BLACK VOICES
11/20/2015 05:48 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2015

This Black Teen Rock Climbing Sensation Is Shattering Stereotypes

Who says black people don't rock climb?

Sixteen-year-old rock climbing champion Kai Lightner is reaching new heights with his athletic skills as one of a few professional black rock climbers.

Myles Washington

Lightner told The Huffington Post that he can't remember a time when he wasn't finding ways to get his two feet off the ground and that he started climbing when he was six years old. 

Eventually, he said, someone at his mom's job recognized his talent and suggested that she take him to the local rock-climbing gym where he soon discovered his passion for the activity. He's won several championships for his incredible ability, but he said his experiences as a black climber has been somewhat of a challenge.

"When I would tell [black] people that my sport was rock-climbing they would look at me funny, and ask 'What is that?' 'We don't do that,'" Lightner said.

Myles Washington

In 2013, the Smithsonian reported that 78 percent of Americans who took part in outdoor activities, which included rock climbing, were white. Rock climber and journalist James Mills explained the misperception of black people in outdoor sports and the lack of representation of people of color. 

"It's not a question of whether or nor African-Americans can climb mountains. What matters is as [a] group we tend not to," Mills wrote. "And for a variety of different social and cultural reasons the world of mountaineering has been relegated almost exclusively to white men."

There are structural influences that have barred black people from participating in outdoor sports such as rock climbing, which has kept the majority of participants white. Lightner said he has felt accepted by other climbers, but that he has gotten a lot of grief from other people of color for his participation in the sport. 

Lightner, who is from a predominantly black community in Fayetteville, North Carolina, said he has received comments from other black people that made him feel pigeonholed by their definition of what type of sports black people should get involved in such as basketball or football. 

Myles Washington

In 2014, the Outdoor Foundation created an outdoor participation report that catalogued the participation in outdoor activities by race, ethnicity and age. In 2014, it was found that only 11 percent of black Americans participated in an outdoor sport, which far less than the national average of the black population. The results of the report are displayed in the infographic below: 

Outdoor Foundation

There are several organizations that are working to change the misconceptions of black people and outdoor activities such as Outdoor Afro, a network which inspires black people to do more nature activities.  

However, Lightner's presence in rock climbing is definitely a step in the right direction to help diversify the sport. Recently, he was featured with other climbers in a video by Clif Bar (above), a nutrition bar for athletes, that's gaining national attention. Lightner said he is hopeful that the exposure he is receiving as a climber will encourage other people of color to integrate the sport. 

"I really want the sport to expand and not be limited to one specific group of people, gender or race," Lightner said. "I want the sport to be multicultural and for people to enjoy it as much as I do." 

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