a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
*Title credit & inspiration goes to the incredible Annie Gilbert Coleman for her 1996 article The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing
By Anahi Naranjo ‘17
Growing up, the Andes of Ecuador was my backyard. Then, my outdoor space transformed into the urban jungle of New York City. These were my outdoor spaces, and I loved them. Yet here at Middlebury, my story struggled to thrive in the constructed notions of what it meant to be an “outdoorsperson” and what that person should look like. Time and again, I find myself being one of the only brown faces in the trails. The same story is true for Mountain Club meetings and other outdoor-related events on campus. To put it quite bluntly, it is often an unbearable sea of white faces.
From having one of the former Brooker (the college’s outdoor interest house) presidents bring up affirmative action in a discussion explaining why I was not given a spot in the house to hiking in the Adirondacks and having a man tell me that I looked like a “little Sherpa”, there are several times in my time at Middlebury that have made me question my place in this common natural space.
I watched as one by one all my friends from the Mountain Club and other outdoor social spaces gained a spot in Brooker while I did not. In the most modest way possible, I considered myself a qualified applicant. Brooker’s reasoning regarding my continued rejection took many forms: first, it was because I was a sophomore, then when I was a junior they wanted to give the opportunity to younger students, and finally it was because too many women applied, and they wanted to value gender equality in the house by accepting male applicants instead. Yet almost no one seemed to mention the issue of unbearable whiteness in the house, or the broader community it was a part of.
While by senior year I no longer had any desire to live with a community that rejected me so many times, it is often hard to ignore that terrible sensation in your stomach when you begin to contemplate over and over why you were not good enough for something. I became ashamed of my own identity, even in other realms of the outdoor community: I did not feel good enough. Would I have been accepted if I had grown up with more outdoor experience? If I hiked more? Would they have wanted me if I wasn’t so vocal about outdoor exclusion? And the question that hurt the most to think about: would I have gotten in if I was white?
And of course, that is a terrible mentality to have, and one that no one should ever have. But the fact that it crossed my mind so many times in the past year scared me, and it’s what compelled me to share it with you all. It scared me even more to realize that I may not be the first nor the last to have this question cross their mind. I found myself working on outdoor inclusivity for the Mountain Club with support from wonderful individuals all over campus, but time and again I felt the emotional drain as my head hit the pillow each night. I still felt quite alone in doing this work, and time again feeling like I was screaming in a room with everyone hearing me but not listening.
These outdoor spaces are for all of us: why should I feel self-conscious about the fact that I didn’t grow up visiting National Parks around the country? Why shouldn’t I consider the urban space I grew up a part of nature? Why do I feel like I constantly have to justify my presence in this space? The story of someone sitting outside enjoying a book appreciating the natural space we are part of should be just as valid as the “hardcore” backpacking trips that dominate outdoor discourses. Why have these toxic, ableist, sexist, racist discourses dominated the landscape?
It is through long histories of the American outdoors being defined by white males and other dominant stories that so many communities around the country feel like their narratives are not valid. The histories of black and brown bodies in the outdoors is one that cannot be ignored: it’s one of oppression, but also of opportunity and resilience in part of POC communities that continue to this day. POC communities have fought in these landscapes and loved them in a manner that we cannot forget: our very histories and cultures are ingrained in the natural landscapes around us. Why shouldn’t we be in these spaces, when our stories are just as valid and beautiful? We must create and reclaim these spaces and histories for ourselves.
Will I ever really be able to fit in the outdoor community? I’ve come to the somber reality that at least in my time at Middlebury that, no, I will not be able to fully fit into that community. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t change.
In the words of Carolyn Finney, who Middlebury College had the honor of hosting last week, we must challenge the table in front of us, who built it, who has a seat and who doesn’t, and why that is. We cannot solve a problem with the same mentality that created it. We must destroy the table and rebuild a new one to not only create spaces for new voices and new stories, but to construct spaces where those stories are not hidden, but celebrated.
The story of Middlebury’s outdoor community (that extends far beyond what I briefly describe) is not unique. There are many spaces on this campus many are hesitant to enter. This is only a tiny puzzle piece in the larger one that is to create more inclusive spaces at Middlebury College. It will take time and work from all of us, but most importantly, for individuals to challenge their notions of what it means to be part of an oppressive space even if they don’t perceive themselves as such. I’ve already seen many organizations and individuals contest these dominant narratives, and although it won’t happen overnight, or in a year, we must begin somewhere.
As the Middlebury Mountain Club celebrates its 100th year as an organization, I leave in the hope that in the future, someone like me who grew up in different worlds, grew up in a city, or wherever, where the words “you can’t do it because of where you come from” are all too common, can say otherwise. Today, I embrace my identity more than I ever have: I am a Latina who loves spending time in the outdoors, and fuck your imposed definition of what it means to enjoy outdoor spaces. This is my little revolution in reclaiming my story and my place in this landscape, and I hope we can create spaces where others can do the same.