National Geographic Alleges that Birdwatching is Racist; An Urban Birdwatcher Responds
On September 23, 2014, National Geographic published an article by Martha Hamilton titled "Colorful World of Birding Has Conspicuous Lack of People of Color." The gist: birdwatching is racist. Non-racist people must intervene to ensure that birding and birders become "inclusive."
I live in Paterson, NJ. Paterson is two-thirds Black or Hispanic, with the nation's second largest Muslim population. My first job after graduation from college was as a Peace Corps teacher in a remote African nation, ranked as the poorest country on earth. I have taught and published on racism and ethnic conflict. I care deeply about my students. I want their futures to be better than their pasts.
I am a birdwatcher. I mentioned the National Geographic allegation in an online discussion list dedicated to birding. I said that I found the article "off base." Rick Wright, author of The American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of New Jersey, informed me that he would henceforth block any messages by me. Others sent insults. Rather than saying, "We have a Paterson birdwatcher. Let's dialogue," the senders of abusive emails decided, "You disagreed with a liberal on race. You must be insulted and silenced."
Almost fifty million Americans call themselves birdwatchers. Birdwatchers spend billions of dollars on bird-related merchandise, and we contribute significantly, through membership dues and activism, to environmental conservation. When I am birdwatching, I experience what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow." I lose the sense of time; I lose the sense of being encapsulated in a body with all its hungers, aches, and limitations. I get lost in beauty and harmony, memory and knowledge, pattern and depth. The borders between senses dissolve and I experience synesthesia. The lilt of a Baltimore oriole's song melds with the scent of honeysuckle and the warm air on my skin. Civilization melts away and I become like my peasant ancestors who knew not just with their prefrontal cortex, but with their entire bodies, bodies that were one with the earth. Birdwatching taught me to observe, to question observations, and to wait for more to be revealed. The twang of a nighthawk above a summer city street, the unreeling rattle of a kingfisher's call along a stretch of waterway, crows' raucous alarms: I register these even as I step in high heels through workday hustle and bustle. Commutes and campuses take on new life to me when I note and decode the revelations of their stray auditory, avian clues. Like most birders, I donate time and money to environmental organizations, and I introduce young people to birding.
One day recently I was walking across Broadway Bridge in Paterson, NJ. I saw an African American child, perhaps eight or nine years old, throw a bundle of garbage over the side of the bridge into the Passaic River. The boy was walking with a white-haired man. The man reached into his shirt pocket, removed some waste, and handed it to the boy. The boy then threw this garbage into the Passaic River as well.
Those of us who care about the environment want to communicate our vision of it to a wider population. How could I make that grandfather and child see what I see in the Passaic River: a nest for ducks, geese, herons, fish, and turtles, cradle for willows, elms, and poplars? Does the recent National Geographic article hold the key?
In the National Geographic piece, Clemson University professor J. Drew Lanham alleges that when he attends birding events, at least six white birdwatchers call him by the wrong name. They do this, he reports, in spite of being "supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard."
Another reason minorities don't embrace birding, according to the article. They worry about "how onlookers might react to seeing a black or Hispanic man with binoculars wandering the woods -- or a suburban neighborhood -- at dusk, dawn, or night." For blacks, "nocturnal birding is a no-no." Minorities don't bird-watch because of "lingering fears about racism in the U.S. -- like whether it's safe to go to areas where the Ku Klux Klan had been strong, or where militias still thrive." Racism in birding is nothing new. "About 120 years ago, birding organizations were anti-immigrant."
White birders speak disrespectfully to minority birders. Minority birders, in turn, "feel like they are not well understood, in part because of the way they are talked to…They like to watch birds, even if they don't know what species they are…They want to learn about birds, but on their own terms. They don't want to be viewed as needing to be educated, 'fixed,' or deficient in skills or knowledge about birds."
Let's look at the unstated assumptions of the National Geographic piece.
One unstated assumption is that white people are something close to omnipotent, and are, therefore, responsible for anything that happens that is perceived as negative. The American Birding Association's Nathan Swick was one of the commentators on the article. Posting as a private citizen expressing his own opinion (not as a representative of the American Birding Association), Swick wrote, "There are those who are interested in a subject, but are unable to pursue it because of societal pressures… Our own white privilege allows for the free expression of our interests in a way that our friends who are people of color are not able to experience." African Americans "may not want to deal with the hassle… it would be nice if that was not a barrier… this crap won't cease."
Is this assumption accurate? Are whites producing "societal pressures" "barriers" and "crap" that prevent non-whites from birdwatching? Are whites able to bird-watch thanks to "white privilege"?
To bird-watch, two things are required: binoculars and a field guide. The binoculars I use cost approximately one hundred dollars. One must also have a field guide, available for eleven dollars, postage included, on Amazon. Of course, one must have birds. On foot, within the city limits of Paterson, I have seen bufflehead, great blue herons, osprey, turkeys, yellow warblers, wood ducks and nighthawks.
The African Americans I pass as I walk through Paterson have asked me why I walk so much, why I carry a walking stick, and if my walking is in fulfillment of a religious vow. Though they are large and conspicuous, no one has ever asked about the binoculars around my neck, or why I stare at birds.
It is simply not plausible that white people exercise the power to prevent black people from birdwatching, and that black people are otherwise chomping at the bit to do so.
Another assumption. When an African American feels uncomfortable in an encounter with a white person -- when birders did not remember Lanham's name, or when minority birdwatchers feel that they are being talked down to -- that is because the white person is expressing racism.
Birders have looked over my shoulder and said things like "That's a green-winged teal." I am tempted to snap, "How stupid do you think I am? Of course I recognize a green-winged teal." I bite my tongue and remind myself that the birder who is "talking down" to me is in fact sharing his passion with me. I respond, not by accusing, "You arrogant racist!" but by saying, "Thank you."
Often my polite response leads to a pleasant interaction. An angry response pretty much guarantees an unpleasant interaction. "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," counsels the three-thousand-year-old Book of Proverbs.
I say to students, "Yes, the person you are interacting with may dislike you because you are black. You can't know for sure. That person may be having a bad day, or he may be a jerk. You may be thin-skinned, slightly paranoid, or racist yourself, and projecting. What stance serves you best? To indulge your worst suspicions? To return hate for hate? Or to be the bigger man? You decide."
I know that not all birdwatcher rudeness is racism not only because birders are often rude to me, and I am white as typewriter paper, but because I am rude. When I am in the woods, I budget that limited time for solitude, and I want to focus on birds, not interaction with other humans. Nice, white people have spoken to me in a friendly manner, and, if I am hot on a bird's trail, I have avoided eye contact, pretended I did not hear, and marched off without even a monosyllabic reply. I am not proud of my rudeness, but this is how birding works.
Another assumption. If whites encounter blacks in the woods, whites will violently attack them. Minorities' fear of KKK or militia assaults is one of the barriers preventing them from birdwatching.
America in 2014 is not the America of 1960. America has elected an African American president twice; major cities have been electing black mayors for decades. Professional surveys do not reflect a racist country.
There is, rather, another reason why a lone birdwatcher of any race might feel anxiety encountering a black man in the woods. The article never addresses this very real problem. Jesse Jackson did. "There is nothing more painful to me… than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." African American men commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime. Three of my friends have been raped by black men. One was assaulted while jogging alone on a city track. Confronting African Americans' disproportionate representation as committers of violent crime is not just important for white birdwatchers. It's vital for black survival. Blacks are the most frequent victims of black violent crime.
There is another, less controversial factor that the article significantly excludes. Every human cultural expression is disproportionate by ethnicity. There are a disproportionate number of Polish cleaning ladies, Jewish Nobel-Prize winners, Irish-Catholic firemen, and Vietnamese nail salons. In a September 23, 2014 article, Walter E. Williams had the courage to ask, "Do Statistical Disparities Mean Injustice?" Williams points out that lightning strikes six times more men than women. Should concerned citizens convene a conference and devote tax dollars to getting more women hit by lightning?
All human activity is determined by push factors and pull factors. National Geographic adduces no evidence that there is a very strong factor pulling African Americans toward birdwatching. In his book White Guilt, Shelby Steele takes on the assumption that African Americans underperform at academics because of white racism. Steele writes
"If a young black boy cannot dribble well when he comes out to play basketball, no one will cast his problem as an injustice. No one will worry about his single-parent home, the legacy of slavery that still touches his life, or the inherent racial bias in a game invented by a white man. His deficiency will be allowed to be what it is -- poor dribbling. And he will be told to practice more….but if this boy's problem is reading or writing rather than basketball, white guilt will certainly prevent even a modified version of this natural process from occurring. Career hungry academics will assure him that he is a victim of racism."
Simply put -- maybe more African Americans don't bird-watch because they don't want to.
Maybe the solution to getting more African Americans interested in birdwatching is not to approach the problem as "White birdwatchers are racist and erect barriers. Black professionals and white liberals need to re-educate racist whites to be more inclusive." Maybe the solution to getting more African Americans interested in birdwatching, and, by extension, in environmental preservation, is to say, "African Americans are human beings just like us. How can we attract more of them to birds and environmental protection?"
One must ask, "Cui bono?" Who benefits?
Perhaps there are foundation grant checks to be cashed and academic awards to be garnered for those who have called birdwatchers and bird-watching racist. For the white liberals, there is a lot of self-congratulatory backslapping to go around.
So what if foundation grant money gets spread around, and an academic builds a reputation on grievance? So what if a white liberal gets another chance to feel good about himself because he was a keyboard warrior against evil white racist birdwatchers?
The American Thinker recently ran my piece "Ten Reasons I Am No Longer a Leftist." Fifteen years ago, a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, I would have proudly served on the board of a commission devoted to teaching white birdwatchers how to be less racist. Constant observation of how left-wing policies affect my students changed me. The left excels at producing conferences, glossy pamphlets, consciousness-raising sessions, speeches that end up as bullet points on some ambitious résumé, and then the grand exodus back to the suburbs before darkness falls. I can hear that distinctive click as car doors lock.
There is an unstated assumption in the National Geographic piece that makes my blood run cold. In the article, African Americans are not subjects, making their own choices, deciding their own fates, grabbing their own brass rings. They are objects. Forces greater than they manipulate them as if they were marionettes, or pawns on a chessboard. White racists erect "barriers," white racists give them "crap," and so they don't bird-watch. Black professionals, in league with kindly white liberals, have decided that African Americans will bird-watch, and so, African Americans will bird-watch -- because their betters have decided this.
Though this is never stated overtly, when I read the National Geographic piece, I heard this as its message to African Americans. "There is something out there that you want -- a commodity, to use Marxist terms. This commodity could be health or dignity or success -- but in this case it is birdwatching. This commodity belongs exclusively to whites. They monopolize it. You cannot achieve ownership yourself. You must cultivate anger, and blame and shame allegedly racist whites, and cultivate pathos, and beg from liberal whites. Then kindly liberal whites, and shamed white racists, will sprinkle some of this commodity -- in this case birdwatching -- upon you." This message emasculates African Americans.
Black professionals and white liberals are speaking this way about the very people who marched from Selma, who risked violent assault in the freedom rides, who broke Montgomery's bus segregation through a boycott. Yes, these very same people need white liberals to help them to watch birds.
I first moved to Paterson over twenty years ago. I witnessed immigrants of every hue taking advantage of every opportunity America offers and moving up and out. African Americans have been told that white racism prevents them from climbing the ladder of success. They must wait for white liberals to bring them jobs, clean, safe streets, and, now, birdwatching. I don't want African Americans to keep waiting. I want them to grab every opportunity they can, including a pair of binoculars.