Rail Jam, WinterFest, and Whiteness: Examining CC’s Outdoor Culture

By Valerie Hanna


Colorado College seniors Nia Abram (EV Policy major, FGS minor) and Eliza Mott (Film&Media Studies major) gave a presentation to the CC student body on Monday, February 2nd about diversity and inclusion in CC’s outdoor culture. Abram and Mott’s presentation focused on how CC can re-imagine a relationship with the outdoors and a commitment to sustainability that is truly intentional and accessible to people of color on campus. Abram spoke from her personal experience as a middle-class black woman, making clear to a mostly white audience that she could not speak on behalf of all students of color on campus. Mott spoke about her experience being a white counselor at City Kids, an outdoor summer camp, where all of her campers and many of her staff members are black.

The crux of Abram’s and Mott’s argument was that simply making outdoor activities cheaper to try and get people of color outside is problematic. While financial aid is important for students of color who are in need, Abram stated that even though she has the financial means to ski, ski culture (and other outdoor activities) don’t feel inclusive and welcoming for her. In his piece “White Racial Formation: Into the Twenty-First Century,” Charles A. Gallagher writes, “The cultural mythology that has become today’s commonsense understanding of race relations is a definition of society that is colorblind” (9). In solely providing financial aid without intentional, thoughtful questions and reflections, CC outdoor culture perpetuates an attitude of colorblindness that does not take into account the cultural differences among white students and students of color. While Outdoor Education and the ORC have recognized financial need and offer generous funding, consciousness cannot be just of class but also of race and therefore culture.

Abram and Mott are attempting to promote critical reflection among a white-dominated outdoor campus culture. In “The Transparency Phenomenon, Race-Neutral Decisionmaking, and Discriminatory Intent,” Barbara J. Flagg asks white readers: “In what situations do you describe yourself as white? Would you be likely to include white on a list of three adjectives that describe you? Do you think about your race as a factor in the way other whites treat you?” For white folks like me, we may not realize the way that our whiteness informs our relationship with the outdoors because we have the privilege of not needing to think about our whiteness in day-to-day interactions with others or with nature. However, if we truly are committed to diversity and inclusion, we as white folks must reflect on our positionality in our leadership endeavors and in the spaces we occupy.

Abram and Mott stressed the importance of involving people of color in the dialogue and planning of outdoor events. They also offered several suggestions, such as including more activities at WinterFest (like snowshoeing) as well as subsidizing the ticket and lodging costs for students who are in need of additional aid. During outdoor activities on Yampa, they suggested including a wider variety of music (not just bluegrass, but R&B, perhaps). Mott and Abram proposed that instead of Railjam only showcasing a select number of skiers and boarders, Railjam could also include other winter activities in the vicinity, such as sledding and snowshoeing which more students could partake in. In “The Transparency Phenomenon,” Flagg goes on to state: “Even whites who do not harbor any conscious or unconscious belief in the superiority of white people participate in the maintenance of white supremacy whenever we impose white norms without acknowledging their whiteness” (222).  Similarly, white students must examine the norms we’ve constructed or are complicit in upholding, often unintentionally, in the context off CC outdoor culture. Abram and Mott challenge us to imagine new possibilities of engaging with the outdoors in ways that challenge mainstream white norms of being outside. Abram stated: “It’s not that one way of engaging in the outdoors is better than others. However, there is a dominant white narrative to outdoor culture and sustainability at CC. This is what we’re trying to challenge.”


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