I go birding almost every day, but when the news broke about Christian Cooper, and George Floyd, and all the protests that followed, I couldn’t 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.
One of the calls to action I heard over and over again was the call to listen – and I was able to heed that call immediately, and in a way that deeply resonated with me, through a series of online events in early June, called Black Birders Week.
Black Birders Week was created in direct response to an incident that occured in Central Park on May 25th, where Christian Cooper, a Black birder, had a tense encounter with a white woman. She was walking her dog offleash in an area of the park where it is prohibited to do so. When Cooper asked the woman 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 filmed the whole thing. It’s disturbing to watch they way she feigns fear and hysteria, and nearly strangles her dog in the process. She knew what her phone call – and what her lies – could mean for him. It was vengeful, and, in Cooper’s words “unmistakabley racists.”
One of the organizers of the event, Corina Newsome, in a recent interview, said that what happened to Cooper was a good example of how “white supremacy, weaponization of police brutality, and black people just trying to enjoy the outdoors…” too often intersect. And that a group she is a part of, called #BlackAFinSTEM decided they had to do something in response.
Six days later,they kicked off Black Birders Week with this announcement by Newsome:
Throughout the week, I learned about what it is like to bird while Black. The participants in the video sessions shared details of their experiences where they felt vulnerable or targeted while birding. There were accounts of being followed, or questioned simply about their presence oudoors. They talked about how they have to be conscious about what they wear, how they act, and even of how “suspicious” their gear might look. As a white birder, I have never had to think about these things.
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 more that birding organizations could do to make birding more inclusive and welcoming.
I felt especially grateful for the candor and generosity of the participants when it came to discussing white allyship. I know it can be frustrating to be asked to explain this to white people.
There was levity too, and a sense 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. I had no idea how big the community of Black nature enthusiasts really is. Initially I felt guilty about that – but then I listened to an interview with Corina Newsome, where she explained how bowled over how even she was by this. She said 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 just laid back on her bed and cried because she had “never seen that many black people…doing the thing that I love doing…”
I also saw so many connections being made. That was the best part really. During the week, and in week that followed, via the #becauseofblackbirdersweek hashtag, so many people shared how they felt less alone, and more supported because of the event. My favorite was a post where a woman discovered she wasn’t the only Black hijabi birder. Another 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 me (and so many others) some 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 40 minutes – my longest drive since the pandemic hit us – to a seaside Audubon preserve, where I watched Bobolinks, Common Terns and Willets. The air smelled of ocean and beach roses. But the real treat was watching an Eastern Meadowlark sing and fly. It was such a thrill, and was just the break I needed.
But on my drive home that night, I thought of what I’d read and heard over and overagain, 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’ll 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/