LAST MONTH, THE NEW YORKER ran a piece on “rock-climbing prodigy” Ashima Shiraishi. The 14-year-old climber is gradually becoming a legend for her skills at such a young age. But she’s also bringing something else influential to the sport: she’s proving that rock-climbing can be an welcoming sport for people of color.
For years, rock-climbing has been criticized for its lack of racial diversity. Though the sport is now pretty evenly divided by gender lines, racially it’s another story. An Ozy article reported numbers from a USA Climbing survey that found only 3.8% of climbers were Latino (compared to around 17% of the national population). Black and Asian climbers each accounted for only .2% each (compared to 13% and 5% nationally).
An article by Narinda Heng in the blog Racialicious illustrated the antagonism that can exist between climbing culture and conversations around race. In her piece, she mentioned a commenter who responded to her posts about race and climbing by saying “We turn to climbing exactly to avoid worthless BS like this. While many other public forums are full of this racial landscape navigation nonsense, climbing is a pure activity where everyone can just chill the f*ck out.”
Yet climbers of color argue that the “chill the f*ck out” culture of climbing cannot excuse it from critically looking at race. As minorities in the sport, Heng argued that climbers of color don’t have the privilege of relaxing as much as others. “I navigate my race/sex/class everywhere, all the time, and telling me to “chill the f*ck out” is like telling me to perform a lobotomy on myself,” she wrote, “There’s a lot more in play when I’m trying to get into the “pure” part of the activity.”
Writer and mountaineer James Mills agreed when he said “The freedom to defy cultural norms and live for the pleasure of adventure is something that few people of color today enjoy… To not see color today in any human endeavor that is disproportionately biased toward one race over others is at best naive and at worst a blatant show of support for the status-quo which for the long-term preservation of public lands and our natural resources is unacceptable.”
Fortunately, plenty of climbers of color today have enjoyed that freedom and inspired others of similar backgrounds to seek the same. Young champions like Ashima and Kai Lightner have shown that excellence in climbing does not have to exclude people of color.
Check out the videos below to find more climbers of color that have given a new face to the sport: