of maybe people of color wanting to go out and do their thing - right? but sometimes, it being difficult because of the more indirect ways that we're told, you're not welcome here.

MERAJI: Yeah. And what we're really getting at, I think, in this whole conversation is redefining the outdoors - what the outdoors means. It's not just mountain climbing, going on long backpacking trips where you poop outside and...


MERAJI: ...You have to bring it with you.

FLORIDO: Is that a thing?

MERAJI: I've heard this from people...

FLORIDO: (Unintelligible).

MERAJI: ...That - this is why I've never gone on a backpacking trip (laughter)...

FLORIDO: Wakala (ph).

MERAJI: ...(Laughter) Because you're like - have to take your poop with you. That's a - I think it's environmentally not OK to leave it anywhere.

FLORIDO: I mean, that makes sense, but it's still disgusting.

MERAJI: (Laughter) But we're redefining the outdoors and what that means. And Outdoor Afro - we heard from a member earlier. She was talking about the Jim Crow segregation laws.


MERAJI: They're all about changing how we look at what outdoorsy means, this definition of outdoorsy. And here's an icebreaker they'll use before going out on a hike.

ZOE POLK: So if you can go around and say your name, where you came from today and a place in nature from your childhood that is important to you. So again, my name is Zoe. I'm the trip leader. I live in San Francisco. And the Chesapeake Bay is really important to my childhood.

STEVAN: Stevan (ph) from Louisville, Ky., and my front yard in the hills of Odin County was my favorite place growing up.

TAMARA JOHNSON: Tamara Johnson (ph) from Atlanta, Ga., and the backyard behind my grandma's house.

CHARLES TAYLOR: Charles Taylor (ph) from Washington, D.C., and I have to say Anacostia River and Potomac River.

CLIFF SAREL: Name is Cliff Sarel (ph) from the Bay Area, California, and my favorite space is my grandmother's garden where I helped her plant.

FLORIDO: That was pretty cool. There are those gardens again.

MERAJI: Exactly. Those intros are done for a reason, to redefine what the outdoors means. And like you said, a garden is a perfect example of being in relationship with the outdoors - or your backyard. That is the outdoors.

FLORIDO: Can we just talk about something else for a second? Can we talk about money because we haven't mentioned...

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

FLORIDO: ...That yet. For me, like, every time - even today, every time I go to a national park - like, really? - I got to pay 20 or 30 bucks to get in. Like, it can be expensive...


FLORIDO: ...To get into the outdoors. If you want to go to, like, official places, like the national park. Or even if you want to go out and do stuff like hike, or camp, or whatever, like, you need all of this gear.

MERAJI: It's true. And that's the perfect lead into one of my favorite people that I talked to for this whole thing. Her name is Gabby Bilich. She's chicana from Southeast LA, and she was talking about all those ads you see in REI, you know, with the crunchy granola people all geared out with their super lightweight titanium chairs.

FLORIDO: Oh, like, in those tents that you can put together in less than 10 seconds?

MERAJI: And those special straws that filter your water.

FLORIDO: Those little aluminum pouches where you just add water, and it turns into a turkey dinner?

GABBY BILICH: You know, they're not going to show all of us, you know, over there with our, you know, our tire rims and our refrigerator racks, you know, grilling carne asada. They're not - they're just not.

FLORIDO: (Laughter) That's totally a thing.

MERAJI: It is a thing. Your people...

FLORIDO: Like, Mexican families literally pull a rack out of the refrigerator and use it as a grill. And let's be real, Shereen. If you're a kid showing up to, like, the beach or, like, to some park and your, like, dad pulls out the refrigerator rack to grill up some meat, yeah it's like, I don't want people staring at us, you know? I mean, I don't care now. Now I'm like, oh, Dad, why are we taking the grill? Let's take the refrigerator rack.



MERAJI: Yeah, I guess.


MERAJI: Anyway, Gabby actually talked about this. She talked about being the only one, which is the sentiment I think you were trying to get at with the, you know, the grill thing and feeling a little bit awkward when you were a kid. And she said before she started cycling, she'd walk around the Rose Bowl, this stadium in Pasadena, where a lot of riders go to cycle.

BILICH: And you just hear the (imitating whirring sound), you know, the whir of just, like, the peloton, you know, just going by around the Rose Bowl, going so fast. And all I ever saw was, like, white dudes, you know, tall, skinny white dudes on the bikes. And so I was like, OK, well, you know, I guess that's a new thing white people do, you know?

And I never really thought - I mean, for me, you know, riding a bike, it was like OK, you see your, you know, your home boys riding around the street in their little, you know, short Huffys or whatever. You know, but I never saw cycling as a Latino thing or, like, as a people-of-color thing, you know? To me, it was always, you know, the MAMILs you know, the middle-aged men in Lycra, you know?

MERAJI: I never heard that.

BILICH: It's all the white MAMILs - you know, middle-age men in Lycra - riding around the Rose Bowl.

MERAJI: M-A-M-I-L-S - middle-age men in Lycra.

FLORIDO: So now she's, like, a - she's a MACIL (ph).

MERAJI: Middle-age Chicanos in like Lycra now.

FLORIDO: So she was part of this group that started in east LA, right?


FLORIDO: This group that this guy named Carlos Morales started. And he was this - he is this guy who, a few years ago, was, like, really unhealthily large. And his doctors told him, basically, if you don't lose weight, you're going to die. And so he started this club, and he started cycling with his friends. And in just a couple of years, people started coming out and joining, and now there's, like, hundreds of people who go out cycling through the streets of east LA.

MERAJI: And they're predominantly Latino.

FLORIDO: And they're on real - not Huffy bikes - but on road bikes and wearing their...

MERAJI: Geared out.

FLORIDO: ...Cycling gear.

MERAJI: Yeah, it's true. Gabby said, if she hadn't seen that massive Chicano cyclist out in the streets, she would never have thought cycling was for her.

BILICH: I want to say the last year has just been a life-changer. It's just completely changed my life, and I love it.

MERAJI: You're emotional.

BILICH: I do get emotional about it because it's fun. It's fun, and it's great. And it improves your life - health-wise, too. I'm diabetic, so losing weight is a - has always been a challenge. And it's, like, wow, this is fun, and I can lose weight.

MERAJI: Just hearing Gabby say that makes me think, for anyone who says, why does it matter if we do outdoorsy things or don't do them, I think of that and what she said and how her life was totally transformed by an outdoor activity that she didn't even think was for her until she saw herself represented.

FLORIDO: So it kind of seems like that's the big puzzle that people like Sangita Chari from the National Park Service, from its Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion - that that's sort of the big puzzle that they have to figure out, right? Like, how do you get people to start thinking about outdoor activity and outdoor spaces as places that are for them?

MERAJI: That are for us.

FLORIDO: That are for us, right.

MERAJI: Yeah. And I asked her about this and why it matters that we do engage in outdoor activities in public spaces and public parks and national parks. And she had a lot to say about it.

CHARI: What I have learned over years is that the natural story is connected to our cultural story and that national parks are actually a really incredible way to get both in one place.

MERAJI: What is it about the natural story here in the U.S. that is so intertwined with who we are as Americans?

CHARI: So I'm pausing, and I'm thinking about this in a couple ways. And so I think about the story of bison in this country and of our efforts to really help rebuild that population. But that's also a - that's a cultural story. That's a story about our relationship with the first peoples here and how we expanded westward. And when you think about - whether you're at a plantation house - and who were the people that worked the land there and how did that come to be and what has it meant for our country?

When you go to a Civil War battlefield - and right now, you know, sure, you see grass and, you know, there might be a place where you can walk and find comfort. But huge things happened there that have impacted our country and who we are. And what I believe is that by taking advantage of these places and understanding them and where we tie in the land, the water, the animals, the sky, where we understand all of that and we understand the story of the people who passed through that and how they passed through that and what that's meant for all of us is really where, I think, we start to understand what it truly means to be an American. And what I hope is to inspire people to really take their citizenship seriously.

MERAJI: Sangita's really thought a lot about this, and you can tell. And I think there's something to what she's saying. Bear with me. This is corny.

FLORIDO: You're getting a little teary-eyed over there.

MERAJI: I just feel like, this land is our land, right?

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

MERAJI: It is.

FLORIDO: That song?

MERAJI: Yes, "This Land Is Your Land." This land is my land. And connecting to it is a big part of what it means to be American. So if you don't feel like you're a part of this outdoorsy ethos, it's easy to feel like you don't belong, you're not American.

FLORIDO: Can we go out on that song? Can we go out on "This Land Is Your Land"?

MERAJI: Yes, I think we should.

FLORIDO: In honor of our national parks.

MERAJI: Yes, hit it.


SONOS DE MEXICO ENSEMBLE: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Yes, this is the version I like.


SONOS DE MEXICO ENSEMBLE: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: I think I'm going to have to dance once we're through with this.

MERAJI: I want to see that.


SONOS DE MEXICO ENSEMBLE: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: All right, thanks for listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Adrian Florido.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And we want to hear from you. Tweet us - @NPRCodeSwitch

FLORIDO: Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. Our podcast drops Wednesdays. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you're hearing us. See you next time.

MERAJI: Peace.

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