Meagan Martin and Molly Thompson-Smith: Two black climbers talk about racism

Meagan Martin bouldering

The adventure gap. This is what the black journalist and author James Edward Mills calls the phenomenon that black mountaineers and climbers are still the exception in the adventure scene. “It’s not a question of whether or not African-Americans can climb high mountains,” Mills wrote in “National Geographic” magazine: “What matters is as group we tend not to. And for a variety of different social and cultural reasons the world of mountaineering has been relegated almost exclusively to white men.”

But something is happening. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is also leading to a rethink in the outdoor industry, writes US climber Meagan Martin to me. The realization that racism is still widespread initially surprised the scene, she says, adding that in the meantime, however, companies have begun to question where they’ve failed to be an ally to the black community and how they can do better moving forward: “Many athletes are also taking this time to reflect, take accountability, and educate themselves to be a better ally.”

Racism was and is an issue

Focused on the next move

Meagan is a professional climber and has competed in World Cup competitions for the USA. ” I hope that one-day, racism doesn’t exist, but for now, it is still an issue, and it has been an issue,” says the 30-year-old: “For most people, it’s something that they don’t witness regularly, but just because you don’t always see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. As a black climber, I’ve always been aware of the presence of racism, but I’ve chosen not to let it bring me down, and instead make me stronger.”

The climber says that the support of the scene does her good. “I was born this way, this is the life I’ve chosen to lead, and I am proud to be a black woman in the climbing community, but it is comforting to know that my climbing peers are taking a second to see the world through my lens and the differences that do exist.” 

“There was a lot I would not accept today”

Molly Thompson-Smith

Molly Thompson-Smith can also sing a song about these differences. The 22-year-old is one of the greatest talents in British climbing and has already been on the podium at a World Cup competition: in 2017 she came third in lead climbing in Kranj in Slovenia. The Briton hopes to start at the first Olympic climbing competition, 2021 in Tokyo.

Molly, what do you think are the reasons why black climbers are underrepresented in the scene?

Firstly, a lack of diversity can encourage further monoculturism. I’m constantly aware of how I ‘stick out’, and for some people I think this could be a reason to avoid starting climbing, due to feeling uncomfortable or just a lack of connection to the sport. With a lack of black role models to relate to within the sport, I’m not surprised people of colour may not feel like they could see themselves being a part of the community. 

Secondly, climbing is selective regardless of if you are psyched and wanting to join the scene or not. I’d say it’s a fairly expensive sport, especially if you want to have nice gear, memberships at different walls, and travel for climbing on rock or in competitions. This will influence who can be a part of the community and become a barrier to those from less privileged backgrounds. 

Have you ever experienced racism or discrimination on the mountain or in the climbing gym? If so, what happened?

In competition

I’ve been lucky in life to only experience racism a handful of times, and when it has happened in a climbing gym it’s been ‘harmless’ comments or jokes I’ve just shrugged off. I’m White and Black Caribbean with fairly light skin – it’s my hair that is the ‘giveaway’. Jokes from friends about my skin tone or people wanting to touch my hair in fascination were normal in my climbing childhood, and I never told people how it really felt to be the subject of those words/actions. It may have not meant to be offensive, but I wouldn’t be so accepting of these comments nowadays. 

How do you experience the current debate on racism? Do you think that it will have an impact on climbing?

I’ve found the last month very emotionally draining, but it’s also made me quite hopeful. I admit, I could have been – and should have been better when it came to racism. I could’ve educated people on how their ‘jokes’ or ‘observations’ about people of colour were not appropriate. The situation has made me want to do more to encourage more diversity within the climbing community, and to make sure it feels like a safe and welcoming place for people of any background to be a part of. I think a lot of famous climbers have really stepped up and used their platforms to help educate their followers on how to be better, whilst admitting they themselves need to be better too. I’m hopeful the climbing community will take action to ensure it really does live up to its kind, inclusive and friendly reputation.