Many people of colour have been disenfranchised from nature through human interference… An absence rooted in historical and current traumas of shame, hardship and racism
A version of this article first appeared in The Ecologist
For me there’s nothing more rejuvenating and life affirming than the simple pleasure of being in nature; amongst the company of trees and animals, looking out to a distant horizon with sweeping views of fields unfurling. Perhaps for you it’s the coast, mountains or a garden. Whatever terrain captivates you, it’s likely to feel uplifting. Why then do so few of us spend time in nature in the UK, when in countries of heritage we are typically much more connected to nature? A disconnection seems to occur in the west.
If you enjoy walking or other activity in nature you’ve likely noticed very few other black and Asian people. Natural England reports that 25.7% of Asian, 26.2% of black and 38.8% of mixed race people spent time in nature compared to 44.2% of white people.
Race and place
The vast majority of the UK’s black and Asian population live within urban areas, I had a different formative experience, growing up in a rural area, immersed in nature and surrounded by open fields, part of only a small number of ethnic minorities living in the countryside; 6.4% of Mixed (Black/White), 1.9% of Black people and 2.6% Asian people. As I moved into cities as an adult I felt a fish out of water in trying to find connection with other people of colour who regularly seek out time in nature. There are of course a number of us, but we are a minority within a minority.
My ethnographic research has explored people of colours’ relationships with nature in the UK, drawing from my work as a Nature Allied Psychotherapist and in leading reflective sessions in the woods around the campfire; exploring the role nature plays in our lives and the reasons why it may or may not feature strongly in our daily experiences.
This exploration is situated within the context of racialised narratives about our place within natural settings. Environmental organisations which are typically staffed by white middle class practitioners have framed the issue of our low presence as being because we are uninterested or unappreciative of nature. There is a colonial perspective within western environmental organisations regarding white people as the true custodians for nature and that black people harm or don’t value nature. My research sought to elicit black and Asian perspectives about our relationship with the natural world.
Nature is a source of spiritual nourishment for many, and a means to supporting physical and emotional health, providing a sense of home and place in being connected to the land, knowing that we are part of nature.
Our low presence matters because we miss out on the pleasures and health benefits, and are less involved in conserving and protecting green spaces.
This absence is not simply about people of colours’ relationship with nature, but also about our relationship with other people and how we’re received and responded to in natural settings.
Relationships with nature are often rooted within historical messages about belonging, as well as people’s own direct experiences. In many instances there is a causal flow stemming from the historical experience of colonialism, slavery, and our families’ arrival in the west and a continuing legacy affecting how our relationship with nature is navigated, including the development of cultural attitudes that shun nature.
In our differing migrations people of colour have tended to gather in cities to feel a sense of safety and community in numbers; we had lives to build with a focus on finding work and networks of support to sustain ourselves.
Experiences of hostility are hard enough to bear when you are surrounded by other people of colour, but they’re more intimidating when you are isolated. This brought about a protective attitude among our parents and grandparents who came to see the countryside and nature in urban spaces as unsafe and alienating.
Racism is a big part of why people of colour are less present in nature. Many people of colour feel an apprehension about stepping into nature, especially in more remote and open spaces, wondering how they are going to be received.
A sense of vulnerability increases with increased visibility. A significant proportion of people had experienced or feared being stared at, snubbed, verbally assaulted, followed or physically threatened. People of colour are made to feel their difference, that they were out of place and unwelcome, all of which impacts on our sense of safety.
Racism has shaped how some of us behave in nature, creating a barrier to simple enjoyment. For example, our presence has been treated with suspicion in natural settings.
Some people of colour, particularly men, feel a pressure to change their behaviour to prove they are not a threat – which sabotages their own relaxation. Some worry that they are perceived as ‘up to no good’ and felt pulled into ‘respectability’ to make white people feel comfortable. This dynamic occurs in cities but is exacerbated in frequency and intensity in areas with fewer people of colour.
Many people of colour are disconnected from nature in the UK because their parents and their grandparents didn’t feel safe enough to take them or had other survival preoccupations. This creates a chain of disconnect – not having adults who take us into these spaces means that time in nature isn’t normalised.
People of colour experience a generational loss of connection and cultural attitudes emerge for us to cope with that loss.
In countries of heritage we often learn about the natural world relationally, through conversation and experience with older relatives. In UK settings our elders may lack knowledge about wildlife and often haven’t had connections with established communities from whom they could learn.
This breaks down the generational oral traditions for learning and leaves us without a bridge into knowledge about nature and relevant practicalities, such as how to keep warm, what to wear, or how to get there; and relationalities such as names, behaviour and the uses of plants and wildlife.
In this way nature becomes a stranger, while in countries of heritage it was familiar.
Hardship and subsistence
Time in the natural world is associated with leisure and recreation for many people in the west.
But for some people with a recent history or lived experience of subsistence within the family, having come from rural areas in developing countries, nature can be associated with hardship and struggle in having to work the land – it is a place of survival.
In coming to the west people may have a desire to leave behind lifestyles where you might get dirty and hands-on in nature, seeing their own rural background as backwards and wanting to integrate into a more urban lifestyle as an indicator of status and implied progression.
Added to this, rather than a romanticised relationship with nature as a source of relaxation, for some people of colour nature can be painfully associated with being the scene of a crime or mistreatment – whether through hard physical work, poverty, legacies of slavery, colonialism and limited options.
There is a trauma of abuse and coercion in the fields. Abandoning nature can be perceived as escaping systemic oppressions associated with under development. In the UK context there can be a fear of criminality in parks, being seen by some as a place where bad things, such as drug dealing and assault, can happen.
An urbanized culture develops when people migrate into cities. Focus turns to successfully being in a city, which is different from successfully being in nature.
How we function in an urban setting and the value codes of claiming status within city contexts tends to have a greater emphasis on material consumerism, on how we present ourselves, what we own, and the kind of activities we partake in.
Our understanding of these value codes are demonstrated, for example, through clean, tidy, box fresh clothes and not dirty, scuffed nature tarnished clothes. Our appearance carries a statement about identity, and about what we do and what we don’t do that is connected with where we feel we belong and where we don’t feel we belong.
Looking good and well turned out is important to feel a sense of self-esteem and to counter anxieties about status, or ‘looking poor’. For people of colour who have experienced poverty in the UK, families may not have a set of clothes that children are allowed to get dirty.
Children being dirty from outdoor play is a sign of an afternoon well spent, being healthy and productive for white middle class families without economic and status anxieties. This measure of worth remains for people of colour even as financial circumstances improve: getting dirty is often seen as naughty or transgressive.
Middle class white people are free to enjoy nature without feeling they’re having to prove that they’re separate from it.
For many people of colour there is a sense of shame in being connected to nature, through our experience of colonialism and slavery which stigmatised us as having an inferior and primitive way of life, close to nature. Our poor, under-developed villages are contrasted to the west’s superior affluent technological cities.
These racist stigmas become internalised and some people of colour may want to distance themselves from being perceived as ‘backward’, often by perpetuating self-limiting myths about nature and our place in it: black people don’t ‘do’ camping/hiking/skiing/swimming.
These myths articulate a message that we have no business being there, that we’re relieved to no longer be there, that you’re mad for wanting to go, that being in nature is a sign of being mentally unwell, weird or of acting white.
Trevor Noah, Walter Kamau Bell, Gina Yashere, Romesh Ranganathan all have material laughing at the absurdity of being close to nature.
Culturally there is often force in the ridicule that aims to disparage. It serves as a coping mechanism to protect feelings about something lost or that doesn’t feel safe by dismissing and trivialising nature.
People of colour rarely see ourselves in nature in a western context. There is a widely acknowledged lack of black and Asian representation within environmental organisations and nature based activities, and we are rarely presented as knowledge-holders or leaders in natural spaces, creating a feedback loop further increasing a perception that green spaces are not for us.
Many people of colour have been disenfranchised from nature through human interference. Our experiences of how we’re received by white others in nature and negative narratives about our connection have led to a sense that we are outsiders who are not welcome.
We are less likely to feel entitled to be in natural spaces or to have a sense of ownership, feeling more of a guest in the space than it being our home.
The issue of our absence in nature isn’t simply self-limiting behaviour, but is linked to cultural responses to historical and current traumas of shame, hardship and racism.
Consequently some people feel they’re escaping something negative and stepping into something better in cities, while simultaneously being negatively received by other humans in the natural world – providing cause to see ourselves as uniquely urban in western contexts.
For those who do want to explore, being in nature can start to feel emotionally complicated, creating a barrier to just getting on with enjoying ourselves.
Although people of colour in the west currently spend significantly less time in nature than white people, for many of us the desire to be connected with nature remains strong. In many cases it is the relationship with other humans that have made being in nature feel unsafe and out of reach.
#CiteBlackWomen: Beth Collier, Black Absence in Green Spaces, 10 October 2019 http://www.bethcollier.co.uk/black-absence-in-green-spaces