A Deeper Understanding — Implications of Race for the Future of Camp

January 2013

Curtis is a quick-witted, engaging, ready-for-adventure ten-year-old I met along with a host of other children last summer at Boston Explorers, a nonprofit urban day camp for children nine to fifteen years old. Curtis loved the woodworking program and the daily trips out to the manmade and natural spaces of Boston, many of which he had never experienced before. Like most of the campers in the program, Curtis wanted camp to go on forever! After all, Boston Explorers has all the excitement and positive energy of many good camps. That’s why I was somewhat startled when a certain thought first crossed my mind . . .

I still remember the moment at camp when it occurred to me. Curtis and I were laughing about something after a game we had just finished when I thought, “I wonder if he knows yet?” It was his innocence that struck me.

What might Curtis and some of his fellow campers not know yet? That one day he will be walking down a street only to notice that certain members of the opposite sex will cross the street to the other side; or that he is likely to be stopped and questioned by police officers or security personnel because he “looks suspicious” or “is out of place”; or that his rambunctious, playful character will sometimes be interpreted as “menacing, thug-like, or defiant” rather than a part of his curious and energetic nature. Why will these and other things happen to Curtis through no fault of his own? They will happen to Curtis and countless other kids just like him because he is black. In fact, I would be surprised if, by age ten, Curtis hasn’t already had many interactions in stores or in school where he feels treated differently. Curtis doesn’t have what Peggy McIntosh calls “unearned privilege” (1990). In fact, he has unearned, and undeserved, liability because of the preconceptions, myths, and misunderstandings many people in our dominant white culture — including camp professionals — have about black people. I know. I was one of them.

You see, my revelation says as much about me as a white person as it does about the reality Curtis will encounter. I enjoyed Curtis just as I have a lot of other fun, eager, energetic kids. After playing with him and coming to enjoy his playful personality, I realized he was just like any other kid. But then, why wouldn’t he be? Yet, because of my own limited experience with children of color, it seemed like a surprise. In that same moment, I realized that many people will look at Curtis suspiciously or judge him simply because of his race. Would Trayvon Martin, the young black male who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Miami area last February, have had a different fate if he had been white and not black? Would he have been as “suspicious looking” to George Zimmerman if he had been wearing the typical “uniform” of white teenage boys walking in an all-white suburb? While we will never know, it is a question that burns with critical importance for all black parents (Burnett, 2012).

It is difficult for members of a majority or dominant culture like me to see or think of the advantages we have as privilege. Most of us, especially those of us committed to the positive growth and development of children, as most camp professionals are, think of ourselves as accepting of all children. We see ourselves as good people with the best of intentions trying to help all children develop character and the qualities that will make them better citizens and more successful in life. Peggy McIntosh suggests that when we work to benefit others, what we don’t often see is that we are working to make them “more like us” (1990).

We have also been taught not to see color, but to assume all children are alike. This is “cultural blindness” on the Cultural Proficiency Continuum, and it is a major problem with teachers and other childcare specialists (Nuri-Robins et al., 2007). We don’t fully understand what members of a minority experience when they live within a dominant culture that is quite different from their own. For example, members of the predominant race can, if they wish, arrange to be in the company of their own race most of the time. In her seminal work on unearned privilege, Dr. McIntosh has a list of over twenty-six conditions or “advantages” those of us in the dominant white race take for granted. (See sidebar below for a few examples.) Another reality, which Dr. McIntosh doesn’t mention, is that white children can go to camp and find counselors and head staff who look like them, speak their language, know their music, and share many aspects of their identity.

By pointing this out, I am not trying to make a political statement or place a guilt trip on anyone. I am simply asking camp professionals to think more expansively about what many of us take for granted. As Robert Jensen, professor at University of Texas, points out, having all of the privileges or advantages that come simply from being part of the dominant race “doesn’t mean we are frauds” (1998). It doesn’t mean that members of a dominant race don’t work hard or have their own challenges. It simply means we enjoy benefits we often don’t recognize. As Dr. Jensen says, those of us who are part of the dominant culture have “the privilege to acknowledge that we have unearned privilege but ignore what it means.”

Many camp professionals are truly interested in reaching out to minority populations and introducing a broader range of children to the benefits of camp. If that is the case, and if camp as a movement is interested in hitting some of the goals of ACA’s 20/20 Vision (to make the camp experience available to a substantially wider range of children), then we cannot ignore what it means to take those advantages for granted. For every child to feel that he or she belongs in what is still a predominantly white experience, camp must be a place that recognizes and understands the culture, history, and reality of children, no matter what their racial or ethnic background. If minority children are to have anywhere near the edifying or fortifying experience that many white children have when they go to summer camp, then the professionals who run those camps must have a greater awareness and understanding of themselves and the people they say they are commit¬ted to serve.

Let me offer a small example. Many camps have swimming as a key activity in their program. There is a stereotype that “black people don’t swim.” Look no further than Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Cullen Jones to see that this is not true. However, there are some important statistics to note. MSNBC’s Audrey Washington reports that “according to the USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African American and 60 percent of Hispanic children don’t know how to swim” (2012). And when it comes to drowning, the CDC found that black children drown at a rate three times higher than their white peers (Betar, 2012; Southgate, 2012). Although there is historical evidence that black slaves were discouraged from swimming to lessen the chances of escape (Southgate, 2012), there are also contemporary reasons that might factor into black children having limited experiences with recreational swimming. While none of them can be definitive, some reasons might include: fear of water because of such wearisome drowning statistics; parents and grandparents who might not be familiar with it as a recreational sport because of segregated public pools in the 1960s; even societal pressure on black girls to always have perfect hair, and therefore not risk getting it wet in the pool (keep reading for more on that) (Rhorer, 2010).

Now you have black children in your camp, and when it comes to swimming, you have some sensitivities to consider and overcome. If you have no sense of swimming as perhaps not being a part of one’s culture, how do you ever hope to get black kids (and families) to buy in and be excited about swimming? How do you make learning how to swim a positive experience?

There are many cultural and behavioral facets of black American culture that most camp professionals might want to understand better, like the importance of fishing for black boys or hair for black girls. Anyone who has spent time around black girls knows that hair is hugely important to many of them (Banks, 2000). Again, there are many reasons that might factor into this — it might be a fun pastime between friends and family to help each other with hair, or maybe, as Tiya Miles writes on CNN.com: “Historically, the difference of black hair texture has symbolized the inferiority of black people in the minds of some whites and even some blacks . . . For African-Americans, smooth, straight hair has been a symbol not only of beauty but of acceptance in broader American culture. And while black women wear their hair in myriad creative ways, one underlying orientation from this cultural history of hair oppression remains: the view that a black woman’s hairstyle is important and even symbolic, so she had better get it right” (2012).

Consider your morning routines at camp — are you giving each camper enough time to wake up and present herself in the way that makes her feel comfortable? Or are you demonstrating a lack of awareness and appreciation of something so important by not providing sufficient time?

Then there is fishing. How many camp professionals know how important fishing can be to some black boys? Again, fishing during slavery was one way slaves could provide an additional protein source for themselves that was permitted by their owners. As a pastime in African-American families, it was handed down from generation to generation. You can drive through the outskirts of many U.S. cities, and when you go over a bridge that spans water, you’ll see many black men with their fishing poles carrying on this centuries-old tradition. If you don’t have fishing as an activity at camp, black kids will not suffer, but you will be missing an opportunity to provide an activity that allows many black kids to celebrate a pastime that is part of their identity and heritage.

Let me cite another example. Most of the over 600 camps I have visited in the last thirty years in the United States have staff that are overwhelmingly white. First of all, when do white people ever experience what it is like to be one of two or three people among an all black or Hispanic staff? The fact that this happens only rarely in the world of camp (and I acknowledge that there are some camps where this does happen) is not surprising when one realizes that it does not happen in much of the rest of U.S. society, either. Black people often find themselves in the company of an overwhelmingly white group or crowd. White people rarely have the reciprocal experience.

And what is it like to be a Hispanic or black child at a camp where most of the other campers are white and virtually none of the staff are like you? At Boston Explorers, part of its success is precisely because the counselors reflect the races of the campers they serve. Being with counselors who look like you, know your language, your music, and your slang is taken for granted by most white campers and families.

Take the word, “snap!” When a black or Hispanic camper says this, every black or Hispanic counselor knows what it means. Ask your white staff if they know what “Oh, snap!” means. (It is an expression of excitement or surprise, somewhat like, “Oh, wow!” or “This is so cool!”)

One other area camp professionals will need to appreciate if they are to welcome more minority children to camp are the concerns most black and minority parents have for their children. The hopes and aspirations of minority parents are no less ardent than those of their white counterparts. Yet how many white parents have what black parents call “The Talk” with their teenage sons? What is “The Talk?” The fact that most white parents and childcare professionals don’t even know about “The Talk” is evidence of their lack of awareness of the reality and fears of people of color — an ignorance, I might add, for which they pay no penalty.

“The Talk” became more widely known after the Trayvon Martin case hit the media in February of last year, yet it is a tradition that has existed among black parents since the days of the Civil War (Alcindor, 2012). “The talk is a warning and lesson black parents started giving to their children just after the Civil War to ward off danger in an America that has for centuries perceived black men as threats,” says Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University (Alcindor, 2012). Black parents say, “Some version of the conversation, ubiquitous in African-American life, is necessary regardless of how high they climb on the socioeconomic ladder. It is about learning to say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ when a policeman pulls you over, no matter how unjustified the stop seems. It is about keeping your hands on the steering wheel and giving officers no cause for panic. It is about swallowing your anger and pride and coming home alive” (Goffard & Winton, 2012).

The fact that there is a practice like “The Talk” that is widely used by black parents with their teenage sons is simply another feature of the reality of being a minority in U.S. society. Again, I point this out not to put people on the defensive. I point it out because for any camp professional to serve minority children, there must be an understanding and appreciation of the everyday reality of those children.

The experiential, activity-driven nature of camp has many qualities from which all children can benefit. A quality camp experience can help any young person build character and develop greater resilience and self-reliance. If those benefits are to be enjoyed by a wider range of young people — if camp is going to cast a wider net and serve a greater range of children — then camp professionals must begin the thoughtful and sometimes daunting task of reaching beyond their own culture and racial norms to understand those of other races and minorities. The healthy future of camp depends on it.

The following are a few examples of daily conditions or advantages that white people in the United States enjoy simply by being members of the dominant race, as itemized by Dr. Peggy McIntosh (2008).
  1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store or security personnel.
  3. I can turn on the television or open the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
  4. When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization in general, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  5. I can swear, dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters (or e-mails) without having people attribute my choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  6. I am never asked to speak for all the people in my racial group.
  7. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the world’s majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such ignorance.
  8. I am most often assured that when I ask to speak to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my own race.
  9. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer or be admitted to an affirmative action school of higher education without having colleagues suspect that the only reason I got it was because of race.


Alcindor, Y. (2012 April 20). Parents recall having ‘The Talk.’ USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2012-04-20-the-talk_ST_U.htm
Banks, I. (2000). Hair matters: Beauty, power, and black women’s consciousness. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Betar, T. (2012 July 12). Seventy percent of African American children can’t swim. Desert News. Retrieved from www.deseretnews.com/article/865558914/Seventy-percent-of-African-American-children-cant-swim-USA-Swimming-says.html?pg=all
Burnett III, J. H. (2012 April 7). After Trayvon Martin, it’s time for ‘The Talk.’ The Boston Globe. Retrieved from www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2012/04/07/in_light_of_trayvon_martin_case_black_fathers_in_boston_are_scrambling_to_have_safety_talk_with_sons/
Goffard, C. & Winton, R. (2012 April 7). For black parents in Pasadena, shootings give fresh relevance to ‘The Talk.’ The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/07/local/la-me-black-youth-20120407
Jensen, R. (1998 July 19). White privilege shapes the U.S. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1998-07-19/news/1998200115_1_white-privilege-unearned-white-action-for-whites
McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, Winter Edition. Retrieved from www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html
McIntosh, P. (2008). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays. Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas.
Miles, T. (2012). Opinion: Why focus on Gabby Douglas’ hair? CNN.com. Retrieved from http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/06/opinion-why-focus-on-gabby-douglas-hair/
Nuri-Robins, K., et al. (2007). Cultural proficiency: Tools for school leaders. Journal of the National Association of Secondary School Principles. Retrieved from https://ocde-tier1.wikispaces.com/file/view/Tools-for-School-Leaders.pdf
Rohrer, F. (2010 September 3). Why don’t black Americans swim? BBC.com. Retrieved from www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11172054
Southgate, M. (2012 August 10). Water damage. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2012/08/11/opinion/water-damage-more-blacks-lack-swimming-skills.html?_r=0
Washington, A. (2012 August 9). Drowning deaths among minority kids on the rise. MSNBC.com. Retrieved from http://video.msnbc.msn.com/nbc-news/48121568/#48121568

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Originally published in the 2013 January/February Camping Magazine