(CNN) — In January 2019, Simisola Oke traveled with a friend to Flachau, one of Austria's busiest ski areas. Following their arrival, they were greeted with many hellos and waves from fellow skiers. Initially, "we just assumed people were being kind and friendly, or maybe they thought we were famous," Oke recalls.
This all changed during apres-ski amid the warm fires and hearty meals. Skiers began opening up with probing comments such as, "It's different for people like you to be here."
Oke describes two young men asking her and her friend for their photograph. When the girls questioned why, the men replied, "You guys are just so beautiful." Not convinced by their flattery, she notes that "there were plenty of beautiful girls. We all knew the reason behind their request."
In an arena that is predominantly White, Oke described feeling as if she were an "exhibit," with her Blackness on show against an undeniably White backdrop.
A few months later, Oke went skiing in Chamonix, France, with her university friends and future business partners -- Tobi Adegboye, Wenona Barnieh, Blessing Ekairia and Adeola Omotade.
The uncomfortable stares and unsolicited comments about "not realizing Black people ski" continued. Oke explains that you can't help but "feel insecure" when people stare, noting "It's as if you are walking around naked." Despite this, Oke describes skiing "with a group of other people who looked like me" as "the best experience" she'd had on the slopes.
The close friends found inspiration behind their shared encounters, sparking the formation of Mount Noire, a London-based ski travel company with the aim of "bringing color to the mountain." Adegobye explains that: "Mount Noire reminds you that you are welcome in all spaces, no matter what your background or heritage is."
Lamont Joseph White
The organization offers luxury ski packages all-inclusive of accommodation, equipment rental and events. Mount Noire has hosted two trips so far, and their next one is scheduled for March 2021 in Val Thorens, France -- with a contingency plan in place for December due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Companies like Mount Noire are transforming snowy landscapes into inclusive spaces. However, Anthony Kwame Harrison, Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, argues that the real change in this area needs to come from ski companies increasing representation.
A Google search for "Skiing Holidays" leads only to a plethora of ad campaign images with white faces. The skiing region of Flachau's Instagram page, for example, boasts an impressive 18,000 followers. It is the "official account of Flachau's tourism" yet in all its posts, to date, there is no person of color.
Motivated by this lack of representation, Lamont Joseph White, an artist from Park City, Utah, decided to curate expressive paintings of Black skiers. He explains that much of his work is concerned with "elevating the presence of Black people where they are an extreme minority." As an avid skier himself he talks about the importance of "people seeing themselves" reflected and hopes that "a young boy or girl might see these images and say, I want to check that out."
Similarly, Barnieh -- who leads Mount Noire's social media presence -- is also challenging the traditional messages on ad campaigns. Barnieh views social media as a powerful platform to represent Black people skiing as normal.
Through strategic and snappy hashtags such as #blackgirlsski, Mount Noire has cultivated a global following. Ultimately, reinforcing, and spreading the message that quite simply, yes, Black people can -- and do -- ski.
The women behind Mount Noire and their own personal experiences expose the underlying exclusionary practices that have been unwittingly maintained by the skiing industry for far too long. It's troubling that if you are not White, your complexion could become the main attraction rather than your actual enjoyment of skiing.
However, hope is not lost. Mount Noire and other notable organizations like the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) are tackling these issues head on. NBS was established in 1973 with the aim of increasing snow sport participation amongst African-Americans. Since then, its mission evolved "to become the largest winter sports organization in the United States with over 50 clubs and 3,500 members."
Mount Noire acknowledges that skiing is expensive and says they plan to develop an outreach program to make the sport more accessible to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Following in the footsteps of NBS, Omotade tells CNN Travel that she is determined to "inspire a generation" of young Black and ethnic minorities to take up skiing.
The push to alter the "uncomfortable experiences" for Black skiers looks promising, with groups like Mount Noire now leading the way.