Within the majority of sports, there are usually a few standout prodigies who are making their way onto the industry’s radar by the age of 13. Tony Hawk, Shaun White, and Ryan Sheckler come to mind. In the climbing world, many heads are turning toward 13 year old Kai Lightner with impressed gazes at someone who, if he keeps it up, will be leading the next generation of climbing.
He’s not just an athlete – this kid also maintains a straight-A record while bagging some of the most impressive routes east of the Mississippi. Many would agree that the future looks very bright with Kai.
But his mother is not without a bit of worry on her mind. As a climber, Kai receivers respect and admiration from his peers and mentors. But in society, Kai is judged more than many of the same age, simply because of the color of his skin.
A few months ago Kai was on a road trip in the south. During a normal stop for gas, he felt the implications of a culture that has still not fully evolved past a segregation mindset. After using the restroom, the gas station attendant grabbed Kai, pulled up his shirt, and frisked him under the suspicion that he was stealing. Kai had done no wrong, so the attendant eventually let him go. But it left Kai with a disappointing example of his road ahead as a black person in America.
Although that road ahead is tougher than if he had a different skin color, the reality is that as long as Kai keeps his head on his shoulders and continues to work hard to nurture his talents, he will be able to rise above the prejudices that face him every day.
While this problem permeates society on all levels, the outdoor community can still make strides forward toward eradicating racial prejudice. For example, when kids like Kai burst on to the scene, the fact that he is African-American should not even be mentioned – even positively. He’s a talented young athlete, and the fact that he is black should never even come to mind when discussing his abilities. As the actor Morgan Freeman responded when asked what people should do to fight racism, he said “stop talking about it”.
Only when race is not even a point of discussion will society accept and recognize the challenges that face talented young minorities such as Kai. Until the problem is eradicated, perhaps it is a responsibility of outdoor industries such as Climbing to instill programs that help nurture these promising adolescents. Since their climb to the top is a much steeper journey than one who does not have to deal with situations like being profiled at a gas station, maybe as fellow enthusiasts we can create a scholarship fund or other methods of recognizing young talent.
However, in doing so, we need to be aware of reverse racism and the preferential treatment of minorities – if that happens, then we trade one problem for another. But if we can offer mentoring and assistance to those who need it, then our respective outdoor-sport communities will continue to evolve at a pace faster than the rest of society. You can learn more about Outdoor Leadership by looking into Outdoor Nation’s resources.