By Janine Pettit
Ok. Here goes. I was asked to weigh in on matters of race and camping on the Girl Camper Facebook page yesterday. A question was posed by the white mother of a biracial daughter wondering whether POC had experienced racism while camping. She wanted to camp alone with her daughter but was proactive in asking whether people thought they would be warmly received. Normal mother thought. Many replies noted that campers are some of the friendliest people in the world, and she should just go ahead and camp and not worry about it. This was followed by those who thought those replies were dismissive and uneducated and launched into schooling those unaware of their ignorance on the seriousness of the matter. As often happens with hot topics, the dialogue became shaming and condemning with posters unleashing their point of view on those they consider less woke, and the admin on duty shut down the comments until I could get a look at what was happening. I was tagged and asked to comment on my own experiences being the mother of children of color and a camper too.
Some family background first though. My husband and I have four children. Two biologicals, affectionately referred to as the “prototypes” – one adopted foster child who came to us at age three and was officially adopted at age eight. Rounding up the kids is our bonus son Stephen, a Ghanese immigrant my son brought home for dinner one night and who still lives with us six years later. We taught him to drive, helped him acclimate to his new country and were incredibly proud to stand by him, and see him sworn in as a US citizen last year. We are mom and dad to him. He is son to us and when he gets married later this year his Ghanese wife is moving in too.
Within the extended family is the prototype son’s beautiful wife from China. Our daughter-in-law has been in this country for five years now having left all family behind to make a better life for herself in this land of opportunity. She is vegan but makes the best pork meals and loves feeding us. She is pure joy and we love that she adds her customs to our family gatherings. Add in my Filipino nephews, my Aussie niece and brother-in – law and the youngest grandchild in our family, our adopted niece from Ethiopia. It is pretty much the United Nations in my family. With so many ethnicities, no one gets to stand out. We are just a modern-day family not unlike many others. It is a far cry from the Ozzie and Harriet world my parents raised us in, and no one wants it any other way.
Coming back to the topic of whether the camping community is welcoming to people of color, the real question that came to dominate the thread was, “Do white people understand that this mother was preemptively protecting her child from being wounded?” She wanted to know if her child would be treated well or looked upon differently. Let me tell you, folks, this is something all mothers do. We scour the crowd for the emotional assassins waiting to take down our children’s confidence with a, “What are you doing here look?” It was a fair question to be sure.
The unsettling thing for me was that unless you have raised a child of color, or a disabled child or a child who struggles to be part of the whole, you only know what your experiences are and you shouldn’t really say things like, “Don’t make it a racist thing. Just go camping.” Sadly, approaching any social setting with the attitude that I just won’t see the race factor, therefore it won’t really be there, is not how it works. The person of color is not the one holding those cards. She can’t stop a race thing from happening because it happens to her, not by her.
My daughter tells me she has not one single memory of ever being made to feel “less than” while camping. She in fact feels quite at home in that world and feels that campers are indeed some of the most open people in the world. That has been her experience, but it is not everyone’s. If I pulled into a campground flying a Rebel flag, as black friends of mine recently did with their three beautiful boys, I would turn around so fast your head would spin off. I would not ask my daughter to spend her day under that symbol of oppression and think that was okay.
All my daughter’s camping experiences have been good ones but not all of her “black girl out in the world just trying to live my life” experiences have been. Systemic racism is a thing. Sorry, white friends, but it is. Just saying that it is not, doesn’t make it so. There are other things too, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. Although we have come a long way, we are not there yet as a country. It is out there in insidious and covert forms. It takes our children down. It makes them constantly aware of themselves in ways most white people cannot even imagine. Their driving. How and where a woman holds her pocketbook. What you’re putting in your grocery cart. A late bill can feel like a failure for the whole community and not just an oversight. The feeling of constantly proving yourself gets exhausting.
There is a shame attached to walking into a designer pocketbook store, after having saved for months to buy that dream bag, and the two college-aged white sales girls behind the counter never bother to look up and ask if there is something you would like to see.
A chunk of the soul is extracted when makeup shopping with your white girlfriends and you break off to find the darker tones and are shadowed by store security while your white friends roam the store freely.
There is humiliation when the high school boy across from the lunch table announces to the whole room, for no particular reason, that you are so dark you could be considered purple. What? I ‘m just eating lunch here!
When you have nestled a sobbing child in your arms and tried to infuse her with value that others do not see, you are on high alert. You do due diligence. You mom it!! You do not want every outing to be a lesson in what is wrong with people and how you are “perfect just the way you are!” We all know kids don’t believe a word their mother’s say at that age! You just want to live your life, but you are on silent guard all the time scanning situations for things that will hurt your children.
At Girl Camper I wanted to create an environment where we could all just be people. Not defined by marital status, age, ethnicity, weight, color, orientation, finances, or any other labels we like to put on people. Tall order, I know! I wanted to shift the paradigm that we see happening in this country. The one in which the focus is on how deeply our particular subculture is mistreated by the unevolved, instead of focusing on what unites us. Where does this end? Who is the most wounded? This is a game kids play with parents. Everyone vying for the top spot of the most disenfranchised among the disenfranchised. My wound is bigger!! I’m the most put upon. It was worse for me!! No one wins this game. Everyone leaves empty and no one gets their needs met. Lose. Lose.
At Girl Camper, I took the view of looking for the common denominator rather than at how different we are. Commonalties are what unite us. Our love of camping, outdoors, empowering women to go it alone. I will freely admit that I don’t have the mental energy to get down all the talking points for each person’s particular injury and keep my own in check at the same time. Adult children of alcoholics, abuse survivors, addiction and recovery, parental abandonment, children with mental illness, loss of a child, unwanted divorce, racism, sexism, ageism…. I have heard it all around the campfire. It’s a really broken world out there and good help is hard to find. That’s why we camp!! Nature is so healing, and God can work in nature much easier than He can on social media.
I learned a big lesson on my very first camp out with the Girl Campers fifteen years ago that made me look deeply into how I view women who don’t possess the same point of view that I do. I arrived at the campground late not knowing anyone. I took my collapsible chair and placed it in the only open spot around a fire ring of twenty or so women. As soon as I introduced myself to the lady on my left, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. She was in a red and black, fairly dirty old wool coat. She was wearing beat-up old Army boots, with the tongue hanging out and laces dragging like she didn’t want to bother to tie them because she would just have to untie them later anyhow. She had on a backward baseball hat, a cooler with beer cans next to her, and a pretty good stacked pyramid of empties already going. My first thought was, “This is going to be a long night.” We sat side by side for the next two hours chatting about our camping stories and places we’ve been but mostly we talked about our grandmothers and how much we loved them. I had a blanket on my lap that my Grandmother had made, and she had a similar one from her grandmother. All the time we chatted, she continued to steadily consume another three to four cans of beer but never appeared drunk in any way. She was amiable and welcoming on every level. She was good company. At the end of the evening as people were packing up she said to me, “Let me give you a hug! I am leaving early tomorrow for work, so I probably won’t see you in the morning. ”I couldn’t imagine how she was getting out of the campground early considering what I had just watched her consume in alcohol, but I was happy to hug her. As we were parting I asked what she did for a living. Her reply stunned me.
“I am a pediatric, oncology, hospice nurse.”
Did she just say three words that should never be spoken in the same sentence? Her job is helping kids die and supporting grieving parents simultaneously?
I know that there is not enough booze produced in the northern hemisphere for me to be able to do that job. No wonder she is out here cutting loose with the girls once a month. I am certain I’d be inpatient somewhere if it was me but, she had a system for doing what is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world.
As I walked back to my camper I just felt incredible disappointment in myself for judging her. She was a person doing a really difficult and compassionate job and I only saw her outer appearance and alcohol intake.
While driving back to NJ I thought a lot about how small my world was. It was full of people from my neighborhood, whose kids went to the same school as mine, who dressed like me, voted like me, thought like me. They were my people and they were not bringing in any new points of view. That was the beginning of how Girl Camper changed the lens I viewed life through.
As I camped more and more, I began meeting and getting to know women whose lives were not like mine. I began to the process of stopping the sorting machine, of categorizing women as those who “get it” and those that “don’t get it.” The “it” being my point of view of course. When you sit around a campfire and you hear a woman’s tale of a husband that dropped the ball and left her holding the bag with three kids to raise and no money to do it with and who is also taking care of aging parents and battling an autoimmune disorder and clinical depression, you realize that her point of view is based on her life experiences. It’s not our place to tell her what we think, offer our wisdom on the subject, or judge her responses to her circumstances. It’s our job to say, “How can I help you? I am sorry that happened to you. I think you are so brave. I really admire the job you’re doing alone as a mother.” When we do less than that we remove her humanity. We strip her of her personhood and reduce her to a political ideology that we are either “for” or “against.” What box will she go in? Where should we put the carcass of the human we just skinned alive?
I had to stop looking at women as people who were either on board with my ideals or not, and start looking at them as living flesh in a very broken world. People doing their best with all that life throws at them. I had to really work on seeing them as the children of God that I know they are. Nothing is bigger than that! Nothing. He who created me and loves me with infinite love also created them and loves them with infinite love. If I could look at each of them as siblings of the same Father and remember that we are more alike than different, maybe I could stop expecting other people to get on my page? Maybe, rather than “tolerate” them, I could actually love them. The greatest of goals.
That is what this community is about. It’s about people being made welcome wherever they are in their journeys. You don’t have to have it figured out. We’ll hold space for you. You can join us with your imperfections and count on us to not ask you to be more than you can be. We’ll give you time to get to know us without expecting you to understand everything that ails us and respond according to the current wisdom on the subject. You can sit here and not have anyone tell you what’s wrong with your thinking. When the campfire is lit and we circle it, let’s imagine that the light coming from the center is The Light, the Father’s loving light, and it is illuminating each loved face in the circle equally and bringing Peace to a broken world. It’s the only cure that can truly mend us. Let’s do that for each other.