Do Communities of Color Really Feel Disconnected From Nature?

Working with college STEM students, Dorceta Taylor debunks the cultural stereotypes that dominate diversity discussions.

When Dorceta Taylor took her first biology course at Northeastern Illinois University, it quickly dawned on her that she was the only black undergrad in the room. Growing up in Jamaica, she’d always sat in science classes with black, white, Indian, and Chinese kids. “We did STEM like there’s no tomorrow,” she says. So then why, she wondered, were her science classes in the United States so uniform?

Taylor posed the question to her professor, whose response was surprisingly unscientific. “African Americans aren’t interested,” he said. His generalization was based on a body of research that points to a lack of connections between black urbanites and nature. But as a member of that community, Taylor knew it wasn’t true.

Her hunch was confirmed when she started finding cracks in the research. One touted analysis compared the perspectives of black children in New Haven, Connecticut, with perspectives from white adults in well-to-do suburbs. Class wasn’t factored into the responses. Another survey looked at black women’s opinions of a Philadelphia park to characterize “a legacy of fear toward the city’s natural environment.” The space in question was neglected, crime-torn, and hardly a suitable habitat for families or wildlife.

Flawed studies like these have led to what Taylor calls “eternal stereotypes” in conversations about racial representation (and the lack of it) in the environmental field. So the newly minted American set out to draw more sincere and accurate conclusions. Thirty-five years later, as a professor, author, and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, she’s finding better ways of polling communities and improving the pool of data. It’s this work that earned her Audubon’s 2018 Rachel Carson Award.

Taylor’s most recent research, published in the journal Environmental Justice last month, focuses on the values and viewpoints of minority college students studying STEM. For it she included 157 individuals selected randomly from three U.S. universities (a public one, a private one, and a historically black one from different geographies). The subjects were sent eight photos of landscapes and animal species—some remote, some urban—and were asked to rate their preference for each. Then, they responded to open-ended questions on their notions of nature.

Overall, students of all backgrounds expressed a deep connection to the outdoors. Black respondents scored wild landscapes especially high, contradicting the idea that they only relate to urban scenes. Also of note: Any fears triggered by the images seemed to be situational, rather than pervasive. What’s more, they weren’t disproportionate by race.
This is an important point, Taylor says, because anxiety of nature has long been imprinted on black communities. “If blacks express fear in their interactions with the natural world, it is often framed as an aberration, deviance, alienation, ignorance, and in negative terms,” she writes in the study. On the flip side, if a white person is turned off by a snake or poor camping conditions, the bad experience is pinned on the environment, not the individual. “For blacks, we see [the fear] as a reaction, not a description,” Taylor says. “And that rises to the level of stereotypes.”
The best way to avoid false conjectures is to weigh opinions from as many individuals as possible, and consider the complexities of human-nature bonds. But if there’s one generalization we can make, it’s that there’s a universal appreciation for the beauty of the world, Taylor says. “These students understand the value of it,” she adds. Her previous work has shown that minority youth have a strong, vested interest in environmental professions. They also see environmentalism as a multi-faceted calling—one that seeks to endorse conservation, social justice, and science.
If there's a barrier between diverse communities and nature, it's because the relationship is being narrowly interpreted. “White people have a varied set of perspectives [of the outdoors],” Taylor says. “All I’m saying is people of color get that, too.”