Chris Clarke has declared today, December 1, 2005, to be “Blog Against Racism” Day. I found myself at a loss as to what role this humble blog could play in such a consciousness-raising campaign. Then I considered a few names, the luminaries of American birding:
John James Audubon
Roger Tory Peterson
David Allen Sibley
Then I looked into a few more, the heads of prominent American birding organizations and magazines:
John Flicker, President, National Audubon Society
Carol M. Browner, Chair, National Audubon Society
John W. Fitzpatrick, Director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
All of the principals and most of the support team in the IBWO search
Russell Greenberg, Director, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Bill Thompson, III, Editor, Bird Watcher’s Digest
Amy K. Hooper, Editor, WildBird magazine
Ted Floyd, Editor, Birding magazine
Chuck Hagner, Editor, Birder’s World magazine
What do all of these distinguished individuals have in common, apart from a passion for avifauna and life lists that put mine to shame? If you won’t say it, I will.
They are all white.
All of the most well-known and influential birders in the United States, at least the ones I’ve seen pictures of, are white. Every single bird watcher I’ve ever met in the United States has been white. So have, to my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of contributors to I and the Bird, a group of over 65 bloggers from all across the U.S. and the world. Why is it that a group that collectively downplays race to focus on species is itself restricted to a certain subspecies, even in a country as racially diverse as the United States?
I am most emphatically NOT saying that the birding organizations or individual birders are racist. The birders I’ve met are invariably kind, generous, and inclusive, eager to share their interest with anyone who will listen. Prejudice is antithetical to this culture where the observers are secondary to what is observed.
This phenomenon doesn’t seem to be a cultural distinction either. I was raised in an urban environment among family completely indifferent to wildlife. I found my way to birding and expect that others have fallen in to it independently as well. Cost of entry can hardly be an issue either, as the only investment one needs to get started is a decent set of binoculars and a field guide.
What I’m saying here is that race must somehow play a role, however subtle, in American birding. The homogeneity of the population is too pronounced to be coincidental, isn’t it? My personal interest in spreading enthusiasm for birding extends to absolutely everyone. But this task may be even tougher than it seemed if societal forces are at work to render birding inaccessible to large segments of our population. I don’t have the answers, but I am hoping that others might. Racism is a form of exclusion. If anyone anywhere feels excluded for any reason from as innocent and thoroughly enjoyable an activity as birding, we on the inside have a responsibility to those who feel left out.