thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

An Ideological Mess or: How I Learned to Not Stop Worrying and Still Love Rock Climbing

In class, gender, race, Rock Climbing on May 11, 2012 at 6:54 am

Guest Contributor Narinda Heng

Iíve been climbing fences, balconies, and trees for years, but it wasnít until January of 2011, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that I went rock climbing for the first time at Malibu Creek State Park. It’s funny that instead of participating in a Day of Service, I went rock climbing. I guess that could be seen as one of the very first moments when I had to grapple with feeling a contradiction between pursuing rock climbing and the many other ideals and identities that I hold dear. And now here I am–here we are– discussing race, gender, and class in rock climbing.

And it feels good. Really good. Even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult. Because I don’t feel like I need to ignore or hide the fact that I think about and experience these contradictions, and what’s more, I’m seeing that there are so many people out there who are supportive of talking about it. And my partner, who has been climbing and dealing with this for much longer than I have, gets to heal a bit from her earlier discouragement with discussions like this in the online climbing community.

I submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing community who were ready and willing to talk about it. I was also ready to see people be defensive and assert that there’s no race/gender/class on the rock, and I actually agree with that–those delicious moments of just climbing are part of why I love it. So I understand why Guidoprincess said this:

I think the reason many people, including myself, find this offensive is that we turn to climbing exactly to avoid worthless BS like this. While many other public forums are full of this ìracial landscape navigationî nonsense, climbing is a pure activity where everyone can just chill the f*ck out.

The thing is, for me, it’s not nonsense. I navigate my race/sex/class everywhere, all the time, and telling me to “chill the f*ck out” is like telling me to perform a lobotomy on myself. I can’t “chill the f*ck out” because there’s a lot more in play when I’m trying to get into the “pure” part of the activity.

As Brad, Tyler, James, and Jason have helped articulate in their thoughtful replies, these issues are real for people, and it’s not about whether the climbing community is racist, but that society is racialized, that there are financial challenges to participation, and that gender and sexuality affect us when we’re at the crag, and that all these things intersect and affect us before we even show up at the crag.

To have people help articulate this reality and why it’s important to talk about it actually makes my eyes sting with relief and joy. Tyler put it well:

… So yes, once you are in the climbing community, race and class have little influence. But oneís access to our community is decided in large part by a vastly unequal society, and we should therefore address this inequity and work to eradicate it.

… There is a difference between looking to a category of people and blaming them for inequality and simply looking at our society and recognizing that inequality exits and the need to address it.

And James Mills points out:

The freedom to defy cultural norms and live for the pleasure of adventure is something that few people of color today enjoy. Sitting here in Yosemite now and camping last night in Camp 4 I for one am infinitely grateful for the opportunity and I know from personal experience that to get this far is not easy and horribly lonely. So when I see a fellow climber of color you bet I think they deserve credit for their accomplishments because of their race. To ìnot see colorî today in any human endeavor that is disproportionately biased toward one race over others is at best naive and at worst a blatant show of support for the status-quo which for the long term preservation of public lands and our natural resources is unacceptable.

What James wrote is particularly powerful because it’s a story from a person of color who has actually been in the outdoor industry, which I haven’t. I am looking forward to seeing what RockGrrl thinks of this discussion, too, as a woman of color who has been climbing for almost 20 years. What I have to offer is my own story.

I didn’t find much discussion of intersecting identities in climbing media until I read James’ post about†Expedition Denali. This isn’t theoretical; this is our reality. I dealt with feeling that the climbing world was filled with people I had a hard time relating to outside of the crag, and then decided not to avoid doing something I love because of it.

Being a queer, Southeast Asian woman means I sometimes feel isolated when I’m around mostly straight, white males, or when I’m devouring hours and hours of climbing media filled with them. But to be clear, I’m not condemning magazine editors or filmmakers or straight, white, males for it– it’s a reflection the world we live in, and of the history of this sport. There’s a part of me that couldn’t help but align the language of “first ascents” and “discovering new areas” with the painful history of colonization all over the world. Then, I worked to embrace the possibility that even though I’m triggered by it, and there’s pain associated with it, in Melissa’s words, “things don’t have to stay that way!”

In terms of class, for me, being low-income doesn’t just mean deciding whether I am willing to live simply and frugally. I already do that as a†commitment to living a creative life, working toward social justice, and having a respectful relationship with the earth. But being low-income myself isn’t just about me; it means I have to be willing to be unable to help my working-class parents financially if they ever need it, which is something that is a very real concern for me. Whether that’s how it should be or not, whether that’s a race/gender thing or not, it’s part of my relationship with rock climbing.

For me, itís not about how people look at Obe or Ashima. It ís about how their stories link to my own, and to other people who can relate. I’m not even calling for efforts to make the climbing community have matching demographics to the entire US population, nor am I even demanding to see myself reflected in it, though I do wonder why there’s resistance to the idea. Mainly, I’m talking about how meaningful it was when I did see myself, which Josh Lowell, the filmmaker, seems to understand:

it ís rewarding to know that itís reached people who might not otherwise see themselves as fitting into the dominant climbing culture.

In the film, Obe said that rock climbing was “like a heart, like a lung, like a liver–like I needed it.” Watching him admit that was emotional for me, because the film showed what he went through before saying that, and because I think about what it takes for me to let myself love climbing.

Narinda lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she has been working with various arts/community organizations since 2007. She keeps an online notebook called Long Cool Hallway, is co-founder/co-producer of a webseries called That’s What She Said, and blogs at Transitional Zone. She loves the Oxford comma, so please don’t take that away from her.

  1. I am so pleased to see this conversation so thoroughly engaged. It’s as if screaming into the void I finally hear a distant echo that demands a reply. I love it! People of color have so much to contribute to climbing and outdoor recreation. There is great strength in diversity that encourages the growth, development and preservation of any environment. As I told the team in our first meeting last week “Denali has been climbed before. This is nothing new. But it’s our time now to show the world how WE climb Denali.” I believe we can bring a new verve and style to the sport with a same cultural enthusiasm that has provided background music for climbing and ski porn videos for years!
    Narinda, I’m in LA form Mother’s Day weekend. Let me take you to lunch.

    • The presence of a lot of hip hop influence in climbing culture is something I’ve noticed, too. And where once I would have cast a lot of angry judgments about cultural appropriation, I’m now thinking, okay, how can I be compassionate in the way I engage with it so that we can all try to move forward together? Thanks so much for reaching out, James. I’ve sent an email.

  2. Narinda, this is amazing! You put to words so many complex or weird uncomfortable feelings I’ve had with the sport, that I’ve pushed through or ignored because, at the end of the day I don’t want to let it matter or interfere.

    I’ve been climbing out here in Hawaii for the past two weeks, at the gym and some local rocks, and it’s been an interesting twist — I think 80-90% of the climbers I’ve met so far have been people of color. We met a man from Japan at one area and though we couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language, we cheered each other on to complete an overhangy problem and trusted spotting each other because we just loved to climb!

    I’m glad this discussion is happening, even if half of the people with the defensive replies scoff and never read another word of it, it’s available for others to see and relate to and feel relief from. Thanks!!

    • I’m glad I’m not alone in these thoughts/trials/questions. It’s such a powerful thing to just be able to talk about it, and not feel like it’s a part of my relationship with climbing that I have to suppress.

      About Hawaii– that reminds me of how Asian American activist Chris Iijima said in an interview that he decided to raise his family there because he wanted his children to know what it’s like to grow up around a lot of other Asian Americans. ( I wonder how big a psychological difference it makes growing up in an ethnic enclave in a city versus a whole island.

      And the trust/encouragement between climbers is definitely something I’ve experienced, too, and think is amazing.

      Thanks for replying, friend!

  3. […] On May 21, 2012 · Leave a Comment By Guest Contributor Narinda Heng, cross-posted from Girls Like GiantsAshima Shiraishi via author, courtesy Julien Jarry PhotographyI’ve been climbing fences, […]

  4. […] A Girls Like Giants guest post from Narinda, adding to the conversation of demographic categories (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc…. […]

  5. […] also want to thank our other amazing contributors Narinda Heng, Taylor D., Jennifer Lynn Jones, Austin H., Jeni R, Sarah H., and Gina L. for allowing us to post […]

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