Sisu Magazine: Ask Jenny Bruso #2

Ask Jenny Bruso is an advice column for the quarterly magazine, Sisu. See writing for all of my past columns. Need advice? Scroll all the way down to let it all out xo

Issue #2 | Spring 2019

Dear Jenny Bruso,
How can cis white dudes help make trails and the outdoors more inviting and open for women, POC (people of color), trans and queer hikers?
-Trying Not to Suck

Dear Suck,

I was really excited to get this question. I mean, a dude who doesn’t want to be a jerk? Excellent! But then I started to feel kinda… eh. Not about you, but about how willing I feel to give a man a cookie for wanting to not be the worst. People shouldn’t get cookies for valuing equality, that should be obvious and yet, I see it all of the time on social media: some prominent athlete or figure in outdoors culture finally finds out about the diversity conversation, built on years of work done by people experiencing oppression, then cobble together a few sentences about diversity in an Instragram post and everyone applauds their compassion. Their fans talk about how amazing they are and thank them for caring (what?!) and all the while, they aren’t actually doing anything. Not even lifting up anyone else’s work or acknowledging any sort of history. They don’t even call things by name: racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, etc. so no one gets too uncomfortable. Anyway, surprise, I’m bitter, but I still kind of want to give you a cookie because now I get to tangent about things that bother me. For example, it’s always women and non-binary folks creating these movements, or, they’re the backbone of them without getting the props. I am so tired of all of the emotional labor from the ills of cisheteropatriarchy resting squarely on those most abused by it. Goddamn, it’s basic as hell.

I know you asked specifically in relation to the outdoors and I’ll get into that, but really, isn’t what happens out on the trail the same shit being perpetuated in the rest of our lives by the dominant culture? These are some extremely paired down ways one can be a better ally in general:

  • Believe people’s’ stories when they tell them, without question. Just because you haven’t experienced something, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Your opinion of their experience has no value and that is ok! It isn’t about you. De-center your feelings.
  • Get comfortable with the reality that we all have privilege, some forms more valuable than others, and then question yourself often about what kind of access or advantages you receive because of it/them. Being white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, educated, not poor, etc. are all examples of privileges and we’re all given certain advantages based on which ones we possess. Having privilege doesn’t mean your life doesn’t suck sometimes or you don’t experience hardship, it simply means you are given more tools to navigate through certain experiences than those who don’t have the same privileges.
  • Be ready to be wrong. Often. Don’t let your ego or good intentions block you from receiving criticism. Impact > intent.
  • Don’t use phrases like “I have a black/queer/disabled/etc. friend” to justify a point you want to make.
  • Don’t ask your friends who experience oppression to explain to you what is or isn’t oppressive. Your friend, be they a person of color, trans, etc., is not the spokesperson for people who share their identities. They may tell you something isn’t oppressive to them that is to someone else. That’s fine for them, but it doesn’t invalidate other peoples experiences. Talk to your white cisgender friends and consult the google oracle before asking your friend for emotional labor.
  • Be of service. Ask people how you can support them and then do it.
  • Accept that speaking out against oppression may make people in your life uncomfortable and maybe even angry. Do it anyway. Bring up these issues at work, at home, at family gatherings, etc. 
  • Use your platforms, to share people’s posts online about these issues. You don’t have to be mouthpiece or leader. Sharing posts or articles on social media create further reach, especially because so often these conversations are being had in vacuums. I like seeing friends repost things because to me it shows they care, even if that logic is flawed. Expecting others to have the hard conversations keeps the burden squarely on them.
  • Throw expendable dollars, regularly, at organizations founded by people experiencing oppression who are doing the work of dismantling injustice and/or providing resources to those lacking.

To get more specific about outdoors culture, media and who is being targeted for outdoor recreation and who isn’t, all of the usual suspects are at play: classism, racism, sexism and so on, but I think colonization is a major factor that doesn’t get enough air time and unfortunately, I don’t think the big brands and media are going to go there anytime soon. To clarify, people with power, or resources, become threatened when they feel like power, or resources, are being taken from them. This mentality is deeply ingrained in the foundation of this country. White people have been selling and partitioning land that isn’t theirs and displacing and murdering indigenous people for hundreds of years and it’s still happening in various ways like the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and the lack of resources and inherited trauma of Native folks living on reservations. You’ll find colonial undertones in conversations about the environment, “public lands,” conservation, land overuse, etc. An implication that new people are partaking in these places and fucking it up for everyone else. It’s often subconscious, like bizarre policing of access and resources, even by well-meaning people. The “border wall” is a good example. Many Americans are afraid of what could happen if undocumented people keep migrating to the States and “taking” all of “our” resources, not thinking about the fact that one in six Americans is already going without vital resources, such as food. Food! Flint Michigan still doesn’t have clean water. We don’t take care of our own people. No one trying to migrate to this country will be taking the food out of peoples mouths who already have enough. That isn’t how things built on white cisheteropatriarchy work. I know, I’m tangenting, but all of this shit is related.

Outdoor media and culture are so behind on everything! I’m often asked what needs to be done to get more people outside and so often the first thing I think about is how they still don’t even know how to talk about (white) women without trivializing them or otherwise giving them accolades for things that shouldn’t matter. Making outdoor spaces safer for oppressed people takes first admitting that these spaces are inherently hostile by the means with which they were created. Yes, there’s more representation of people of color in print media, but that doesn’t mean they’re being invited into those strategies or conversations. As far as representation goes, there’s still extremely little representation of queer and trans people, disabled folks or anyone who wears plus-sizes. These powerhouses are also doing more to support the work of outdoor groups and organizations doing this work, but they still shy away from talking about historical and institutionalized modes of oppression that inform all of this and they certainly don’t use the words racism, colonization, transphobia, fatphobia, etc. when trying on these issues. We absolutely must talk about the root causes of these issues and name them to even begin to talk about change.

How to be a better ally in regards to the outdoors

  • Self-education is necessary. Dr. Carolyn Finney has an amazing book, Black Faces White Spaces, that covers and addresses the lack of representation of Black people in outdoor recreation and environmentalism and the legacies of slavery and racial violence that have shaped our cultural understandings up to the present.
  • It is so easy to follow all of the great organizations and groups doing work on these issues on social media, especially on Instagram. Changing your feed can change your life! Outdoor social media is often a glossy highlight reel of extreme adventures in inaccessible places by carefree, hair-blown-back, young, white people. Normalizing the image of every day people sharing their adventures can do a lot to reshape our ideas about who is getting out and how they’re doing so. Some of my favorites to follow are @indigenouswomenhike, @brownpeoplecamping, @theventureoutproject, @browngirlsclimb, @melaninbasecamp, @wilddiversity, @queernature, @nativewomenswilderness, just to name a few! Oh, yeah, and @unlikelyhikers. Most of these can be found on other platforms, too.
  • Again, financial support is always a good call, but only for organizations, groups and people who are doing grassroots work, local organizations (look them up!) like Trans Lifeline, Black Lives Matter and most of the groups/orgs I named above accept and rely on donations. Looking into local organizations is a really great idea.
  • Acknowledge the land you recreate on. Who are its original stewards? What do they call the land you’re recreating on? is an amazing resource, and be sure to explore the links they provide.

I know, this is a lot, Suck, it’s probably daunting, but you asked and that’s the first step. Now you’ve got to back it up. You have no reason not to now. Proceed with courage, humbleness and love. I believe in you.

Love, Jenny Bruso

Ask me a question! I’ve lived a lot of lives and while I’m no expert on anything, I do know a little bit about a lot of things when it comes to the mess and magic of being a human who wants to do better. I’d love to help you climb out of whatever hole you’ve found yourself in and let go of the impossible standards we’re supposed to live and die by.

All questions will remain anonymous. I won’t be able to respond to everyone who submits. By hitting “submit” you are consenting to your question being lightly edited and printed.

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