In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, cultural geographer Dr. Carolyn Finney painstakingly investigates why African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to enjoying “the Great Outdoors” and environmentalism. Finney draws on a blend of scholarly works, close study of popular media,[*] field research, and personal experiences[†] to provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of how the natural world has different, racialized contexts for black people and white people. Aimed at both experts and “just folks”, this scholarly book dispels the assumption of African Americans disinterest and reveals how underlying structural racism bears the responsibility for this disparity.
Dr. Finney, conscious to emphasize the diversity of African American culture, background, and experiences,[‡] nonetheless discusses several pervasive barriers to black people’s meaningful engagement with nature, among them (I’ll discuss three briefly) the painful legacies of slavery and segregation that continue to negatively shape attitudes toward natures. Far from seeing forests as a source of spiritual connection as white people might, African Americans may instead view such places as sites of violence (eg, lynching). When early white conservationists (several of whom promoted eugenics ideology) campaigned to protect natural places, they also deliberately barred non-white persons from these places. Unsurprisingly, this exclusion creates the impression that nature is for white people, causing many African Americans to avoid unwelcoming areas that may prove dangerous for them. Representation, too, plays an important role. Finney demonstrates that there is a dearth of black faces in media representation, whether it is an advertisement featuring only white people performing outdoor activities or a magazine that fails to include African American activists and leaders in a green issue. These instances are examples of missed opportunities to inspire black people to use the National Parks or join green organizations—something which also preserves the status quo. And it cannot be emphasized enough that the lack of diversity in these organizations contributes to instances where black individuals and communities are forgotten or ignored on environmental issues.
While much of Black Faces, White Spaces examines these barriers and many others, it is not a grim treatise but a hopeful one. Finney’s work looks to understand such barriers so that they can be effectively dismantled. In addition, she often highlights African Americans who are currently working on creating a more inclusive experience in natural areas (eg, when the National Park Systems included slave narratives in plantation tours) or forming their own environmental action groups to ensure issues important to black communities get the representation they deserve. Black Spaces, White Faces significantly contributes to the ongoing conversation about making the Great Outdoors and the environmental movement more equitable.
Part of what we can do to change our perception about the issues that Dr. Finney outlines is to educate ourselves. In this spirit, I am providing a short list of articles (by no means complete or exhaustive) that highlight the black (mostly, African American) environmentalists making a difference.
8 Black Environmentalists You Need To Know by Alice Kurima Newberry
6 Black Environmental Activists Who Changed History by Lara Brenner
Black Environmentalists Worth Celebrating On Earth Day by Jessica Dickerson
[*]In the New Book Networks: African American studies podcast, Finney explains that she chose to include these non-academic sources, because African Americans often are excluded and underrepresented in scholarly works. Popular media, however, often conveys messages about dominant cultural narratives as well as their underlying intentions. Since popular media can be accessed by all people, Finney also could address a wider audience than just her fellow academics.
[†]Finney includes her own family’s experiences, as they served as the caretakers of an estate in upstate New York for 50 years. When this estate (where they no longer lived) was donated for preservation, the white owners—not the Finney family—were praised for their stewardship.
[‡]Finney takes great care in being clear that she does not speak for all African Americans or for other non-white groups who may share similar experiences of exclusion from natural areas and the environmental discourse.