Pardon the graphic opening – it’s just a little bit of an overshare. Also pardon the gross generalisations inherent in my personal observations/reflections below: I know not all white people who go camping are wealthy for it is sometimes possible to acquire some of the expensive kit from yard sales and thrift stores (Dan, for instance, didn’t grow up rich; he grew up with cultural privilege but monetary under-privilege and thus acquired much of his camping gear in relatively inexpensive ways) and some black people go camping ’cause they like it – not because anyone made them do it (whether by applying social or material duress) … I’m just not one of them!
Last Monday morning, I sat for the first time in my life on a bucket with a toilet seat on it in a shed in the woods. I looked out at the surrounding trees and lake through the stable door that was left half open to let in some light. I occupied my mind (the same mind that I ran the real risk of losing in these creepy circumstances) with reading the instructions to “use the scoop to cover your poop” with sawdust; “not place any toilet paper in the bucket but in a separate paper bag”; and “pour the contents of a full bucket on the compost pile and cover with sawdust”. (Apparently, the sawdust not only aids composting but also conceals the smell – and, to my pleasant surprise, it actually works!) All the while, I marvelled at some of my white kin’s simultaneous ingenuity and insanity. Who would think to come all the way out here in the woods and build a tick-surrounded cabin that is basically inaccessible by any other means than by canoe … unless they had no other choice?! My in-laws did this by choice! This is the place where they “summer”. (Yes, some white people use “summer” as a verb – it is a quite reliable marker of wealth … usually multi-generational wealth – “old money” – also symbolised by having a “summer home”.)*
I could not but ask God: “is this some kind of joke you’re playing on me?” ** (As the Swiss German father of my favourite comedian, Trevor Noah, is quoted by his mixed race son as saying, “so you think you’re a funny guy, huh?”) God promptly reminded me that I had chosen Dan and He had just helped me make what I desired happen. Touché!
When I returned from my ablution adventure, Dan delightedly said, “you’re really earning your street-cred, my love!” I reminded him that I grew up in Johannesburg, merely living in which gives one the highest possible street-cred! (At least, by South African standards.) “Yeah, you’re right: you’re really earning your off-street cred … your woods-cred!” That’s a wholly different matter, I concede. (As Dan proudly reminds me, he earned his by mucking stalls to earn money and spending plenty of time playing in the woods of Temple, NH.)
After Dan and I got married we got matching t-shirts to commemorate our marriage. His said, “once you go black, you can’t go back” (thankfully, he’s honoured that commitment thus far!). Mine said, “stuff white people like”. (Don’t ask! I don’t know what I was thinking putting that on a t-shirt to be worn by my black self! It must have been the post-marriage glow and concomitant madness. *sigh* Needless to say, I’m very careful about where I wear that t-shirt!)
My reason for getting the inscription was that, around the time Dan and I got together, about seven years ago, Stuff White People Like had become the rage. I remember working through the list on this popular website and marvelling at how well it humorously described most of the white people I had known throughout my life at private school, university and beyond. Little had it occurred to me that marrying a white person of the kind of cultural orientation that was in many ways depicted on that site would get me into trouble for the rest of my life.
One of the distinguishing features of such white people as this site describes is spending lots of money to have a “poor” or “difficult” (but relatively “secure”) experience … such as camping.
If you find yourself trapped in the middle of the woods without electricity, running water, or a car you would likely describe that situation as a “nightmare” or “a worse case scenario like after plane crash or something.” White people refer to it as “camping.” …
In theory camping should be a very inexpensive activity since you are literally sleeping on the ground. But as with everything in white culture, the more simple it appears the more expensive it actually is.
Camping is a multi-day, multi-step, potentially lethal activity that will cost you a large amount of both time and money. Unless you are in some sort of position where you absolutely need the friendship of a white person, you should avoid camping at all costs.
Without ever having come across this website, I think this is wisdom black people have largely intuited :) (If you really don’t believe me, check out this article.)
See, I associate four-roomed houses that have very basic amenities and so-called “outhouses” (what we, in the township growing up, less euphemistically called “outside toilets”) with:
1. Poverty – after all, we had an outside toilet because that was what the apartheid government had imposed as the standard feature for all township houses (all two or four-roomed, as they were) and we were poor because of the oppression of apartheid. (For a long time, poor black people in some townships and informal settlements used “the bucket system” of sanitation … To our country’s shame, too many still have to.) As soon as people had the freedom and means, they upgraded their houses and one of the first things they did was put in an indoor toilet and plumbing.
2. Relatively inhospitable, potentially dangerous (and, yeah, poor) rural areas – I mean, the one outside toilet I visited most growing up was my paternal grandfather’s wasp-infested long-drop (he and his family were labour tenants/share croppers on a white person’s farm and they were poor); those which I have visited more recently have been on occasion spider-infested toilets (think the 90s movie, Arachnophobia) in my rural field sites where I’ve stayed to conduct my research (and those communities are very poor).
So, suffice it to say that, in my personal experience as a black person, “normal people” do not choose poverty-tourism and -travel. By extension, they do not choose hardship.
In case you think I’m alone, let me illustrate the counter point. Dan’s and my previous get-away was to the Niagara Falls where hotels abounded and the most walking we had to do was from our hotel to (and along the ridge line of) the Falls … a mere kilometre or so. We saw more black people there than I have seen combined in the seven years that I have followed Dan up ski mountains and hiking trails – atop most of which I have been the only black person in sight. (From what I’ve seen, black people rarely get that high up even to work as service staff! The obvious exception is places like Table Mountain, located in less remote places and/or reachable by cable car/gondola.)
There’s a reason for this too. First, because they do not often have much disposable income (as they experience real poverty at higher rates than other racial groups), black people don’t tend to be able to get away to places that require they spend large amounts of money. They tend to mostly travel to see family, if at all. Hence, there are few black people even at places like the Niagara Falls. Second, those few black people with the means will rarely choose to holiday in any way other than in ease and comfort. The exception to this might be adventure (read: uncomfortable or high risk) travel for the purpose of impressing their bosses or keeping up with the Joneses: that is, their new peers – wealthy people – who are typically white.***
A hiking and camping trip (other than fully catered, luxury camping at the Kruger National Park or such, for the nouveau-riche black elite) – whatever getaway includes roughing it like you had returned to poverty and hardship – just is not part of our idea of a good time! For even those black people who are wealthy, poverty is too recent (most wealthy black people have not inherited their wealth) or too proximate (they have much kin who remain poor and are possibly even still being financially supported by them, to some degree). And, for the rest, why would you choose to holiday in a way that in any way approximates your daily circumstances and the stress that they are enough to generate?! I think it takes multiple generations of wealth for such “fun” to become the cultural norm for a group of people.
(In fact, as I lay in the cabin nursing my allergy-congested nose last Monday, I became aware of yet another difference between this four-roomed house and the one I spent my formative years in: this one is so dusty and harbours many allergens because it is hardly inhabited – used for a few weeks each summer – whereas we kept our township house spic-n-span growing up, as though our lives depended on it, because our lives did depend on it!)
So, if you are a ((sub)urban) black person dating a (culturally) WASPy/wealthy white person, be warned! You may just find yourself sitting on the seat of a modestly “fancy” bucket-toilet wondering if a moose (whose poop you’d seen on your way in) or bear (’cause you know there’s at least one lurking in these woods out here!) would poke its head in as you “peacefully” looked out over the woods and lake.
* An important proviso: granted, most WASPs “summer” in very comfortable homes with modern facilities – toilets, dishwashers and even wifi. Turns out that wealthy white people also often find comfort somewhat irresistible. Indeed, the rest of the properties on this multi-generational, extended Weeks family farm are very nice and comfortable (some would be thought year-round homes rather than mere summer homes) but this one property, among them, holds particular “charm” (read: discomfort and inconvenience), and deliberately so.
** Those of us who believe in and actively cultivate a relationship with God maintain a conversation with Him in our heads. And, yes, he actually responds! Despite what some psychologists (and some unbelieving non-psychologists) say, this is not a sign of mental disorder. In my life, God has shown Himself to have a wicked sense of humour – much better than mine, in fact … but that’s unsurprising since He’s better than me at EVERYTHING! LOL. That’s why it makes sense for me to chat with Him about stuff, to get His perspective on all the things that I can :)
*** Again, it is worth noting that wealthy white people are also just as likely to prefer to travel in style and comfort than otherwise; hence, it is not that often that it is required of wealthy black people to travel in discomfort in order to keep up with their peers.