What started as me posting a link on my private Facebook page about how much I hate the Transportation Security Administration, quickly turned into a very revealing conversation about race and could be a very large and underlying issue of why we don’t see more people of color in birding or enjoying nature in general.

The original link was about TSA officer Nelson Santiago who was caught stealing an iPad out of someone’s luggage and stuffing it in his pants.  Turns out that his theft on the job could total upwards of $50,000 over the past six months alone! My anger at the TSA is that I think the grope is a violation of my civil rights, low wage employees get to legally do to me something that any other stranger could be arrested for and I see it as bad theater meant to make me feel safe.  I don’t feel safer, I feel violated in a vain effort to placate the public. But the first comment by a person I will call Starling, took it in a totally different direction:

“And look at who we employ at the TSA. With a name like Santiago, I wouldn’t be surprised if his mom lives in Mexico…Sorry, but the TSA is one of my least favorite government organizations. I’ve had stuff stolen before.  They don’t do anything without me watching them.”

If this is Chestnut-headed Oropendola is from Panama, should I worry that it’s going to steal my camera after I digiscoped its picture?

I was taken aback.  The TSA is my least favorite government organization, but what is that crack about the mother of the accused all about?  I stated that I didn’t think nationality had anything to do with it, people can be jerks/thieves regardless of their nationality.  A few other friends left similar comments, some played good cop, some played bad cop, but the bottom line is that we felt that was a racist statement to make about the story.  But Starling didn’t stop.

“Merely emphasizing the fact that the majority of the people caught doing this kind of stuff tend to be mexican,” Starling said. “I don’t doubt that there are some great mexican people. I know some :)”

Because using a smiley face emoticon makes you less of a racist.  Not!  I grew up in Indiana and a phrase that I remember hearing was, “I’m not a racist, but have you ever noticed that…” and whatever followed the “but” was the most horrifically racist thing you could imagine. If you have to couch something with an emoticon or “I’m not, but…” that’s trying to give yourself a permission slip to be a jerk.

Starling continued, “Also, think about it. How many TSA people have you met who aren’t black or mexican? Not too many I bet.  Ever wonder what ethnicities have the highest crime rates? you guessed it. btw, I promote equality in all ways, but I don’t bend over backwards protecting any either.”

Wow.  I travel more than the average bear and I can say that unless I’m in Central America…TSA agents are a mixed bag of race. I would say that most of my interactions have been with white people in the US.  I know Starling has done some travel, but not a lot and wouldn’t have a good basis of comparison of all TSA workers.

This Red-legged Honeycreeper was hatched in Central America…is he waiting for you to turn your back so it can steal your electronics?

Starling is an excellent birder, a young person, someone that I’ve admired as an up and comer and hopeful for the future of birding. But that statement alarmed me. If Starling was brave/foolish enough to reveal that thought process, they can’t be the only person I know who feels that way–they just don’t advertise it on a Facebook wall. It’s been my experience that for every 1 person I know who thinks a certain way, at least 12 others in my circle agree. I wondered, how many other birders out there feel this way, perhaps even on an unconscious level?  Are we putting out distrust on the trail without even realizing it?  If Starling has been to Central and South America to watch birds, what kind of vibe has been put out by this person when they interact with the guides and hosts down there. Is a distrustful hairy eyeball always on the guides even while Starling racks up the lifers?

I thought about my friends of color on Facebook who dabble in birding. Were they reading Starling’s comments and thinking, “Yeah, I don’t need to go birding and have white people assume that about me, I’ll play D&D instead.  Crazy white people!”

The Starling comments continued with the same pattern and no one standing up for them, but simply pointing out how racist they were. Starling felt that we were trying to force them to “bend over backwards promoting minorities” and that was ridiculous because “they get so many freebies.”

To which my friend TJ said, “Yeah, dude. Being a white guy in America is super hard. If only I was a minority, I’m sure that law enforcement would treat me way better.”

One of the biggest and more recent face palm incidents with law enforcement and the outdoors happened in Colorado in 2009 when a large marijuana farm was found growing in Pike National Forest. In a press release, Michael Skinner, a law enforcement officer with the US Forest Service said warning signs of drug trafficking in the parks included, “tortilla packaging, Spam and Tecate beer cans.” He also added that campers who play Spanish music and people speaking Spanish were a sign.  If you saw any of this, you were to leave the park immediately and call local law enforcement.

If you were of Hispanic decent, would you want to go birding in Colorado if those were warnings being posted on signs and aired in the media?

So, I think this conversation is a wake up call to all of us and our attitudes. Is this a vibe we are putting out there in little conversations and chats either in public or online? This can’t stand if we want more people of color to join us.  If you hear it, call it out like it is: racism.

For the record, I’ve only ever had one theft from airport security and that was my Go Girl when I was in Kazakhstan…and their staff was neither black nor Mexican.

Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, Birdchick.com, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.