To start, any discussion about racism in paddlesports inevitably begins with the indisputable observation that kayaking, along with the entire outdoor sports industry, is overwhelmingly white. Setting aside for the moment the far thornier, intractable reasons why this might be, one path to addressing this is to simply work on the tangible aspects of making outdoor recreation more accessible to people of color. If there is any good news to be had here, its that there is no doubt that inclusion will be one of, if not the leading agenda item for the outdoor industry for the foreseeable future, and we certainly look forward to seeing exactly what this means and how we can participate in the general effort.
It’s important for us to pay attention to the progress of the whole industry for a couple of reasons. First, the outdoor industry is huge- representing close to 900 billion dollars a year in spending- and it has the power and organization to enact real change at a national and even global level. Secondly, paddlesports, and particularly whitewater, requires the larger ecosystem to change in order for us to see a real diversification in participation. We recognize that we’re at the far end of the outdoor sports spectrum, and for the most part, we all came from families who, if not already kayaking, were avid hikers, bikers, campers, etc. More diverse participation in the broadest sense of outdoor sports is the clearest path to making paddlesports more accessible.
For our part, IR will participate in a sustainable, long-term program to help get people of color introduced to kayaking. While we don’t have the specific details on this just quite yet, we can say that most likely this will take the form of partnership with a kayak school or program and gear donations. There is a ton of activity in paddlesports occurring along these lines right now, and for the short term we are waiting for things to settle to make sure we are not wasting time or energy on a dead end or a poor match. When we have something that we feel really comfortable with, we will announce it in the usual channels.
As positive as all of this may sound, though, we have to discuss the primary obstacle we face. The fact is that despite the best intentions of the industry and no matter how much money we throw at this problem, many people of color simply don’t feel comfortable with outdoor recreation for very sound reasons. For high profile examples, consider Christian Cooper who was accosted while birding in Central Park or Ahmaud Arbery who was murdered while out for a run in Georgia. Kayaking in many ways can offer an even more striking example. Can you imagine being a black paddler negotiating small towns in Appalachia looking for a take out? A place to eat? This is where we have to ask ourselves-not as an industry but as individuals- what are we going to do to make a difference? Many kayakers have gone through their entire paddling career and have never seen a black person whitewater kayaking. If nothing else, the events of the last few weeks should transform this fact from “interesting observation on an under served market” to a moment where we think “what the fuck is wrong with us?”
In this regard, we can offer what we at IR will do as a group of people employed and completely immersed in outdoor sports. For one, we will elevate racism as a problem as present and urgent as public land use or global warming or any other outsized threat to our sport and community. Second, we have to listen to the people on the front lines of this battle to get real leadership on how we can make a difference, and then act. Third, we will vote for the president, lawmakers and local officials. 50% of people under 35- our core customers- did not vote even for president in 2016, and we have to do everything we can to change that.
In no way are we bold enough to suggest that we have any real answers here. This letter is a result of the close knit team at IR meeting several times over the past 10 days, and stands more as an internal roadmap or notes on our conversations rather than a directive for other companies or individual paddlers. We have had many customers write us inquiring about our position on recent events, and this is our most honest attempt to document that. We hope this accurately presents us as a company that is both committed to kayaking and helping diversify outdoor recreation, as well as one that is deeply, deeply disturbed by the systemic racism that continues to plague our country. In the end, though, action will speak louder than words, and we hope you will follow along with us as we begin to figure this out.