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How Skiing’s Whiteness Has Affected Me, and How We Can Change It

For one black skier, the mountains won't be a welcoming place for everyone until we all put in the work.

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“You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” It’s a mantra I heard a lot growing up Black. In school. At my first job. In sports. It’s a reminder that, because of my skin color, nothing would simply fall into my lap. I’m hyper-aware of this in all facets of my life—I have to be. People are always watching.

I had a fascination with the Winter X Games, even growing up in Missouri where there were no real mountains. I wanted to ski, but I had no idea where to begin. I had a brief intro to the sport at a mountain (read: hill) near St. Louis, but I didn’t stick with it for various reasons. I didn’t find myself on skis again until I went on my first ski vacation to Utah during the winter of 2017. And boy did that opening mantra come rushing back.

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I was invited on the trip by my partner’s family, who had all been skiing for ages. I was both excited and terrified. After stepping into a ski boot for the first time during my rental fitting, the shop employee asked me how it felt—I didn’t know! If I was being honest I would have said that I felt like Bambi in ski boots. I was starting from the bench when most people on the mountain had probably been on skis since learning to walk.

That’s when I decided to see skiing as a challenge. I was set on having a good time regardless. I wobbled outside into the bustle of the base village. Skiing is a predominantly white sport, that much can’t be ignored, and I felt out of place, clueless. I caught more than a few eyes. The self-doubt started to creep in. Why am I here? How is everyone so good? Most of my clothes aren’t even waterproof! Where are all the other people who look like me?

Erin Key
Denver resident Erin Key started skiing in 2017 and has been hooked ever since. Photo: Tyler Horn

The group lesson started by separating us into smaller groups by experience. I was, of course, the only Black person. I told the instructors about my brief stint in St. Louis—that I knew how to push forward, snowplow, stop—yet I was placed in a Level 1 group anyway with people who had never been on skis. Right before I offered to demo my skills­—because I couldn’t understand why they weren’t listening to me—one of my partner’s family members overheard and stepped in. I was moved to Level 2.

The lesson went quickly—I was determined, often repeating to myself, You’ve got to be good, you’ve got to be good. So I paid attention, worked harder, was the star pupil—until I got to the point where I was able to get out of the group early.

Go Deeper: See the Sport Through the Lens of Skiing’s First Black Photographer

Don’t let them watch you fall. That was all I could think about on the chairlift ride after the lesson. So with a bit of overconfidence and a rush of adrenaline, I pushed myself up and glided off the lift. Whooooosh! Then I leaned back too far and fell over. It was a newbie mistake. I had a smile on my face to show I was enjoying myself, but inside, I was heated.

I couldn’t shake this feeling that my mistake was … expected.

That didn’t stop me from wanting to be there and enjoy my time while learning. Back home in Colorado, I’ve progressed pretty quickly from greens to blues, and even some black runs this season. I’ve had a fantastic time, but the question remains—where’s all the melanin at? Hitting the slopes twice per week, I do see non-white people out there—occasionally.

There is a stereotype that Black people aren’t the winter sports types, but this generalization simply isn’t true. (I will admit to being a warm-temp gal who freezes below 60, but I endure for the sport I love.) We’re here—I’ve met us. We give the silent nod, chin-up, wink-wink when we peep each other out on the snow. Representation may not mean a lot to some, but to someone like me, it’s everything. It’s powerful to see Black faces in unfamiliar spaces or lining up for medals in the Winter Olympics like Aja Evans or Erin Jackson—and there could be so many more of us.

When I’m asked why more Black people don’t ski, two thoughts come to mind: barriers to entry and representation.

Most outdoor activities are accessible if you want to get into them. Want to hike? Tennis shoes and a backpack will do. But for skiing, the bar is higher. You need several hundreds of dollars worth of specialized gear. Sure, it’s possible to snag a pair of skis at Goodwill, or to rent each time you go, but all of the equipment, plus a lift ticket, come at a cost.

“You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” It’s a mantra I heard a lot growing up Black. In school. At my first job. In sports. It’s a reminder that, because of my skin color, nothing would simply fall into my lap.

I got my gear on sale in the off-season, and I had to cover my eyes when I hit “submit payment” on my Epic Pass purchase. I am grateful that I have the privilege to do so, but too many don’t.

Thankfully, there are a few fantastic alternatives, such as community gear collections and small businesses that offer a leg up for anyone wanting to experience winter. In Colorado, Always Choose Adventures is a fantastic group that not only gets people of any experience outside, but also ensures gear isn’t a barrier to do so through free rental libraries. Colorado Mountain College also has a community gear library. And there are plenty of local shops that offer used gear at affordable prices. These resources should be uplifted to lower the barrier of entry.

But to truly make winter sports more inclusive, there has to be more representation of people in the BIPOC community out there shredding. Start by showing us we’re welcome by actually showing us. That starts with ski resorts hiring more diverse models for marketing materials—the same ones that get the Midwest suburbs to drive hundreds of miles every winter. The same goes for outdoor brands and companies: Hire real BIPOC people to create and participate in campaigns, and maybe more people who look like me will start to show up next winter.

It would have meant the world to the little Midwestern girl watching the Winter X Games to see more Black athletes out there. It would’ve made me feel like I belonged on the mountain, even started my journey earlier. My X Games shot may have come and gone, but I know that having a little more melanin on the slopes could help inspire the next little Black boy or girl to aim for the podium.

I’ve finally stopped worrying about what others think of me on the snow and just keep representing. Unapologetically. Because at the end of the day, the mountains are for everyone. No matter who you are or where you come from, we’re all welcome here.

Erin Key
Photo: Casey Poe
Erin Key is a political digital strategist living in Boulder, Colo. She uses her passion for visual imagery to convey that by working together, we can diversify the outdoors, one person at a time.