By Marpheen Chann
Theary Leng Ryder’s voice paused and sometimes cracked with emotion as she recounted her experience stopping in the rural Maine town of Millinocket to check into a local inn back in May 2022. She had been looking forward to visiting the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument to prepare for an August camping trip she would be leading for Cambodian youth.
Ryder, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Cambodia and a resident of Gorham, was accompanied by Sosanya Pok, a 30-something daughter of Cambodian refugees and a resident of Scarborough, and Rachel Hall, who is white and a resident of Portland.
“I was terrified by what happened,” Ryder said. “That had never happened to me before.”
The three had just checked into a local inn where they were asked repeatedly, “Where are you from?” Ryder recalled that the staff at the inn didn’t seem satisfied when she said she was from the greater Portland area; they continued to pose the question, as if they did not believe her.
A short time later, while sitting in the parking lot in her white Toyota Rav4 SUV, talking about the incident with her traveling companions, a police officer showed up. The officer said someone had called to report a car identical to the one Ryder was driving. They said the report was that the car had been swerving. The officer asked to check their IDs and left.
“I have never been stopped, or had the police called on me before. My experience in rural Maine… It left me terrified,” Ryder said.
But the unwelcome experiences didn’t stop there. Later that evening, Ryder, Pok, and Hall walked into a local restaurant and sat down for dinner.
“No hostess or waiter came to serve us. It took our white friend Rachel walking up and asking to be served before someone came to take our order,” Ryder said.
That’s when Ryder interrupted, adding, “And the waiter also asked us where we were from….”
“Oh yeah, and when we said we were from the Portland area he turned to Rachel, a white woman, and asked her ‘Is that where you all are from?’ ” Pok said.
Both women were insulted that the waiter didn’t believe them and instead sought to verify their story by asking a white woman.
The Black and brown experience while outdoors
Ryder’s and Pok’s experience mirrors a larger conversation taking place nationwide about the lack of diversity among visitors to national and state parks and monuments.
In fact, the National Park Service’s 10-year survey of visitors to America’s premier outdoor spaces reveals that an overwhelming majority of visitors were white – 77%. Only 23% were people of color, even though people of color make up about 42% of the nation’s population. The lack of diversity plays into the misperceptions of white Americans who do encounter people of color in the outdoors. Their reactions are sometimes deadly.
In a story from 2020, Juan Michael Porter II, who is Black and is a frequent hiker of Mount Katahdin, wrote in a blog post for the Appalachian Mountain Club of his experience, and his feelings when some climbers told him, “You surprised us… We didn’t expect to see you.”
Deep roots of racism and exclusion in conservation
While some may attribute the lack of diversity among those enjoying nature to socioeconomics – for example, not being able to afford camping and hiking gear, or even park passes – or to a lack of interest, the stories of Theary Ryder, Sosanya Pok, and Juan Michael Porter II indicate something far deeper.
Dr. KangJae Lee, a researcher at North Carolina State University who studies the intersection of race and leisure, points to the middle of the 19th century when white urban elites sought refuge in the outdoors and romanticized the wilderness as clean and pure. According to a 2021 CNN article on outdoor recreation that quotes Lee extensively, along with this romanticization came racialization, with preservation of natural resources and the outdoors symbolizing the preservation of white supremacy.
“(Some White elites saw) the urban environment as dirty, unhealthy, filled with lots of immigrants and people of color, whereas green spaces were clean, quiet, and for White people,” Lee said in the CNN article. “They had no interest in serving people of color. Some of them even viewed parks and outdoor recreation as a tool for maintaining White supremacy, and believed White Americans could cultivate tough and boisterous characteristics in the outdoor environment.”
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in 2020, many organizations, companies, and groups were forced to confront their histories and those of their founders. This included the well-known conservation group Sierra Club, which issued a statement about their founder John Muir and the history of the conservation movement: “The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who… helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir’s death…And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.”
The founders of the conservation and environmental movement formed a small, exclusive club of sorts, predominately made up of rich, white men. Among them was a lesser-known conservationist, Madison Grant, who helped found the Bronx Zoo, but also penned the notorious book The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, which lamented the decline of the “Nordic race” and drew praise from both U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Gifford Pinchot, hailed as one of the founding fathers of the conservation movement and appointed by Roosevelt to be the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, was also heavily involved in the eugenics movement.
Reclaiming the outdoors
When asked why they persevered and went camping and hiking in Maine, and even took a youth group, despite their experiences with microaggressions and outright racism, Ryder said, “Maine is so beautiful. It’s our home. And we want to be a part of it and travel through it…[the] colors are attractive. Seasons are beautiful. I believe Mainers are kind and Maine is beautiful and the people are beautiful too. I hope that Mainers open their hearts and don’t see us as threats just because we look different.”
As a Cambodian Mainer who has lived here most of her life, Pok still hasn’t explored much of Maine outside of the greater Portland region, but she would like to. She hit on a familiar theme.
“How protective people are about what it means to be a real Mainer… there’s a gatekeeping that happens in terms of how some people treat those they perceive as being ‘from away.’ There needs to be more understanding because Asian Americans and people of color belong in the outdoors, too.”
Fortunately, many organizations are working to make the outdoors more inclusive for people of color, including Asian Americans. Maine Conservation Voters has a list of these organizations as well as a curation of articles, blog posts, and a reading list that can be found at www.maineconservation.org/blog/the-inaccessibility-of-the-outdoors-for-bipoc.