The Weight of Words

By Sally Lam


Last week, Climbing magazine published an article by Holly Yu Tung Chen in which she talks about BIPOC affinity groups in climbing.  She discusses the positive impacts of such groups on marginalised climbers and communities, but also the toll it takes on the volunteers who run these groups.  It was great to see the topic of diversity in climbing being discussed in one of the only mainstream climbing publications.  This felt like a win.


But as quickly as that feeling of progress had come, the feeling of dread followed.  Within minutes of being posted to Instagram, the comments section was full of microaggressions and vitriol. Within a day, the post wracked up 278 comments.  In short, the comments criticised the purpose and existence of BIPOC affinity groups in climbing.  In a separate Instagram post, Holly explained that in response to this she asked to moderate the comments and to remove the paywall to the article.  They disabled comments entirely and removed the pay wall.  I commend Holly so much for writing the article, and for taking a stand with  I think a lot of community organisers in this space are grateful to her for her work and activism.


Before the comments were taken down, I read through as many as I could stomach, liking all the ones which were supportive and kind, and trying not to throw up at the ones which were racist and hateful.  The comments ranged from saying that BIPOC affinity groups are racist and promoting segregation, to denying that racism is a problem in climbing, to telling the PC brigade to just pipe down and get back to climbing, to flat out comparing BIPOC affinity group organisers to Hitler.  It always surprises me how quickly people on the internet can become nasty and so extreme in their comments.  But what stands out in these comments is that these commenters are sharing their thoughts in earnest.  It would seem they truly believe in the supposed nuance of their arguments, and that affinity groups only act to divide us by race.  Time and time again they dismiss and ignore any reply pointing out that affinity groups are not here to divide but rather centre BIPOC climbers and provide safe and comfortable spaces in a community and sport which is historically white and operates within a society which is historically, institutionally and systemically racist.


Reading those comments, brought back the similar feeling of discomfort and sadness that I felt last year when I was involved in a research project looking into the perceptions of climbers about race, culture and identity in the climbing community.  While a lot of the comments from survey participants were positive, there were also many which were less kind.  Many of the arguments were similar to the ones above.  People were so keen on telling us that there was no racism in climbing, and that no one is stopping people of colour from entering climbing gyms.  There is a particular sting to reading those comments, because these are people who have taken the time to come to that survey to tell us that we are not valid to them.  They have purposely reached out to people of colour and other marginalised climbers to tell us that climbing is not racist and even that we are creating the problem.  They challenge our lived experiences of racism and marginalisation, and excuse lack of diversity in climbing by saying the crag doesn’t see colour.  But can they not hear us when we repeatedly say that while the crag may not see colour, socio economics do, gym owners do, setters do, filmmakers do, sporting brands do, climbers do.


These are not isolated incidents.  On numerous occasions joyous reading of an article on diversity will lead to morose scrolling through the comments.  Community discussions on how to make climbing more accessible and inclusive will yield hateful comments seeking to exclude and alienate climbers of diverse identities.  Of course this is not unique to climbing either.  It’s pervasive in BIPOC activism across all fields both online and offline.


We’ve all been told to take internet comments sections with a pinch of salt, but I can’t deny that reading those comments hurts.  It’s one thing to read a troll’s comments, but it’s another to see real people from real climbing gyms, people who post photos of their latest rock climbing trip tell us that our experiences of racism and exclusion aren’t real, tell us that we are making climbing worse, tell us that we are not welcome unless we shut up and climb.  That’s the thing.  So many of the people in these comments sections don’t see their comments as hurtful.  They genuinely think that climbing is a community made for everyone and that the barriers we talk about are imaginary, that we’d feel welcome if we would only stop whinging.  But the truth is climbers of colour face a wide range of barriers into climbing, especially in the outdoors, including financial barriers, exposure, training, and the ability to feel safe and comfortable in these environments which continue to be majority white and male.


To the uninitiated the above may seem innocuous, but how comfortable am I supposed to feel climbing next to someone at the gym who makes these comments online.  How comfortable am I to feel at a crag where I am the only person of colour.  How comfortable am I to feel climbing in a small town where someone assumes I work in the local Chinese restaurant.  How comfortable am I to feel being belayed by someone who does not believe in racial equity.  How comfortable am I to feel in a sport and community where people explicitly tell us online that our lived experiences are not valid.


These kinds of comments are indicative of exactly why BIPOC and other marginalised people form affinity groups to have places where we can be comfortable and safe to be our whole selves.  BIPOC climbers will read the headline of an article about diversity, or see a climbing film about a person of colour and think that these are safe spaces for them, but sadly will find so much microaggression and even hate in the comments sections.


The point of this post is not to dissuade anyone from doing the good work, or to scare away any new BIPOC climbers.  We love climbing and together we are making it better.  It is an honour to widen access to climbing for the communities we serve, and to make it comfortable and fun for everyone.


The point of this post is to urge white allies to be active allies.  The burden of making climbing more diverse and equitable falls so disproportionately on climbers of colour and especially women and non-binary folk of colour.  Organising these groups is work; creating educational social media content is work; writing articles is work.  Most of us do this as volunteers.  On top of the time and effort we put in, there is the immeasurable emotional labour of putting ourselves out there; sharing our trauma; being vulnerable; bracing ourselves for trolls; processing the hurtful words we read and hear; then resting and coming back to do it all over again.  We try to juggle all this while still wanting to enjoy climbing ourselves; reap its benefits for our own physical and mental wellbeing; and have fun, let alone push grades or train new disciplines.


It’s time the labour was not so unevenly divided.  We would love to see white allies stand with us in comments sections; support BIPOC affinity groups at their climbing gyms; hire BIPOC instructors and guides; watch and purchase BIPOC climbing media and content; support BIPOC climbing businesses and artisans; and even volunteer their time.  BIPOC affinity groups and the drive for racial diversity, inclusion and equity are not about excluding white climbers, it’s about centring BIPOC climbers, addressing the barriers that face them, and celebrating not just their climbing success but their entire being.  It’s about showing climbers that your language, your food, your culture, your dress, and your whole self is welcome here – is celebrated here.  That is work which all climbers can participate in, not just BIPOC climbers but white allies too.


And lastly, to our friendly white allies: tell your BIPOC climbing friends that you support diversity and equity in climbing.  This may seem like a bizarre and awkward thing to say.  But while you think your support for racial equality is implicit, if you haven’t discussed it out loud, your friends might not know where you stand on these issues and may not feel comfortable raising them with you.  I’m not suggesting you go and bring up racial injustice with all your BIPOC friends, because that might not be a conversation they want to have on a Sunday afternoon or have the energy to burden.  But it goes a long way to tell them that you’re glad your gym has a BIPOC affinity group, or that you think it’s important that there be more diversity in climbing gyms and climbing films.  In my experience, I feel a lot more comfortable being myself knowing that I’m climbing with someone who respects my identity.  It’s a lot easier to let go and have fun at the crag if I know my climbing partner believes that I belong there as much as they do.


We are better together, we deserve to take up space, and we all have the right to be our whole selves at the gym and at the crag.


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