Let’s address whiteness in the outdoors

The International Day for Biological Diversity is a United Nations–sanctioned international day for the promotion of biodiversity issues. It is currently held on May 22. This year’s theme is “our solutions are in nature”. However, I do not want to talk about biodiversity, but cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is important because our workplaces, schools, our forests and other places where we enjoy outdoor life increasingly consist of various cultural, racial, and ethnic groups. We can learn from one another, but first we must have a level of understanding about each other in order to facilitate collaboration and cooperation.


Addressing the whiteness in the outdoors (and sustainability)

I live in Belgium, one of the countries which counts the most nationalities. In the subway in Antwerp  can hear so many languages. Once, they said that Antwerp is the second most multicultural city in the world, after Amsterdam, before New York. Still, why are non-white people so underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism? In Japan I guided people from different continents, mostly because I was an expat myself.

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I was often the only white person. I was aware that I might have my guiding position because of my white privilege and reflected many times upon this white saviour syndrome. Was I guiding because of my own pleasure or welfare? It felt edgy to ask money. Why me? I guess I also suffered some imposter syndrome, because I was aware of this white saviour syndrome. I do not know if I can explain it well enough.

The term white savior (complex or syndrome) refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in the poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) by Rudyard Kipling

In Belgium, it’s more clear I live in a white (sustainability) bubble. In addition, I realised that the other guest bloggers (who have blogged so far) are all white. I asked some non-white friends, but they have not found the inspiration or time yet. After listening this week to a podcast by a Flemish journalist with migration roots I decided I have to be more pro-active to include non-white guest bloggers.

Call for “unlikely” forest story writers

I can write about non-white people, but I should always acknowledge I write from my perspective as a young white woman. For many years I work on a manuscript which happens in Pakistan and Cameroon. I tried to add many diverse characters, but I made the choice to keep the main character (and the narrator) a white woman. Even if I change from POV and let the reader follow a Japanese character, on purpose I switch from first person to third person. Some weeks ago I enjoyed the teen series: ‘Never Have I ever’, which has a diverse cast, and more importantly a diverse production crew.

That’s why I invite you to send me a message if you like to write about your experiences outdoor, of difficulties to experience the nature, or your idea about the white outdoor recreation culture. You can contact me via the contact form or you can visit my IG account wereldwoud and send me a pm. I am also asking around in my own circles.

What can white people do?

Inform yourself by reading and listening to voices which are not yours. Latino Outdoors made some notes about “whiteness in the outdoors“:

And it’s ok to make mistakes. I made many mistakes. I will make more mistakes. But don’t be silent. White silence is also not helping to combat racism.

Read some Books: 

  • Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney
  • The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Edward Mills

  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad 

  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X

  • Jones, A.T. and Segal, D.S., 2018. Unsettling ecopsychology: Addressing settler colonialism in ecopsychology practice. Ecopsychology10(3), pp.127-136.

Diversify your social media feed

Diversifying your Instagram feed is also helping me realize my privilege and listen to and share voices outside of my own. Some Instagram accounts that I follow, are


Know your ancestral homelands

This can sound ambiguous, in particular in a continent like Northern-America, or an island like Australia, where you have uprooted white people, the so-called settlers, and non-white people who have not this white privilege whose ancestors settled in a new country and privileged a lot of territory at expense of indigenous people.

Jones and Segal (2018) wrote that Alexa Scully (2014) identified key questions in this article “Sustainability at Work at Lakehead Orillia, Indigenous Education” that settlers should ask in order to learn about a traditional territory and what protocols need to be honored:

  • Who is local to you?
  • What Indigenous communities are local to where you live/grew up/feel connected to, or to where you will be teaching?
  • What is the treaty or comprehensive land claim in your area?
  • What is the name of the community in their own language?
  • Is there a cultural centre? Is there a cultural outreach person—if so who are they?”

If you don’t know whose ancestral homelands you/we learn, teach, and live on:

  • Canada: https://native-land.ca/
  • USA (please let me know)
  • Northern-Europe (please let me know)
  • Japan (please let me know)

I believe that we have actually double homework. Not only learn about the ancestral lands where you settled, but also still dig into family traumas and stories about our village, region… that we left behind, which can be painful too.  When I was doing my practicum to become a forest therapy guide, I was mostly in Japan. I got invited to learn more about the history of the watershed where we guided and/or had our sit spots. I was a bit confused what to do, but then I decided to study the history of the watershed in Belgium (which let me cry) and the history of the watershed in Japan.

It can feel edgy

Once, I talked with a friend in Kabul, Afghanistan about all the outdoor recreation and my forest therapy guide experience. He listened patiently and then he said he felt so happy for me. I paused, because I remembered how he cannot enjoy all the nature surrounding Kabul. The unstable political situation makes it risky to go hiking or having a picknick outside. I am even not sure if they have the same need for outdoor recreation as westerners, or the stereotypical westerners who think Sundays are for activities with your nuclear family or friends. I noticed in other cultures you’ve extended families and it would be normal to spend your Sunday visiting them. In Pakistan, once, I enjoyed sitting on a taktha outside in the garden, getting to know all the people. They are in nature, they are in contact with nature, but there is a different meaning to it.

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In March 2014, I got to know the idea of #takht or #takhta in Hunza, Pakistan. It is a wooden sitting table, a place where family and friends would gather, eat dates, nuts and other snacks and talk. I got invited a couple of times to sit and talk there and noticed most of them are in the shadow of a tree.

My friend has studied in the Netherlands and Thailand, so he knew what I talked about. I didn’t know what he talked about. I had some idea. Even when I traveled in Pakistan’s nature, I had my white privilege protecting me and the places where I visited were still safer than Kabul. But I didn’t know the full picture.

Hence, I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to help. Perhaps this white saviour syndrome. I knew I couldn’t.  I can just share this awkward conversation of two young people talking about their (lack of) contact with nature. It was really awkward…

I read in this aforementioned paper by Jones and Segal (2018) that I am not the only one who feels “shame benefitting from injustice, anger, fear about loss of privilege, denial, or guilt about not doing more to redress the situation.” (Jones and Segal 2018). But we need to allow ourselves to grief, because it can lead to numbing, which will block the creativity needed to alter power relations and reimagine relationships between us all.