As an Immigrant Woman of Color, Invisibility Kept Me Safe Outdoors—Until It Didn’t

July 27, 2020
safe outdoors
Courtesy of Marinel de JesusThe author rests while hiking in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

 

The outdoors is for all. 

I have heard this mantra for decades, but truth be told I never related to it. In theory and in an ideal world, the outdoors should be for all. But in many places in the United States, this could not be farther from the truth.

I’m a first-generation Filipina immigrant. Being an immigrant comes with a host of challenges, beginning the moment I moved to the U.S. at the age of 13. The experience of being a brown person and an immigrant subjected me to the implicit biases of many white, U.S.-born Americans. I’ve been a target of explicitly racist comments, such as being told to go back where I came from, to racist stereotyping—that, as an Asian woman, I must be domesticated and docile, for instance. But the toughest form of racism to tackle is the one that borders on the edge of harmlessness and toxicity. This type of comment is often subtle and implicit in its messaging. It comes across as innocent at first, and only later do I realize how it innately stems from deep-seated prejudicial notions against a person that looks like me.

In more than 15 years of navigating the outdoors as an avid hiker, I can’t say the treatment that I received from a majority of white people on hikes is any different from my regular life off the trail. If only that was true, then I wouldn’t be resorting to the same tactic I have used most of my life to keep me safe from racism in America: invisibility.

My early days as a hiker were spent mostly in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia as I was working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Outdoor spaces in the early 2000s were virtually devoid of people who look like me. Signing up for a group hike, I’d notice that most hike leaders were white men with a few white women, and participants were also mostly from the same demographic. In those early days, my only choice was to follow white leaders and the veteran white hikers. Outdoor spaces were certainly dominated by white men and women, often much older than me. As one can imagine, a brown woman easily stood out in these groups.

“Hi, where are you from?” was a common question from curious white hikers.

“Washington, D.C.,” I’d reply. But to the asker, this response was often not enough. He or she would proceed to stare at me while awaiting additional information.

“I’m from the Philippines,” I’d finally add.

“Ah, I love adobo,” the questioner might say, or, perhaps, blurt out “Manny Pacquiao!” while throwing punches into the air.

As much as I love adobo—one of the staple dishes in the Philippines—it doesn’t in any way define my identity as a Filipina American. My identity goes beyond the national dish of a country or a famed boxer from where I happened to be born. The toxicity behind these statements lies in the intent and the impact, whether consciously or not, of the messenger. By amplifying that I am an immigrant and overlooking my status as a naturalized citizen, the messenger, typically a U.S.-born citizen, draws an invisible line between us. They spell out the true definition of an American versus an outsider and ensure that I clearly received the message that I am the latter. Such comments have left me feeling alienated and even questioning my sense of belonging here in the U.S.

Despite the enormity of damage that such statements can exact on my psyche, I always replied to those who said such things to me with a smile and even some words of encouragement for their superficial politeness. By doing so, I was able to dull the pain and the sense of alienation that this person had inflicted upon me. I felt invisible, and that helped me dismiss this person’s negative effect on me for the sake of being able to enjoy the outdoors.

Invisibility in the outdoors caused me to feel detached from my true self. I acted white. I sounded white by carefully hiding my Filipino accent. I engaged in white-centric discussions on topics like adventuring outdoors, politics, and the daily life and culture relevant to us Mid-Atlantic residents. In my early life as a hiker, I only wanted to belong. To do that, I had to conform with the white mindset and norms. I couldn’t be myself as a Filipina American who can talk freely about the realities of being brown and an immigrant in America. If I did, there might be emotional and mental repercussions. In the very rare moments in which discussions on race or immigration came up, the reactions I received from the white hikers in the group were mentally and emotionally damaging enough that on future hikes, I opted for silence, and again, invisibility. Many white people tend to deny racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, while some have demonstrated their entitlement as white people by yet again drawing that invisible line of separation between us: they being the real Americans on one side, and I and all brown people as merely second class citizens, on the other. In many instances, I have experienced white people raising the false notion of Asians being a “model minority” to negate my personal experiences with racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. I always found this to be their way to get back to more comfortable, non-threatening conversation.

In essence, invisibility to me meant trying to pass as white at the expense of being my true self. I didn’t want to cause any white person discomfort because doing so would likely mean being criticized as the outsider, the immigrant, or the brown person. As a result, this might have led to my losing the safety and comfort of invisibility on the hiking trail. So I followed the lead of the white people in my group to avoid any racist encounters.

 

mount whitney
Courtesy of Marinel de JesusThe author on a trek she led to Mount Whitney, one of the tallest U.S. peaks.

But in the years that followed, I realized I was committing the perfect crime against myself. Invisibility harmed me more than it served my well-being. I lost a sense of who I am. I stayed silent throughout many conversations dominated by whiteness for the sake of fitting in but at the expense of my own self-worth and identity. One day, I realized the antidote to invisibility is to step up as a leader, because leading means you are front and center. You will be seen and heard. If you lead, then everyone follows. If there was an ideal form of protest against the years of being invisible, this was it.

I started leading hiking groups in the D.C. area. First, it was on local trails. But, soon after, I led groups all over the U.S. and internationally. Ten years later, in 2016, I launched a global trekking social enterprise Peak Explorations that takes trekkers all over the world with one clear mission: to create equity and inclusion in the outdoors globally.

By becoming a leader, I saw first-hand how my visibility as a brown woman and an immigrant empowered and inspired people who look like me to venture into the outdoors. I learned that I can be my own mentor and someone who can convince others to do the same. I started to see many more people in the groups I led who looked like me—brown people, immigrants, and even those with accents. It was a privilege to finally be our true selves on the hiking trails. It is a beautiful protest against the racism I’ve experienced, both then and now. Creating an alternative world opposite of the white-centric culture and norms is a powerful mechanism for a new kind of outdoors. The treks I lead are for all and are inclusive of everyone regardless of race.  The groups felt safe for me at last. More than that, they were welcoming.

I also found out that I hadn’t been alone in resorting to invisibility and I’m not the only person of color trying to be seen and heard now. My leadership in the outdoor space became a means to collectively create visibility for people of color and immigrants. The best part of visibility is this: I no longer have to feel affected by the racist comments that persist in my life on and off the trails because a world where I’m completely seen and heard now exists. I can be safe as my true self, after all, even if racism endures on the hiking trails—and it surely does, still.

The outdoors can be safe. It can be inclusive. It can be welcoming. But we have to create that reality individually first as a leader or participant, and then together.


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Marinel de Jesus

Marinel Malvar de Jesus is the founder of mountain trekking company Peak Explorations and Brown Gal Trekker, a media and advocacy platform that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors.