It’s time for some context, Black skiing & U.S. History

Right now ski resorts, ski media, and skiers are focused on the lack of Black skiers in North American skiing. But this attention isn’t as new as it sometimes feels.

In the 1970s, at the height of the Black Power Movement, for the first time skiers widely considered the absence of Black people in skiing. By the mid-1980s, conversations disappeared. Racial discourse around skiing reemerged in 1991 after George Holliday sent footage to the local news station showing Los Angeles police brutally beating Rodney King. As footage spread nationally, skiers once again asked themselves about race. It quickly faded. A survey of Skiing magazine reveals zero articles on Black skiers from 1993-2010. Most revently, in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd (once again on camera), the discourse around Black skiing returned. Amazingly it has not yet faded from view. Regardless, the evidence is clear – most skiers only seem to consider race when highly visible violence wakes them from their stupor. These discussions come in waves – but maybe more context can help make them stick.

In January, Mardi Fuller wrote a powerful article for Ski on why we need to stop celebrating the ski bum. She opened up, offering herself as evidence that race, gender, and class have intersected in her life, making skiing risky on a level that few white skiers experience. Too many people attacked her for what was maybe the best article on race ever published in a skiing magazine.

I can’t speak from personal experience. But as a historian of U.S. History and a specialist in skiing, I can offer context. In fact, I research this intersection, in part because I think the history of skiing tells us as much about the nation as national trends have historically informed us about skiing. That said, if you want a more focused history of Black skiing, you can see an earlier article I wrote here.

So let’s start with economics. In a class at the University of Texas at Austin, historian Leonard Moore begins his discussions about generational wealth gaps with an evocative thought experiment. A Black man, he asks six or so white students to come stand with him at the front of the room. He then tells the class that they are going to play a game of monopoly. Imagine, he explains, that we are all adults, playing this boardgame while our children play in the basement. Let’s assume that these nice white families had invited Moore and his daughter over to play, but once there, they tell Moore that there is one rule – and it only applies to him. He cannot buy property until he goes around the board 20 times. After that, he can purchase real estate. Being a good sport, he plays.

So, they go around the board 20 times, and the rest of the group tell Moore he can now buy property. But what property? It’s all been purchased. But he stays with it. He circles the board over and over, paying rent and collecting his $200 like everyone else.

After another dozen rounds, the adults decide they are going to go out to dinner. They call the children up from the basement to play out the rest of the game. When the kids begin, the white ones ask Moore’s daughter why her father had no property. She explains that he wasn’t allowed to buy property but asks if they would offer her some to make the game fairer. The children in turn respond, “well, that happened a long time ago.”

Moore’s though experiment reflects the effects of 150 years of racist policies designed to limit wealth accumulation in Black communities. In particular, it speaks to the history of red lining – legal until 1968. For years, the government developed maps of cities to help banks make “rational” decisions about the risk involved in loans. The red sections, in theory the poorest sections, almost perfectly mirrored Black neighborhoods. As a result, or perhaps as an excuse, banks refused to give Black people loans, preventing them from purchasing property or starting businesses. A question, of course, emerges. If just because Black people live in a specific neighborhood, you won’t give loans (regardless of their income), how can Black communities accumulate property and wealth over time?  While white families bought property, began businesses, and financed expensive educations, they collected generational wealth. A multi-generational wealth gap emerged.

Redlining Map, Atlanta (1938)

To be clear, I am not talking about the 1%. This applies to the vast majority of middle-class families. Even if parents never passed down houses or left their children inheritances, property (in particular) worked as assets that provided people’s children with valuable social safety nets. In their teens and twenties, young white adults could risk taking out loans to go to college, their parents could cosign mortgages for houses, and should disaster strike with illness, injury, or unexpected financial troubles, their parents could often help, even if they had to stretch their wallets to do so. As importantly, parents retired with savings (or they could use the profits from selling their house) that helped pay for their retirement. Relieving future generations from economically caring for the elderly should never be overlooked. There are of course exceptions to these rules. Black Americans certainly pursued education, some collected generational wealth, and a subset became upper-middle class or wealthy. But these cases do not negate larger trends.

These privileges compounded each generation, and they spiked after World War II when banks offered white families cheap (and sometimes free) loans. White home ownership boomed. Black home ownership stayed relatively stable. Come the 1950s, when skiing began to rapidly grow, white skiers could ski knowing that they could weather an injury and that they did not need to save every last cent should disaster strike. This is before we even begin to consider formal segregation.

In the 1970s, Black skiers often employed what anti-racist historian Ibram Kendi calls an “assimilationist logic,” in that they did not challenge the cultural assumptions embedded in skiing. Rather they clamored to join that culture. For example, in a 1974 article published in Ebony, Art Clay, one of the founders of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, explained that “as more blacks have become middleclass, they have found that they have more time and money to spend on leisure interests.” In his own words, “you don’t want to sit around all winter just because it’s cold outside.” Enough Black people wanted to ski, but many couldn’t afford it.

Art Clay

Ben Finley, another founder, frequently mirrored this sentiment in interviews, highlighting what he saw as a type of economic exclusion. Finley argued “the sport is prejudiced – but not in the traditional sense.” He explained, “It’s an economic prejudice… Anyone on the lower level is excluded from skiing because of the expenditure necessary to participate.’”

While plenty of evidence reveals that Black skiers faced verbal abuse and frequent questions regarding “why they were there,” Clay and Finley argued that individual racists, while a problem, weren’t the primary barrier. The issue was structural. There is a wealth of misinformation about what “structural” means with regards to racism, but the basic idea is simple. If we removed all racist skiers, ski area owners, and people within ski culture, would Black participation in skiing dramatically increase, evening out with the white skiing population within a generation? The answer in this case is an emphatic no. Without changes that span far outside those who control ski culture and ski economics, skiing will not achieve racial equity.

So, while the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ leaned on seemingly benign rhetoric, it posed a dramatic challenge to the ski industry’s half-hearted attempts to increase diversity in the sport. That comparatively few Black people could afford ski gear, lodging, and tickets was no accident. It resulted from 110 years of active work by federal, state, and municipal governments to limit the development of wealth among Black communities. If the ski industry wanted to take on this problem, they needed to lobby congress, invest millions in nearby Black communities, and fight for reparations of one kind or another on a national level. Black ski weeks, free or cheap support for Black skiers until they turned 18, and even a rise in famous Black skiers (which 50 years later we are still waiting for) could not dramatically change Black participation.

Everyday racism also permeates ski resorts and ski culture. AnthropologistAnthony Kwame Harrison uses this phrase “everyday racism” in his critique of the inherent whiteness of skiing. The phrase suggests that there are (in his words) “powerful symbolic forces which work to define and maintain skiing … as essentially White.” Mardi Fuller’s article in Ski highlighted the structural issues she faced as she worked to become a skier, highlighting the comparatively high risk she experiences compared to her peers. Her critique of “the ski bum” as a trope within the ski community, however, is a perfect example of a symbolic force. The idea of the ski bum relies on whiteness, masculinity, and a social safety net (even if it is a small one). Of course, Americans have a long history of creating white spaces – everywhere in the country had to be made white, as Europeans replaced Indigenous groups. Skiing was no different.

Anthony Kwame Harrison

Historians of skiing agree, ski areas and ski towns are highly fabricated places. They mirror romanticized histories of the pastoral in New England, of cowboys and mining in the West, and of Europe throughout North America. In short, they romanticize and sell stories of white people, and only white people.

In part, this is because ski resorts emerged in conjunction with a much larger trend in developing white communities – the suburbs. Places like Vail, Snowbird, Stowe, Taos, and many others reflect this model. Suburbs were created as white spaces. In the 1940s and 1950s, they were often “whites only,” explicitly denying Black people and semites access. Congress did not pass the Fair Housing Act until 1964, which finally made this illegal. The resorts listed above never explicitly excluded Black people (all came after the act), but landscape architects designed suburbs to make non-white and non-heteronormative people feel uncomfortable. This is not conjecture. The historical evidence is overwhelming.

Ski areas intentionally created pan-European experiences. Historian Annie Coleman, and Harrison once again, have demonstrated this beyond a reasonable doubt. Soldiers returning from the Alps fueled the postwar boom by constructing Bavarian style villages which recalled their time in the European mountains. Places like Vail intentionally built the town to reflect a fanciful Tyrolean experience. Colorado even billed itself as the “other Alps.” 

The idea was not that different than English colonists in Virginia building houses and plantations that mirrored the manor houses of landed English gentry. The village tied skiers to a European history, allowing many of us to imagine ourselves as part of an international tradition, freed from the particulars of American history.

Lancelot Restaurant, Vail

Unsurprisingly, Black Americans not only found less appeal in fanciful images of Europe, they found little comfort. Imperial nations who enslaved their ancestors and ravaged their continent don’t exactly scream “welcome” to people who hope to vacation and relax. What could Black skiers grasp onto as theirs? What represented them? What was developed to welcome Black skiers into a space that should also be theirs? The answer was nothing.

If some of that feels too ephemeral, some of it is quite blatant. Ski areas systematically excluded Black people through the 1960s. Ebony wrote an article in the 1950s searching for lodging and ski areas that accepted Black skiers. They found fewer than two dozen locations nationwide – and some states boasted more than two-dozen ski centers!

Commentary by white skiers on the mountain reinforced this history by reminding Black skiers that they were not traditionally welcome, even if it is illegal to formally exclude them now. Jokes about Black people in cold climates, so far from cotton fields, were commonly heard through to the 1980s, and they still occur on the slopes today.

Subtle questions like, “how did you get into skiing,” or “it is so rare to see Black people on the slopes,” are clear statements about who belongs and who doesn’t. With over a century of trauma around such questions – questions that were historically warnings to get lost – such comments have quietly pushed Black people away from ski areas. Scholars like Carolyn Finny have convincingly demonstrated the ways in which these historical “lessons” manifest with exaggerated force in outdoor spaces and outdoor recreation. Black people have been taught for generations that it is safest to leave when posed with questions like this, and that doesn’t disappear simply because of several thousand dollars spent on Black skiing initiatives.

So what to do? That is the hard part. My argument here is that Black skiing is about more than skiing. Meaningful action requires people and companies to center their politics, their activism, and their discussions around these histories, both on and off the slopes. Small initiatives look good, but they accomplish little. Black skiers perseverance through all this demonstrates an enthusiasm for skiing that should be sustained, but requires dramatic action to genuinely support. Many of us simply can’t appreciate how exhausting skiing while Black can be. After 50 years of activism by the National Brotherhood of Skiers and an increasing number of groups like Outdoors Afro, Melanin Basecamp, and others, skiers, ski media, and ski resorts simply need to do better.

Published by Jesse Ritner

I am pursuing my PhD in history at the University of Austin Texas. I specialize in Native American Histories, American Imperialism, environmental history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: