Send me epic build guides and kickass vanlife tips

Send me epic build guides and kickass vanlife tips

Diversify Vanlife

and how to be a strong ally

Diveraify Vanlife Logo

It’s no secret that vanlife is not what it appears to be on Instagram. If you scroll through the vanlife reshare accounts, or read a media story about vanlife, or attend one of the many vanlife gatherings out there, you might come away thinking that vanlife is a lifestyle for young, attractive white people galavanting around in pristine Sprinter vans.

While this is the most visible side of the vanlife movement, it does not accurately represent the reality of all people living this lifestyle. And intentional or not, we are sending a message about who we are, who is welcome in our community – and who is not welcome.

In this post, we break down the reality of vanlife and our current truth in regards to inclusion. We point out the aspects in which we are exclusive, we explain the importance of making sure everyone feels seen and heard in our community, and we explore the unity that comes from diversity. We also debunk the fallacy that talking about inclusion is divisive, and discuss how to be a strong ally for marginalized groups in our community.

With some self-education, attention, intention, and action, we believe that it’s possible for us to truly become the open and accepting community that we currently pretend to be.

(This resource was made possible with the help of Noami Grevemberg and Noel Russell.)

Thank you from Noami (@irietoaurora)

Thank you all for taking the time to read this resource and for your dedication to help our community grow. It’s truly uplifting to know that there are so many who want to make this lifestyle and our community more inclusive and accessible. It is my hope that together we can propel this conversation eagerly forward in order that we might figure out how to do just that.

Being a woman of color in this community means paying it forward. There have been many occasions where I have felt extremely isolated as the only person of color represented in vanlife media and at social gatherings. My hope is to see more representation of POC and other marginalized individuals in our community. That is not to go without saying how fortunate I feel to have chosen this lifestyle and to be a part of a community determined to buck the status quo and create a real cultural shift towards inclusivity for all.

If you’re a POC reading this, don’t be afraid to speak up and share your story. Use #DiversifyVanlife and follow @diversify.vanlife so we can help make your voice heard.

But Wait, Doesn’t Vanlife Already Welcome All People?

I mean, if you only pay attention to what we all say about vanlife, then yes! Vanlife sounds SUPER welcoming! Every vanlife gathering includes some type of disclaimer announcing “You don’t need a van to attend! #Vanlife isn’t about your vehicle, it’s a lifestyle, a state of mind! All are welcome here!”

Oh! People say, “All are welcome here!” So what’s the point of this super detailed elaborate blog post? End of discussion right? All are welcome here!

Well, just because we SAY we are one thing, doesn’t automatically make it true. If our actions do not match our words, then the statements we boldly pronounce all the time tends to lose their credibility. Our words are a good place to start, but it’s our ACTIONS that show what we are really about. And up until this moment, we haven’t exactly been inclusive as a community.

Two women sit on the ledge on the side of their van
Photo by @eveee_thevan

Have you attended a vanlife gathering? How many people of color did you see? The number compared to white people was severely skewed, wasn’t it? A sea of white people with the occasional brown person mixed in, doing their best to feel comfortable.

Have you scrolled through #vanlife on Instagram, or checked out a large reshare account, or searched “van life” on Youtube? How many black or brown people did you see? Did you see any at all without specifically searching for them?

This is not representative of our community. We say we are open to all, yet when you attend these gatherings and look at our self-created media, all you see are young, able-bodied white people.

So why #DiversifyVanlife?

The simple answer? We want everyone in our community to feel welcomed, accepted, seen, and heard. We want every story to be told. We want every adventure to be celebrated. We want every person to be seen.

Some may proclaim that we are already diverse, that we already welcome everyone regardless of race, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, or economic status.

Yet this is not reflected in our self-created media

Most of the large Instagram reshare accounts showcasing our community only share photos of young, thin, able-bodied, white vanlifers. They only share photos of clean, professional-looking van builds that look like they came straight out of HGTV.

There are black and brown humans living this lifestyle who are being ignored. There are vanlifers without the resources to buy a $30,000 van and do a $20,000 build who aren’t being seen. There are nomads with disabilities, and bodies of all shapes and sizes, who are totally invisible to our community’s social media presence.

When we do not share their stories alongside the white-washed vanlife eye candy, then we tell them that their stories are not important. We tell them that their home on wheels is not important. We tell them they are less than. And we tell aspiring vanlifers who don’t fit the mold that they are not welcome here.

Comic showing implicit biases, which are biases that we hold that we typically aren't aware of

Even though it may be unintentional, it is violent of us not to address our role in this lack of representation within our community. If we truly love this community the way that we claim, then we will do whatever we can to make sure that all members of this community are seen. 

Talking about this is not divisive – it is a step toward unity

If we wish to make this community as unified and welcoming as we all dream of it being, then we have to address some harsh realities. And one of the harshest realities is that racism and white supremacy have deep roots in our society.

These roots not only cause additional challenges for black and brown vanlifers out there on the road – they also create a situation where the dominant narrative of vanlife is that of young, attractive white people. This drowns out other voices, and projects a skewed image of what is acceptable, welcome, and ideal. And that’s a huge problem.

What is divisive is only telling the stories, uplifting the voices, and outwardly supporting one demographic of the community. What is unifying is seeing all demographics and saying “How can we show ALL of our stories to the rest of the world?”

If we actively work to make ALL members of this community feel welcome and heard, it is not divisive. It is unity at its finest. But when we don’t include members of this community in our spaces, we are actively harming them. And that is what’s causing division in our community.

Addressing these issues and having these conversations are acts to make us stronger and more united as a community, not to divide us. 

“I don’t see color”

Black and white image of Noami sitting in her van and looking at the camera

This is a statement I am tired of hearing. This is not only a misnomer, but it is a dangerous mantra to live by. And the truth is, if you don’t see race, you don’t see me.

This phrase diminishes the unique differences and experiences that I and other POC face in a racially biased system. And as a community, it’s hurting our efforts toward diversity and inclusivity.

If you are a white person, saying you don’t see color is suggesting you can’t ever be racist, and this in itself is racist. Colorblindness is just another way of ignoring racism, not solving it. In order for us to have productive conversations about race, we must remove the rose-colored glasses and stop viewing “colorblindness” as the goal.

Race matters, the color of my skin matters, and the inequality that comes along with it is very real and holds way too much power.

Noami, @irietoaurora

Race and its Impact on Vanlife

Race plays a significant factor when living the vanlife. For example, based on analysis of over 20 million traffic stops detailed in the book “Suspect Citizens”, political scientist Frank Baumgartner found that black people are twice as likely to be pulled over (compared to white people), even though white people drive more than black people on average. He also found during his research that black people are four times as likely to get searched (compared to white people).

While researching these statistics for other races and ethnicities, we found that criminal justice data shows that 40 states report their arrest records as “white”, “black” and “other” and that only 15 states report ethnicity. It’s likely that most places label most of their Latinx, Native and Asian prison population “white”, which dramatically inflates the number of “white” prisoners, helping to mask the racial disparities within our social justice system.

The Alarming Lack of Data on Latinos in the Criminal Justice System from Urban.org

This is just one of many topics we fail to talk about as a community. There are many things in our society that make living while black or brown a serious struggle, and these struggles increase and are amplified when trying to live nomadically.

Lovell and paris of novelkulture stand outside their van
Photo by @novelkulture

Lovell and Paris of @novelkulture are incredibly open about their frequent experiences being stopped by the police and having the cops called on them by white people. Two examples:

  • In August 2019, they were finishing up their laundry at a laundromat. Someone called the police. No less than 5 cars rolled up, cuffed and detained Lovell – which they caught on video. All for just doing their laundry. 
  • And in September 2019, they were parked outside a gym in a white San Francisco neighborhood and had the cops called on them again.

Let me tell you, in 2-½ years on the road we’ve never even been pulled over, let alone had the cops called on us for simply existing. Meanwhile, people of color are seeing unwelcoming signs all around them just about every day.

Two years ago John and I were traveling to a Vanlife Diaries/Where’s My Office Now gathering on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. On our way to the gathering we passed a billboard that had a caricature of Uncle Sam and read the words “Freedom is dangerous! Slavery is peaceful!” This billboard was not a joke. It is a billboard that infamously has racist, misogynistic, right-wing rhetoric plastered on it – so well known that it even has its own Yelp page.

Imagine being a person of color, heading to your first ever vanlife gathering, and this billboard is on your path to meet your new community.

These are just some of the struggles that black and brown vanlifers experience that, frankly, white vanlifers don’t. And it’s important that we acknowledge these struggles and stop pretending that we have a level playing field in vanlife or in society at large.

The “model minority” is an incentivized myth.

Maggie from bitesizedtravels sits in her van

Some of the common arguments you hear, in relation to race, try to hold a shining example up as to why racism is no longer a problem. And these often ignore the experiences of the average, or the majority, of people of color.

Having a black/brown/Asian friend doesn’t make you immune to racism. A person of color having one seat (out of many) at a figurative table doesn’t make it diverse. Some minorities achieving success in American society doesn’t mean all minorities have the same opportunity. Stereotypes and tokenism impede progress.

When white people say Asian Americans are the “model minority”, they are simultaneously:

  • Giving themselves an excuse to ignore the problems of the collective group (ie: poverty, suicide rates, homelessness)
  • Treating the diversity of cultures within the Asian American population as all the same
  • Blaming other racial groups for not “working harder” and downplaying the effects of decades of institutionalized racism against groups, particularly black Americans
  • Pitting racial groups against one another as a distraction

Denying race matters in today’s society is an excuse to not deal with the complexities of racism. You can’t on one hand exemplify Asian Americans for assimilating, while continuing to ask, “but where are you from, originally?”

Maggie, @bitesizetravels (bitesizetravels.com)

Let’s Talk About Privilege

If you have the opportunity to choose to live in a van, that is a privilege.

If you have access to healthy food, and can exercise self-election regarding the foods you include in your diet, that is a privilege.

If you can travel from the East Coast to the West Coast for almost three years without a cop harassing you at all (Hi! This one’s totally us!), that is a privilege.

If you went to middle school or high school without the fear of getting arrested while at school, that is a privilege.

If you’re able to freely express your identity or culture by the clothes you wear, or the way you do your hair or makeup, without fear of judgment, harassment or threats to your personal safety, that is a privilege.

If you have a friend or family member who has a driveway, let alone can offer it up to you to crash in for days, weeks, or months, that is a privilege.

Comic strip depicting white privilege, gender privilege, able-bodied privilege, social class privilege, and cis-gender privilege

Like it or not, if you are white, you hold significant privileges in both vanlife and in society in general.

Now, saying that you have privileges is not saying that your life is easy or that you haven’t dealt with significant hardships. You may have overcome insurmountable odds to get where you are now – and that’s awesome!

But that also doesn’t change the fact that you benefit from certain privileges that people of color do not, and these privileges generally make daily life easier and safer for the average white person compared to the average person of color.

White people have the privilege to travel just about anywhere without fearing that someone might harass us or tell us we are not welcome.

We have the privilege of expecting to not be pulled over by the police unless we are clearly doing something wrong. We have the privilege of not having the cops called on us for just existing. We have the privilege of knowing that as long as we are polite, we are much more likely to escape a police encounter with our rights (and our lives) intact.

We have the privilege to choose not to engage in, or even acknowledge, discussions of race because our lives are not on the line and “we don’t do politics.”

We have the privilege of pulling up Instagram or Youtube, typing in “vanlife”, and seeing people who look like us.

Woman sits in the doorway of her trailer in the desert
Photo by @alexandra_abroad

Are you feeling defensive yet? We’ve noticed that most white people tune out when someone tries to discuss privilege, so let’s use an example of privilege that does not include race to help you understand it a bit better.

Imagine you are an able-bodied person. Maybe you are already so you don’t even have to imagine.

You don’t think twice about where you can go. You go to the grocery store. You hike around the park. You go to museums, and concerts, and school/work events, and more! You don’t think twice about where you are going and the abilities you have to navigate around without difficulty.

But someone who is in a wheelchair may not have these same privileges. They may have to meticulously plan how they’re going to get places. There may be some concert venues that only have an entrance via stairs, or the handicapped entrance is very out of the way. There may be a park that doesn’t have a handicapped accessible tour option. There may be an old museum that doesn’t have any elevators or ramps.

This person in a wheelchair could be richer than you. They could have had the easiest life ever. They could have been bequeathed millions from a family member who had passed. They could be “livin’ the dream”!  But you still hold privileges over them. You have the privilege to navigate wherever you wish without thinking twice, whereas they will face many restrictions and inconveniences in their daily lives.

The same goes for many other life scenarios, including race. Privilege has nothing to do with the struggles you have faced in life. Your life could have been a struggle from day one, but you still hold privileges that another person may not.

John and I made the ultimate career sacrifice when we quit our jobs and dove into an entrepreneurial life path. We have shed blood, sweat, and tears to get to where we are right now. We work. We sacrifice. We have dealt with many hardships and overcome significant burdens.

BUT — we didn’t go to schools that funnel us into the prison system. We don’t get stopped by the police dozens of times a year and harassed for doing nothing illegal. We don’t have employees at coffee shops call the cops on us or kick us out when we haven’t ordered a beverage quick enough. These are all scenarios that happen to people of color on the REGULAR.

Man in wheelchair pulls a beer from his van fridge
Photo by @impact.overland

Are you able-bodied? That’s a privilege. Do you have access to healthy food – and can you afford to buy it? That’s a privilege. Do you walk into any established business without a subtle fear in your gut that you could be harmed in some way? That’s a privilege.

Your life doesn’t have to be easy in order to carry privileges. And it is very important to recognize and address the privileges you have in order to truly acknowledge and respect the experiences of those you encounter in your journey.

“Well I’m not racist…”

It’s high time we stopped viewing racism and white supremacy as being represented entirely by a handful of horrible people marching around with tiki torches.

Racism and white supremacy are everywhere – they’re embedded in our society, in our culture, in our systems. Growing up in our white supremacist culture socializes racist ideas into us that we may not even be aware of. And all of this serves to benefit one group of people over others.

REVERSE RACISM isn’t real. RACIAL PREJUDICE is.

Adapted from an Instagram post by Karen Ramos of @naturechola

As the outdoor community (all of us), demand a more inclusive and diverse industry, some of the sentiments I have heard behind closed doors are:

“Excluding white people from your XXX event is racist.”
“White men are under attack, we can’t say/do anything anymore.”
“Well then we should have a #whitevanlife.”
“They only got hired because they are brown.”
“That’s racist against white people.”

We have all heard them at some point, we may have even said them at some point, I’m not here to judge.

Are these hurt feelings from our white members valid? YES.

Is this considered reverse racism? NO.

Think of RACISM as a verb that impacts the systems of power in this country. While RACIAL PREJUDICE refers to an attack on race/skin color. And while it can take physical form, it cannot penetrate deeper than surface level actions.

And don’t get me wrong, the emotion of hurt can be felt no matter your skin color, but racism – racism goes deeper than that. Racism is policy passed and upheld dehumanizing people because of their skin color. Racism is having the power to put children in cages and get away with it. Racism is shooting unarmed black boys and being acquitted of murder.

Reverse racism would be valid if we all held the same power in this country, but we don’t.

Go to google, look up all the big outdoor company CEOs: REI, TEVA, MERRELL, NORTHFACE, OUTSIDE MAGAZINE, BURTON, ect. Now imagine all the white CEOs decided to act on racism and say we will not hire POC – how would that affect the industry?

Now find all the POC CEO’s in the industry and imagine they all did the same but against white people. Would the effect of their “racism” yield the same results?

Spoiler, no. Because POC do not hold the same power in the industry.

Although prejudice can be felt no matter what your skin color is, the effects of racism are not.

If you are white, then you benefit from white supremacy. That may make you uncomfortable. That may make you angry. That may make you sad. But regardless of how it makes you feel, this is an important fact to keep in mind.

“What’s the problem with being “not racist?” It is a claim that signifies neutrality: I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist”. It is “anti-racist.”

What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist.

There is no safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.”

~Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist

If you have seen a person of color being ignored, being treated as less-than, being abused, or being oppressed in some way, and you have done nothing to help that person, then you have upheld white supremacy through your inaction.

Man and his child hanging out in front of their skoolie
Photo by @thefallbackup

Doing nothing makes you complicit. It makes you the oppressor. Our silence is violence. If you saw someone beating a child, would you step in to help that child? Stepping in to help, speaking up, and stepping in front of the oppressed to protect them, either physically or metaphorically, is being an ally. Watching from the sidelines, being quiet, and not stepping in to help the oppressed makes you abusive as well.

We need to be using our voices. We need to be getting in the way of oppression in order to stop it. We need to listen to the voices of those who are not being heard, and do what we can to get their stories in front of the rest of the world.

Why is the mention of racism more offensive than the practice of racism? If someone says an action you took or words you spoke were racist, that is a perfect time to ask them why. If you ask a person of color to answer this “Why” for you – be sure to ask for their Venmo once they are finished educating you.

Comic showing what to do if you get called a racist

Did you get called a racist and you’re not sure what to do? This is a very helpful article on how to proactively move forward.

So what can I, the average vanlifer, do to be a strong ally for people of color in the vanlife community?

I would like to begin by highlighting something that gets heavily overlooked on social media. You do not need thousands of followers to have an impactful voice. Your voice is impactful regardless of your social media following.

Whether you have 500k followers on social media, or if you don’t have social media at all – there are steps you can take to be a strong ally for people of color in this community, and in other aspects of your life.

Graphic depicting what vanlifers can do to diversify vanlife

1. EDUCATE YOURSELF!

This is the big one! Educate yourself about racism and the experiences of people of color! Consume their media! Listen to their podcasts! Watch their shows and movies! Digest their poetry! Read their writings! Observe their art! And so on!

There is endless information at our fingertips for us to dig into. Below are some phenomenal resources to start with:

  • Bustle came out with this wonderful article that lists 10 books to guide us through a lot of our new learning. I highly recommend beginning with So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. This was a great first step for me when I started my path of self education in regards to race. It felt like a friend explaining things to me. She covers just about any question you may have and breaks everything down in a way that’s very easy to understand.
  • Rachel Cargle. This woman has committed her work to not only empowering and raising up people of color, but also teaching white people about the black experience. She has ENDLESS information for us on her website – from lectures, detailed powerpoints, important articles, and SO much more. If we use anything from Rachel Cargle to help us understand better — THEN WE PAY HER! It is VERY easy to find her Venmo, Paypal, and Patreon. If you can’t find ‘em, we will happily direct you!
  • Me and White Supremacy Workbook. This is a very important journal, guiding us through the unlearning process of how much white supremacy has impacted our lives. We don’t need to wear a white hood to have been influenced or supported by white supremacy. It’s ingrained and socialized into our culture. If you are white, then white supremacy has been relevant to your life. This is pure fact. This 30-day journal helps us process from the outside-in the impacts white supremacy has had throughout our lives, helps paint a picture of how our lives are drastically different than those of people of color (different doesn’t mean bad!), and how to navigate moving forward.
  • Follow the account @diversifyvanlifebookclub on Instagram. Here we will be reading through books as a community that will teach us white people in the community further about the experiences of people of color and how to be a better support system for them moving forward.

People of color do not owe us anything, and we should not rely on them to teach us.

First and foremost, let’s start with a list of things people of color do not owe us.

People of color do not owe us:

  • A free education 
  • Their time
  • Their patience
  • Insight on their experience as a POC or explanations of past trauma

One of the most common comments we saw in @IrietoAurora’s first post on diversity was people saying something along the lines of “But what can I do?

Answering this question is NOT Noami’s responsibility nor is it another person of color’s responsibility. Asking Noami to lay out the work we need to do (without offering to compensate her for her time) is exploitative and abusive. This is not HER WORK for HER to do. This is OUR WORK for US to do.

It is not the responsibility of people of color to teach us. Every question we have, a person of color has already answered, I can guarantee you. We need to do our own research. All of us are reading this blog post from an electronic device, which tells me we also have access to GOOGLE for any questions we have. We could literally just google “How to be an ally” and we would find hundreds of articles filled with important information for us. It is not Noami’s job or responsibility to make us a better human – this is our job. This is OUR responsibility.

(Things to google: What is racism? What is white privilege? What is white fragility? What is intersectionality? Why can’t I say the N word? What are microaggressions? Someone called me racist, what do I do? What is implicit bias? *Most of these questions are covered in Ijeouma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race*).

If we ever turn to a person of color for an education, follow up by asking what their Paypal or Venmo account is. Living a life in the skin of a brown person is holistically challenging enough as it is. Asking for them to provide additional emotional labor for us to have a better understanding is asking them to do WORK. It is 2019. We PAY PEOPLE for their work. If we have no other choice than to ask a person of color for guidance, then we’ll send money their way as well.

2. Start paying attention to your surroundings

Woman stands on beach in front of her van
Photo by @rezroads_sw

Attending a sporting event? Going to your favorite concert? Camping out at your first vanlife gathering? Sounds awesome! While you’re there, take in your surroundings. How many people of color are there? Not seeing many people of color? Start asking yourself (or the organizers of the event) why they are not present.

People of color do not lack in event attendance purely due to disinterest in the event. There may be disinterest, but it’s also likely that the event did not make them feel welcome, or that they don’t want to be the odd-man-out, or that they are not interested in hearing hundreds of white people avoid talking about their privilege, and acting like anyone can just pack up a vehicle and safely drive anywhere.

3. Speak up!

So you see that a community you are a part of is lacking diversity. And you know that this is an issue because you are a compassionate human who wants to make people of color feel comfortable and welcome. So what should you do now?

  • Ask leaders in the community why there is a lack of diversity! 
  • Ask them what actions they are taking to welcome and include more people of color. 
  • Ask them why they don’t talk about race on their platforms. 
  • Hold the people with larger followings accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). 

We no longer carry the patience for every single post to be an #ad or for every single post to be an interior shot of a perfectly clean van. We no longer care for the prettiest picture that might get the most likes, we now care for ACTION and SPEAKING OUT!

4. PASS THE MIC!! (And be an ACCOMPLICE vs an ALLY!)

This is a very important step! It is our responsibility to amplify people of color. Yes, we should be working to educate those around us, and using our platforms to spread awareness and education. But we need to be mindful that we are not making this about us!

This isn’t something for us to capitalize on. This isn’t something for us to use in order to grow our own following. This is the time for us to be literally and figuratively “passing the mic” to people of color – let them tell their stories, let them demand what they need, let them lead us towards justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Vanlifer celebrates the progress of their box truck build
Photo by @summerseeking

At the Women on the Road Campout in 2019, they began the weekend by giving the mic to two inspiring indigenous women who travel. They were given the time and space to share their experiences with all of us. The speakers were Jaylyn Gough of Native Women’s Wilderness and Deenaalee Hodgdon (@go_barefoot).

They talked about the importance of allyship, but that allyship is no longer enough. We can share posts about Standing Rock and make a status about it, but it is time that we, as white people, step forward from the role of allies and step into the new, more proactive role of “accomplice”. We need “boots on the ground” to help our brothers and sisters in their fight for justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. We need to be physically AT Standing Rock fighting alongside of them. We need to be doing more than just sharing statuses and stories. We need to let people of color be the voice, and we need to take the actions they need us to take.

So what can we do in the vanlife community to pass the mic and become accomplices?

  • Begin all of our gatherings with an indigenous presentation, reminding us of whose land we are all congregating on
  • Create safe and comfortable opportunities for people of color to share their experiences, gifts and talents with us all
  • Attend protests that work towards uplifting people of color in all aspects of life – fighting for clean water, protecting sacred land, treating adults and children like humans at our borders, and more.
  • Stand and bear witness – and take action – when you see police or other citizens harassing people of color. Record with your phone what’s going on, ask the people of color if they need anything, if they are okay. Put your body in the way of what may be going on as an additional barrier of protection if needed.
  • Contact your congresspeople to fight against racist policies, and encourage them to fight for antiracist policies.

What do you do when someone says or does something racist? 

You’ve done a lot of studying, you understand what they did wrong and why it is wrong, so what do you do now?

Let’s make up a scenario to help explain this step-by-step way to help protect and support people of color when a white person is acting racist.

You’re at a vanlife gathering. You’re with a group of people – some friends, some acquaintances, and some people you’ve never met. Everyone is casually getting to know each other and chatting about The Vanlife App. People are talking about who’s on board when someone mentions that Noami got her position on The Vanlife App team “just because she’s black”.

*Record scratch*

What do you do?

Either ask in the whole group, or pull the oppressor aside and ask them why they said what they said or did what they did. Maybe they didn’t know the racist microagression they were nonchalantly throwing around. Maybe that is the kind of chit-chat they were raised around and had never been taught that it was violent language to use.

Comic depicting some of the microagressions that people of color are exposed to on a daily basis

If they didn’t know what they said was harmful, this is a great opportunity to teach them! If they knew what they said was offensive, then you have a few options:

  • Continue asking them why they feel that way and patiently listen to their side of the story. The best way to talk to people who are new to discussions on race is by doing our best to holistically hear them. Most of the time, racist banter is shared out loud by people who are regurgitating rhetoric they were taught to say, and most of this rhetoric is rooted in fear.
  • If you understand where the oppressor is coming from, you may have a better idea of how to get through to them. If they seem to be listening – then, on a level they would understand, begin teaching them!
  • No luck with the racist? Recommend your crew of people keep meandering throughout the gathering and find a new group to mingle with. We no longer waste our time with people who actively choose to be violent.
  • And finally, whether the person refused to listen and continued to spew dangerous microaggressions or even if they were receptive of your constructive criticism – be sure to inform those running the event of the issue that occurred. 

Even if all ended up happy and pleasant afterwards, it’s important for the event planners to know that there was harm caused at their event so they can be mindful with those involved moving forward.

How NOT to talk to people about race

If you come into conflict with someone while talking about race you need to be mindful that you are involved in a conversation, not facilitating a lecture hall. No one likes being talked at unless they sign up to be talked at by someone. Be sure to engage as politely as possible. Bring yourself back to your breath for some groundedness during the conversation to avoid reacting out of emotion.

Do NOT call people names. Avoid using attack words (idiot, dumbass, moron, piece of shit, etc). Even though you may be thinking these words, using these words will immediately end your attempt to discuss and educate.

Practice holistically listening to people. When people fight about race issues, most of the time it is due to lack of education or unaddressed fears. Try to find out what they are missing or afraid of, and try to address what they incorrectly understand.

If you are not making progress, and if you keep getting violently attacked and misheard, feel free to move on with your life.

We can try our best to help others see the beauty in diversity, but we don’t need to waste hours of our lives getting verbally and emotionally assaulted over trying to change the heart of one person.

This isn’t saying don’t try – definitely try! But after awhile if it comes down to someone just continuously berating you – say bye! Believe it or not, that block button can be a great friend of yours. You do not owe anyone abusive your time or your space.

5. Put pressure on large vanlife media outlets to hold them accountable

If this is an issue that you are truly passionate about and you really want to see all people in the vanlife community being represented, then this is a great additional step you can take.

Turn towards those you look up to! Are they talking about this subject? Are they pushing brands and companies they work with to be supportive in diversifying the community and welcoming everyone to their spaces? Pressure them!

Here’s a little message we give you permission to send around to those outlets you love and follow that are choosing to be silent in the oppression of our vanlife brothers and sisters:

“Hey there! I’m ________. I’ve been a huge fan of yours and have been following you for awhile. I love (something about them that you love. Examples: I love your relationship with your dogs and how you treat them like family and not just animals!, I love your build so much! It inspired me to do mine similar!, I love how you share all of this helpful skincare info!) Thank you so much for all you share with us!

I have noticed that you don’t talk about race and vanlife much on your platform. This is a very important issue to me, as well as other people in the community. I know it would mean a lot to your followers if you found the courage to share about the experiences some vanlifers may struggle with but are not as openly talked about. It’s such an important issue and I know your voice would be heard! Thanks again for everything you share with us. I really hope to see you talk about the members of our community who have been silenced for too long.”

If anyone you message responds with something along the lines of “We prefer not to talk about politics on our page,” check through to see if they have ever talked about/mentioned: society’s relationship with vanlife, why they chose to move into a van, if they have ever talked about advocacy for the outdoors, Leave No Trace, etc. These are all political conversations. Urge them to reflect on why those political issues are important to them, but not this political issue.

Woman hangs out in the back of her built out subaru
Photo by @paulinadao

Since you have this fresh and more in-depth perspective of the experiences of people of color, now is the BEST time to use your voice! Start conversations where they are not being had!

Stand up for the only woman of color at your job who is sick of your boss asking to touch her hair. Stand up to the white woman threatening to call the cops on a Latinx child trying to sell lemonade to raise funds for their best friend with cancer. Stand up to your grandpa when he’s talking about people of color being simultaneously lazy AND how they’re “taking all our jobs”.

Now that you have the confidence of understanding deeper, create waves, my friend! Understand your strengths and reach out to people in your community and ask them what you can do to help support them! There’s always more we can do!

6. Donate to People of Color

Do you follow any people of color who have educated you in any way with things they have written or shared, or conversations they have begun? Throw ‘em some money! You don’t need to buy them a new car, but give whatever you can to tell them, “I hear and see your hard work. Thank you so much for taking the time to produce and promote this material. Thank you for helping to educate me further”. 

Woman gleefully wields a circular saw
Photo by @anaismoniq

What Vanlife Influencers Can Do

If you’re a vanlife influencer, you have a large following on social media, Youtube, and/or other platforms. This gives you the power to shape perceptions, priorities, and conversations going on in the community. And with this power comes responsibility.

Graphic depicting what vanlife influencers can do to diversify vanlife

1. Use your voice and your resources to uplift people of color in the community

Have you talked about race on your platform? If not, then why not?

If you haven’t spoken up because you don’t want to get into politics on your page, keep in mind that everything about vanlife and its philosophy is political – not to mention all of us at one point have pushed for outdoor advocacy, which is also political. Why is this important issue any different?

When it comes to our advocacy for people of color, we need to ask ourselves “Who am I trying to protect?” If we are trying to protect people of color, we will most definitely use our voices to support them, share their stories, and be sure that they are heard. If we are trying to protect our images, or protect ourselves from white people lashing back at us, then we are centering our feelings. This is not the time to selfishly make everything about ourselves and how WE feel. There are literally lives on the line. We don’t always need to be the focus of attention.

You may have, and definitely will see, John and I advocate for us white people to “use our resources”. But what does it mean to “use our resources”? See that a person of color is working on a project but they lack a camera and/or photography skills? Offer our own! Offer to edit content if that’s something we’re good at! Offer to get them in touch with a publishing company we worked with. Offer to share their projects on our social media, and so on.

Woman poses with her Toyota Tundra
Photo by @gabaccia

Want to help uplift people of color in the community but we don’t have a skill or “resource” we can contribute? PAY THEM! Paypal, Venmo, Patreon, etc. Let’s skip our 10th latte this week and donate to someone in the community who could use the additional funds for whatever they are working on.

If you have a big following, I can guarantee you have plenty of resources you could offer people of color in the community. You have a large platform at the very least – USE IT! We need to reach out to people, ask them what they are working on, what they need help with, and if they would like our help in recruiting community members to help them. Share their posts and/or experiences in our stories! You have the time and energy to share about you pouring your morning coffee, or you working in a library, or you pulling up to a new campspot, or someone tagging you in their own post. Take that same time and energy to amplify people of color in your story as well! Offer our resources endlessly. It’s honestly the least we can do!

2. If you run a Vanlife reshare account, share EVERYONE’S experiences.

With any problems we face in our lives, we must first address that there IS a problem and we should follow up by identifying where the problem came from and why.

People of color are not being advertised in the vanlife community. This needs to change. If you are in control of a reshare account, the easiest step you can take is to be active in making sure your feed is covering a diverse amount of people.

Comic strip depicting the various origins of people in this country. We aren't all immigrants

There is no denying that pretty pictures, skinny people, and pristine van builds SELL. That’s why we see all the booty shots (not against, I say BRING EM OUT!) by skinny white women. That’s why you see, as John and I call them, the HGTV-looking vans with the trendy backsplashes and the beautiful backdrops out the back doors.

We want to complain about the media not properly representing vanlife, but WE are part of that media. So if you have a reshare account, ask yourself:

  • How often do I feature people of color in relation to how often I feature white people?
  • Am I sharing ALL types of vanlifers, all types of experiences, and all types of builds? Vanlifers are young, old, black, brown, white, disabled, able-bodied, straight, gay, cis-gender, non-binary, rich, poor, and middle class. Out in real life we see barebones setups WAY MORE than we see $50,000 Sprinter builds. Are you sharing the real side of vanlife, or are you just going for the pretty pictures?
Man sits inside his van looking out the side door
Photo by @nattybasslocs

Lovell and Paris of @novelkulture made a phenomenal point that we got to this point of lack of inclusion largely due to reshare accounts.

Many reshare accounts gained fame just because they shared the creme-de-la-creme of builds. But not everyone has access to the fanciest materials to build the prettiest van. Not everyone living vanlife has access to gorgeous views in the wild. Not everyone in vanlife can afford a fancy phone or a fancier camera.

So even though they may take photos and share their stories, they are being overlooked because their resources make them *lack* the prettiness the reshare accounts gravitate towards.

And if you’re concerned about your stats and your bottom line, keep in mind that tastes on Instagram change all the time. People are always looking for something new, and what was popular in the past won’t always be what’s popular in the future.

Do you want to be at the forefront of a new trend, or do you want to be left behind? Because the times ARE a-changin’.

REFLECTION POINT: Do you run a vanlife reshare account (or any type of reshare account, for that matter)? Do you try to share REAL experiences, or do you only gravitate towards pretty photos? How many people of color have you shared in the past 6 months? How many white people have you shared? What do you plan to do differently moving forward?

3. Make inclusion a key point of your vanlife gatherings and adventure trips

There are many marginalized vanlifers who don’t attend vanlife events because they can’t afford to attend.

As soon as we put a price tag on something, we are immediately excluding a group of people. I know it’s illogical to ask that all vanlife gatherings be free, but openness to all is something we as event planners need to discuss.

Here are some things we should keep in mind to make our gatherings more accessible and welcoming:

Make sure events are affordable. 

There are several ways we could do this. One idea is to offer different tiers of ticketing. Give a cheap option for those hurting on cash. Do people want more benefits? Cool, then pay for it, but at least it’s optional. We may be able to give access to more people this way.

A couple takes a selfie inside their campervan
Photo by @lacity_vanlife

Another key point for affordability: Don’t bump up ticket prices at the last minute. This is a mistake John and I made with the 2019 Midwest Vanlife Gathering, and we didn’t realize it was a mistake until it was brought to our attention. Sure, have a well-advertised early bird special if you need some initial ticket revenue to put together the event, but don’t increase ticket prices at the last minute.

Here’s why last minute ticket price increases are bad for vanlifers. We’re not your typical group of people. We’re spontaneous. We don’t plan far in advance. We don’t know where we’re going to be next month, let alone next week.

Bumping up the price of ticket sales right before the event penalizes those who did not have the resources to get their tickets sooner (whether it be scheduling resources or financial resources). 

Someone could have been saving up for three months to buy a ticket to the Midwest Vanlife Gathering. Maybe they were waiting for their request off from their third job to purchase their tickets because they didn’t know if they’d be able to make it or not. Now they go to buy their ticket because they finally have the money and the time to attend. But we bumped the price up $10 because it’s the week of the event, and now they can no longer afford it. That just plain sucks.

Offer a scholarship or discounted rate for marginalized groups. 

This is one way to make events more inclusive for all. Maybe get a sponsor to cover the cost of 2-3 tickets to give away to someone of color who wants to attend. Or create a coupon code for a discounted rate. Or whatever!

There may be white people complaining about the unfairness of this, but that’s what many white people do – complain about someone getting one privilege while they themselves are rolling in privileges that they refuse to acknowledge. I promise you, your event will not fail because you let a couple of underprivileged people in for a discounted rate or fully comp their tickets.

Help support people of color in the community to host a People of Color vanlife discussion board. 

Woman hangs out in her van
Photo by @notlostjustdiscovering

This could be however you wish to do it – create a safe place for people of color to talk amongst themselves, or a place for people of color to tell white people about their experiences. Or both!

Whatever you do is up to you, but having this space is important. Their voices are important, their stories are important, their experiences are important.

If you have a discussion board, we highly recommend that you do NOT have any white people on that board. This is not a place for us white people to center ourselves. Every vanlife discussion allows the voices of white people. We should make this a space for people of color to do the talking, moderating, and let them run the Q&A.

Important Note: If you choose to run workshops that focus on inclusion, diversity, and race, you should also be sure to have a professional facilitate these conversations. There are trained professionals, even some in our own community, who know how to safely mediate these types of conversations so that everyone feels heard and no one is severely hurt in the process. This is very important if you wish to create a safe space.

Invite people of color to host workshops. 

When setting up workshops for events, be sure to keep an eye on how many people of color there are on board, and what type of work they are doing. If you are struggling to find people – TRY HARDER. They’re out there, I promise you that!

Make people of color feel welcome and seen at gatherings. 

After doing what you can to make sure your gathering is inclusive and accessible for people of color, once the weekend arrives – welcome them! Personally search out the people of color who attend, shake their hands, offer a hug, ask them their names, ask where they came from and what type of rig they are in, ask them if there’s anything they need.

We need to be going out of our way to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome in our community.

Van couple hangs out on the beach by their Sprinter van
Photo by @adventureallens

Urge companies you work with to promote more diversity and inclusion throughout their brand. 

Have a company that you work with? Do their employees represent a diverse staff? Do their advertisements represent inclusion? If not, urge them to be more open, diverse, and inclusive. If they won’t consider that, then just find yourself another brand that will. There are plenty of brands willing to sponsor vanlifers that actually care about providing a voice for all members of our society.

These are just a few ways you can lead the community towards more diversity and inclusion.

Note: Are you not an “influencer” but you follow reshare accounts, attend gatherings, etc? Keep holding people accountable! Ask reshare accounts where their diversity is! Ask the organizers of gatherings you attend where the diversity is! Where’s the POC Vanlife workshop? Do you see a part of our community that is lacking in inclusion? Call it out!

Being an ally is UNCOMFORTABLE

Graphic depicting the equation of allyship: empathy plus knowledge plus action equals allyship

It is really common to prioritize our feelings when first being presented with all of this. It is a LOT to unpack. A lot of things we’ve experienced and have learned as white people have been taught to us BY white people, which leaves out a lot for us to not fully understand.

What is White Fragility?

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of the book White Fragility, defines the phrase as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

In short, white fragility is when someone brings up the topic of race, and a white person’s knee-jerk reaction is to redirect, claim they are not the problem, and do so while feeling swarmed with anxiety.

Noel Russ hangs out in her van with her two dogs
Photo by @noel_russ

These feelings are common, but they are also something you must actively recognize, name, and work on within yourself if you wish to overcome them. The defensiveness we feel as white people when race is brought up is basically ingrained into our DNA as white people, so we must be intentional to unlearn these toxic habits.

It’s important to understand that when you feel defensive in these conversations, that is not when you should be doing all the talking. That is when you should start analyzing your feelings and where they are coming from.

  • What is it you are uncomfortable about?
  • Is it because you feel attacked?
  • Why are you feeling attacked?
  • Is it because you feel scared?
  • Why are you scared?

Ask yourself these questions to truly understand the how’s and the why’s of your reactions.

When you have these feelings of defensiveness is exactly the time you need to plug those ears of yours into the message you’re receiving. What in this conversation are you not hearing or understanding? What are you needing to learn from this situation to be better moving forward?

If we are committed to truly being allies, it is going to be uncomfortable. We’ll feel scared. We’ll feel attacked. We’ll feel sad. And so on. We might hurt or offend a POC as we learn. People of color will correct us, and how they do so is perfectly fine. They may yell at us, they may teach us politely, they may not give us the time of day. All of these are acceptable. 

Remember — people of color do NOT owe us their time, their patience, an explanation, or an education.

 If we do say or ask something and a person of color blows up at us – they have every right to! They’ve been oppressed for hundreds of years and we’re still expecting them to do work for us! I would go off on someone too if I were in their shoes!

REMINDER: If our words or actions harm a person of color, but we did not mean to harm them, we are still responsible for the damage we caused. Here is an important analogy to keep in mind when someone of color tells us that we have hurt them or offended them:

I walk past John and I accidentally step on his foot and injure him. I didn’t mean to do this, it was not my intention. But regardless of my intentions, I still injured John, I still inflicted pain even though I didn’t mean to.

So what do I do now that I unintentionally caused pain?

Comic strip showing the steps of a constructive apology
  • Apologize for the specific action (Ex: I am so sorry that I stepped on your foot.)
  • Explain why I did what I did Ex: I wasn’t paying attention to where I was walking.)
  • Explain how I will do better moving forward (Ex: I will pay closer attention to where I’m stepping moving forward. I’ll educate myself on the best ways to avoid stepping on other people’s feet again.)
  • Do everything I can not to repeat the same mistakes (Ex: be hyper-vigilant about where I’m walking.)
  • Help show others how they can avoid causing the same harm. (Hey I accidentally hurt someone from not looking where I was stepping once, too. Let me tell you what I learned so that hopefully you don’t unintentionally step on someone’s foot, also. No sense in hurting more people than we need to right?)

If you are genuinely sorry for something, you will make an effort to not just say “I’m sorry”, but also to take responsibility for your actions and do better moving forward.

If a person of color goes off on us while we are trying to do better, we SHOULD NOT make things all about us. If we’re sitting there going, “Well I asked Noami what to do and she said “FUCKING GOOGLE IT,” and then slammed the door on my face. I’m so hurt! She scared me! I’m trying my best and she just rejected me!”

THAT is called CENTERING. Centering, also called motivated reasoning in social psychology, is when we take the conversation and make things about us. This is not about our feelings. This is about being an ally for people of color.

Again, being an ally is UNCOMFORTABLE. When people of color have the compassion to correct what we’ve done wrong – LISTEN to what they are telling us. And if we feel these feelings of discomfort bubbling up, we need to ask ourselves where they are coming from. Why am I feeling defensive right now? Why do I feel like I’m about to cry? Why is my face all red?

Most of the time it’s a reaction to how something was directed at us. But as we learn more about this experientially, the discomforts tend to go away (I promise). And our listening skills begin to point us towards the message and the growth that will come from it, vs just centering our discomfort.

Van couple hangs out by their van side door
Photo by @oursoulagenda

Additional Resources

Below is a list of some additional resources to help further your education on race:

#DiversifyVanlife

We are very excited to finally be taking these important steps forward in order to officially be the “open and welcoming” community we advertise ourselves as being. Vanlife is currently not “for everyone”. We are not publicly talking about the hardships that prevent ALL stories being told.

We have a LOT of work to do if we all truly want to be as inclusive as we claim. It’s going to be uncomfortable. But if we sincerely want an all-inclusive, “everyone is welcome here” community – we need to SHOW UP for those who need our help. Our likes and comments are not solidarity. They are a great first step, but that is not commitment. We need our ACTION!

So after reading all of this, we must ask ourselves —

  • What have I done to uplift people of color in the vanlife community?
  • What do I plan to do to make sure their stories are seen and heard just as much as white people’s stories are?
  • What am I going to do to make vanlife inclusive for all?

If you have any questions, would like additional resources, or anything of this sort, feel free to contact us.

Did this page help you?

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Build Your Van

The Ultimate Van Build Guide

Planning a van build? Read our free guide. We cover just about everything you need to know - from planning, to insulation, to solar and electrical, to picking appliances, to essential tools. Get started today so you can get out there on the road!

Vanlife How To:

Your Complete Guide to Life on the Road

Interested in vanlife? Read our free guide. We cover everything you need to know - pros & cons, bathrooms & showers, where to sleep, making money on the road, FAQ - and more!

Cartoon drawing of two women hanging around their campervan. The background shows a desert scene transitioning into a city transitioning into a mountain lake

Send me epic build guides and kickass vanlife tips

Send me epic build guides and kickass vanlife tips

Want to build your own DIY campervan?READ THE GUIDE
+
Scroll to Top

Send this to a friend