White Men Can’t Jump; Black Men Can’t Hike
Growth covers many flaws in all endeavors. Perhaps that’s why the US National Parks Service is trying to appeal to minorities.
News outlets for white people (e.g. Salon) have covered the story, but few attempt to pinpoint reasons non-whites don’t partake in outdoor activities. And journalists who seek reasons seem unaware of when they are being trolled:
My granddaddy told me the K.K.K. hangs out up in the mountains. Why would I want to go?
Here is my humble attempt to brownsplain why people of color do not go camping. The standard disclaimers about non-monolithic groups apply. Additionally, this post is speculative (but not necessarily wrong either).
There is a reason that we’ve bifurcated the population into white people and “people of color”. A lot of things make white people special, but what is relevant here is that most white people are disconnected from the problems of (1) unavoidable life and death struggles against nature and (2) absolute poverty (though not relative poverty).
- Unavoidable life and death struggles against nature
Thankfully, most instances of famine involving white people ended in the 19th century with the exception of Eastern European countries, which was more the result of Soviet mismanagement than the laws of nature. White people do not really fear nature in the way the rest of us do.
I’ve never gone hungry, but my generation is the first in my family to never have been threatened by malnutrition, and I am at some level aware that 69% of Indians live on less than $2 per day and that they look like me. I cannot myself imagine every unintentionally going hungry or not having a place to sleep, but the prospect has a shamefulness for me that it might not for a white guy backpacking through Patagonia (or even backpacking through India).
- Absolute poverty
Thankfully, all the majority-white countries in this graph are blue, meaning that less than 2% of their populations live on less than $2 per day. Some of these countries (notably, the US) have significant minority populations as well. White people in these countries don’t see people of color living in (absolute) squalor let alone white people living in squalor. The only blue, non-white-majority countries I see in the image are Japan and South Korea. (I would have thought Singapore would also be there, but perhaps they do not qualify or the country is too small to show clearly.)
The result of this is that even a well-off person like myself lacks the psychological distance from poverty that my lower-income white friends have.
Why distance matters: Signalling
People in the non-white-majority countries I have visited consider having money a very good thing. Because of this, rich people buy things to signal their wealth. If you do not buy these items, it is because you are poor. It’s not complicated.
Such a simple system does not work in white-majority countries. Freed from absolute poverty, poor people can readily imitate the more obvious ways rich people might use to distinguish themselves. Note what one can do with goods purchased from Target. (These commercials are unexceptional, which is exactly the point.)
Signaling becomes much more complicated in an environment where a ten-year-old BMW 7-series costs less than $10k and googling “douchebag in a BMW” returns more than 50,000 hits.
In China, if you drive a gold-plated Ferrari, it’s because you’re awesome. If you do the same thing in the US, it is because you are a pretentious jerk with a small penis. But the converse is also true. Rich white people in the US send their kids to Africa to build houses for poor people. A rich white American can compassionately engage with the poor because he is secure in his knowledge that no one would ever think he himself is poor. The rich Chinese guy, in contrast, lives next to poor people. A lot of them. If he hangs around poor people, other Chinese people would infer that he is himself poor. Notice how only white people buy distressed clothing? In non-white-majority countries, if you wear distressed clothes, it is because you can’t afford new clothes.
For people of color, taking a shower, having washed clothes, and having a roof over our heads in a temperature-controlled environment means a lot more than it does to white people. For us, it’s part of our humanity and let’s us know we’re OK. For whites, these things only represent convenience.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (and me)