Because I Haven’t, Does That Mean I Don’t?

Whitney MitchellFYPx
Whitney Mitchell

We don’t swim. We don’t get our hair wet. We don’t like the sun. We don’t go outside. We don’t hike.

Mesa Verde National Park

Victor Wei

For the past few years, I’ve navigated through vales of Buzzfeed comments and articles swirling in the depths of Reddit, casting definitive statements around things that black girls like me don’t do. Words and assumptions made aloud then spark internal questioning if I just might be that black girl.

  • Because I haven’t, does that mean I don’t?
  • If I do, does that mean that I’m the exception?
  • Am I less black if I do?
  • Will I be the token if they see?

When the National Park Foundation offered an opportunity to join a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I felt like I’d then have the ammo to Facebook my answers to the world.

Status update, location check-in, and photo tag my way out of black girl obscurity.

Here’s where all that crazy angst was rooted:

During my post-college-GPA-worry, visiting a national park wasn’t a priority. That wasn’t an oddity in my world, school loan payback was the focus. I was fighting against stereotypes and finite assumptions swirling around the label of “Generation Lazy.” I was never any more or less black because of my fight. But I continued to let the vagueness of interweb comments, newsroom media, and articled research conjure floating questions of what my color paralleled.

As I was able to gain my bearing on the concept of adulting, nearly a full 29-year-old, I wanted to test the waters and push back on life. Luckily, through a late night, dark room, head between pillow and comforter, air conditioner blasting, Instagram surf, I discovered the magic people were experiencing in national parks. Hikes, swims, camps, and the glory of red dirt and tall trees, I saw it all. And I wanted discovery and experiences to become my priority.

Mysteriously, in the way cosmic laws of attraction happen, the Foundation put out an opportunity for folks looking to experience the parks in a unique way. So I applied.

I carefully crafted an application to the Find Your Park Expedition contest. After thinking the submit button failed me, sending a follow-up email, and eating some good-luck-crawfish, I was welcomed into an opportunity that allowed me to see that questions and assumptions are often defied by determination and targeted choice. Resisting the laws of Powerball probability, I was picked. And then, similar to the Powerball plunge, all the angst of what was to come bombarded my mind.

Do I belong there?

How do you hike?

Will people be happy that I’m there?

I met smiles that mirrored mine from people that didn’t look like me.

I learned how to prepare, what to wear, and how to get there from REI, Columbia, Aramark, and Southwest. I was greeted by National Park Service leadership and travelers alike. I embraced two parks of natural wonder, like I had been there before and had always trekked through these parks.

African American woman climbs a ladder at Mesa Verde

Whitney climbing a ladder at Mesa Verde National Park

Victor Wei

I wasn’t just a black girl, I wasn’t the exception, and I wasn’t the token example of a black girl in the wilderness. I was me, a girl that bent from routine to try an adventure in and around a space and place that was waiting for new visitors and new perspectives.

I ditched being on the end of question and assumption.

African American woman experiences happiness at Mesa Verde

Happiness at Mesa Verde National Park

Javier Gonzalez

My shade of grey shifted to a vibrant optimism ready to experience more and ready to not think of myself as a less-than-black girl.

One leap, one yes, and one trip showed me how complete strangers could highlight and lean on the strengths of other complete strangers. How my blackness and way of life was both intriguing and awesome. How family dinners can make the corniest games seem like the world’s greatest ideas and how uncomfortable questions repurpose assumptions into connecting energy.

I realized more than ever that wallowing in the catch-all of assumptions created a fear in shifting priority and questions that can’t be answered alone. The thing that separates me, or any black girl, from what we don’t do is what we have the opportunity to do and the choices we make to do it.

We all have the power to choose.

Woman smiling in the sand dunes

Sand Dunes National Park

Javier Gonzalez

I couldn’t be more thankful for an experience like FYPx. I’ve become more of me since stepping foot in Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde and I hope to experience that feeling again, ten times over.

Whitney Mitchell participated in the National Park Foundation’s 2015 Find Your Park Expedition. She is a visual artist and collective impact strategist, creatively working to address health disparities in New Orleans, Louisiana. You can follow Whitney's adventures and connect with her on InstagramTwitterTumblrFacebook, Snapchat using TwoMacks, and on her website.

Last updated January 26, 2016.

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