10 May 2009


It often strikes me that walking (and particularly long-distance walking in Australia and the UK, walking in the country, walking for leisure) seems to be a very white pastime. I've been thinking about this for a while, now. Walking gear is advertised by white models, walking trails are advertised with pictures of happy white people, the author photos at the back of guidebooks show white faces smiling out at the reader, walker-friendly B&Bs are run by friendly old white couples. I have not thought very deeply about what this means (I have the privilege of not having to think about it whenever I go walking), but I was still interested to read an article in the spring edition of Walk Magazine called Rural Minority Report.

The issues that are addressed in the article (which is about the UK, as the Ramblers is a UK organisation) include:

* The perception of the countryside being "a place for the rich, white upper classes. All the land belongs to farmers and any black man caught trespassing will be shot".
* A "real knowledge gap" within urban-dwelling PoC communities (i'm a little leary of the acronym BME used in the article) about the countryside.
* A lack of visibility of POC using or being in the countryside. "One criticism levelled at British tourism boards by racial-equality campaigners is that much of their advertising features white people enjoying the outdoors, further alienating BME groups by reinforcing the notion that certain places aren’t ‘for them’."
* Racism. "While overt racism is rare, non-white faces in some areas still provoke a reaction".
* "[R]eal physical barriers prevent[ing] people accessing the countryside" - that is, lack of public transport, the cost of public and private transport, and the difficulty of deciphering public transport timetables especially for those people for whom English is a second or third (or fourth, or fifth) language.
* No habit or family history of going to the countryside.

I think the article is slightly problematic in its approach (quoting white people telling stories about PoC is one example that sits uncomfortably with me and another is the emphasis on the 'worries' PoC have, with less acknowledgement of the actual racism they experience) but I am glad that at least the issue of racism in walking and racism in the countryside is being addressed.

It's something I have also noticed when watching walking documentaries. As much as I have enjoyed Julia Bradbury's Wainwright Walks, and have been very happy to see an active, not-dolled-up woman talking to other women in the countryside (I'm sure the show has even passed the Bechdel test a few times), I've also noticed that most (if not all) of the people featured in the interviews have been white. It was also interesting to see (and later read) Griff Rhys Jones talking to some black walkers in his show Mountain:

It was startling and dreadful to notice how incongruous black walkers seemed. I realized that I had seen so few black people out on the hills and had sort of accepted it unthinkingly.

"But that's what we believe," Donald said. "People think a black man out walking looks odd. So how do you think a black person feels? We have to get people to realize that they can get out there and walk and that's why we go together in a group." (2008:198)


I'm usually quite apolitical on this blog, I think, but it's important to recognise that travel and walking are not apolitical activities. Anyway, maybe this is some food for thought for your next walk - unless you're a PoC, in which case you probably already think about it when you're walking (much like I am very aware of being queer and trans).


  1. Just thoughts I've been having but not sure how to articulate them:

    I think it is important to note that there is a history of walking, particularly in Indigenous cultures, but it a completely different kind of walking than the kind that we tend to do.

    Don't know how else to say it but maybe I will try and put some words on the paper about it, y/n?

  2. yes! i was thinking about this today - that it would be good to post again noting the difference between the history of walking in the uk and the history in australia. because i think there are big differences. if you write, could we link it/post it here?

  3. oh! yes! walking - i want to chime in, but i also want to keep it a surprise.

    but another thing - when I was learning about the history of Australian Indigenous writing, walking played a major part in cultural adaption/ resistance to the colonisers. In tasmania, people would walk for days, hardly stopping, to deliver a petition about conditions on their mission to the authorities in 'town'/ hobart. Walking served as a way of preserving autonomy of their words on paper, keeping these in sight until they were physically handed to the right person.
    but yes, there are lots of different kinds of walking.

  4. I think BME is the 'right' term at the moment in the UK - I mean, it's my impression that it's the term which is most accepted/used as a self-identifier by black and minority ethnic people in the UK, and that PoC is seen as being a specifically American term.

    I really liked this post, by the way - I totally never thought about how white UK walking was, even though it totally is. Hmm.

  5. thanks, ika - i wasn't sure. i can see that PoC is considered american, and i think probably a lot of australians feel the same. i hope i didn't offend anyone using a different phrase. (i suppose it's the whole 'minority' thing - like, i'm just not sure, but "non-white" people aren't actually a minority in particular places...)

    gaylourdes, yes! and the whole idea of spiritual journies around country undertaken on foot, too. sj and i were reading a bit about the history of bushwalking in australia, and the way the particular framing of australian bushland as 'wilderness' (esp in the last century) worked/works to erase the continued history of indigenous interaction with the land.