Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Ethnic diversity in climbing : An unscaled mountain.


Myles Washington
An article in the US edition of the Huffington Post caught my eye recently. It was about a young black teenager who was making waves in the US climbing scene. It was deemed unusual enough to warrant a feature in a national media. It seems that even in the US with its much larger black population compared to the UK, rock climbing/mountaineering is still overwhelmingly a white middle class sport.

Here in the UK, if you flick through the climbing glossies, attend a club meet, roll up at Tremadog or peruse the hardware in an outdoor shop, you will inevitably be white. Probably from the educated middle classes- as even white working class participants in the activity are dwindling-and your climbing circle will be inevitably resemble a Britain First cell. In ethnicity if not in dress sense and haircuts!


That's not to say there there are no climbers from ethnic minority backgrounds. But these individuals are notable in their isolation. I was considering from a social and cultural perspective why Asians for example have never really taken to rock climbing? Its not through lack of opportunity as ten of thousands of young Asian kids from the English West Midlands have attended outdoor activity courses at their LEA's outdoor centres in North Wales. Despite this, very few are entranced enough by the activity to take it up when they leave school.

Undoubtedly, there are cultural factors at play here. Peer pressure will play a part and we all know how merciless and cruel young people can be towards anyone who is seen as different and who deviates from the accepted cultural pathways. I know this from my own experience. Coming from a white, working class background on Merseyside, I attended a secondary modern school which had a hillwalking club. Despite loving the outdoors and being constantly encouraged by teachers to come along on one of their fell walking trips to the Lake District, I always declined the invitation.


It was the middle class kids from the A and B streams who did that sort of thing. I was a C streamer and we played football....morning noon and night. If I had joined the school fellwalking club, A..I would have no friends in the group and B...I would be ragged mercilessly by my working class mates. So its easy to see why young Asians from Birmingham and Wolverhampton just don't get involved.


However,what I have noticed is a steady rise in the number of people from non white backgrounds who are going hillwalking.Whether, its the rise in health and fitness awareness, the ease of access to the mountain areas from the cities or through the emergence of a growing educated Asian, Black, Chinese etc,middle class who now have the financial means and the confidence to go where previously their parents have feared to tread?


Perhaps this growing awareness and confidence will lead to those from the ethnic minorities taking up rock climbing and its associated activities? Certainly, one factor which will drive this forward will be the growth of the urban climbing wall. Throughout the towns and cities of the UK, people have been drawn to the wall in the same way as they have to gyms. Even people who have never set foot on a crag or even seen a mountain have slipped on a pair of climbing shoes, tied on to a rope and picked their way up the multi coloured holds. As much I imagine, as an exercise regime for many, rather than as is traditionally accepted, a way of pushing up their grades on the rock face.


It will be a long time before the numbers of climbers from ethnic backgrounds reflects  that percentage of the population from which they are drawn, but its likely that for many of the reasons outlined, that number will gradually increase year on year. And it will be driven, as most things are, by education and financial muscle which in turn brings rising self confidence. However,
it will be a slow evolution to be sure. The one important factor which will may slow this trend-and this applies to working class white kids as well-is the steady decline of the LEA outdoor centre. Sold off by cash strapped local authorities and thereby slamming the door of opportunity in the face of those who need it most. What this will mean sadly, is that it will only be those from the Asian, Black, Chinese middle classes who can afford to attend commercially run outdoor centres like Plas y Brenin, who will enter the sport.


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