*UPDATED* The First Ever Black Birders Week May 31-June 5th


By now you have probably heard about the racist Canadian-born White woman who did a racist attack on a Black birder named Christian Cooper in Central Park in NYC. All he asked was for her to leash her dog in a on-leash dog area. If you haven't heard of this story you can watch the video and read about it HERE. It's a vile video of a vile person who knew her White privilege and used it as a weapon against this man. 

We all know that in America many Black people especially Black men are killed by police for no reason at all but the colour of their skin. A good example is George Floyd who was killed by a police officer (while 3 other cops looked on) for what they said was a possible 20$ forged bill. The White police officer put a knee on his neck on camera for over 8 mins until he died, despite having the victim completely restrained, begging for mercy and not being able to breathe. Only one police officer was charged and not for 1st degree murder but third and manslaughter.

You may wonder why it took me so long to write a post about this all. It is because I am angry... SO ANGRY. I understand why people are protesting in the US right now, because Black Lives Do Matter. I do not condone violence or looting but I understand the deep seated anger. Martin Luther King put it beautifully in this video below:




The riots will remind many of the civil rights riots of the 60's and 70's. I'm so tired of hearing another Black person was killed for nothing. People like Donald Trump do not make it easier but help to incite hatred. I was inspired by Christian Cooper, George Floyd and many others to speak up. It's time for us ALL to do better. 

I had to speak up because there is definitely racism in birding. It can be subtle or overt but it's there just like institutionalized racism in North America. I say North America because this is not a US problem, it's also a huge problem here in Canada. You can see that from racist attacks against Asians happening daily now due to COVID-19 in Vancouver and the deep seated racism against our Indigenous People across the country. I mean it is 2020 and many First Nations reserves still don't have running water! It's disgusting. 

Some people think that since Barack Obama became President, that it showed racism was way better in the USA. Well yes, that was a GREAT thing but it seems we take one step forward as a society only to quickly take fifty steps back. 

Our birding clubs and associations need to do more to be more inclusive. They need to speak out about the problem and not brush it under the rug. We need to talk about it in order for change to occur.

I can tell you while running the young birders program (this is shared with permission from the person who went through it) one young male birder of colour told me that someone called the cops on him when he walked into the sewage lagoons at Iona. Can you believe that? Yes it is true. Someone called the cops on a Black child because they thought he was breaking into a sewage plant. This happened to a child, so yes there is racism right here. I've experienced overt racism and subtle racism as a woman of colour. I've been denied hotel rooms in Kansas, got called the N word, friends of mine got called N-lovers, I've received racist hate email, death and rape threats, birded near a Klan rally without my knowledge until I got back to my vehicle and got hate spewed at us, got pulled over by border control and harassed for no reason, been publicly bullied online and accused of acting like I owned or was taking over birding forums and the list goes on. People of colour who get prominent are always accused of "taking things over." I've had people ask me questions about where I came from and even asked what am I ?. Being a woman and Black has been 2 strikes against me it feels sometimes. I have experienced sexism and racism. I've spoken before how when I bird with men some birders only believe my male counterparts answers over mine, for instance. I've had an editor of a birding magazine take out my opinions in an article I wrote on diversity and inclusion for youth, before publishing it without my permission. This was very disappointing and upsetting to me, as it is something we do need to talk about. 

Luckily, in an upcoming CBC documentary about birding I got to talk about race, diversity and inclusion of all and the importance of teaching this to young birders.

For too long people of colour have been silenced. I have to say though, I am so grateful to my White birding friends who are supportive over this issue!. My friend Jeremiah Kennedy wanted to organize a march of solidarity against racism in the community when my friends and I were getting some dangerous racist verbal attacks. Things like that show how many good and loving people are in our community as a counterpart. Also I've been very happy to see the public outcry over this racist Central Park incident and how quickly the woman was fired from her job over it. It is too bad she was not charged with making a false police claim because SHE KNEW EXACTLY WHAT SHE WAS DOING. As you can see, we still must do a lot more.

As a woman of colour, it's been a struggle and it was tougher to break through in the birding community when I first joined it. I had to work extra hard as we do in most areas to fit in and succeed. I remember someone telling me "you don't look like a birder." "I didn't know black people liked birding?." I wonder what they think birders look like?. 

You can see from this CNN article that many Black birders have been told "they don't look like birders." No longer are older white men the only people we see out birding. We are seeing all ages and races, genders and sexual orientations and it's fabulous. Feminist birding clubs have been created and they allow people of colour of all genders to attend so they can bird in a safe environment. I have to say one thing about Black people, man we are tough. Some White people try again and again to knock us down and break us from the times of slavery to now but we keep going on and getting right back up.

However, this story really bugged me about Christian Cooper in Central Park. Think about it, you are out birding asking someone to politely restrain their dog and they turn on you and use a weapon (the police) on you. He could have been killed. I can't imagine how scary that was for him.

It is time for things to change. It won't be easy but nothing worthwhile ever is. We have to fight and yes we have been fighting as a people for a very, VERY long time.

Drew Lanham who wrote an epic piece a few years ago about the 9 rules for a black birdwatcher recently updated his rules and spoke to Vanity Fair about how this story was just the straw that broke the camel's back. His article to Newsweek explains his anger over this injustice even better, everything he says in the Newsweek article is perfect and I feel the same way to a tee.

There is only so much a person can take before you have to speak up and say enough is enough. We are so tired. We want justice and equality. We just want to look at birds, the same as you.

In fact this is why I prefer animals and birds to any human. They don't care what you look like and what the colour of your skin is. They give so many of us peace and relaxation. It's true though when birding in certain areas, it can be scary if you are a person of colour. I know I've worried people would call the cops on me for looking at a farmer's field and not trespassing. Or when I'm out owling alone and yes when you are a woman it's even scarier for different reasons, like fear of sexual assault. I've sat through uncomfortable conversations where birders would make racist remarks around me and I just had to stand up and say something, even though it seemed to have made it very uncomfortable for the others present. I've seen another young birder of colour (again a child and again shared with permission) be called a racist slur on a message board right here in Vancouver. The community was quick to condemn him, which I am grateful for. 

We all need to stand up when we hear or see this stuff and say we won't tolerate it. We need to encourage diversity in our birding clubs and write presidents and committees to do more about the lack of diversity. Most birding record committees including our own in BC have zero people of colour. This was a fact the ABA has come out and talked about openly.

Speaking of the ABA both them and the National Audubon Society came out with fantastic statements about racism in birding and why we need to not stand for it.



“Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence,” said Audubon SVP for State Programs Rebeccah Sanders, who is white. “The outdoors – and the joy of birds – should be safe and welcoming for all people. That’s the reality Audubon and our partners are working hard to achieve. We unequivocally condemn racist sentiments, behavior, and systems that undermine the humanity, rights, and freedom of Black people. We are grateful Christian Cooper is safe. He takes great delight in sharing New York City’s birds with others and serves as a board member of the New York City Audubon Society, where he promotes conservation of New York City’s outdoor spaces and inclusion of all people.”

Jason Ward, a Black birder from NY, who has this great YouTube TV show called "Birds of North America" that I blogged about before and who frequently talks about racism in birding; helped to create the 1st "Black Birders Week."

This week was created to show the resilience and unity of Black birders and to promote inclusion for all people of colour, especially for youth coming up. It was also created to let other people of colour know that they exist in birding and that they are welcome. Please read more about this initiative HERE.

There are many great events happening during this week. On June 4th at 4 pm PST you can watch "The Birding While Black: A Candid Conversation" live HERE (you do not need a facebook account).  If you note June 5 is the day that female Black birders are celebrated, so that day of course is extra special one to me.

Videos of both of these amazing conversation can be viewed HERE and HEREThey discuss so many important issues that affect black birders including the fact that some white people think that talking about racism is too political and we should be quiet. They discuss why that thinking is so full of white privilege and dangerous.

I hope you tune into and take part in some or all of these events and most of all I hope you promote inclusion and diversity in your local organizations, committees and clubs, because EVERYONE no matter what race or creed, is entitled to the gifts of birds and nature and to enjoy them in safety and peace and full freedom.

It's time for us all to be outraged and to finally do something about it.

A change is gonna come, I just know it and that hope keeps me going.





Update on June 5th --the best statements issued to date with real commitments to combat SYSTEMIC RACISM came out from Birds Canada and The ABA. You can read the excellent statements HERE and HERE. Was so nice to hear a Canadian voice so loudly on this as well!

On June 10th --Team eBird issued a statement of support for Black Birders. Also thank you to the Sierra Club of BC for sending out a statement on June 3rd.**

On June 16th --black birder Corina Newsome and the Audubon Society brought out an article about how this issue is not political one but a civil rights issue. In the article she talks about how birding organizations (I've experienced this myself here in BC) keep saying it is a political issue which is a declaration of white privilege. It is also a denial of the systemic racism issue which is prevalent in our hobby. You can read the full article HERE.

Comments

  1. Incredibly well written Melissa. It infuriates me to see so much racism present in society and it needs to stop NOW.

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    1. thank you so much emma for your very kind words it means a lot to me. Young people like you give me so much hope! you were always an inspiration in the young birder program and continue to be! :D

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  2. Such a powerful article you wrote. Thanks for putting this out there, we need to keep talking about this for change to happen.

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    1. thank you so much I poured my heart out so nice to have people appreciate it. we have to keep talking openly about this issue if we want change.

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  3. Sharing this widely! Thank you for writing this, Melissa!

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    1. thank you so much bryony and for being such a good supporter of this issue.

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  4. Thank you for publicly sharing your experience, Mel. It’s really important that we all listen. I would ask those of you who would prefer that people stay quiet because you feel uncomfortable, or who would prefer to downplay racism because it’s worse elsewhere, to put a moment’s empathy for those who would also like to share our great hobby, but for whom its joy is tempered by fear of harassment. What can we do better to make sure that people of colour have a positive, safe and welcoming experience in our community?

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  5. This is such an important post - thank you for sharing your insights, experiences, and knowledge. Birding should be safe for everyone (and yet it sadly isn’t). White birders, myself included, need to condemn racism wherever it rears its ugly head. Birding associations need to do more to proactively support birders who are people of colour, especially youth, to amplify their voices, and make space for them to thrive. Sharing!

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    1. thank you so much Lindz for taking the time to post this and reading my blog. thank you so much for saying that out loud that you will condemn and all birders need to condemn any racism or hatred they hear out in the field we need to stop brushing it under the rug. thank you for supporting birding for all no matter what colour. :)

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  6. Fantastic post, Mel!! Thanks so much for taking the time to write this to keep us informed about how to help promote diversity and inclusion in birding! I'm planning to take part in some of these events!! =D

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    1. thank you so much Jim and for being such a great friend to me and ally in this issue. it really means a lot.

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  7. Thank you, Mel, for sharing your outrage, stories and ideas.
    I just wanted to say I hear you, believe you and am in awe of your restraint. I am pissed off, too.
    You are the most generous birding enthusiast that I know of in Cascadia -- teaching youth, blogging, appreciating photos -- all so awesome -- thanks for all you do. You are a key inspiration to me.
    I am thinking hard right now about what I can do to be part of the solution. I may decide that overturning Trump is the single most important next step broadly and go to work on that, not sure.
    I hope you have a lot of fun with Black Birders Week and that it brings a lot of people together!!!
    Allison

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    1. thank you i am so touched by your words it brought some tears to my eyes. i am honoured you think so highly of me. i agree using your vote to get rid of trump is the best thing americans do for their country and to help decrease so much of the encitement of racism. There was racism before trump and racism will sadly be there after but he incites so much hatred and allows people to feel that they wont face any retribution if they speak their hatred openly.

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  8. So well said! What you and so many others have experienced is absolutely terrible. I'm hopeful that our birding community will come together for positive change. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this important issue.

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    1. thank you so much liron for your empathetic words. I am hopeful like you that we can work hard to bring about change. And it is you the youth that have inspired me every day that will be the ones who bring about this change.

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  9. Shou Ye GauthierMay 30, 2020 at 7:34 PM

    Thank you for writing this amazing post and speaking up for all POC birders. Birding should not be a perilous activity, ever. No Black person or person of colour should be subject to unjust treatment just based on race. A change is gonna come. A good change. I feel it.

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    1. thank you so much shou for your very kind words and sharing this also on your instragram. i agree birding should not be a perilous activity ever it is sad that it is for so many people of colour. i'm glad you feel a change will come it is great to be hopeful.

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  10. Beautiful blog post Mel! Thank you for sharing your story and the stories of POC's in the birding community. This is an issue that's been brushed under the rug for too long.

    Will be sharing this on my social media, and might include some things about this in a blog that I'm writing right now. I look forward to seeing your documentary! Thank you for always being an inspiration.

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    1. thank you so much I'm very touched by your words and for reading this blog. Thank you also for sharing it on social media. hope you will like the documentary that will feature the diverse young birders whom i feel will be the ones who will bring the most positive change

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    2. Hi Mel
      Thank you for sharing your heart and speaking forthrightly about this topic.
      I just wanted to add my voice to say it is not enough for Canadians to shake our heads at what is happening in the States & elsewhere
      This type of "Insulated Thinking" , will often keep us from seeing where change must happen in our own country, our own town or city, .. and yes...in our own hearts.

      I also want to say thank you for who you are.

      Warm Regards,
      Jody

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    3. Thank you so much jody this brought tears to my eyes . You really are a kind person glad to know you and thank you for caring about this important issue.

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  11. Your continuing fight will continue to make a real difference and counteract the current surge in intolerance and bigotry taking shameful advantage of these troubled times. We are very proud of you.

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    1. Thank you so much Mike. Your words are very touching and I'm moved. It truly means so much.

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  12. Melissa,

    This was a really great post to read and I am really thankful that you shared your experience and your feelings in this really difficult time of reckoning for our society, and birding communities, in the US, Canada, and beyond. The experiences you share enrage and sadden me and also do not surprise me. They do redouble my belief that we *all* need to think hard about how we can help make birding and the outdoors a safer place and make sure to actively fight against those people, institutions, and long-held systems that reinforce the injustice of the status quo. and while the christian cooper incident was horrendous, I think birding will be better off for being forced to discuss, understand, and confront where racism exists in birding. I love how #BlackBirdersWeek amplified those voices and I am really pleased to see this post from you as well.

    personally, I can say I have really respected and valued how you have spoken out for justice for as long as we have been in touch. you have pushed me and those around me to be better and to stand on the right side of fairness. meeting you in person in vancouver in 2018 was really meaningful and memorable for me, and I do hope we cross paths again in the future.

    please keep speaking out and sharing and please know that a lot of us, myself included, are continuing to come to terms with our privilege and how to use it to foster much-needed changes. posts like yours help with that. I have enormous respect for you and really do feel lucky to know you.

    best,
    marshall iliff

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    1. Thank you so much Marshall I'm truly touched by your words. It was great birding with you 2 years ago and hope to do it again soon. I hope as you say some good comes out of these terrible tragic events.

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