Like much of the country, when not worrying about the global pandemic currently afoot, I’ve been absorbed with the racist incidents in Minneapolis and Central Park.
I’ve thought extensively about the Central Park incident, in which an enraged white lady threatened Christian Cooper, a black man who was out birding, with a false police report. She made this threat because Mr. Cooper asked her to leash her unrestrained dog, in accordance with the posted rules. The video is easily available via Google.
The danger to Mr. Cooper in the Central Park encounter is made evident by events that occurred in Minneapolis around the same time, when police casually and intentionally crushed the neck of George Floyd, a black man they had in custody and under control, killing him. Police encounters are dangerous for black people, particularly black men — although the recent police-killing of Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor, during a mistaken no-knock search warrant, cannot and must not be forgotten.
Viewing the video compels a conclusion that the Central Park woman knew the danger of a police report, and did not hesitate to weaponize it against the black man who was out that day trying to view the park’s avian residents, and who asked her to behave in accordance with the rules that made that activity possible.
As many of you know, I also enjoy being in nature and communing with wildlife. And really, it goes far past enjoyment, as you might apprehend by reading an entire blog I’ve named “The Trailhead.” My connection with and participation in the natural world is fundamental to my identity and my life. It’s as simple as that.
It is unacceptable to me that others are unable to engage the natural world on the same terms because of race. The Central Park incident reveals that there is nowhere that a black man is free of the burdens placed upon him by our country’s racial pathologies. He can be in the middle of an open space and still, on a chance encounter with a white woman brimming with racism and entitlement, be placed in danger and reminded that he can’t even go fucking birding, thank you very much, without bumping into the ever-present walls of America’s racial failures. And only by chance does it not end in tragedy.
I have been heartened that many birding and nature organizations I follow have made strong statements affirming their dedication to the rights of non-white people to access and enjoy nature without impediment. Tonight the topic was addressed in a Facebook group I belong to that’s dedicated to Indiana nature. To be honest, I was worried when I began to read the thread; every time someone brings up a politicized issue about nature, there is a chorus of voices pleading that they “don’t want to talk about politics here.” They are here, they say, so they can enjoy nature without the unpleasantness of politics. Six months or so ago, fully one-third of the group left when the administrators declined to quash talk about the effects of climate change on the natural world.
I confess that this sort of thing drives me round the bend, because I cannot understand how people don’t get that nature is inherently political, and the desire to enjoy it without pressing oneself to consider the threats to its existence is not a love of nature, but a mere consumption of it. But on I read, hopeful. And for twenty or so comments, it was a lovely discussion about how the community can make it safer for non-white folks to enjoy the natural world. And then there it was — only one comment, but a point-maker all the same.
This gentleman was offended, he said, by the term white privilege, because it diminished his accomplishments and his hard work. And anyway, he said, he comes to this group to escape “discussions like these.”
One woman who had obviously had enough just told him to fuck off, while others tried to remonstrate with him, and the admins, to their credit, held the line. This issue is appropriate for this forum, they ruled. If you don’t like it, move along. He elected to mute his notifications.
Meanwhile, all I could think is that this man had claimed for himself — without a trace of irony or self-awareness — a space to enjoy nature without the bother of having to consider the impact of race. It was apparently not evident to this man, for whom the term “white privilege” is so wounding, that he had just demanded it. It never occurred to him that he felt entitled to the unfettered space to engage with nature that Christian Cooper was not afforded.
Don’t burden my enjoyment of nature with discussions about people whose enjoyment of nature is burdened by race.
Breathe, I think to myself. This response was one out of twenty positive responses — but that’s still too many.
As I wrote this, I decided to venture back to the thread and make a constructive response to him. But when I reached the thread again I saw that he, like the climate deniers who just wanted to enjoy nature and not talk about the threats to it, had left the group.
And so his demand for the privilege of enjoying the pleasures of nature unburdened with thoughts of others who can’t was, in the end, denied. I’m glad it was; it ought to have been. This is the sort of thing we must keep doing. White folks, when we speak up and refuse to close off discussions that discomfit our privileged fellows, can deny them the benefits they don’t care are refused others, at least in a small way. We can and must do more. But making spaces less safe for the exercise of that sort of racial privilege is a necessary start.