The Inherent Whiteness of Skiing

When I was three, my parents took me skiing for the first time. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the sport initially, but as time went on every day among the trees and my friends became precious. Skiing forms the core of my character in countless ways, yet it is a fundamentally white and exclusive sport. It is difficult for me to confront this truth, as it would be for any skier, but it is a truth with which skiing as an industry and skiers as a community need to reconcile. 


Skiing was initially a hunting technique, but from its inception as a commercial industry it has been a white man’s sport. The first mountain exclusively for downhill skiing was in the Alps, meaning that it was only accessible for wealthy, European customers. Early advertising mirrored this, using only broad, brawny white men. Skiers epitomized the ideal of what a man should be at that time: big, blond, bold, and privileged. As skiing spread to the States and South America, it only became more exclusive. Athletes were almost exclusively all white, but the low wage, low skill staff at ski areas were almost exclusively immigrant populations. Advertising itself slowly expanded to include white women, then male People of Color (POC), but statistics show stark racial inequities. In 2014, 7% of skiers were black and 13% were Hispanic, as opposed to 12% and 17% respectively of the total U.S. population. The primary reasons for these differences are disparities of money and of access.


In 1976, 70% of skiers had a higher salary than the average American citizen. In 2019, that statistic had risen by 2%. Although a 2% increase does not necessarily seem like much, the American population demographic has shifted significantly, meaning that a higher proportion of those with a lower than average salary is composed of POC. Few POC possess the financial resources to purchase a season pass to any resorts, let alone resorts in the Rockies; the median weekly income for POC in 2020 was nearly $200 less than non-POC, and those extra $200 are often what allows a family to purchase a season pass. A solution, some may argue, is the Epic pass or other similar passes, which offer a season pass for many resorts at a reduced price. The Epic pass starts at $899, a price that may seem realistic for many. However, for those who live paycheck to paycheck, the Epic is not a reasonable expectation to purchase up front. Additionally, it is only cost effective for those who ski at least 10 times per season, which again may not be reasonable for most POC.


Most ski areas are concentrated in rural areas. Logically, a ski mountain thrives far from the carbon emissions so common in urban areas. Urban areas are also often located in flat, agriculturally convenient locations – the worst possible location for a ski area. In 2018, 49% of urban populations were POC, while only 13% of rural populations were POC. In Denver and Salt Lake City, perhaps the only major urban areas located sufficiently close to ski areas, 10% and 13% were POC, respectively. These statistics are emblematic of a sharp contrast in access. Lengthy travel to ski areas is also unrealistic for most POC, 14.8% of whom earn their money by the hour and cannot afford to miss the five or six hours it would take to make the commute to their local ski area. 


These two factors combine to produce an environment that is ultimately unwelcoming to POC. There is no explicit, unbreakable legislation or decree preventing POC from enjoying snowsports, yet the history, accessibility demands, and financial strain create barriers at almost every turn. In this age of racial reckoning, of police brutality, of violent protests, of unprecedented inequity in the health system, skiing almost passes unnoticed. It is enough of a niche interest that the larger movement has chosen to focus on more pressing issues. Skiing and race seem like foreign concepts, yet ultimately the abject lack of POC in the snowsports community normalizes their absence. The everyday processes of systemic racism, of income and housing inequality, of barriers in education and finance, of discrimination in hiring, conspire to keep the skiing community almost entirely white. Skiing itself is yet another indicator of the insidious forces at the heart of American society, and those who enjoy it without a second thought need to wake up. If we as a society truly are committed to addressing and dismantling the racist structures that enable us to live the way we do, skiing needs to be included in that dialogue. 


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