You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

A young woman of Indian parentage craved role models.

By Humsini Acharya  | June 17th, 2020

Humsini Acharya on Monkey Traverse, Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder, Colorado. Photo: Sheela Kailasam.

 

I was born in Colorado and went to school in Boulder my whole life. But I didn’t spend summers hiking 14ers or backpacking in RMNP or climbing in Eldo. Instead I read. A lot. I had always loved hiking and being outdoors and wanted to do more, but my parents immigrated from India, and education came first, risk never.

Hiking? Alone?!

“Humsi, no, you’ll get eaten by a mountain lion and die.”

Backpacking trip?

“Humsi, no, you’ll get lost, get eaten by a mountain lion and die.“

Climbing?

“Humsi, no, that’s dangerous and you’ll get eaten by a mountain lion. And die! Now go study!”

“For what?!”

“The SATs!”

“But Mom, I’m in middle school!”

They didn’t know anything about the outdoors. How could they?

Naturally, in college I rebelled against my parents’ expectation of being either a doctor or engineer by studying … biomedical engineering. In both climbing and engineering I see leaders and brands alike calling for more representation, more diversity, more “hard conversations.” I think it’s important that brands, leaders and media do better. If you’re in the majority, it’s hard to understand the power of seeing people who look like you breaking the stereotypes you didn’t even know you had about yourself.

Indian girls are supposed to be soft, polite and obedient. They are demure, exotic. (That one’s no joke. I have straight up been called that. Stop fetishizing Asian women!) A good Indian girl is delicate and fair-skinned. She doesn’t sweat or get awkward tan lines from her Chacos.

 

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In my family’s culture, the worst thing that could happen to a girl is getting hurt, physically injured. Never mind that she may never find her passion. Nor learn to push past her fear and accomplish something purely for herself. Nor learn to appreciate what her body can do, instead of how it can look.

I almost never saw people who looked like me climbing or mountaineering. I never saw women of color touted on the cover of Rock and Ice. With enough repeated messaging, and enough images that look nothing like you, your default becomes, “I can’t do that.”

This is why representation matters. Because when I went to every climbing session at Colorado University’s rock gym with a knot in my stomach, nervous about how bad I was compared to everyone else who seemed to have grown up in a harness, it wasn’t the image of Tommy Caldwell that got me stoked to keep climbing. It wasn’t Alex Honnold, Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra, or even Lynn Hill. It was a Google search, an Instagram account, three simple words that suddenly made me feel I wasn’t alone: Brown Girls Climb.

For the first time, I, someone who was searching desperately for a sense of adventure and fresh off her first V1, saw other brown girls climbing. Shredding. They were crushing grades I hadn’t dreamed of. Whether they were beginners or veterans, the stories of each of these featured women inspired me to keep with it, despite my general feeling of noobery every time I stepped in the gym. Then I heard about “Project Wild Women,” a documentary by Kopal Goyal about female athletes in extreme sports in India. The film showed how 14 women from across India, in sports from ice climbing to skateboarding to mountain biking, didn’t let the naysayers dictate their love of the sport. Their excitement of crushing their hardest grade, of overcoming their fear and their insecurities, pushed that “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”

Humsini Acharya writes about the problem of representation in climbing, and how as a young Indian American there weren't climbers that looked like her to look up to.
Humsini Acharya at Lake Helene, in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Medha Patel.

Representation is like beta. You struggle with a problem, a crux, for hours, days, even longer. Then all it takes is seeing someone else do it: the holds she uses, the body position, the movement. It clicks. A heel hook here, the confidence to take up space in the gym there, and bam, you’ve done something.

While I’m still often the only brown girl in these places, I believe now more than ever in my right, in everyone’s right, to be there—to take up space and opinions. To change the default. To try. To fail. To fall. To continue.

Having more role models that looked like me growing up would have expanded the world of what I, and my parents, thought was possible for an Indian girl—immensely. I’m realizing now as a climber that we are the generation that has to be those role models for the next kids.

 


Humsini Acharya is a first-generation Indian-American entrepreneur. She likes rock climbing, bouldering, shark diving and trying new things, one of which, for now, is skateboarding. She is co-founder of a tech start up, Stride Tech Medical Inc.


 

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