This week I read Carolyn Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Finney critically analyzes how parks and outdoor spaces, and people who use them, are represented in the media, policy, and society. She notes that the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act were both passed in 1964 and how the separate trajectories of their development reflect “a false separation between humans and environment” (p. 47). The Center for Whole Communities, frames the separation Finney identifies this way, “How is it that those of us who care about people and those of us who care about the land have ended up divided from one another?”
In examining the Wilderness Act of 1964 Finney writes,
“In particular, the law focused on the use of wilderness area for the public purposes of recreation, scenic viewing, scientific understanding, education, conservation, and historic preservation. But which public? Segregation was still an everyday part of American life” (p. 47).
Finney discusses how segregation exists today in the limited number of visual representations of African Americans in National Parks literature, and in magazines like Outdoors, as well as the limited number of African Americans who have had access to leadership positions within the environmental movement. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times (Nelson, 2015) highlights a survey commissioned by the National Park Service that notes that 22% of park visitors were minorities, in contrast to the fact that minorities account for 37% of the American population.
Finney also highlights how racism is embedded in environmentalism. Outdoor spaces can become sites of exclusion depending on which narratives of place are made visible and invisible in stories, interpretation, education, and media representations. Reading Finney’s work also caused me to reflect on the blog post that I wrote about Land Rights and Landmarks and whether struggles over land ownership and use are made visible on the Ruston Way waterfront.
As I walked the Tacoma waterfront this week I noticed the sign below and reflected on Finney’s critical questioning of the term “public.” Finney’s reflections have supported me to think more critically about how the term “public” is used and understood and how the lack of visual and textual representations of African Americans leads to marginalization and limits the narratives that are shared about place.
In response to a reflection prompt, “When I am on the Ruston Way waterfront I wonder about . . .”, one visitor wrote,
“The past, primarily, but also the other people who are using the site and their relationship to the history and present that are there. I am reminded that Tacoma’s history likely resonates differently to the young African American man running the path, or to the two aging Asian women out for a daily walk near the Chinese Reconciliation Park, or an elderly man who appears to have spent his life doing manual labor.”
The visitor’s reflection acknowledges how the same outdoor space may be very differently experienced and perceived depending on one’s racial identity and lived experiences.
Finney, C. (2014). Black faces, white spaces: Reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the great outdoors. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Nelson, G. (July 12, 2015). Why are our parks so white? The New York Times, p. 4.