The incident in Central Park wasn’t surprising at all. A white woman using her race and privilege to dehumanize a Black man is something we’ve certainly seen in our history, many times. This type of behavior is sickening, and it must stop.
As a Black person living in Wyoming, I’m always cognizant of my surroundings; I have to be. I’m prone to get stares just because I look different from my community, whether I’m birding or grocery shopping. As details about the Central Park incident and the murder of George Floyd began to unfold, racial tension was increasing everywhere. I instantly felt unsafe in Lander. I was afraid that I’d be the target of a racist hate crime because I’m so identifiable in my nearly all-white community.
I felt like my best protection was to just seclude in my home and only leave if absolutely necessary. I just wanted to hide, I did hide. It was a rough few weeks. I listened and watched as non-POC (people of color) friends on and off social media only acknowledged the acts resulting from the incident and expressed little to no compassion that a life was taken, unjustly. It’s okay for us to have different opinions about politics, music, and religion, but not on human rights.
"Whether you see us in the outdoors or not, whether you accept us or not, we are making amazing contributions to the scientific world, regardless of any recognition, reverence, or affluence."
When I heard about Black Birders Week I got so excited. I was able to channel my fear, anger, and sadness into hope, awareness, and purpose. Suddenly, I was united with a group of nature professionals and enthusiasts that looked like me! Although a virtual community, it provided me with the encouragement that I needed to return to the outdoors again.
Black Birders Week opened up a new network for me. I began connecting with people all over the world. They were not only admiring my bird photography but also offering solidarity in the Black Lives Matter Movement. One new Instagram follower shared my page in her story, stating how her feed was much better once she began diversifying it. My work gained attention from various organizations such as National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, Wyoming Public Radio, the International League of Conservation Photographers, and many more. I also did a small segment with the Outside/In podcast through New Hampshire Public Radio.
The attention was quite overwhelming, but I welcomed it as it inspired me to continue embracing my passions in the outdoors. It’s wonderful to know that there are so many birders, naturalists, wildlife biologists, ornithologists, nature enthusiasts and wildlife photographers like me. Whether you see us in the outdoors or not, whether you accept us or not, we are making amazing contributions to the scientific world, regardless of any recognition, reverence, or affluence.
Growing up in the Midwest, I enjoyed nature immensely. I did everything from making pretend pies from fallen ripe blackberries that stained our driveway to family fishing day trips on Lake Erie in Canada. It wasn’t until much later in life and living in Southern California that I had my “aha moment” with the wilderness. I found that disconnecting from society allowed me to establish a deep relationship with nature.
My first love in nature was with California’s native plants. This was also about the same time as when my interest in wildlife photography developed. As I learned about flora, I also wanted to capture the moments, mainly for my reference and identification purposes. After plants came herps (reptiles and amphibians) and finally, birds. The fascination with birds came easy since I managed an environmental education program at a state ecological reserve. Observing birds daily at the wetland changed my trajectory and I was indoctrinated as a birder.
"I’ve been questioned about my credentials in the middle of a nature tour. I’ve experienced people trying to talk over me while I was giving a lesson, challenging information only because of their ignorance and not my accuracy."
Teaching and recreating in the outdoors as a Black woman has certainly been interesting. You just don’t see many people of color in outdoor spaces, especially educators. I’ve been questioned about my credentials in the middle of a nature tour. I’ve experienced people trying to talk over me while I was giving a lesson, challenging information only because of their ignorance and not my accuracy. And the worst is when people question my photography (they don’t actually believe it’s my shot) and sometimes even attempt to “one-up” me because their equipment is more professional or expensive.
My birding images come from the heart. I often spend hours in one hotspot, learning songs and calls, observing bird behavior, and photographing impromptu moments. I photograph with a point-and-shoot camera. My whole setup costs less than $500 and is dated. My passion is the actual experience of being in the wilderness, not just getting “the perfect shot.” It’s really unsettling to think that some people won’t acknowledge or respect me and my skills because they assert dominance over me, think that my existence has no value, or consider me a threat because of how impressive my work is.
All I want to do is explore, embrace, and record. Unfortunately, no matter how I present myself, my rich melanin precedes my intentions, knowledge, personality, and smile. There is a lot of thought and preparation involved each time I leave my house to explore. I wear a very colorful backpack, hiking footwear, and large hoop earrings. I also wear a bandana or scarf around my neck. I find it safer to have a feminine outdoorsy look from head to toe, especially when birding in residential areas. I keep my binoculars and camera in view, and my phone readily available at all times. I’m hopeful that people will recognize that I’m just observing nature and not think I look “suspicious” or malicious.
As both a student and instructor of environmental education, I’ve seen many outdoor educational organizations rush to establish policies around racism and discrimination for students (after an incident); but fail to commit to ensuring that their staff are also abiding by those same standards. This is a problem because as people of color enter outdoor spaces they are not highly respected and are constantly dealing with micro-aggressions from their colleagues.
It’s very frustrating and unfair that in order to be part of the conservation movement you are tasked with being the ambassador of diversity and inclusion and expected to peacefully navigate around white privilege. Though there are certainly issues on a global level, we need action on the individual level. My fellow non-POC birders, recreationists, nature enthusiasts, and environmental professionals need to step up, speak up, and call out their racist peers and stop allowing these poor behaviors to persist in outdoor classrooms, on the trail, at the crags, and in any other outdoor space.
"Combining the joys of birding and wildlife photography has enriched my life, and sharing nature through my eyes is just one way that I hope to bring people together, one bird at a time."
Despite the numerous negative experiences I’ve had in the outdoors, I will not stop enjoying nature. Combining the joys of birding and wildlife photography has enriched my life, and sharing nature through my eyes is just one way that I hope to bring people together, one bird at a time.
Are you a birder of color and have a story you’d like to share on our blog? Please send your story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.