Neighbors posted a “Black Climbers Matter” sign in the area after the incident. Photo: Alexandria Rodriguez

Two Black children learning to rock climb at the popular and picturesque Indian Rock Park in the Berkeley Hills were subjected to a racial slur by a white passerby this week.

Coach Emily Taylor, the founder of Brown Girls Climbing in Berkeley, detailed the incident in a video on social media Tuesday. She said two of her four-strong group of Black female students, aged 7 and 10, were working on a rock drawing project on Monday morning when a white woman walked up to them and said, “Get out of the park fucking nigger girls, it’s closed!” The younger girl didn’t hear it, but the older girl ran over to Taylor to tell her what happened.

“These are four little girls who are impacted at a summer camp by this one woman who comes by and calls them a nigger, at 10 years old,” Taylor said on the video she posted to Instagram. She described an initial feeling of numbness while she rushed to make sure the children were safe. “It’s so much pain.”

The woman walked away after the encounter.

There are signs and tape posted at the park saying the climbing area is closed due to COVID-19 rules, but Taylor said white climbers and families have been in the area for weeks. The park, one of several rock parks in the area, is in an affluent part of North Berkeley and Taylor specifically made sure the area was being frequented and was accessible before bringing the girls there.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Taylor said on the video. “I’ve got the first Black, all-girls rock climbing team and it took me 26 years to do this. It’s hard. It’s hard to live it and it’s hard to hold space for it,” she said, calling for a “reckoning” in the world of outdoor sports. “There are people who can walk past us and say “nigger,” and it hurts our bodies like rope around our bodies being pulled by the hands of white people. Until you are able to have that hard conversation, we can’t move forward.”

Taylor returned to the area on Tuesday, the day after the incident, and filmed the video she posted.

Taylor has spent her decades-long career creating opportunities for Black and brown children in the predominantly white world of outdoor climbing and founded Brown Girls Climbing locally in 2015. The pandemic has cut down her offerings to small groups of outdoor climbers.

This is not Taylor’s first encounter with racism in the climbing industry.

In September, Touchstone Climbing gym, which owns Berkeley Ironworks in West Berkeley, ended its relationship with Taylor’s Taylored Fit program. In an email to clients’ parents, the gym said Taylor had an important vision for climbers of color, but that she had an “unwillingness to treat our staff and our members with the respect we require.” The gym told Taylor she and her program were no longer welcome at the gym.

But last week, Touchstone apologized to Taylor in another email to clients, and said it had been “failing Black climbers.” (Touchstone also posted the statement to its Instagram.) The gym, however, did not extend an invitation back to the facility when it reopens.

“To Emily Taylor, we are sorry. The way we terminated our relationship was abrupt, unprofessional, and unkind,” the email said. “We are sorry for the letter we sent to your clients’ parents. Our conduct was truly unacceptable, and we are ashamed by it. You deserved better.”

Another part of the email read: “To the Black community that has been so deeply wounded by our silence, we are sorry. We hold ourselves accountable for the trauma our conduct has inflicted on you, and take full responsibility for the breach of trust. We say that climbing is for everyone, but we have not given you reason to believe us. We should have listened to you, and we acknowledge all the work you have been doing trying to get us to listen. We failed you, and we know that we have to do better. We are listening now.” (Read the full email.)

Morgan Simon, a close friend of Taylor’s, began organizing fundraising efforts for the group last fall when they had to scramble to find a new home for the climbers. Taylor ultimately decided to create a fully independent program, and Simon’s donation page for a camp van surpassed its $30,000 goal this week with contributions from more than 450 people, including neighbors in the Berkeley Hills who responded after seeing Taylor’s video.

Taylor declined to talk to Berkeleyside for this piece, saying she would prefer to share positive news about Brown Girls Climbing in the future.

“Coach Taylor has remained focused, this week and always, on continuing to provide quality programming and emotional and physical safety for her youth, and appreciates those who have come together to support Brown Girls Climbing,” Simon said.

A group of about a dozen neighbors came out to Indian Rock Park on Thursday morning after seeing Taylor’s Instagram post with an objective of protecting the campers and locating the woman who had made the remarks. John McMeel, who lives on Avenida Drive, said the group wanted to turn the camp into a positive memory for the girls and prevent them from facing any further verbal attacks.

“I have all the time in the world right now, and I’m more than happy to be there every single day that they’re climbing,” McMeel said. “If anyone needs to have a conversation, they can have it with me.”

The neighbors weren’t able to locate the summer campers, however. While the group watched the area, a woman who resembled the person in Taylor’s video walked past and scowled at them, McMeel said. Neighbors followed her for a short period of time to confirm her identity, but McMeel said she doesn’t appear to live in the neighborhood and they don’t know her name.

Neighbors also put up several signs saying “Black Climbers Matter” and other messages of support.

“I’d like to think we’re all enlightened, but every day something proves me wrong.” — John McMeel

The group reached out to Taylor and is trying to find ways to support the girls’ passion for the sport despite the traumatic event. McMeel said most of the people in his neighborhood are positive and open-minded, but Taylor’s video brought him to tears.

“I’d like to think we’re all enlightened, but every day something proves me wrong,” he said. “I can’t speak to the whole neighborhood, but I feel like we’re not that bad up here.”

Several local residents have now organized a gathering at the park Friday from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. to stand united against racism in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

On hearing about the incident from Berkeleyside, City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who represents the neighborhood, called the encounter “harmful and despicable.”

Alexandria Rodriguez, a Black woman who lives in the Berkeley Hills off of Euclid Avenue, took her children to the area Thursday to explain to them what happened. She grew up in South Berkeley and said she and her friends knew that once they walked into the hills, they would stick out as people of color. She’s lived in the hills for two years now and said she more often encounters “polite racism,” rather than the overtly racist slur thrown at the girls.

“A candlelight vigil is nice and everything, but Black Lives Matter is not a trending topic, it’s a call to action.” — Alexandria Rodriguez

Amid national protests against systemic racism, Rodriguez has noticed neighbors’ willingness to have conversations and participate in events, like a candlelight vigil for Black Lives Matter promoted by Mayor Jesse Arreguín, but asked for stronger support in day-to-day life. She only knows a handful of people who live nearby, and many have never introduced themselves.

“A candlelight vigil is nice and everything, but like I said on Nextdoor, ‘”Black Lives Matter” is not a trending topic, it’s a call to action,” said Rodriguez. “You guys as my neighbors, you guys don’t make me feel that comfortable,'” she said. “Only one neighbor reached out to me.”

Rodriguez said the affirmative signs at Indian Rock have already been a positive shift for her kids, as has the encouragement for her to continue speaking up about issues of racism in her neighborhood.

“I’m raising Black and brown children in this neighborhood. How do my children feel?” Rodriguez said. “My action and my words will create a better future for them in this neighborhood, cause I ain’t going nowhere.”

Update, 3:25 p.m. While reporting this story, Berkeleyside reached out to Touchstone Climbing to request an interview. Touchstone did not reply. After the story was published today, Touchstone emailed to say they took issue with the phrase in the article, “This is not Taylor’s first encounter with racism in the climbing industry.” “We ended our relationship with Emily Taylor and TayloredFit Solutions for business reasons,” Mailee Hung, a spokesperson for the company wrote. “The scope of our apology was in relation to the way in which we ended the relationship, not for ending it entirely.” Berkeleyside again asked Touchstone for an interview and they again declined, pointing us to anti-racist work the company has been engaged in. Berkeleyside has added more text from Touchstone’s recent email to its clients to our story, as well as a link to the full text of the email.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...