Dr. Carolyn Finney on the Great Outdoors, Environmental Racism, and Finding Joy Through Storytelling

While a teacher, geographer, and “accidental environmentalist,” Dr. Carolyn Finney considers herself a storyteller above all else. Her acclaimed book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors examines the stories that so often go unheard when it comes to America’s legacy of racial violence and its effect on experiencing nature.

As our country continues to reckon with the historical and modern-day implications of racism, Carolyn asks her readers to consider how public spaces are affected by this too. Parks provide a sense of community and benefit our physical and mental health, but they aren’t experienced or accessed equally. Carolyn asks “which public” gets to enjoy these benefits, and how we can collectively re-create spaces for everyone. We talked with Carolyn about her book, the importance of stories and representation, and what gives her hope about the future of the environmental and public parks movement.

Book jacket featuring an African-American in an outdoor setting, holding a painting of his face in front of his face

Dr. Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces explores the underrepresentation of African-Americans in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism.

Central Park Conservancy: It’s become abundantly clear just how important green space is to the health of New Yorkers, and simultaneously, how all New Yorkers don’t experience green space in the same way. Your book explores this tension through the context of our country’s history of slavery and Jim Crow laws that have affected the relationship of African-Americans to the outdoors. How did you become an “accidental environmentalist” as you studied these relationships to public spaces?

Dr. Carolyn Finney: I was an actor for 11 years, so my heart is in the arts. I was acting back in the ’80s in New York and LA, and toward the end of that period, I started backpacking in other parts of the world. I would travel, then come back and save my money for a year or six months, then went to East Africa, and then I lived in Nepal for a year and a half in a small village. During all this time, I had so much exposure to the world, and I was particularly focused on issues related to women. I still wasn't thinking about the outdoors or the environment specifically, but a lot of what I was doing revolved around it. I was trekking and reading a lot of travel adventure books, and of all the people making these journeys, there was nothing about anybody who looked like me, and I had read everything that I could find.

When I started to pursue my Ph.D. back in the States, my professor said to me, “you know, you should choose geography.” At the time, I had no idea that was even a discipline. I thought it was only maps, which is what a lot of people think! But we say that everything is geographical: people's relationship with place, people's relationship to the environment, people’s relationships to one another. And that's how I came to focus more on the environment itself. I was looking at issues like the power of privilege, difference, and identity, and how those factors interact with the landscape. You must consider the environment. That's where it all comes together.

Dr. Finney crossing a rope bridge in Nepal

Carolyn has backpacked around the world, including in Nepal. “Everything is geographical,” she says. “People's relationship with place, people's relationship to the environment, people’s relationships to one another.”

In your book, you refer to “geographies of experience” that affect our relationship to land. How did your upbringing influence your outdoor experience?

In 2003, my family and I had to leave the estate in rural New York that my parents had cared for over so many decades. My parents were caretakers of this land, and the owners only came up on the weekends and holidays, which meant that my siblings and I were outside all the time playing and exploring. We had so much outdoor exposure. That’s really where my own experience got shaped in terms of relationship to the environment.

The big difference is that the land didn't technically belong to us, and we were the only family of color in this very wealthy, all-white neighborhood. When I was 9, walking home from public school, I got stopped by the police. Even though I was a child with my school bag, they couldn’t believe that I lived in that neighborhood. I remember they looked at me and asked, “Oh, do you work here?” and I'm thinking, “No, I live here!” At the time, I didn't understand why he would think that, but of course I do now. I was “out of place” for that policeman; I didn’t belong in that natural, countryside setting.

A well-tended landscape of lawn, outcroppings, and trees

Carolyn spent her childhood living on this verdant estate in Westchester, New York. She and her brothers enjoyed playing in and exploring the wooded areas of this peaceful setting.

That sense of belonging is a resounding theme in your research. Whether it was exclusion from the creation of park spaces, violence experienced in these natural areas, or laws and policies that forbade African-Americans’ entry into them, there’s this underlying question of “which public” our outdoor green spaces serve. Can you speak to that idea?

One of the hardest parts about having conversations in the United States about race and privilege is that being white isn’t a bad thing. No one can help the skin they are born in. But when it comes to feeling like you belong in a space, if you’ve never seen yourself in the landscape in any positive way, you are going to feel more separate and less included. A lot of parks must learn to understand that.

What has become normalized is centering whiteness as a subjectivity, as a point of view, as the way we do everything. And all the rest of us have had to learn that, have had to assimilate, and work in relationship to that subjectivity.

This reality is no less true for public lands, parks, and green spaces. When we talk about the environment and outdoors, there's this implication that these areas are somehow benign or safe because they are outside. But if these spaces exist in the United States of America, they are not in a bubble, and they are not immune to the toxicity of racism.

We know that there are Black and Brown people finding joy in the outdoors. We're as complicated and complex as everybody else, but we’ve been living in this world that prioritizes white subjectivity. That is something we are seeing white people grapple with over the past few months, even when it comes to greenspace.

You wrote a piece in The Guardian in which you spoke to the harmful perceptions of Black people in public spaces. You described that “for Black people, navigating both city streets and hiking trails can be charged; at worst, they are fraught terrains where we are at the mercy of someone else’s interpretation of our presence.” Can you expand upon this, and how you see this important conversation moving forward?

So here we are, amidst a global pandemic, and at the same time we witness what happened to Christian Cooper and to George Floyd. This forced people—who are now feeling more vulnerable, more open—to really slow down and consider these connections. Collectively, something happened at that moment.

Christian Cooper and George Floyd are both part of the same conversation—it's all the same continuum. The clearest thing I could say after these incidents was that Black rage and anger is justified, and that there is privilege in not seeing [these connections] for what they are. The danger that exists for Black Americans doesn't mean we don't enjoy parks, and it doesn't mean we don't go to them. It just means we are more wary of our surroundings when we're there.

I don't believe in throwing away the past, because the consequences of the past are always there. But we have this opportunity to learn from it. It is hard work to engage that complexity and to imagine how everyone is complicit in this discrimination, but we need to be talking about these connections more. When people balk at me, I say two things: One, if you're comfortable you're not doing the work. And two, you don't have to throw out the baby with the bathwater; you just have to get a new bathtub. It may change the shape of that water, and where we are in the water, but it won‘t get rid of it.

A path winds through the Ramble, seen in summer

The Ramble, a wooded area in Central Park, was where a Park visitor called the police on birder Christian Cooper in the summer of 2020 in an incident that went viral.

How can telling and sharing more stories and more geographies of experience help?

So many institutions shape the way we consider and have conversations about the environment, parks, and public lands. But everybody's story matters. The thing that we all have—which has nothing to do with how much money we have in our pocket or how much education we do or don't have—is a story. We each have a story about who we are. And so for me, it is not an “either/or: you tell this story or we tell that story.” It's about how we hold the complexity of who we are as individuals, as a country. It makes space for nuance and for joy.

Central Park has always been as much an idea as it is a destination. That idea has been to encourage all communities, from every background, to come together as equals, to connect with each other in the natural environment, and to be restored by that experience. As Carolyn's work reiterates, so many of the public parks we now enjoy once belonged to other communities. To explore more of Central Park’s history, we encourage you to read about Seneca Village, the community of predominantly African-Americans who once lived on the land that is now the Park.

Read more about Carolyn and her work on her website and through her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. You can also hear more from her via podcasts like The Robert Hanna Show, The Hunting Collective, and Unladylike.

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