A picture is worth a thousand “Hey, brahs,” or so attests Park City artist Lamont Joseph White.
If a person of color walked into a ski resort or a ski-town hotel and saw an image of someone like them, White believes, it could change his or her whole experience. Inspired by that revelation and his own history of being seen as “the unicorn on the mountain,” White embarked last year on his series “Skiing in Color.” It depicts portraits of Black skiers and snowboarders in their element — an extreme rarity on ski resort walls and only slightly less so on their slopes.
“If they saw a quality painting of a person of color, it would hit, you know? I think it would hit differently for all, but for the people who it represents, it’s so meaningful,” said White, who is Black and a snowboarder. “I mean, believe me, it’s so meaningful. …
“We’re not marching. We’re not protesting. We’re representing, we’re celebrating and that’s it. We love the mountains. And, again, the only difference is the color of skin.”
It’s a poorly kept secret that skiing and snowboarding are predominantly white sports. For the most part, the pallor of their participants is rivaled only by the snow they slide upon. It was that way when the U.S.’s first ski hill popped up in 1914 and, in more than a century, little has changed. In 2019-20, the most recent year for which data is available, 87% of visits to U.S. ski areas and 88% in Utah were made by people who identify as white or caucasian.
As with most things, though, the events of 2020 may change all that.
Last May, a white Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee into the neck of a Black man named George Floyd for more than eight minutes, suffocating him. The outrage over Floyd’s death and the targeting of other racial and social minorities by police, combined with frustration and fear over the spread of the COVID-19 virus, ignited perhaps the biggest social movement in U.S. history. Its impact rippled all the way to the steepest and most remote peaks of Utah’s Wasatch and Uintah mountain ranges.
Yes, the ski industry knows it’s too white. It’s been a topic of discussion for decades. But amid the wave of social change, many ski organizations began to realize they needed to take a good, long look in the mirror and determine why they are so monochromatic. Then they needed to do something about it.
“I think it’s very easy to look at a large problem like that and just say, ‘OK, you know, we’ll work on it’ or you work on it little by little,” said Adriennne Isaac, a spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, which counts three-fourths of 470 U.S. ski resorts among its members. “But I think the catalyst in 2020 just really got [sparked] with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I think that just really put the importance of inclusion forefront in more of the industry’s minds than it had been. And it led to a real examination.”
Those examinations have unveiled some uncomfortable truths.
Skiing isn’t something James Courage Singer considered doing. Ever.
For one, it’s expensive. The median price of a single-day lift ticket in Utah last season was $95, and rates have only gone up this year. Deer Valley charged $229 for a single-day ticket over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the highest price in the nation.
Most visitors, especially those new to the sport, also have to pony up for ski or board and boot rental and standard gear such as a helmet, snow pants, gloves and goggles. Plus, there’s gas money or bus fare to consider. Even at the state’s smallest and cheapest resorts, it’s nearly impossible to get by for less than $100 a day.
Singer’s family didn’t have that kind of expendable cash when he was a kid growing up in Kearns. Yet cost was just a secondary deterrent anyway. In his Native American community, skiing carries a stigma he still can’t see past.
In Utah, Native Americans account for 1% of skier visits, according to data from Ski Utah. Nationwide, they have even less representation.
“There is that association with rich white people, right?” said Singer, who is a diversity fellow in sociology and ethnic studies at Salt Lake Community College. “The indigenous identity, you know, it almost feels like you’d be betraying that in some way by participating in that kind of sport. People would be like, ‘What, you think you’re better than us? You think you’re better because you’re going skiing with all those rich people and going into the lodge or whatever?’ And part of that has to do with, you know, probably many people haven’t gone up to ski, so they don’t know what that is. But the cultural perceptions and the social mores and pressures, I think, keep many native people from participating in that.”
Singer said he has never felt comfortable around the resorts, even as an adult. His aversion is so deeply rooted that he said he had a visceral reaction when his wife suggested they put their two daughters in ski lessons.
“I just don’t feel like that’s a space where people like me are occupying,” he said.
Singer may be an extreme example, but he certainly isn’t an anomaly. Feeling like an outsider was one of the reasons most frequently mentioned as a deterrent to skiing or snowboarding by people interviewed by The Tribune for this article.
As the community impact director for the Park City Community Foundation, Diego Zegarra works mostly with the Latino community that makes up 20% of the ski town’s population. He said he works with groups like SOS Outreach, which coordinates with corporate sponsors and ski resorts to bring youth from underserved communities to the slopes. Many of the kids want to try skiing or snowboarding, he said, but when no one looks like them or speaks their language, they can be easily intimidated.
“It takes an invitation. It takes sometimes really being conscious about our own environment,” he said. “And one of the things about inclusion is that it’s often invisible for those who are included.”
Lauren Samuels started skiing a year after she learned to walk. Her parents both worked in the ski industry at one point and she’s been going to Snowbird for family vacations since she can remember. Still, even Samuels, who won a national skiing championship as one of the only Black skiers to compete for the University of Utah, said she understands how newcomers and veterans alike can feel like they don’t have a place in the sport.
She said she often feels that way when people ask her where she’s from, implying her lineage and not her birthplace of Minnesota or her current residence in Portland, Ore. She said she gets the same sensation just shopping for snow pants or a helmet. They tend to come in limited styles and fits that cater to a limited clientele — namely, white people — said Samuels, who is studying sports product management.
Nathan Rafferty, the president and CEO of Ski Utah, the nonprofit marketing arm of the Utah Ski & Snowboard Association, said he believes those slights stem more from ignorance than malice.
“I think in general, the ski industry is a very inclusive industry. You know, arms are out,” he said. “But I think what we’ve learned is it’s not enough to just have open arms. You have to have open arms and you have to walk toward some of these goals. We’ve been here with open arms, but we really have to take it a step further.”
How to do that is truly a million-dollar question.
The other 10%
No racial group other than whites hold more than a 10% share of skier visits nationally, according to data provided by the NSAA. Asians and Pacific Islanders hold the lion’s share among minorities with 7.8% of all visitors, a number that is growing mostly due to the inclusion efforts of a few resorts close to Los Angeles. Hispanic/Latino skiers and snowboarders account for 6.2% of visits, followed by 1.8% for Blacks, 0.9% for Native and Alaskan Americans and 1.2% for other races.
The numbers don’t get better in the Rocky Mountain region, one of the least diverse according to NSAA. In Utah, Blacks and Native Americans each represent 1% of skier visits, according to Ski Utah’s data. Asian and Pacific Islanders account for 4%. And, despite counting for 14.4% of Utah’s population, those who identify as Latino make up just 5% of ski resort clientele.
The lack of diversity isn’t just an ethical problem. It’s a business problem: The Brookings Institute estimates that whites will be the minority in the U.S. by 2045.
Or it’s a business solution, as posited by Henri Rivers, the president of the National Brotherhood of Black Skiers. The NBS annually holds a national summit that attracts thousands of skiers and snowboarders. At the 2000 summit in Park City, the most recent one held in Utah, about 5,000 attendees spent an estimated $6 million over the course of a week, not including airfare.
“You’ve got 90% left in that population, in that community, that you can introduce to skiing,” Rivers said, referring to a combined minority share of little more than 10%. “That’s a huge dollar. That’s a huge return. And I don’t see how you do not see that.”
So why didn’t resorts do anything about it before? To be fair, some did.
The aforementioned L.A.-area resorts, like Snow Summit and Mountain High, have helped shade the glare from the whiteness of the national statistics with their inclusion efforts, especially among the Asian and Polynesian communities. More locally, Ski Utah’s fourth-grade learn-to-ski program has introduced the sport for free to thousands of kids in all areas of the Salt Lake valley over the past 25 years. Its reach has been reduced in recent seasons, however, a result of cutbacks made by resorts that had been inundated with student lessons.
Alterra Mountain Resorts — which owns Deer Valley and Solitude — wrote environmental and social advocacy into its business plan when it formed three years ago, said former COO David Perry. Yet it didn’t create his position of executive vice president of environmental/social/governance and special projects until the last part of 2019.
“I think the awareness has been there in the industry for quite some time,” Perry said, “but now it’s gone from important to urgent.”
Changing the climate
On June 2, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz issued a declaration to all employees: “I have not done enough to make progress.”
Katz’s ensuing promise to examine issues of discrimination and implement real changes throughout Vail’s 37 resorts was the first such statement by a major player in the ski industry since the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others took up the gauntlet soon after. The NSAA has hosted discussions and posted material on inclusion for its members. U.S. Ski & Snowboard held a forum to discuss barriers to the sport and ways to dismantle them. Snowboard maker Burton declared that it and the sport “need to grow the f*** up.” And several entities, including Alterra, formed committees charged with meeting monthly to suggest steps toward diversity, inclusion and equity and to monitor progress.
Specifically in Utah, several resorts are promising changes. Park City Mountain Resort is following Katz’s directive by bringing in community leaders like Zegarra of the Park City Community Foundation to speak to employees about inclusion. It is also expanding its programs for underserved youth. Solitude advertises jobs on sites that target people of color and is translating newsletters and signs into Spanish. Alta Ski Area has been working with SheJumps, a ski program for at-risk girls in the Salt Lake Valley, since 2007 and more recently began diversifying its marketing images. Snowbird, meanwhile, has begun several outreach efforts to communities of color.
Ski Utah has focused on expanding its job pool and creating Skiers and Snowboarders for Kindness and Inclusion, which will promote equity measures across the state’s 15 resorts. In addition, it has mounted several of White’s paintings in the lobby of its east Salt Lake City office. Rafferty said every day they serve as a reminder to the staff to work for change.
“To me, that’s the layup,” said Samuels, the former Ute and national team skier. “That’s like the easiest, quickest thing you can do. Get images out there and then continue to build on that.”
And plenty remains to be done, said Rivers, the NBS president.
“I’m seeing a minor, minor shift,” he said. “I can’t say that I’ve seen anything that would reaffirm what we are hoping to do. Not yet. Not yet. And I’m going to say that the COVID is detrimental to that happening. You know, it stopped it, even though this should have taken hold much earlier.”
The critical element Rivers, Zegarra and even Singer said they want to see is inclusion. Introducing the sport to children of color or hiring lift operators, ticket window workers and waitstaff who have varied backgrounds — not just racially, but also in terms of gender and sexual orientation — are positive steps. They are also somewhat superficial ones. Those in communities of color say they want to see resorts make more diverse hires particularly at levels where decisions are made, from marketing to business plans.
No one expects that to happen overnight. In fact, the task of rectifying resorts’ lack of diversity has drawn several comparisons to combating climate change. Any measurable outcome will require major sea changes to how companies do business, and tackling them can feel overwhelming and will likely require much wrangling.
In the meantime, though, small gestures can produce a meaningful impact, Rivers and others said. Putting people of color on the cover of ski maps, expanding food options or changing the music are good places to start.
It could even be something as small as hanging a picture.