I am white. Petite with light skin and glasses, I am the ideal image of what Americans perceive as peaceful and nonthreatening. I venture outdoors without inhibitions of how I will be perceived and how the consequences of racial bias could land me in handcuffs. When I spend time outdoors – whether it’s on a walk in my neighborhood or in a secluded park, I am read by others as a young, friendly, tree-hugger – completely blameless in an outdoor space. That is a privilege that only me and other white people have. When I go out in nature, my presence and experience in that space is one of quiet enjoyment and friendly, non-confrontational interaction with others around me. In this skin and as a conservation professional, when I talk to park goers about ways they can be better land stewards, they listen.
Not everyone lives in this space. For Black nature-lovers, outdoor spaces have different risks, based on how other park-goers could perceive them or their experience. No matter how “normal” a Black outdoors man or woman acts, there is always a possibility that someone is questioning if they really belong there or suspicious of what they’re doing there. Black people in the outdoors are seen through the biased lens of the Black narrative: up to no good, a threat. This bias isn’t harmless, it has deadly consequences.
On Memorial Day, a black New York City resident and birder, Christian Cooper, was visiting his local Central Park. As a longtime birder in the City and board member of the New York City Audubon Society, he was enjoying time outdoors when he witnessed a woman with her dog off-leash. As any land steward would do, he attempted to educate the woman and requested that she leash her dog, as per Central Park rules. (There is great debate in the conservation community about pets’ place in nature, but we won’t get into that here.) What should have been a friendly, inconsequential conversation, turned into outrage. The dog-owner felt threatened by Mr. Cooper and called the police. Rather than open a polite debate on why dogs should be leashed to protect wildlife – which would have happened if this interaction had been with someone who looks like me instead of Mr. Cooper – she called the police as her first resort. Historically and institutionally, as seen in incidents that happen every day across the U.S., police bring their own sometimes-violent bias and response to the Black outdoor experience. Her racist behavior could have ended Mr. Cooper’s life.
“I am one of the few male African-Americans who birds the Ramble regularly,” Mr. Cooper said to New York Times. “And I have always been aware that if I am crawling around behind a shrub trying to catch a glimpse of that rare bird, holding a metal object in my hands, I will be perceived differently than a white man if police come across that scene.”
Everyone has internal, racial biases. The more we recognize and break down the societal, anti-black narratives, the better Americans and land stewards we can be. White people’s perceptions of Black people’s roles in the outdoors harms their experiences. Christian Cooper is well-educated and well-known and well-respected as a birder, but all that mattered in that moment in this shared outdoor experience was that he is Black. Even with his educational privilege and pedigree, he was seen as a threat. Mr. Cooper’s sister wrote this on Twitter: “As my brother’s story trends, I want to say that it doesn’t matter what education or job you have, every Black man is vulnerable.“
According to a National Park Service survey conducted in 2009, 16 percent of African Americans said they hadn’t visited a national park because they thought the parks were unsafe. “Why is this number so high?” asks Latria Graham in her Outside article, We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us. “I believe it’s partly because of the Park Service’s history of discrimination. Shenandoah National Park was guilty of this shameful practice as late as the 1940s, hanging wooden signs at certain spots that identified Picnic Grounds for Negroes. Signs on some bathrooms said they were for white women only.”
America’s racist history is not behind us. It is ingrained in our institutions and in the Black and Brown narratives white people still hold within us. Racism makes the outdoors a dangerous place for people of color.
J. Drew Lanham says it best in his article, Birding While Black.
“Over the years I’ve listed hundreds of species in hundreds of places, from coast to coast and abroad, too. But as a black man in America I’ve grown up with a profile. Society at large has certain boxes I’m supposed to fit into, and most of the labels on those boxes aren’t good. Birders have a profile as well, a much more positively perceived one. Being a birder in the United States means that you’re probably a middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated white man. While most of the labels apply to me, I am a black man and therefore a birding anomaly. In my lifetime I’ve encountered fewer than ten black birders. We’re true rarities in our own right.”
In his article, Lanham describes his experiences: taking bird surveys in rural, Confederate flag-laden mountains, being followed while researching with a white, female colleague, witnessing racist vandalism of a Forest Service entrance sign because of his very presence there.
“The wild things and places belong to all of us… As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew—that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks; that the land renews and sustains us—maybe things will begin to change.“
Getting outdoors is core to the Florida experience. Our wild places and local parks beckon us to come closer and witness nature first-hand. Ensuring that public lands are safe for all visitors is crucial, and that begins with individuals.
Beyond breaking down stereotypes, white nature-lovers can help make spaces safer for Black visitors by being anti-racist. Corina Newsome, a birder and biologists (and one of my favorite Twitter accounts, @Hood_naturalist), responded to Mr. Cooper’s incident with a message to all outdoors men and women: “You need to hold the people around you accountable to eliminating racist ideologies and racists systems in the places you live and work…(racism) relies on you doing nothing about it to continue on.”
I walk my favorite trails under the safety of white privilege. My experience in the outdoors – blameless, innocent, friendly – is not shared by all my friends, family, and fellow Conservation Voters. But I can use my privilege to make outdoor spaces safer for people of color. Silence is violence, and by holding individuals and officials accountable for racist behavior and policies, we proclaim that the outdoors are for everyone to visit and enjoy.