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Birding and Natural History are not Neutral Spaces

If for some reason you thought that I wouldn’t say anything about the current state of the world here on Wingtrip, I wouldn’t blame you. The reason I wouldn’t blame you is that I have had countless opportunities to talk about systemic and overt racism in America and I haven’t blatantly discussed it on Wingtrip. There are even things I have previously written that document bias on my part, that I am embarrassed to have said. But right now, all over the world we are not just discussing biases, which we all have and will likely never be entirely free of. This moment is about justice for the continual murders of Black Americans by police, about the systemic racism that is foundational to America, and about how everyone needs to be taking part in tearing it down.  

Part of the reason I have not actively used this vehicle to discuss these subjects is that I am not an expert on this subject. I don’t have experience as a BIPOC. I am white, male, cis-gendered, straight. I am extremely privileged, even if I am not affluent by American measurements. Yet ultimately the reason I haven’t spoken here is because I don’t know where to start and if I’m being honest I worry about doing it right. There’s a fine balance between uplifting melanated voices and overwhelming the narrative with my thoughts. Still, I needed to say something particularly as it relates to birding and being a naturalist.

“Neutrality” in birding, natural history, and outdoor recreation is not real. Being a Black or Brown person birding. or engaging in anything, is not a political issue and should never have been considered such. Speaking up is not either. If you think your blog or instagram page is not the place to speak about these things publicly, even if it’s to a small group of people, you’re part of the problem. Everyone should be able to go out birding wherever they want and the reality is that they can’t. And white birders are a part of this problem (Here’s a great piece about this very subject). 

In the past two weeks we have seen so much strength from Black Americans. I was thrilled by the work of folxs who organized Black Birders Week. My world has become brighter because of all the incredible people I have come into contact with and listened to, even if virtually. I have seen seemingly small things, like Facebook birding and nature groups suppressing Black voices dismantled, that make me proud of many people in the birding community. And I also know, from experience and from reading the words of many of the voices during the week, that there is a lot more work to do. There are racist birders and they aren’t hiding. My aim is the be an anti-racist birder and naturalist.

One of the things I have heard several times from birders over the past months of pandemic is that they find solace in birds and nature. I understand the desire to take space to care for yourself, to wind down, to step away for a moment from the pain and suffering of the world. These are real things that help you step back in. J. Drew Lanham describes this in an interview below, as being in communion with birds, which is different from escapism. I would never deprive anyone of these experiences, because I know birds and nature are magic for my soul. This is why we need to do better. Not everyone gets to do this as freely as I do.

Growing up as a white kid I never had to think about where I went as a birder. My only limits were related to money and time. Even within the last month I suggested going birding with a Black friend of mine, to a place that has known white Supremacist cells. I didn’t know. And that’s exactly the point. I’ve never, ever had to think about it. I just went birding. I want to live in a world where birders of the future don’t have to either, but we’re so unbelievably distant from that. 

Over the past weeks I have protested, I have given money, I have read and been relatively vocal. None of this is as courageous as the people who are being actively oppressed while standing in the streets, as I write this. I am not a savior, and to some, this writing may appear to be performative (in a way it is). Shouting into the vacuum that is social media is a minuscule step in the right direction. Reading about racism is a better step, but it’s still a privilege to sit in my comfortable rural home and read some of the resources I will share below, or listen to countless podcasts while I whittle a spoon. Donating some money to a freedom fund or Black Lives Matter or buying from a Black-owned business is a step further. None of this fixes anything. It’s about keeping your foot on the gas and continuing to show up past protests: at work, at home, at school, with your paycheck, with your votes, in your community.

As I write this I am angry, I am ashamed, I am fearful, I am so absolutely full of sorrow. And I am also grateful for all the BIPOC (and LQBTQIA+) voices that are willing to speak for a better future. This takes so much more courage than my writing this because I can put my ideas and body on the line with much more impunity. I am grateful for all the incredible academic and creative work that has spilled forth into this hateful country where I have lived all my life. If I have anything, I have an active imagination and if I have learned anything from Adrienne Marie Brown’s book “Emergent Strategy,” using my imagination to envision the future is something I can actively do as a writer, artist, and naturalist. But right now I am focusing on listening to other voices. 

This moment we are having in America is not new. It’s a repeat of violence and pain that have been perpetrated over and over again since the first Europeans arrived to forcefully steal land and lives. It’s a repeat of active, organized oppression that Black people have been experiencing in our country for as long as they’ve lived here. Protesting has happened over and over again. This time it feels different and I hope it is.  

Writing a post on this subject is not about my voice, which is why I will stop talking here soon. This is about amplifying Black and Brown voices across this country, taking a step back, and supporting work they are leading. White people who call themselves allies have been sitting comfortable for decades, offering weak armchair reiterations and pledges of support. There is no room for this anymore, (again, I am hesitant to tell anyone what to do as white man in America). If you got your back up because I said white, paired with awful things, and you think you are on the side of “the good,” being quiet, being afraid to offend people, being outspoken about experiences that are not your own, being supportive of police – these things are no longer acceptable.  

Where do you start? I can’t answer that for you. You start somewhere and move beyond. There is no final destination with anti-racism work, we will never be done. And to be clear, this isn’t about being good or being bad, it’s entirely likely you have racist corners of your thinking, implicit biases that you don’t even realize exist. This is about fighting for justice, supporting anti-racist movements. 

If you have been doing this already, I thank you and I know you are probably tired. Everyone is tired. Take care of yourself so you can continue to show up with your best self. 

You might still be thinking, well, what does natural history, conservation, or environmentalism have to do with systemic racism? The entire mainstream environmental movement in America has clear racist roots (that can be read about in many places below). If you care about biodiversity, you should care about all types of diversity, and know the inherent value. Thus, you should care about human diversity as well. The same systems of oppression that impact BIPOC around the world also oppress the natural world – these communities experience the impacts of things like climate change more deeply and have long been subject to NIMBY environmentalism. It’s tempting to try to segment our work, to blinker ourselves from one aspect of the world saying “I can’t do it all, so I’m going to do this thing here only.” That kind of thinking will get us nowhere when fighting racism because it is everywhere in America. So I urge you, if you care about birding or nature or getting outside to do this work for the planet and all its inhabitants. We are stronger together.

One of my favorite quotes from Black Birders Week was from a man named Tykee James who works for National Audubon and runs an awesome series of podcasts. I paraphrase it here, as the final words before my list of resources:

“Racism is a direct threat to environmentalism.”


So, if you want to be a better naturalist (a better human), below are some things that I have engaged in and that have helped me (this may seem like a long list, but it’s actually short and doesn’t include countless personal conversations I have had and will continue to have): 

BUY Books

Buy books from black-owned bookstores, directly from local bookshops, or at the very least from Bookshop and select a local independent bookstore. Don’t buy from Amazon. Below are some books that have helped me examine my privilege and see paths forward.

Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown – Read this to help you pull together complex thinking and feel empowered. 

The Colors of Nature is an anthology gathered by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret Savoy that explores the multi-modal ways of being a part of nature.

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature  by J. Drew Lanham – I am currently reading this and cannot recommend it more, particularly as a White birder and nature lover. 

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy is intensely beautiful and pulls the layers back from landscapes, showing us the complexity of places often taken for granted or left unexamined. 

The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection by Dorceta E. Taylor – If you want to clearly see the deeper systems involved in American conservation, read this (it’s very academic, but well worth the read). 

READ Articles

Some Articles About and by Black birders, Black scientists, Black authors in America

J. Drew Lanham, a notable author and professor (among many other things) in response to Christian Cooper’s experience in Central Park. And why he can’t forgive Amy Cooper.

Most of you are probably from Washington. Here’s local writing about being a Black birder from local Glenn Nelson. 

An interview with the incredible Corina Newsome speaking about how black birding is about hope. 

Another piece about the ridiculous stunts a Black man had to go through to simply go birding. Walter Kitundu is an inspirational polymath.

A piece by CNN about Black Birders Week and many of the awesome folx involved.

Black Environmentalists talk about Climate and Anti-racism work and how they go hand in hand.

Anti-racism and Racist History Resources

What it means to be an accomplice not an ally.

Shaun King’s series on solutions for police brutality. 

A JStor Syllabus on Institutionalized Racism


LISTEN AND WATCH

Jason Ward’s Birds of North America is absolutely killer. It’s about birds, it’s about people. I hope to get to meet Jason someday and go birding.

Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning – The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” is currently free to listen to on Spotify. I haven’t read this but I am starting it right now.

Part of what I appreciate in centering BIPOC voices are hearing stories that don’t merely focus on trauma, oppression, and scarcity – one of the risks in discussing systemic racism is getting stuck in this trauma and not considering narratives of joy, wealth, and strength. These stories of Black Science, Joy and Life from The Story Collider are fantastic and add complexity to the discussion.

Seeing White is a podcast series that helped me wrap my head around being White in America. I think it’s especially good for White folx because the narrator is a White man who is using the series to question his privilege, his biases, and point of view. There is a lot of internal work that needs doing before other work happens, and this is a good way to begin.  

DONATE and SHOP

I can’t tell you where you should send your money. There are countless BIPOC led organizations, from Black Lives Matter, to local chapters, to small organizations. I have given money to the Northwest Community Bail Fund, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, and bought various things that benefit similar organizations. 

Look for black-owned businesses in your community and support them. If you can look up the hours of your local restaurant, you can look up directories of local Black-owned businesses. 

Avoid businesses that do not show support and action towards this movement. Just this week I learned that Trader Joe’s has closed a store in Seattle indefinitely, likely because its employees participated in protests. For the time being I will not be shopping at any Trader Joe’s. There are other businesses that have stayed silent, and while putting out statements may be performative, avoiding doing so signals (to me) that they aren’t worth patronizing. 


OKAY So, there’s a lot of work to do! Don’t just listen to me, I am learning alongside everyone else. Don’t let shame or guilt overwhelm you. Don’t get paralyzed by the immensity of the problems or your role in them. DO get going on something and keep your foot on the gas. And thanks for reading. 

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