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Trayvon Martin and the scarcity of black birders

March 29, 2012

One of the most pervasive items in the national news over the last week or so has been that of the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by trigger-happy neighborhood guard watchman George Zimmerman while Martin was returning to the nearby home of a relative from a late night convenience store run.  The essentials of the story, that Zimmerman was something of an overzealous presence in the community, that he had called 911 to report Martin’s “suspicious” presence, and that he pursued Martin despite being told by the dispatcher not to do so, are fairly well established elsewhere.  Heck, anywhere.  Also clear, the seeming inanity of the Florida law that may well allow Zimmerman to walk.  It is not my intention to dwell too much on this, except to point out that, in the cold light of day, the only crime of which Martin was guilty seemed to be the unfortunately capital one of being black and in public after dark.  Even though this has become, oddly, a point of contention in some arenas of our political discourse, these are, as they say, the facts, ma’am.

This story has resonated across much of the nation to the extent that is has prodded, once again, the still festering and clumsily hidden open sore that is racism in American society.  We are so, so bad at talking about the very real issues that surround our ugly past on this topic that it’s truly amazing to me, and probably anyone else with any sort of historical context, that we function as well as we do.  Of course, let me qualify this statement by saying that I can only approach this topic from my perspective, that of a incredibly fortunate middle-class white male, quite possibly the least put-upon demographic in the nation, and likely the world.  In that sense, and even though I try to be conscious of inequality and guiltily aware of my own latent biases, it has been incredibly eye-opening to read some of the perspectives that this tragedy has generated among black journalists and writers about being black in America.

Some of the most devastating words came from Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, who has written extensively and deeply on the Martin shooting, and who, in a recent column, shared his own mother’s words to him when he moved from posh suburbs to the city of Newark.

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse

I don’t know, but those words just about broke me.  I, a middle-class white kid, would never have been accused of any of this.  It would never have crossed the minds of my parents to need to say such things.  And here I am, so casually unaware of the realities confronting those with which I share a conversation, a workplace, a community.

So, what does this have to do with birding?  It has been the goal of many in the birding community to reach out to minority communities to diversify what is a nearly exclusively white pastime.  I think we’d all agree that these efforts are an unqualified good thing.  Not only are birds a remarkable window into the natural world, but more people caring about birds can be nothing but good for the birds themselves.  The question of why minority groups aren’t generally into birding is a tough one to get around on, though.  Sharon Stiteler instigated that conversation at 10,000 Birds some time ago and it drew some interesting comments.  J. Drew Lanham also offered some fascinating insights from the perspective of a black birder that should be required reading to anyone who looks with concern at our homogeneity.  For a while I thought that the primary barrier to inclusion of more black and brown faces in birding had more to do with socioeconomic issues than racial ones.  After all, it costs a little bit of money to outfit yourself for the field, to get a decent field guide, to pay for the gas to get to where the birds are.  These are hurdles that people of limited means, which disproportionally consist of African-American and Hispanic folks, often can’t overcome.  And that’s almost certainly part of it, but in the light of the Trayvon Martin shooting I’m not longer convinced that that’s the primary reason we don’t see more black birders.  I don’t think it’s necessarily anything inherent with birding, or nature study more generally, that needs to be resolved to attract diversity.  I’m starting to see that it’s bigger than that.

Just about every birder that has been around long enough has had more than a few run-ins with the law.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that if you spend enough time driving slowly down backroads or hanging around neighborhoods with binoculars around your neck, you’re going to attract attention either from law-enforcement or from residents with law enforcement on speed-dial.  I get approached by cops a couple of times a year.  The last, the Wake County sheriff’s deputy in question followed me for some time before turning on his lights and finally pulling up next to me and hassling me about what birds I was seeing with pointed and direct questions.  But it’s not just the law, my dad once took a wrong turn down a driveway while birding and ended up with a gun pointed at him.  As a young, often scruffy-looking, male, I’m hesitant to bird alone anywhere where there might be children playing lest I attract the ire of overprotective moms who think I’m some sort of sexual predator.  I’m not saying I know what it’s like to regularly be the cause of unwanted attention by unwanted parties, but nearly all of us have stories like this.  And those birding friends that I have that are darker, even though they’re of south Asian descent, have more of those stories. It’s a pain to have to take that into consideration when I’m birding.

Why is this important?  Because studies have shown that black individuals, particularly black men, are more likely to be stopped by police officers than whites.  It happens everywhere. Think again about Trayvon Martin, and how he was singled out by Zimmerman as “suspicious” simply because he was a black man in a majority white neighborhood.  Think again about how a black man in a largely white neighborhood or a urban or suburban park with binoculars might have been perceived.  Imagine you’re driving the residential neighborhoods of Cape Coral looking for those Burrowing Owls, or following up on a feeder twitch in a gated community and it’s easy to see how this is a problem.

Exactly how often would this have to happen to put you off birding for good, or to think this is a hobby not worth pursuing?  It’s these sorts of interactions that make me think that those black birders that persist, and excel, in the hobby are made of much stronger stuff than I am.  The thought that any birding outing could be brought to an end by a “suspicious” cop or any trigger-happy vigilante wannabe is disturbing.  My interactions detailed above are often minor inconveniences, anything more than that – simply for the crime of birding while black – is truly beyond my comprehension.  And yet, a real concern.

So why, in a world where black Americans are already unduly hassled by unfair stereotypes, gun-toting private citizens, and unscrupulous police, would they want to take on a hobby where those sorts of run-ins are more likely to happen?  Why should this be surprising to us?  Of course, each of us has to keep fighting the good fight, but it says something not very appealing about our society that something as innocuous, as harmless, as downright geeky as birdwatching is too often beyond the reach of our black friends because of the ugly beliefs of a surprising percentage of our population that are all too easy for the rest of us to ignore because we are privileged enough to be able to ignore it.

We birders are, with very few exceptions, a welcoming lot.  It is, perhaps, one of the few avocations that allows individuals with many perspectives – political, religious, and all the other big ones we argue about in our real lives – to come together and enjoy birds and the outdoors.  To remove ourselves, just for a moment, from the ugly realities of the world and concentrate instead on a world of field marks and vocalizations.  But sometimes those realities, though invisible to many of us, offer significant issues for those with whom we’d otherwise love to share this passion.

And that’s not just bad for birds, it’s bad for everybody.

  1. March 29, 2012 9:52 am

    You got me with the Burrowing Owl in Cape Coral thing. I did that last year as a likewise scruffy-looking youngish white male…and got a lot of suspicious stares despite driving a Prius and making a point to laugh and engage heartily with my two companions to appear non-threatening. If I were suddenly black, would I go back and look for the owls again? Not a chance in hell. Would I come to northern MIchigan to see the Kirtland’s Warblers? I might, but given the xenophobia in that region (I’ve lived there), I’d keep a low profile. You sure wouldn’t find me in a local diner.

    I’m not sure if it’s sadder to say that I think you’ve hit upon something salient, or that I have not the first clue how it could be remedied.

    • Nate permalink*
      March 29, 2012 1:55 pm

      Yeah, it’s sort of a catch-22 in that the barrier is also the cure, which is to say, more black and brown faces in the birding community.

      I don’t know what to do except push for more broader societal change and call that ugly stuff out when you find it. Not an easy or fast track, unfortunately.

  2. Paul permalink
    March 29, 2012 11:54 am

    About a year ago I went to a talk at NC State by Dudley Edmondson about minorities and outdoor recreation. He had a lot of interesting perspectives on this issue and he is doing a lot to reverse the unfortunate trends that you have touched on. I would encourage anyone to check out his book “Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places.”

    • Nate permalink*
      March 29, 2012 1:56 pm

      I met Dudley at the Lower RGV Bird Festival this past fall, and had a great time birding with him. I’ll have to check out his book.

  3. March 29, 2012 8:38 pm

    I actually was stopped just this last Saturday, while birding alongside an industrial complex. The police officer was coincidentally quite into birds himself, and so when I pointed out the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and the Least Sandpiper, he just wanted to see them too, and it was all cool.

    That was nowhere near as bad as the time I was counting ducks in a pond opposite an elementary school. There were guys coming towards me, so I smiled and waved and pointed toward the pond, showed them my binoculars, and never once turned my body in the direction of the school. I was nervous that a Sheriff’s Deputy would roll up on me at any minute, but that never happened. I kept counting ducks, and the guys must have been satisfied and left me alone.

    The best one of all would have to be about a year ago when I was outside wandering my neighborhood at night trying to pinpoint the location of the Eastern Screech Owls that were calling. I went around another block and a police officer hit me with the spotlight, almost made me jump out of my shorts! Someone had called it in, but I only had my cell phone, holding it up to play an MP3 of screech owl calls. The officers laughed and rolled their eyes and thought I was very strange, but they left very shortly.

    I usually dress kind of geeky, I wear glasses and look younger than my actual age, and I am quite non-threatening in appearance. I read your post and tried to imagine the possible differences in these scenarios if they happened to a black person doing the exact same things. I would HOPE there would be no difference…but my own experiences with racial prejudices as the father of a bi-racial child seems to almost assure me that the differences would be appalling.

    • Nate permalink*
      March 30, 2012 5:47 am

      Your experiences in the field are similar to mine. I think youngish birders are targeted more than older birders, particularly when birding alone. We almost certainly check off more boxes.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • March 31, 2012 5:15 pm

        I also must comment, I think, about the assumptions of socio-economic deterrents to non-white birders. I never thought it anything like that, basically because I grew up rather poor, and my finances are still not exactly great, and yet I bird fairly well with less expensive gear and cheap travel to mainly local destinations. I never really thought that having a low income is much of a deterrent at all to someone who really wants to take up birding as a hobby. The more expensive brands and models of binoculars and spotting scopes make birding nicer, and maybe a little easier, but are certainly not required to be a successful birder.

        So then the inhibitors must be limited more to things like cultural differences, which I do not pretend to understand the mechanics of. I meet many people of different ethnic backgrounds who are avid outdoorsmen in other ways, such as fishing, farming, or even hunting. Why birding is not more popular among different ethnic groups, I do not know. I think if one were to follow other demographic trends correlated with ethnic backgrounds, there could perhaps be an answer hidden in there somewhere.

  4. March 29, 2012 9:45 pm

    Very interesting musings, Nate. I’ve thought about this before, too. And like you, I had believed that the lack of minority birders was most likely a socioeconomic issue – that minorities often being in lower socioeconomic statuses just weren’t exposed to the type of environmental education that middle and upper classes are. And then I think about myself, being an Asian female, and how that even growing up middle class, environmental education just wasn’t a part of our culture. I may have just a been an odd one that liked to play with bugs and watch tons of nature shows as a kid, but learning about nature was never something encouraged by my family. It wasn’t DIScouraged, either. Usually in very traditional Asian cultures, especially Chinese, like myself, learning about animals usually consists of what animal are you going to eat or what medicinal purpose will it serve (which is most unfortunate). It pains me to know that as a child, I innocently took part in consuming things like shark fin’s soup and bird’s nest soup.

    But I digress. I guess my point is that if something is not a usual part of one’s culture, then it may just not be something that you’ll really be exposed to and want to learn. I didn’t get into birding until I was an adult, but I believe that had I been exposed to it as a child, I would have liked it and picked it up then. I believe that in other minority cultures, it may be a similar issue. But I can only hope that things will change over time. I hope that I’ll become less and less surprised by seeing minority birders.

    • Nate permalink*
      March 30, 2012 5:50 am

      Thanks for your perspective, Maureen. I think you’re right both about exposusing kids to different interests and that things will change over time for the better. It’s a long road though, and it can feel pretty frustrating along the way.

  5. March 29, 2012 10:41 pm

    I can’t recommend this post highly enough.

    I’m a white woman, and I’ve had a BUNCH of run-ins with the powers that be.

    In two weeks in Florida, I talked to the nice officer who told me I was driving without my lights on, the nice officer who wondered what I could possibly be doing with binoculars along Highway 70 at 10 in the morning, and the not-so-nice officer who informed me that sleeping in the car is not allowed at Hobe Sound. I’ve been pulled over by the Yosemite rangers who weren’t happy that I was driving at 5 mph with the lights off (again!) at Tuolumne Meadows at 2 AM. I’ve had someone try to break into my car while I was sleeping in it, which necessitated yet another awkward chat with the cops. I’ve been chased by homeowners in Sacramento who thought I was casing their house when I was under the distinct impression that I was enjoying a Bullock’s Oriole. I’ve also been woken up by the nice officers in Texas and the rangers in Yosemite about where and when sleeping is okay. I’ve had chats with prison guards and sewage plant operators. I’ve been cussed out by a homeowner while looking for gulls in Solano County. I’ve had nice chats of varying intensity with the border patrol in four states. In summary, the man has gotten me down enough times and I am a member of the least suspicious demographic out there. (Also, sleeping in the car and driving with the lights off seem to be recurring problems for me.)

    I really can’t imagine being a member of a minority group and incurring that kind of attention.

    A perfect example that I have seen of racial profiling while birding is that I was with a European guy down at the Salton Sea and we went through the border check station down there. The dude I was with is not a citizen and speaks with an obvious accent, but he’s a white guy so they waved him right through. What is the border patrol for if not to look for people who are potentially here illegally? But apparently racial profiling is how they operate down there.

    Chris Rock says that black people should “get a white friend.” Maybe “our” response as birders should be to BE a white friend.

    • Nate permalink*
      March 30, 2012 5:53 am

      Thanks for commenting, Brooke. I think being conscious of the issues minorities face, and willing to address them in a frank and friendly manner, is a crucial step. We may not get it all right all the time, but opening your eyes to it is so important.

  6. March 30, 2012 12:49 am

    First of all thank you for this post. Its good to have people thinking about this and realizing we don’t live in a “post racial society” to re-use a trendy phrase. I just wanted to offer an alternative to the notion that the darker complected might not venture into birding for fear of uncomfortable and possibly dangerous encounters. Sadly those encounters are part of being black in the US. Riding my bicycle in an affluent neighborhood in San Francisco gets me pulled over and accused of stealing my own bike. But that doesn’t keep me from riding my bike. If there is a genuine interest then it will be pursued. Most of the black folks I know are aware of the inherent complications of “insert most any activity here” while black in places where fear is an embedded and valued cultural construct. But they leave the house and live their lives and pursue their interest like anyone else. Otherwise we would all stay in all day. The lack of black birders isn’t because they were turned off by the fear of prejudicial interactions. It seems like a larger societal and cultural issue with deep roots. I hope that no one thinks that running out to find a black birder to befriend is the answer. I sometimes feel like this desire to get more minorities involved comes from a place which also reinforces the sense of “otherness” that us at the core of the issue. I’m very glad that people are talking about it because awareness and consideration, sensitivity and self reflection, are all important. But perhaps we could take a bigger step by just befriending more people in general. Be open and warm and pay less attention to categories/ethnicities. Yeah, I know it’s naive and hopeful. But I can’t help feeling that might be what counts in the end. “Trust in our better natures…” although the recent news is deeply troubling and leaves even the optimistic among us quite unsettled.

    • Nate permalink*
      March 30, 2012 6:00 am

      I really appreciate your comments, Walter. I hope I didn’t imply that black people would be less likely to take up birding because of fear of such interactions, I meant to say that birding is a hobby where those interactions, with the law or with paranoid citizens – especially in this day and age – are inevitable and perhaps they, understandably, wouldn’t choose to seek that out.

      I don’t know. I know I could be better about knowing more people of various ethnicities, you get kind of stuck in your own world through inertia. Birding is one of those activities that put you in contact with new people regularly (if you seek that out), we should be proud of that.

    • March 30, 2012 9:33 am

      I agree about simply pursuing your interests. That is the best thing to do. I have had trouble off and on simply walking in “wild” areas (especially those close to urban places) because I choose to go alone and perhaps because I am a female. My solution which has worked pretty well over the years is to take along a fair-sized pet dog. One dog, a border collie, saved me from an attacker in a remote section of a park in DC, and since then I rely on my dog. Sad isn’t it? But I figure my dog is better than toting a gun or not going out at all…

  7. April 3, 2012 2:43 pm

    great start to the conversation, Nate. thanks for writing,
    I will briefly add my thoughts to the good commentary that is above.
    My current work is interested in getting urban folk and poor folk and people of color out into nature. The difficulty that I am finding is that I am a white guy from a middle/upper-middle class, suburban upbringing. All of my immediate co-workers also come from similar backgrounds and are all white. What we are finding is that we are quite ignorant of the issues, the barriers, the needs and the desires of the folk that we are attempting to serve. Secondly, we are finding that there is a vast complexity of reasons why people in general and people of color in particular do not participate in outdoor activities as much as others of differing demographics.
    I imagine that most persons reading this already know that African-Americans (or any racial/ethnic/cultural group) are not monolithic. Yet, perhaps it bears repeating that some people do not participate in birding or camping or whatever because of the likely negative interaction with racist white people. Some people of color may not participate because some just do not like the activity. Maybe some do not because of a cultural preference and others because of a lack of monetary resources or access or knowledge or a hundred other reasons.
    People have a tendency to try to make sense of things and we are tempted to boil it down to one, simple reason. We do well to remember that issues of race in America are not simple. It is complicated and messy and confusing and multi-faceted.

    • Nate permalink*
      April 3, 2012 3:50 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Matt. I hope I didn’t imply that all black people might avoid outdoor activities because of the potential for negative interactions. Some people just aren’t into nature, black, white or whoever, and probably no amount of outreach is going to reach them. That’s fine.

      I meant to say that the nature community (birders, but also leppers, herpers, native plant enthusiasts, etc) is *disproportionately* white, and that there are almost certainly people of color who would otherwise be interested in nature study that might be turned off by those interactions with the law or their fellow citizens that are pretty much inevitable in this hobby.

      Here’s another aspect that has concerned me that perhaps you can provide some insight into. I, too, work with kids, some of whom show the inklings of an interest in nature but also through a Naturalist’s Club in Raleigh. We have had a few black students involved as well. Of course, I’d love to trust society’s better nature and send them out in the world with binoculars to look for stuff outside of the group, but I find myself completely unqualified to prepare these kids to deal with those potentially negative interactions. That’s that Catch-22 again, what is needed are more non-white faces involved in nature study, but getting there is a long row to hoe. I guess we just have to persevere.

  8. May 2, 2012 2:39 pm

    As a “Black Birder” I welcome this post. I see the names of Drew Lanham and Dudley Edmondson are mentioned in the thread. I’m good friends with them both and was a panelist with them at a conference last Oct in Philly. I’m really glad to see birders start to have this conversation!

    • Nate permalink*
      May 2, 2012 8:08 pm

      Thanks much for your comment Doug. I think more frank and empathetic discussion is the way beyond this. As a white person who doesn’t always have to think about this, this incident really opened my eyes to the realities my fellow birders of color face that I don’t have to simply by the arbitrariness of my skin. You guys are far more dedicated and courageous than I am, that’s for sure.


  1. The Scarcity of Black Birders

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