Black Lives Matter in Nature

For many Black Americans, access to nature is not equitable nor always safe.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Written with Ashley Smith, LPC 

Used with permission from Ashley Smith
Ashley Smith
Source: Used with permission from Ashley Smith

Research shows that time spent in nature can improve mental and physical health in as little as a few minutes (Barton & Pretty, 2010). New research shows that 20 minutes a day, three times per week could significantly reduce cortisol levels, the hormone that produces the body's stress response (Hunter, Gillespie & Chen, 2019). An important factor of this study is that the researchers looked at the effects found in urban nature environments. If nature is so good for us, and it’s free, all should have access to safe places to explore nature—starting in childhood.

Lack of diversity is something we often notice in the workplace, government, wealthy neighborhoods, etc. But where are all the Black people in nature? 

As history unfolds before us, we are exposed to just how many “plot holes” exist in our stories as human beings. While we know that Black people are absent in many areas of life, nature is not one talked much about. So where are they? What factors contribute to their absence? For one, we have seen some of the challenges that Black people face when they leave their homes. Tamir Rice is an example of the kinds of danger that Black people, even Black children, encounter in public. That’s ridiculous, right? Black people are always in public, we see them everywhere! 

Push pause… where do we see them? No doubt there are pockets of Black people who live in upper-class neighborhoods and use the local resources. Still, they are not exempt from prejudice. But take into consideration Black families in inner cities. City settings generally have fewer natural resources. As a result, many cities make a point to maintain local parks, botanical gardens, arboretums, and other natural spaces. The quality of that setting is often heavily influenced by the socioeconomic status of the area. This means that inner-city people, and even people in lower-income rural areas, might have fewer natural spaces that are safe or kept in good condition. 

Whatever resources do exist regardless of income availability to Black people might be limited. With the growing controversy regarding police interactions, going outside is a choice that is not taken lightly in the Black community. 

Public pools and beaches are other areas with limited accessibility. Ever heard the old stereotype that Black people can’t swim? It is directly related to segregation and barriers to outdoor spaces. The rate of Black people with access to public pools and safe swimming areas correlates with a disproportionate number of Black people who cannot swim as well as higher rates of drowning in the Black community (Wiltse, 2014).

Ashley's mother shared her experience as a child in a world that was still feeling its way into desegregation. While on the beach she recalls that even though it was technically not segregated any longer, Blacks were expected to stay on “their side.” Police officers patrolled the Black side of the beach heavily on horseback. Going to the beach was a rare privilege for Black children from my town during my mother’s childhood. Transportation, tolls, paying for access to the beach, and the aftermath of segregation created barriers for most Black families. 

I, Ashley, have personally experienced racism, bias, prejudice, you name it, in a number of places. The thing is, the levels are so varied that sometimes you don’t immediately realize what you are experiencing — just as white people and other non-Black people don’t realize that, even though intentions are not overtly or covertly racist, they are responding to biases that impact their view of Black people. Many times I have been in public and been followed through stores, that’s racism, but similar things occur in natural settings. Many parks and beaches are reserved for locals. This means that if you don’t live in that community you are not permitted on certain town property. What this means is not only are non-residents not allowed but poor people as well. If you cannot afford to live in that town, you automatically cannot enter their parks. People of color are more likely to be “priced out” of certain settings. Local parks are their own entity. Public places, however, cannot discriminate in the same way. Still, when I venture into areas that are predominately white it’s not unusual for me to get the occasional “crooked eye.” My home town is quite poor on her side and many people don’t have the opportunity to venture out. I live about 45 minutes outside of New York City and yet, many people in her town have never been to the city. The same applies to natural settings not far from us. Not only do many people from my area have no way to get there, but they’re also afraid to go. The puzzled glances that seem to silently ask “what are you doing here” or looks of surprise that say “hmm I don’t usually see Black people here” are the least of their worries. It is not uncommon in these situations for police to question you or make their presence known. Furthermore, Black people often worry about other people in these settings who are largely invisible because they’re accepted and expected to be there. Black people are notorious for finding humor in their pain and I cannot tell you how many jokes I’ve heard about not going into the woods so you don’t end up decorating a tree. This sounds ridiculous, right?! Everyone knows it’s dangerous to go into the woods alone and natural park settings aren’t really the woods. There is a double standard for Black people that can make any local park just as dangerous as the woods, and even going in groups can’t always save you. 

Still, it’s human nature to seek the release of the outdoors and the benefits of fresh air. According to statistics posted on the Department of Health and Human Services, Black people suffer from asthma at higher rates than non-Hispanic white people (Akinbami et al., 2012). Natural spaces are like air filters for the world. Not having access to that is like constantly breathing through a dirty filter.

Ensuring safe, equitable spaces in nature is not a new initiative. For example, the Fresh Air Fund (freshair.org) has been providing outdoor opportunities for inner-city children for over a century. The Children and Nature Network (childrenandnature.org) works with national and local change agents to impact outdoor equity. Other resources for getting equal access to the outside include Child and the City (childinthecity.org) and Outdoor Afro (outdoorafro.com), a website devoted to connecting Black people and nature.

If you have privilege, use it. Check your assumptions. Advocate for safe, clean, outdoor spaces for Black people and Black children. Donate to initiatives that support the change. Give your time or your money or both to initiatives that provide safe access to natural spaces to children of color. Elect public officials that make the environment, and equal access to it, a priority. Educate yourself about the natural spaces in your area, there are likely to be stories of white colonialists pushing out Indigenous people as well as stories of segregation and racism. 

Humans are the natural world; and all living, breathing creatures of this planet must have the same access to its bounty. 

References

Contributor: Ashley Smith received her MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Fairleigh Dickinson University and is currently a Behavioral Health Clinician working with mental health and substance abuse clients. She spent the initial years of her career working with the forensic population in a prison re-entry program which fueled her interest in social and racial equality work. When she is not at her private practice, she continues to study inequality in America and get involved in educating and advocating for justice. Find Ashley Smith on Psychology Today.

Akinbami LJ, Moorman JE, Bailey C, et al. (2012). Trends in asthma prevalence, health care use, and mortality in the United States, 2001–2010. NCHS data brief, no 94. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 

Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental science & technology, 44(10), 3947-3955.

Hunter, M.R., Gillespie, B.W., Chen, S.P. (2019). Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722

Ghandour, R.M., Sherman, L.J., Vladutiu, C.J., Ali, M.M., Lynch, S.E., Bitsko, R.H., Blumberg, S.J. (2018) Prevalence and treatment of depression, anxiety, and conduct problems in U.S. children. The Journal of Pediatrics. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.09.021.

Wiltse, J. (2014). The Black–White swimming disparity in America: A deadly legacy of swimming pool discrimination. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 38(4), 366-389.