Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Time is precious for Anita Naidu these days. During a rare break from airports, hotels and meetings, the Whistler-based rider rolls onto A River Runs Through It for an hour of rejuvenating singletrack bliss ahead of a whirlwind schedule of film work, hosting anti-racism workshops and launching a COVID-tracing app in Africa. Humanitarian, entrepreneur, BIPOC activist, and pro mountain biker—Naidu wears many hats. Why not add aspiring astronaut? Yup, it’s on her list. Though these endeavors may seem like disparate, distinct pursuits, they all stem from the same impulse.
“I have a desire to reshape existing imbalances,” Naidu says, as if disrupting culture is as normal as changing a flat.
If a mountain bike trail could be poetry, then A River Runs Through It is Walt Whitman rendered in tight, handlebar-cutting corners and skinny woodwork that takes commitment and a certain boldness to ride cleanly. Fitting, because ‘bold’ is Naidu’s modus operandi, a direct challenge to both her East Indian heritage and a world of adventure sport that was as white as snow when she first discovered it.
Growing up Indo-Canadian, her intrinsic drive to break stereotypes made her stand out like a wildflower in the desert, especially within a traditional South Asian culture that doesn’t exactly encourage, let alone reward, ‘bold’ women.
“As a brown kid straddling eastern and western cultures, the push and pull of tradition and modernity can be disorienting and confusing,” Naidu says.
Her answer was defiance. Exposure to different cultures and traditions empowered her to “think about what could be.” It also meant inviting possible finger-wagging disapproval from elders. Like when Naidu used to duck out of Diwali [Indian festival of light] early as a teen to watch the Banff Mountain Film Festival, while stuffing her sari into a climbing rope bag and plunging hands covered extensively with henna deep inside pockets where no one could see them.
One need only imagine the world of mountain biking more than 15 years ago into which Naidu injected herself. Like backcountry skiing, rock climbing or other adrenaline pursuits, it was populated mostly with white males from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. When Naidu looked in the mirror, she saw a privileged bro culture with an easygoing vibe that masqueraded as acceptance. As she started competing and dabbling in freeride, she realized the scene was not going to warmly embrace someone who looked like her. The message was clear, if not overt: Naidu was expected to leave her identity at home and act ‘white.’
As a brown kid straddling eastern and western cultures, the push and pull of tradition and modernity can be disorienting and confusing
“Because people of color have historically been given a negative group identity, many learn to expect disapproval. Success in mountain biking meant giving up enough of your ethnicity for white people to accept you. I spent years in situations with white bikers who would dismiss any attempts to talk about race. They were almost scornful when the topic was brought up and pretended that outdoor sports were nothing but utopias of equality,” Naidu says. “What they fail to understand is that for many BIPOCs, it’s always been about race. Because structural racism is present in our daily lives.”
At the elite levels of competitive outdoor sports, personal encounters with entitlement and self importance only served to strengthen her resolve. She says she found it “astonishing” that other pros showing up for competition had no interest in articulating a vision for the world or fighting “for a better tomorrow.” It was a love-hate relationship. Though she loved mountain biking and the sense of freedom it gave her from the strict cultural mores she was born with, the self-absorbed emptiness of the culture around it troubled her.
“I felt at odds with what seemed to be aimless competitive pursuits, transactional, and self- seeking behavior,” Naidu admits. “Fortunately, I always had a close inner circle of friends completely outside of sports who were ignited by similar principles.”
Mountain biking also gave her insight into racism’s many cloaks, and she grew to understand that the real enemy of diversity and inclusion is the mask of politeness, and also the fallacy that it’s only the ugly manifestations of humanity like Proud Boys or Klansmen, who are racist. Those are the easy, obvious targets. It’s the quiet, pervasive and unconscious biases that make racism so hard to fight.
“It’s the people who ask you where you are from and don’t accept, ‘Here’ as an answer. What they are really asking is, ‘Why are you brown?’” Naidu says.
Even today, despite the strides being taken by brands to embrace and welcome diversity, Naidu says if she’s not wearing her full sponsored kit, slower riders will often jump on a trail in front of her.
“There is an assumption that because I’m small, female and dark, I’m a beginner. But this form of bias isn’t exclusive to the outdoors, it’s an undercurrent that lies in all aspects of society and is common in some form or another to dark-skinned people everywhere,” Naidu says. “Hitting the biggest drops in the Whistler Bike Park and attempting backflips was so far out of my culture, upbringing and psyche that it took far more emotional energy than physical energy.”
She vividly recalls standing on a podium at Crankworx and looking out at a sea of white faces; despite being on the top step, she still felt so far out of place.
I felt at odds with what seemed to be aimless competitive pursuits, transactional, and self-seeking behavior
Naidu may be small and brown, but she is no pushover. Her social media handle, @abrownpanther, says it all. Reviews of her coaching style range from inspiring, to shrill and opinionated. But opinions matter and Naidu makes no apologies. If hers was just a story about a brown-skinned woman quietly learning to bury her ethnicity and navigate a white world on two knobby tires, then it would be a short, and not particularly memorable story. The fact that she’s dedicated to leveraging her personal experience as an athlete of color to fight for change makes her journey different.
Craig Glaspell, brand director for Troy Lee Designs, one of Naidu’s numerous sponsors, remembers first meeting Naidu years ago in the lift line at the Whistler Bike Park. He was immediately struck by a young woman, infectiously happy and energetic, who was stoked to be on a bike.
“At first it wasn’t about gender, race, color, or religion,” Glaspell says. “That is one of my roles at TLD, to partner with people who can spread the gospel of the bike. We think the world is better with bicycles and we love to work with people who can magnify that.”
He would see Naidu every summer at Crankworx, where they talked about TLD supporting her program of clinics, coaching and racing. Eventually when Naidu was free of other commitments, TLD pounced on the opportunity to form a partnership.
“Simply put, we didn’t have an agenda, but it’s a side bonus to have someone with her background to inspire other kids and adults that this sport isn’t all just white people riding bikes; it’s for everyone,” Glaspell says.
At just 34 years old, Naidu has already achieved a lifetime’s worth of accolades and honors, beyond being among the first women of Indian origin to become a pro mountain biker. If it were possible to squeeze more hours out of a day, she would. She has advanced degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of New Brunswick in Eastern Canada and was a 2020 Proudly UNB award recipient, given to alumni who have excelled in their careers and pursuits. As part of a three-person team, she won a Google Impact Challenge for designing an app that provides service to refugees and displaced persons. And Men’s Journal, a publishing bastion of sculpted male whiteness, singled out Naidu as one of the World’s Most Adventurous Women, for all that’s worth.
Naidu says she doesn’t do anything for recognition, including this interview. But if it helps to publicize an important message about racism in adventure sport, she’s all in. 2020 was a year of upheaval and awakening. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement put institutional racism in the crosshairs, and diversity and inclusion at the top of corporate agendas.
She says demand for her racism training sessions has exploded, both locally and internationally. Brands that bring Naidu in for training should be prepared to go deep and well beyond token, sales-driven, superficial gestures toward diversity and inclusion. And that means focusing on dismantling institutional structures of racism and cognitive bias and the assumptions and comfort of white privilege, Naidu says.
“When any brand comes to me for consulting, from environmental firms to media groups to bike companies, what they are asking for is guidance on how to do better and my role is to make it easier for companies and brands to do the right thing,” Naidu says. Multi-ethnic photoshoots are wonderful, but unless BIPOCs are empowered it’s just window dressing, Naidu says. Just as sustainability has become a pillar of successful business, any brand that doesn’t get onboard with diversity is a dinosaur destined for extinction, and the ones that have a history of rejecting it will have to do a significant amount of unlearning to survive.
Take, for instance, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the legendary Canadian outdoor retailer, who recruited Naidu to be an ambassador last May. “MEC values Anita’s deep commitment to removing barriers to the outdoors for others,” the company’s community campaign specialist Jackie McKinley told Beta over the phone from the company’s Vancouver head office.“She is someone who welcomes people into her experiences and inspires us to try new things and do better.”
Doing better is exactly what MEC has been focused on since the company was called out on social media in 2018 for not representing racial diversity in its marketing. Back then, one of its members, a Black woman, accused MEC of perpetuating “a narrative that BIPOC don’t enjoy” the outdoors the same way white people do. It prompted then-CEO David Labistour to make a public mea culpa and commit to change.
“When a brand recognizes that more racialized people in traditionally white spaces will lead us to the future we so desperately need, they start interrupting injustice and a new sense of solidarity emerges,” Naidu says.
Featured Image: Robin O’Neill