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  • Catherine Dickerman

The History of Skiing (and Why it's so White)

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

Millions of Americans share a love for skiing, but not everyone feels equally welcome on the slopes.

Approximately 88% of skiers in the United States are white, and half of those skiers have an annual income greater than $100,000. Compared to the breakdown of the country as a whole, the outdoor snow-sport industry is undoubtedly disproportionately white and wealthy. Not only that, but it also has a racist past which must be acknowledged.

A long, long time ago...

Archaeological evidence of skiing dates back to 7,000 B.C., when it was used as a method of transportation in snowy climates. The oldest pair of skis known to man were discovered in Russia and date back to 6,300 B.C. However, skiing is believed to have originated with the Sami people in Scandinavia who are thought to have followed the retreat of the last Ice Age on skis.

From the 15th to 17th centuries skiing was mainly used in warfare in Scandinavia, Poland and Russia. Eventually, recreational skiing took off among elite Norwegians in the mid-1800s and began to grow more fashionable across Europe and the United States. During this time, skiing was regarded as a luxury that required lengthy time periods of dedication in remote Alpine locations.

In 1936 the first chair lift was installed in Sun Valley, Idaho, and changed the landscape of the ski industry. No longer was it necessary to take many weeks of vacation to justify getting two runs in a day in between exhausting uphill climbs. It also was possible to ski without being incredibly physically fit or having the money to hire a mountain guide. Ski resorts exploded in popularity, drawing upon the increasing cultural appreciation for leisure activities and becoming a symbol of the white middle class identity. In the early days skiing was even affordable--an average lift ticket cost less than $1. However, even when ski lifts became more common and the sport expanded its market across the U.S. to a wider audience, BIPOC were excluded.

History of Racism

Why didn’t BIPOC get involved as skiing gained traction in the U.S.? Similarly to the lack of diversity in other outdoor sports, there are many factors that act as a barrier to BIPOC when it comes to skiing, including cost, proximity to location, and a history of racism in the industry.

Skiing tends to be a generational sport. Young children often learn to ski because their parents skied, whose parents skied before them. Because skiing often involves a significant financial investment, as well as traveling to the slopes, kids whose parents don't ski are unlikely to get into the sport. Taking into account the fact that most ski mountains were segregated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it follows that many Black people today grew up with parents that weren't even allowed on the slopes. Some lodges remained segregated for nearly another decade following the Civil Rights Act.

There were a select few locations such as Lincoln Hills, which opened in the 1920s in Colorado, that provided African Americans access to the snow. Although it was not specifically a ski resort, Lincoln Hills offered year-round access to the mountains by parceling out lots for cabins. The success of Lincoln Hills proved that it was not lack of interest but segregation that kept Black people from the mountains.

Exclusion Today

Following the monopolization of ski resorts in the last few decades, skiing has become incredibly expensive. The combined cost of lift tickets, parking, food on the mountain, and ski rentals can be daunting for those just getting into the sport. Of course, that’s assuming one lives within driving distance to a mountain, so for those who don’t, tack on the added cost of hotels, plane tickets, and other travel expenses. Depending on the resort and season, lift tickets average around $85 dollars a day, on top of $100 rental fees during peak season.

Given that ski towns are predominantly white areas or located near predominantly white areas, many BIPOC must face those extra travel costs to ski, further inhibiting access to the mountains. This geographic distance also creates barriers when it comes to Black representation in competitive skiing: the majority of national team members or other high level skiers grow up in these predominantly white resort towns and many have complained of toxic culture and exclusion that they faced.

Flowing from the systemic barriers of geography and cost, discrimination only heightens inaccessibility to entry. Squaw Valley Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, host to the 1960 Olympics, uses the derogatory slur “squaw,” which is meant to belittle Indigenous women. For many years, Indigenous people have called for the removal of the slur with little success. Just today, the resort announced it would change its name.

Microaggressions against BIPOC are also not uncommon among white skiers. Garrett Schlag, a Japanese American skier who grew up in Park City, has spoken out against some of the examples of racism he and other BIPOC skiers have faced both on and off the mountain. He has long witnessed racist comments on the slopes go unchecked, in part because "Skiing has long served as an escape for white people from multicultural politics and accusations of privilege, and that is precisely why we can’t leave race out of it."

According to Schlag, the resorts are in part to blame by “valuing guests able to afford multi-day stays and lift tickets or season passes, and promoting real estate that facilitates and values white flight and gentrification.” This is particularly relevant during the current COVID-19 crisis, as essential workers in mountain towns are forced to take on increased risk and travel through many counties to serve predominantly white communities. These structural barriers alongside microaggressions contribute to an alienating sense of elitism that creates even more barriers to BIPOC skiers feeling supported.

One way that this can happen is through the use of rhetoric that perpetuates the idea that someone has to be an expert at skiing to become a part of the community. Terms like “Jerry” or “Gaper” that are used to label people who are just getting into the sport and are still working to understand the basics are frequently thrown around by experienced skiers. Although they may seem harmless at the surface, the words are used to put down those who don’t fit the typical mold of a skier, contribute to the sense of elitism that many skiers hold, and are overall very harmful for those just getting involved with the sport.

Moving Forward

Despite this immense adversity, Black skiers were still able to make a name for themselves in the sport. Siblings Andre and Suki Horton from Anchorage, Alaska, became the first Black skiers on the U.S. National team in 2001. In an interview, Suki commented that she was inspired by Tiger Woods and how he changed the public opinion of golf: “When I saw Tiger Woods, and the way that everyone started playing golf after he won, I thought maybe I can make an impact by making the U.S. Ski Team. I realized that what I do out there could affect a lot of people.”

Despite the overall scarcity of BIPOC on the slopes, the National Brotherhood of Skiers has been working to create change, with a goal to “identify, develop and support athletes of color who will WIN international and Olympic winter sports competition representing the United States and to increase participation in winter sports.” Communities like this one are crucial to help increase visibility of high level Black skiers and representation of Black athletes in one of the whitest athletic industries in the country.

Although only a small handful of Black skiers have competed in the Winter Olympics for skiing, NBS has supported high level Black skiers which in turn has created more role models for young BIPOC athletes wanting to get involved in the sport. In 2020, NBS founders Arthur Clay and Benjamin Finley were the first non-white skiers ever inducted in the Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

What can you do?

Help expand access to affordable gear by listing your skis and jackets on Switchbackr! Donate the proceeds of your sales to organizations working to expand outdoor access such as Share the Winter and Hoods to Woods.

Follow accounts of BIPOC skiers (such as @dennisranalter, @m1sta_mango, @markusfohr, @badgal_brooky) to learn about their experiences and amplify their voices.

Learn about the broader context and history of discrimination in the outdoor industry. Check out our articles such as The History of Racism in National Parks, The Indigenous History of National Parks, and Anti-racism Resources for Outdoor People.

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