There is a lot of attention focused on diversity in the naturism/nudism community. Strangely, it seems to be a debate. Some in the community seem to think there’s no work to be done. Being a naturist is inherently diverse and open. The idea of stripping off your clothes is both a literal and figurative shedding of the things that separate us. Others in the community think bold social justice statements need to be made. It needs to be clear that all races, colors, and gender identities are welcomed participants in naturism. Those open, affirming, and diverse policies or positions should be plainly visible and advocated on anything community facing. I frequently listen to naturist podcasts and read naturist blogs. One of the questions that consistently comes up is, “how do we make the community more diverse?” Great question, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, people of color don’t have the answers you might be seeking.
I spent a few years as a substance abuse counselor. That’s a hard job. It is even more challenging for those who were struggling with addiction. I helped a few, and others reminded me of the proximity to the powerlessness of which is the human experience. The people I somehow managed to help frequently told me one of the single most important things I ever did was help them find their root cause or reason for substance use. One person in particular that I will never forget told me, “you helped me see this in a way I never had before; I was medicating my mental health and traumas just as I would take Tylenol for a headache.” What’s the point of that? It’s to say perhaps in our questions regarding diversity in naturism; we are asking good questions but not necessarily the right questions. We ask questions about the issue of diversity, but we aren’t asking questions that get us to the root (the why) of the diversity issues within the naturist community.
The majority of the articles or podcasts I have listened to thus far invites a person of color to talk about their experience and ask how or what we should do. That is the wrong question asked to the wrong person. Let me elaborate. We all exist in the shadow and legacy of systemic racism. It’s not that black people do not enjoy naturism or camping or the outdoors in general. It is, however, another way in which black people were excluded and lacked safety. That exclusion led to a separation from ‘mainstream’ activities, thus removing that activity from the cultural lexicon. Black people are constantly evaluating their safety: their mental safety, emotional safety, physical safety, and the safety of their loved ones. So perhaps a better question to ask white people in positions of leadership within naturism should be, “how can we stop unknowingly continuing to exist in, or perpetuate, the legacy of systemic racism and segregation?”
It is important to remember that in many spaces that you often find yourself in today, black people were actively shunned, and that is as recent as 50 years ago.
As recently as July of 2020, a black man was assaulted by a gang of white men that attempted to lynch him in Indiana, and those men were not arrested. What was supposed to be an evening of star-gazing and connecting with nature turned into horror – another trauma. If I were him, would I ever go back to that same spot and attempt camping, having experienced that? Hell no is an understatement.
Advancements in technology and the internet, which have connected us in ways unimaginable 30 years ago, have provided us a sense of rapid progress that does not actually exist. Has progress been made? Absolutely! But progress has not been nearly as swift as we all thought. The events of 2020: George, Ahmad, Breonna, and more opened our collective eyes to that very fact.
The very real and unfortunate reality of the black experience of having to navigate safety means internal dialogue such as:
“Are you in the wrong neighborhood? Don’t end up in the wrong area.”
“Make sure if you are going to be on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, you dress nicely and drive a car that looks like you belong there. For the love of God, don’t put your hands in any pockets or bags. You will be watched, so stay visible.”
“If you wear a hoodie, don’t wear the hood at night. Wear a beanie instead. Make sure your face is as visible and non-threatening as possible even though your existence in itself is a perceived threat.”
The list goes on so long it would be impossible to write them all, so for now, they’ll just remain non-negotiable lessons occupying real estate in my long-term memory.
People in marginalized communities are professional code breakers. They have an acute ear for dog whistles. They scan your newsfeeds, your websites, and anything else community facing for evidence or confirmation if they are safe or not. People of color will always notice the following:
Language: In the dark ages, when I was in college, and I would go to the bars with friends, they used language like “Dress code enforced. No excessively baggy jeans, no sports shirts or hats, no beanies, no shorts, no jerseys, no shoes that can be considered sport like.” This was all language used to make it explicitly clear urban styled individuals – which is a dog whistle in itself – were undesired customers. Does your language communicate safety? I read an article, I believe, over on the AlmostWild blog, that pointed out what is seemingly innocuous language “family-friendly” is coded language to communicate to the LGBTQ population this place is not for you. In practice, the naturism community probably uses it to detract and repel those who are part of ‘the lifestyle.’ However, as a result of that language. Many LGBTQ people split off and created their own organizations like Gay Naturists International.
Imagery: Does your imagery proudly display people of color? Many websites that I have come across have a lot of white people and a lot of thin, conventionally attractive women. Think of the message being communicated to people of color and women that don’t fit in that thin, perky-boobed, blonde box. I have seen roughly zero people of color on any naturist website wearing nothing but smiles and enjoying themselves with one another and with their white friends. I have seen zero (obviously) gay, lesbian or trans people wearing nothing but a smile on any of the naturist club or organization websites. That is either by choice or neglect.
Events: What City/Town/State or Country are you going to? What venue are you having events? Is that an establishment that has a history of discrimination or segregation? “What message does this venue communicate?” Are you having events at lifestyle resorts but chastise members of the lifestyle community? Are you hosting events in the rural south? That should be a clear no-brainer people of color will stay far away from that. Do you want to welcome LGBTQ people but hosting an event in an extremely hostile place like the Caribbean? When I considered joining on with the Black Naturists Association, I saw them hosting events in Jamaica. News flash! I can literally be murdered in Jamaica because I like boys…is your organization for me? Probably not. So now, as both a black and gay man, I perceive myself to be unsafe in mainstream naturist organizations because of my race and unsafe as part of the black organization because of my sexuality. Maybe that isn’t true at all, but that’s the message communicated to me via these respective communities.
Music: What music are you playing? Are you playing a mix of tunes that cater to everyone? Are you mixing oldies, country, rock, yacht rock, easy listening with some pop, R&B, jazz, and yes, even hip hop? Fun fact, black people enjoy all types of music. Excluding perceived black music from your playlists communicates your desire to exclude them. Those choices of music genre exclusion seem innocent, unnoticeable, just mundane choices of the playlist curator. Yet, they scream very loudly to people of color that they are in your space, not everyone’s space.
Representatives: Who has a platform or loud voice representing your community and/or organization? It is someone that is known to be complacent with racism or, worse, actively racist? Is it someone that considers the person of color’s experience an exaggeration? Is it someone that says one thing publicly and does another thing privately? Is it someone resistant to positive change?
On another podcast I listened to, the host interviewed a board member for the Black Naturist Association. He asked her, “why the need to have the Black Naturist Association? Doesn’t that further separate and segregate.” Of course, there was absolutely no malice in his question, but it, again, was the wrong question. Organizations like BNA or GNI exist to create a safe space for people whose safety was (or is) not readily apparent.
You can’t be what you can’t see. You can’t be a thriving, open, affirming, diverse community of naturists if you don’t present yourself (and are seen) as such. Diversity doesn’t start with the marginalized population; it begins with the system. Diversity isn’t the collective person of color’s problem to solve, fix, or answer. It can’t be. The problem, or the legacy, that is the lack of diversity within the naturist community is not the creation of people of color. The naturism community struggles with diversity issues because it has existed comfortably with no real need or reason to ask the right questions. Maybe that is a question in itself. “Why has the naturism community existed so comfortably this long without being diverse?” Could it be the answer to that root question is because, on some level, the community likes things just the way it is?