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Calling All Climbers of Color
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By Rocky_Mtn_High
From Arvada, CO
Jan 8, 2013
Lamb's Slide

James, glad I ran across this thread, as I enjoyed your excellent article. My thoughts as I was reading it:

1. I believe participation in sports in general is a matter of exposure and opportunity. Keep in mind, that African Americans were prevented from playing most professional sports for such a long time, but as the racial barriers were finally removed and opportunity to participate was granted to all, African Americans have rapidly increased their participation in sports at all levels.

2. If most African Americans live in urban areas, they will naturally be exposed and encouraged to pursue organized sports that abound in urban areas, rather than fringe sports that rely on access to wilderness.

3. I believe economics is also one of the primary factors that govern participation, and it is related to race. For various reasons, blacks have historically been less upwardly mobile than whites, and I would argue that sports such as climbing and ice hockey require a significant amount of entry-level expense that has not been widely achievable by many minority groups in general, which helps to explain the low participation rates of minorities in such sports. On a related point, many of the world's high altitude climbers are older, simply because it takes a lot of vacation time and money to go climb the world's highest peaks on another continent, and because so much expensive gear is required, and many young climbers have neither (a lot of free time nor money).

4. Finally, I believe that we climbers should encourage wider participation in our sport by everyone -- yes, at the risk of further competition for outdoor resources -- because that is the best chance we have of preserving wilderness areas that are fundamental to our sport, and also simply because climbing is good for the soul, and therefore, I would argue, the more climbers and outdooor enthusiasts there are, the better place becomes the world. :-)

John


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By MojoMonkey
Jan 8, 2013

James Mills wrote:
I once did a slide show of a two week kayak adventure in Bolivia. Pictures of me paddling on alpine lake at 10,000 feet were met not with gasps of awe but incredulous head shakes. "You've heard of the Bahama's, right?" said one cousin. This speaks to the point in my article regarding those things we're "supposed" to do as black people in America.


I dunno; photos from my trips get similar reactions. I'd assumed it was because they think it is crazy to have such strenuous and "risky" vacations when one could be soaking up sun in the tropics. Maybe my friends and family just think I am black?


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By Mark E Dixon
From Sprezzatura, Someday
Jan 8, 2013
Sure, I can belay

camhead wrote:
Rather than say that wilderness is something that we all desire, I might say that rather most of us do not like being cooped up and restricted spatially or mentally, that conditions of modernity have cooped us up more than many of our bodies or minds can deal with, and that wilderness recreation is one of many ways that we can cope with this. Hehe.


In an essay in the book "Climbing, Philosophy for Everyone" Joe Fitschen makes a pretty strong argument that the desire to climb is a genetic atavism dating back to pre-human times which has persisted because it may have some mild evolutionary benefit. I wonder if the urge to explore uninhabited land isn't the same.

Kind of drifting away from James' concerns...


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By Wannabe
Jan 8, 2013

James,
Thanks for responding to my question about possible solutions. I cringed when I read that this was for a beer commercial though. Seriously-- I at least was very disappointed. Not that you should give a sh!t what I think but I'm throwing it out there. I think you ought to shop around the fact that the only product that wants to feature African-American climbers is a beer company to NF, MH, REI and freakin' every other industry leader. I bet Chouinard would listen to you-- my impression is that he has most often had his head screwed on more tightly than I ever will. Its pretty disconcerting and I personally would rather see blatant commercialism endorsed than a product that is potentially addictive for people. I just think the industry could do better.

Thanks for your response,
Wannabe


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By Ian Stewart
Jan 8, 2013

James Mills wrote:
I believe that the only real solution to this issue is to continue to create positive role models that demonstrate the options that are available to anyone willing to put in the effort and try. I hope that this upcoming beer commercial featuring African-American climbers will help with that...


Even if I believed that "positive role models" are the only real solution (then again, I don't even agree that there's a "problem"), do you really think a BEER COMMERCIAL is where these positive role models should be portrayed? Let's face it...they don't want a black climber in their ad to increase exposure to climbing, they just want black people to sell beer to black people.

A few people have already said what I feel: it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with culture/location. The fact that race may have shaped a culture may be historically important, but it's long past time to move on. I grew up in somewhat rural Ontario, Canada, where the number of climbers that I knew could be counted on a single hand and you'd still have 5 fingers left over. There's no rock to climb there and everybody is playing hockey. When I say "everyone", I meant it...even the kids from the ONLY black family in town (population 15000) played the "white sport". Here in Colorado it's a very different situation.


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By BackCountry
From West Point, UT
Jan 8, 2013
Whaaaat?

White Wash is an interesting documentary that explores similar preconceived notions when it comes to African Americans and surfing. I recommend it to anyone wanting further understanding of underlying cultural pressures.


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By Woodchuck ATC
Jan 8, 2013
Rock Wars, RRG, 2008

In my last 6 or 7 trips to the Red,(that's over 2 years), I"ve seen one person of color there. A black man climbing at Muir, leading 5.10a at Bruise Brothers, see several times. That's it. No other times have I run into blacks in my climbing experience, except with group led city kids who were brought out to the cliffs in Wisconsin for a day activity. Are there other areas that tend to attract more minority climbers ??


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By Matt.Zia
From Colorado Springs, CO
Jan 8, 2013

I think there may be an element of stereotype threat in the lack of minorities participating in outdoor recreation. The theory is that since there's a stereotype of outdoor recreation being a white activity, minorities are not only less likely to participate, but are less likely to succeed merely because of the perceived stereotype of being somehow inferior. Another example of stereotype threat is an experiment with Asian women given a math test. When told the test was to test race and mathematics, the women did better because, hey, Asians are 'supposed' to be good at math right? But when told the test was to look at gender and mathematics, the women did worse because women are 'supposed' to be worse at math.

So in outdoor recreation, especially demanding disciplines like climbing and mountaineering, I'd put big money on there being a stereotype threat which detrimentally influences the participation of minorities. I dunno how you'd test it though.

It'd be interesting to see some anecdotes about other minorities in climbing/outdoor recreation, especially Asian-Americans. My experience growing up with Chinese grandparents was actually pretty similar to James' story of the reaction to his slideshow about Bolivia, except the reaction was, "Why weren't you getting an internship and applying to Harvard?"


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By Rolf Rybak
From Vancouver BC
Jan 9, 2013

An interesting article James and obviously some issues unique to African Americans.

As a first generation Canadian , I see the Adventure Gap , not as a race issue , but rather as a lack of economic opportunity. Limiting the discussion to race , side steps the real issue,” poverty is the real limiting factor in participation of outdoor pursuits.”

A readily agree with your statement “Although some climbers lead a hand-to-mouth existence in pursuit of their sport, the "dirtbag lifestyle could have little appeal to emerging black professionals who are the first of their families to attend college.” I think that statement is just as applicable to any family that is escaping the poverty trap.

In the 50’s when my family immigrated to Canada, immigrant families didn't go skiing, climbing or backpacking, these were luxury pursuits that only a hand full of the established, wealthy Canadians participated in. From an average North American middle class perspective, it's hard to appreciate how unattainable these activities are, both from a financially and sociological perspective.

As different waves of immigrants enter Canada, the Adventure Gap always seems to excluded the first generation immigrants, but as 2nd or 3rd generation of racially and culturally diverse groups obtain a degree of financial independence, you start to see some inclusion into the Adventure sports. I totally agree, there are “cultural barriers forged in social memory “, but that is hardly unique to one ethnicity or colour.

I think that a new generation of environmental stewards, has to include all members of our society and reflect the broad spectrum of diversity, as well as giving that opportunity to underprivileged kids regardless of race.


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By Tim McCabe
Jan 9, 2013

I found the article interesting and I am glad to see a reasonable discussion on such a hot button topic.

A couple of thoughts.

In over 20 years of living an outdoor adventure based life, I'll admit I have met very few non white's taking part in these same activities.

But for that matter there are a lot of white folks who don't do these things either.

Think about the math this way. If Blacks make up 12 percent of the population how many would you expect to see as climbers. In a group of 10,000 people 1200 should be black. In such a group of average Americans how many would be climbers?

Not that many I should think, not counting anyone who went to the gym once, there just aren't that many people willing to take part in something seen as dangerous. Add in all of the suffering of a big mountaineering trip and there are even fewer.

From what I have seen over the years, most Americans don't go into the outdoors to suffer. Few leave the comfort of home, hotel, resorts. Those who do go out to camp usually take most of the comforts of home with them, think giant RV. Once there most choose to recreate using motorized options: quads, jet-skies, and the like. Most see climbing as work and have no interest.


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By James Mills
Jan 9, 2013
Personal Photo

I think you ought to shop around the fact that the only product that wants to feature African-American climbers is a beer company to NF, MH, REI and freakin' every other industry leader. I bet Chouinard would listen to you-- my impression is that he has most often had his head screwed on more tightly than I ever will.

Patagonia has been a sponsor of my work in journalism at my blog the Joy Trip Project for two years (www.joytripproject.com) The North Face and REI are both coming on line this year to sponsor the Expedition Denali project in June. Outdoor industry support is starting to surface in a big way. The New Belgium Brewing Company has supported my work along with several other awareness raising media projects in the environmental protection scene in recent months so I can't fault a beer maker for taking the lead in promoting their products to a more diverse audience using outdoor recreation as a hook. Unfortunately marketing drives much of what we see in the media. What has changed though is companies' refusal to associate their brands with minority consumers at the risk of alienating their white customers. This is getting a bit off topic but where it comes to media exposure this a central point of the broader issue. Many companies in the ski and outdoor recreation business have helped to reinforce the notion that these pastimes are for whites only by featuring models and spokes-athletes that conform to a specific image. I believe that it is only when companies make a concerted effort to diversify their branding by authentically featuring people of color that we can change who we preceive "the face" of adventure.


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By nbrown
From western NC
Jan 9, 2013
Top of Shortoff with the Bonsai

Jake Jones wrote:
I get the gist of what you're saying James. It is a valid point and certainly worth contemplation and consideration. I am of the same opinion of patto, however. I think it would be more accurate if you were to say that urban culture does not lend its inhabitants to introduction of the outdoors, and many urban dwellers, and perhaps the majority, are black. There are droves of Italian Americans and Irish Americans, Asians and Hispanics (disregarding Spain as the sport climbing mecca these days) that come from urban backgrounds as well that will never climb, or know what climbing is, or care- just as their black counterparts. Likewise, there are many below the poverty line in predominantly poor white states, many deemed to be top climbing destination states, such as Kentucky and West Virginia, that will never be introduced to the outdoors in a recreational way, other than to shoot squirrels off their back porches. I agree that stewardship of our sport, and the general conservation of lands and outdoor recreation rests on the shoulders of future generational interest, and that interest is dwindling. I do not however agree with categorizing it by race or delegating the responsibility of one group to include another chiefly because of "race". Urban culture, which is largely impoverished culture, and also impoverished rural culture is where the focus should be. Surely there you will find all races and creeds, no matter who is the majority and minority. Surely there is no gene in the melanin of skin pigment that makes one prone to climb or not. The answer lies in the culture, as patto said. When you can barely afford to have new clothes for a school year as a child, and you're subsisting on assistance, the last thing on your mind is a rope, rack, or climbing gym membership- especially in places where gyms are few and far between and outdoor recreation is not prevalent. This malady, if you choose to label it that, affects all races. Not just African Americans. It is not my wish, as you have mentioned it is not yours, to start a heated discussion. I am merely expounding on a point that I see as valid. I appreciate your perspective, and I enjoyed your article James.


Very welll stated!


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By Ian Stewart
Jan 9, 2013

James Mills wrote:
I think you ought to shop around the fact that the only product that wants to feature African-American climbers is a beer company to NF, MH, REI and freakin' every other industry leader.


I brought up the beer issue because that's why you started this thread in the first place and was the only commercial you mentioned other than the Denali project. Even if other companies want to use minorities in their ads it's because they want to sell to those minorities and expand their customers. None of those companies give a shit about skin color unless it comes to marketing and selling products.

James Mills wrote:
I believe that it is only when companies make a concerted effort to diversify their branding by authentically featuring people of color that we can change who we preceive "the face" of adventure.


What does it mean to "authentically" feature people of color? Searching through a needle in a haystack to find a single colored person when there are thousands more white people already available that fit the bill, other than skin color? My idea of an "authentic" ad would be to whip out the camera at the crag or on the ski hills and just start recording. If a colored person happens to be in the frame that's great, but that's usually not going to happen.

Is there a reason you/they're specifically looking for a black person instead of some other race? Couldn't you make similar arguments about other ethnic backgrounds, perhaps Hispanic? If diversity is really the goal, why not just look for a "non-white" climber?

I share the same feelings as Jake Jones, and he worded his response much better than me.


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By James Mills
Jan 9, 2013
Personal Photo

At the risk of having this devolve into a marketing discussion demographically focused advertising is a pretty basic concept. Simply put you create ads that reflect the images and values of your target audience. If you want to attract black customers you use black actors artists or athletes. People need to see themselves or those who share their life experiences using the products they aim to buy. That's true whether we're talking about beer, automobiles or ski clothing. It's unrealistic to believe we have progressed enough in our society to believe that ads that don't feature a diverse representation of their audience will be effective.
As for authenticity, just last night a friend asked me if they could just use non-climber black actors against a blue screen and digitally paste in the rock and ice. I think we might all agree that would come across as pandering and more than a bit lame. I give this company a lot of credit for making an effort to find black climbers for this ad with real (authentic)experience. The product notwithstanding, I for one would love to see black climbers on television.


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By Ian Stewart
Jan 9, 2013

James Mills wrote:
At the risk of having this devolve into a marketing discussion demographically focused advertising is a pretty basic concept. Simply put you create ads that reflect the images and values of your target audience. If you want to attract black customers you use black actors artists or athletes. People need to see themselves or those who share their life experiences using the products they aim to buy. That's true whether we're talking about beer, automobiles or ski clothing. It's unrealistic to believe we have progressed enough in our society to believe that ads that don't feature a diverse representation of their audience will be effective.


That was part of my point my point. No company cares if black people climb, they just want more people to climb (and buy their products). Since there's a huge group of black people that don't climb, it makes sense to market to them. That's marketing 101. If there were millions of smurfs that weren't climbing, they'd be using a smurf.

It's not the casting call for black climbers that I'm disagreeing with; they can use whoever they want to sell their product. What I don't understand is, outside of marketing, why is race an issue?

James Mills wrote:
The product notwithstanding, I for one would love to see black climbers on television.


I love to see ALL climbers on television. I don't give a shit what their skin color is. I really like seeing climbers that are different from me, too: female, younger, older, shorter, taller, skinnier, fatter, weaker, stronger, handicapped, etc. That is what "diversity" means to me when it comes to climbing. Skin color doesn't make you "different", it just means your body reflects light differently. My skin color changes when I've been out in the sun too long. Big deal.


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By Ryan Williams
Administrator
From London (sort of)
Jan 9, 2013
El Chorro

Like most of you, I have always known that climbing, in every shape and form, is largely the domain of the white man. But this thread got me thinking about how different it is in London and the UK in general.

I've been to the climbing gym twice since this thread got started (3 days ago). I've counted, and I've seen five different black people at the gym and another 4 that would fall into the category "climbers of colour." I go in the mornings when the place is empty. If I went in the evenings I suppose that number would be much larger, probably around 40.

I'm willing to bet that there aren't many people on MP that could quote the same numbers.

London is probably the most diverse city in the world and there are dozens of climbing and bouldering centres throughout the city. Everyone is within a few miles of one, so a walk or a £2 bus ride is all it takes. Most centres also have subsidized rates for people in need. There is a huge effort here to get people to climb and it does make a difference.


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By camhead
From Vandalia, Appalachia
Jan 9, 2013
You stay away from mah pig!

Hey Ryan, that's really interesting about more diversity in climbing in England than in the states. Not super surprising, and just anecdotally, I've also noticed way more racial diversity in British television (been on a big Dr. Who kick recently, hehe) than on American shows; more interracial couples, more blacks in starring roles, fewer stereotyped roles, etc.

Another question on British climbing; I recall reading somewhere a long time ago that rock climbing in England was much more a bastion and pursuit of the blue collar working class than in the US, has this been the case in your observation?


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By Ray Pinpillage
From West Egg
Jan 9, 2013
Cleo's Needle

A casting call for a token black climber seems pretty patronizing.


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By Ryan Williams
Administrator
From London (sort of)
Jan 9, 2013
El Chorro

camhead wrote:
Hey Ryan, that's really interesting about more diversity in climbing in England than in the states. Not super surprising, and just anecdotally, I've also noticed way more racial diversity in British television (been on a big Dr. Who kick recently, hehe) than on American shows; more interracial couples, more blacks in starring roles, fewer stereotyped roles, etc. Another question on British climbing; I recall reading somewhere a long time ago that rock climbing in England was much more a bastion and pursuit of the blue collar working class than in the US, has this been the case in your observation?


Yes, you will definitely notice racial diversity in every part of UK life. A HUGE percentage of the population in the larger cities are mixed race and that can mean any colour, any race, from anywhere in the world. It is pretty amazing how cosmopolitan London is, and I think many many people across the UK have embraced diversity in a way that many other countries have not. Tolerance and respect are certainly on the list of values that I think of when talking about the UK. I can say that being part of a mixed race couple is a bit more comfortable in the UK than it was in NC, mainly because here it is just so common.

Of course, I do live in London. Many places in the UK are far far behind the times when it comes to tolerance and diversity. This past summer there was a story of a black rock climbing guide getting rocks thrown at him in Cornwall - the locals (not climbers) were trying to run him out of town. London is where everything happens so that is what gets broadcast to the world, but some other places in the UK are very isolated, despite this little island being so inhabited.

I can't claim to know a lot about the climbing history in the UK but many of the famous climbers of the past 4 or 5 decades were known to be pretty skint most of the time. In his book, Ron Fawcett talks about having to steal food even though he did have a job and this theme runs through a large part of the UK climbing community. You are constantly reading stories about someone sleeping in an abandoned hut or stowing away in a farmer's barn. Mountaineers and alpinists were obviously from a different background and had the means to spend time in the alps, but I think in large part the rock climbing of the UK was developed by people who never had much of anything.


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By James Mills
Jan 9, 2013
Personal Photo

Ian the problem is I don't see ANY black climbers on television, in magazines or videos. I'm not saying that anyone is to blame. It's just a shame. One of the many aspects of white privilege is to pretend that skin color doesn't matter. That's not a luxury I can enjoy. Comments regarding concentration of melanin and your body's ability to reflect light differently is insulting and suggests that the horrific period of oppression and discrimination in this country that spanned almost 400 years never happened. To play innocent now and claim to be "color blind" means that we've forgotten the past and refuse to take responsibility for where we are today.


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By Ray Pinpillage
From West Egg
Jan 9, 2013
Cleo's Needle

This is getting good now.


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By reboot
From Westminster, CO
Jan 9, 2013

Ryan Williams wrote:
Yes, you will definitely notice racial diversity in every part of UK life.

I don't pay that much attention but the royal family still looks quite white.

James Mills wrote:
Ian the problem is I don't see ANY black climbers on television, in magazines or videos.

Are black climbers under-represented? If not, then it's not what I would consider a "problem", as least not of the media. It's one thing to create/reinforce the stereotypes, which the advertisement/entertainment industries have been quite guilty of, it's another to actively promote diversity, which aren't the duties of private companies.


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By Ian Stewart
Jan 9, 2013

James Mills wrote:
Ian the problem is I don't see ANY black climbers on television, in magazines or videos. I'm not saying that anyone is to blame. It's just a shame. One of the many aspects of white privilege is to pretend that skin color doesn't matter. That's not a luxury I can enjoy. Comments regarding concentration of melanin and your body's ability to reflect light differently is insulting and suggests that the horrific period of oppression and discrimination in this country that spanned almost 400 years never happened. To play innocent now and claim to be "color blind" means that we've forgotten the past and refuse to take responsibility for where we are today.


All of the comments I've made have been within the context of climbing. If we were talking about the ease for a black person to get an education, income, or even the general respect to match that of a white person, it would be a whole different ballgame. I'm not ignorant to the horrible past that black people have had to endure. But we're not talking about those things, we're talking about climbing.

Can you honestly say that a black person would have ANY more difficulty than a white person in taking up climbing if they wanted to do so? As far as I'm concerned, all you need to do is walk into a gym with a few bucks and have at it. If you like it, buy some gear and go outside. If they can't afford it, no amount of black climbers in the media or anywhere will magically make them afford it (and we go back to the income issue, which does exist). What race-related roadblocks did you encounter when you decided to give climbing a try?

I (and others) have already pointed out that exposure to climbing for people of ANY color is highly dependent on your location and culture. I grew up surrounded by a nearly 100% white population that knew nothing about climbing, and it wasn't until I was 20 and moved to California that I heard about it and gave it a try. I still get the "you're crazy" responses from every single person in my family. I've seen far more black climbers in Colorado than I saw climbers of ANY color where I grew up. Climbing is not magically built into the genes of white people, but it just so happens that some white people have been raised where climbing is an option and most black people have not. Hockey and skiing (and probably most mountain sports) are in the same boat. Your article makes valid points about the terrible past that may have pushed black people to live where they do, but that doesn't mean that black people are being forced to stay where they are today (unless we go back to income/education, but again...that has nothing to do with climbing). Climbing was a huge factor into why I left my hometown.

I'm sorry if you took offense to what I said, but I stand behind it: skin color is irrelevant in the world of climbing. If you see a black person climbing in the media and it makes you happy then that's awesome. Me, I'd just see a climber.


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By camhead
From Vandalia, Appalachia
Jan 9, 2013
You stay away from mah pig!

Just a brief anecdote--

I've climbed a few times with a kid, super strong (solid 5.13 sport), established in the gym/team scene, who also happens to be black. I was talking to his mom (really cool woman, who chauffeurs him on long weekend roadtrips, belays him, totally supports his passion). She mentioned that a while back, their local newspaper did a brief write-up on him, since after all he is a very good comp climber. Quite a few angry folks from their black community wrote letters to the paper, complaining about them publicizing one of their own who was doing a "white person's sport."

I'm not exactly sure if there is much to glean from this story, and I hope that no nitwits will jump on it to say, "See? Blacks don't want to climb! It's not in their culture!" It's more complex than that. And as far as large-scale social problems go, Ian is right, this is not on par with economic or legal discrimination. But at the same time, it would be cool to see more people from historically peripheralized races and classes get into the sport that we love. Obe Carrion's story is awesome. Any one of us would be psyched to see hoards of non-white kids having bouldering sessions in Central Park.

In the end, what James is doing is pretty cool; he's identified a simple and real fact: not a lot of blacks climb. He's theorized rightly that if more blacks were exposed to climbing and outdoor rec in general, cultural bridges would be built and our whole society would be just a tiny bit better. And, finally, he's found a very minor yet significant way that he can help make this happen, by way of putting real black climbers into an ad, even if it is a cheesy beer ad.


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By Tomtomtomtom
Jan 9, 2013

Funny actually, I don't know a single black climber nor have I ever seen one at the crag. One of my best friends is of Nigerian descendance and he's been along to the gym once or twice (I forced him) and afterwards ranted about how all whites are crazy and foolish.
Something along the lines of "A black man sees a mountain or the sea and instinctively knows that sh*ts dangerous, you stay the hell out, but, ... You cooky whites feel this unnatural urge to get yourselves into messy situations." I don't remember the exact words he used but it was pretty hilarious. Bottom line: you might have a difficult time finding not only black climbers, but black ICE climbers? Sh*t be cold yo!


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