NEWS

How Racial Trauma May Limit the Enjoyment of Nature

father and son go hiking in the woods

Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Historical trauma may shape beliefs among Black and Indigenous individuals about nature-based leisure and activities.
  • Even participating in the research felt like a transgression to some participants given how unwelcome they felt in nature.
  • Trauma-informed culturally safe outreach interventions may help to engage communities of color to enjoy nature.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, nature-based leisure was one of few safe activities for promoting mental health. However, a recently published study in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living found that racial trauma may serve as a barrier for enjoyment of nature.

Through community workshops with minority groups in terms of race and ethnicity in 7 areas near national wildlife refuge sites, researchers explored their thoughts and feelings regarding outdoor leisure, and found that Black and Indigenous participants were particularly limited by racial trauma.

Given the benefits of nature for both physical and mental health, racialized and ethnic minorities deserve equitable access to national park spaces.

Community Workshop Discussions

Based on 14 community workshops, racialized and ethnic minorities were invited to share feedback on how they viewed outdoor recreation, motivation and barriers for engaging with nature, and suggestions for promoting greater participation for communities of color.

Researchers found that participants were limited by trauma as a barrier to the enjoyment of nature, including negative experiences with authorities by communities of color, environmental racism, trauma experienced by Black and Indigenous communities, and trauma related to precarious work.

Based on such racialized trauma, some participants even felt that engagement in the community workshops represented an act of transgression, given how unwelcome they often feel in outdoor leisure spaces as well as disrespectful treatment by authorities in the past.

Despite racialized trauma, participants noted opportunities for challenging the limits placed on communities of color, including appreciation of nature as a space for healing, as in the case of pow-wows for Indigenous individuals and Black communities enjoying water activities.

The Legacy of Slavery Persists

Psychotherapist, Jamayla M. Gray, MSC, APCC, says that being outside can be a form of therapy in itself, as it can include hiking, camping, swimming, fishing, or simply seeing something interesting.

Gray explains, "African American and Native American communities would like our next generation to survive or adapt to any setting, which includes knowing the plants we can eat, hunting for wildlife for food, etc."

While this may feel intimidating based on racialized trauma, Gray notes that there can be benefits to engaging with nature for communities of color, despite how poorly outreach efforts by authorities have operated.

Jamayla M. Gray, MSC, APCC

African American and Native American communities would like our next generation to survive or adapt to any setting, which includes knowing the plants we can eat, hunting for wildlife for food, etc.

— Jamayla M. Gray, MSC, APCC

Gray explains how slavery on cotton fields may connect to Black perspectives of outdoor activities, while highlighting the brutal death of Emmett Till as an example of what can follow transgressions.

Since older generations of African Americans and Native Americans may continue to fear such negative outcomes, Gray notes they may reinforce this with younger community members in an attempt to keep them safe.

Gray highlights how this study aligns with the greater body of research regarding the experiences of refugees of racial and ethnic minorities, who may now be more open to engaging with nature-based leisure activities.

Physical Fences May Operate Like Mental Fences

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says that a physical fence may also produce a mental fence due to racialized trauma, especially for Black and Indigenous communities in the US.

Weaver notes, "It led me to reflect on growing up in an all-Black neighborhood in Clinton, DC, in the 70s. I remembered how my friends and I played for hours in the woods, the creeks, and the tobacco fields."

Despite these childhood memories of roaming freely, Weaver highlights, "Subliminal messages can alter, reshape and restrict your identity and place limitations on where you can go and where you belong."

Having experienced that herself, as Weaver witnessed fences being built, she notes how it made her question if Black and brown people had been viewed as threats, with messaging that they were not welcome on the land.

Weaver explains, "This fence creates a prison around our mind and becomes a restrictive barrier to us connecting to ourselves, each other, our land, and our spirituality. This can expand to other areas of our life as well."

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

I remember being taught that Black and brown people are not tree huggers; however, mindfulness practices and spirituality teaches us to connect with nature by gardening and putting our hands in the dirt, taking our shoes off, and walking on the grass to connect with the earth.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

In this way, Weaver highlights how marginalized groups may avoid certain activities, jobs, communities, etc. because of the message that inherently they do not belong in those spaces. "Nature-based racism fractures our identity and separates us from people, places, and things," she says.

Weaver explains, "We must remember and acknowledge that the land we live on was already occupied before it was colonized. We must remember and acknowledge that enslaved people were hung from trees."

Such an abhorrent history of racialized trauma may make Black and Indigenous communities feel as if nature is not safe for them due to the threat of danger and criminalization even in the present.

Weaver notes, "I remember being taught that Black and brown people are not tree huggers; however, mindfulness practices and spirituality teaches us to connect with nature by gardening and putting our hands in the dirt, taking our shoes off, and walking on the grass to connect with the earth."

As a psychotherapist with a neuroscience lens, Weaver highlights how racialized trauma can limit nature-based leisure activities for clients. "Their ancestral story started before the point of trauma and I want to guide them back to that story, to nature, to their true nature," she says.

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, racialized trauma may pose a barrier to enjoyment of outdoor recreation for communities of color. Given the benefits of nature, trauma-informed culturally safe outreach efforts are needed to facilitate equitable access for marginalized groups.

Was this page helpful?
1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dietsch AM, Jazi E, Floyd MF, Ross-Winslow D, Sexton NR. Trauma and transgression in nature-based leisureFront Sports Act Living. 2021;3:735024. doi:10.3389/fspor.2021.735024