I go birding almost every day, but when the news broke about Christian Cooper, and then George Floyd, I could not bring myself to go. I was glued to my computer instead, reading articles, and trying to figure out how best to channel my anger and sadness into action.
There were a lot of the usual calls to action – protests, emails, petitions, donations. But there was one in particular, the call to simply listen, that I was able to heed in a way that deeply resonated with me: through a series of online events in early June, calle Black Birders Week.
Black Birders Week was created in direct response to what happened to Christian Cooper, a well-known birder from New York City. On May 25th, Cooper had an altercation with a white woman while he was birding in Central Park. She was walking her dog off leash in the Ramble, where doing so is prohibited. When Cooper asked her to leash her dog, she became defensive, and told him she was going to “call the cops and tell them that an African American man is threatening my life.” And then she did just that, while Cooper calmly filmed the whole thing. She screamed into the phone, feigning fear, while nearly choking her dog by its collar. It is disturbing to watch. She knew what calling the police – and what her lies – could mean for him. It was vengeful, and, as Cooper himself put it, “unmistakably racist.”
In an interview on the American Birding Association podcast, one of the organizers of Black Birders Week, Corina Newsome, said that what happened to Christian Cooper was a good example of the intersection of “white supremacy, weaponization of police brutality, and black people just trying to enjoy the outdoors…” She went on to explain that a group she’s a part of, called #BlackAFinSTEM, decided to do something in response the incident. Six days later, they kicked off Black Birders Week with this announcement by Newsome:
Throughout the week, via online live-video sessions and social media posts, I learned about what it is like to bird while Black. The participants shared experiences of feeling vulnerable or being targeted while birding. There were stories of being followed and questioned for simply being outside. Some talked about how they are careful about what they wear and how they act, and even of how “suspicious” their gear might look.
There were discussions of how little representation there is of Black nature enthusiasts in the media and in advertising. And there was talk of how much work local and national birding organizations, need to do to make birding more inclusive and accessible.
There was levity too, and a feeling of celebration. There was a lot of geeking out over birds and nature – and no shortage of bird-nerd jokes that only bird-nerds get.
One of the things I was unaware of before Black Birders Week was just how big the community of Black nature enthusiasts really is. Even the organizers were surprised by this. Corina Newsome said, in that same interview with Nate Swick, that on the first day of Black Birders Week, she woke up and searched the event’s hashtag on Twitter, and was so stunned by the volume of posts that she laid back on her bed and cried because she had “never seen that many Black people…doing the thing that I love doing…”
New connections were made too. In the weeks that followed, people were encouraged to use the hashtag #becauseofblackbirdersweek on social media to share how the event impacted them. The resounding sentiment was that people less alone, and more supported because of the event. My favorite post was from a woman who discovered that she was not the only Black hijabi birder here in the states. Another favorite was a post where someone wrote that “in 40 years of birding, I never thought I would see the day when I wasn’t the only black birder I knew.”
Even though Black Birders Week offered joy and hope in a tough two weeks, I still needed a mental escape from all the bad news. So, in mid-June I went birding again. I drove to a seaside Audubon preserve and saw Bobolinks, Common Terns and Willets. The air smelled of salt water and rosa rugosa. But the real treat was the front row seat I had to an Eastern Meadowlark, perched nearby, singing its heart out. It was just the break I needed.
But on my drive home that night, I thought of what I’d read and heard over and over again, from all the Black birders, scientist and nature lovers, during the week – that they don’t get a break from thinking about racism, even when – and sometimes especially when – they are out in nature.
I don’t think I will ever go birding again without thinking of their stories or feeling an ache in my heart. But I will use those thoughts, and that ache, as motivation to listen, to pay closer attention, and to help fight against racism alongside my fellow birders.
RESOURCES / LINKS
These are 2 video sessions that were part of Black Birders Week:
Tons GREAT of resources and opportunities to learn and listen here: https://www.racialequitytools.org/fundamentals/core-concepts/whiteness-and-white-privilege#
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization: https://colorofchange.org/
#BlackAFinSTEM Linktree: https://linktr.ee/blackafinstem
American Birding Association Podcast with two of the organizers, Corina Newsome & Tykee James https://www.aba.org/blackbirdersweek-and-its-impact-with-corina-newsome-tykee-james/