Black Faces, White Spaces
Written by Emilie Winter, Community Engagement Coordinator of The Kaleidoscapes
I first came across Carolyn Finney's book Black Faces, White Spaces in my last year of college, while I worked on my senior thesis. My thesis was about the racialization of outdoor spaces. I drew so much from Finney's work, as I attempted to better understand the relationships of race and nature as well as race and recreation in the U.S and Brazil. This particular book revealed that the nature of these very relationships is a complex one, both historical and geographically contingent.
I approached this body of work as a white Brazilian woman, who resides in and has traveled throughout the United States. The differences between these two nations could not be more distinct, a point that was driven home during a recent family visit to Telluride, Colorado. I was visiting family there one summer, and I quickly realized that this resort mountain town was overwhelmingly white. People of color were almost entirely absent in the shops, on the streets or on the ski slopes. I asked my aunt – a 45-year-old white woman who has lived there for 25 years- why that was the case. Her response to me was: “well Emilie, Black people don’t like mountains”. Black. People. Don’t. Like. Mountains…? Not only was this statement completely apolitical and ahistorical, but also I knew from my own experiences that this statement was simply not true. How did such a false perception like my aunt's become a dominant narrative that seems to be ingrained in the minds of white America?
In this book, Finney explores why and how Black communities are so underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism. Finney states that the “stories of environmental experiences for many African Americans are often explicitly embedded in the larger historical context in which they took place” (p. 62). I recommend this book to those who want to persist in unfolding this larger context, those who want to challenge distorted notions of systemic racism in outdoor spaces. Finney provides the reader with a kind of knowledge that too often goes unheard -- her writing is inviting and provocative at the same time. She cleverly uses language that is accessible to non-academia folks, while also challenging and shifting paradigms so many of us hold with racial identity and its relationship with the Great Outdoors.