Tourists in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

White privilege in the national parks: remaking parks as inclusive spaces

Lately I have been thinking about the history of national parks as places of white privilege. I wish neither to celebrate nor condemn this historical reality of the national park heritage. Instead, I support remaking the parks as inclusive spaces that tell multiple stories. Can we move away from the master narratives of white privilege in our parks? Can we begin thinking of our park system as places of reconciliation? Can they become spaces for listening to what the myriad voices—human, natural, spiritual—have to teach us? Can we move from narratives of conquest to queries of connectiveness?


Tourists with Indian who accentuates their white privilege
Tourists in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photographer and date unknown, from collection of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Open Parks Network)

Moving away from the master narrative of white privilege

In many ways the National Park Service has undertaken a shift from master narrative of white privilege to multiple tellings of our national heritage. Interpretive work at many national park sites has made the rangers agents of counternarratives. At San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, as one prominent example, the story of the Spanish colonial missions deliberately challenges the imperial heroism professed across town at the Alamo. In recent decades, multiple sites have added a degree of cultural diversity to the park system. They bring attention to the unsavory histories of racism (e.g., the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail), sexism (e.g., the Women’s Rights National Historical Park), homophobia (e.g., Stonewall National Monument), the wanton destruction of cultures (e.g., Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site), and resources to understand the decimation of environments (e.g., “Climate Change And Your National Parks”). These developments have complicated any criticisms of the National Park Service as Keepers of the Conqueror’s Master Narrative.

Marching against white privilege
Protesters in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 (Photo by Peter Pettus, 1965, Library of Congress LOT 13514, no. 25)

An evolving tale

The story that our national park system tells has been an evolving tale. Our parks began as places of white privilege claimed in the displacement, conquest, confinement, and attempted eradication of non-white others. Early park managers operated these protected areas according to the expectations and desires of privileged white people. In the earliest years of the national parks, about the only people of color to enter the parklands were occasional unauthorized Indians passing through or the servants of wealthy tourists. Even the animals suffered for the privilege of tourist desires: large predators, especially wolves, faced extermination in favor of the ungulate herds that pleased tourists. White privilege determined who could enjoy the parks and what they would see and experience.

But those reserves of privilege have begun to erode. The nation as a whole has begun facing up to its woeful failings at fulfilling the promises of American democratic ideals. The Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century awakened national consciousness to the disparities wrought by the tyranny of white privilege. Consequently, various institutions took stock of their own complicity in America’s undemocratic reality. This included the National Park Service, which by the end of the twentieth century was rethinking the stories it told at park locations across the country. No longer the mouthpiece of triumphant Manifest Destiny, the Park Service embarked on the painful and sometimes politically daring journey to a more inclusive, more democratic vision of America. ♨


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    1. I have not seen any discussion of NPS confronting the concept of “public,” but in many places they have been more deliberate than in the past about consulting a wide range of interested stakeholders.

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