This week, black scientists and recreational birders flocked to Twitter for #BlackBirdersWeek. “Nature is my favorite place to be, & I’ve been fortunate enough [to] use my PhD to travel & be #BlackInNature across the world,” tweeted a graduate student.
The first-of-its-kind event was organized in response to an incident that transpired in New York’s Central Park last week. Christian Cooper—a black man who works as a writer and editor and is an avid birdwatcher—encountered a white woman who was walking her dog while he was birding. When he asked her to leash her dog, she called the police, telling them that an African American man was threatening her. A video of the encounter went viral—unleashing a torrent of discussion about racism and the dangers black people face when they are simply enjoying, or working in, outdoor spaces.
For black scientists in field disciplines such as ecology and geology, Cooper’s experience was a familiar one. Many are sent to remote places to conduct fieldwork—and that can land them in uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, situations, says Corina Newsome, a master’s student at Georgia Southern University who studies seaside sparrows in coastal marshes. “I’m in these remote, expansive natural areas, and in the South no less, and so my family is … always scared for my safety.”
She and others organized #BlackBirdersWeek to highlight the stories of black people in the outdoors. Many of the posts have featured scientists who study the natural world, serving as inspiration for the next generation of outdoor researchers. “I’m excited to go to grad school but also nervous,” a soon-to-be grad student wrote on Twitter earlier today. “The lack of diversity in STEM has led me to question my capabilities and my place in biology. #BlackBirdersWeek has truly reinvigorated and reassured me that I’m not alone. I can do this, & I BELONG HERE.”
Science Careers spoke with Newsome to ask her about #BlackBirdersWeek, and to find out about the challenges that she’s experienced as a black scientist who works outdoors. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did you all come up with the idea for #BlackBirdersWeek?
A: The idea came from a group that I’m a part of, which includes probably 100 black people who enjoy the outdoors—either as scientists or outdoor enthusiasts. When the incident happened with Christian in Central Park, one of the members who's actually an economist—she's in mathematics—messaged to say that we need to do something to celebrate black birding. It took off from there; it came together in literally 48 hours. We designed events to highlight the experience of black people, the existence of black people, the work of black people, and to open dialogue.
We were motivated to do that because the incident in Central Park was something that all of us, at some point and in some shape or form, have experienced. But it's never been recognized on such a level. We thought that this was a perfect opportunity, now that everyone's looking at it, to make everyone aware that this was not an isolated incident. That this is very much a fruit from a tree of white supremacy that has been blossoming for a long time.
Q: Were you surprised how much traction it got on social media?
A: Definitely, yeah. We expected it to be a conversation within the birding community. But we definitely did not anticipate the amount of overwhelming support—not just from individuals, but also from entire organizations and even government agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was vocally supporting us and sharing our social media posts, and things like that were uplifting for us.
When we started using these hashtags, like #BlackInNature or #BlackBirdersWeek, it brought people from literally around the world, who are black, into the conversation. Immediately we were all able to see each other. Had this not happened, I would never have been able to know that there are that many people doing what I love to do who are black.
Q: What kind of response have you received from fellow academics?
A: The academics in my circle, and the ones that I’ve encountered, have had awesome responses and very much confronted this head on. Historically, I would say that people have been shy about this issue, or they have not taken the risk to address it. But I think now they’ve kind of been forced to and they have, so I do appreciate that.
We have received some negative comments from angry white men who are recreational explorers and outdoor people telling us that we shouldn’t bring race into this, that there’s no racism in birding. But I haven’t received any comments like that from my academic colleagues.
Q: Part of the motivation behind #BlackBirdersWeek was to give more visibility to black scientists, to show everyone—including young people—that there are black scientists working in outdoor environments. Was there a moment that inspired you to want to be a scientist? When did you know you wanted to study birds?
A: The science thing came from my grandma. She had a subscription to National Geographic. She would go through like a stack of them, and once she finished she would ship them to us. My favorite pastime was paging through National Geographic. That’s all I did. To this day, I'm obsessed with National Geographic.
The image that I remember most was a centerfold of the Maasai Mara wildebeest running, with dust billowing up from all the movement during their massive migration. There was another picture on the front page showing a person. I don't remember who she was, but she had paint on her face and beautiful hair and jewelry. I loved that because National Geographic talked about people, too—the social life of human beings. So it was incredible to see that intersection play out. I remember in that moment just being completely enraptured by wildlife and that field of study.
I lived in Philadelphia, so I didn't see wildlife at all—maybe a squirrel every now and then. Very few birds. So I was not really familiar with native species but, from all my reading, I knew a lot about exotic species. I went on to intern at the Philadelphia Zoo and work with exotic wildlife.
Then, as part of my undergraduate degree in zoo and wildlife biology, I took a lot of field classes about native wildlife—mammalogy, herpetology, ornithology. And I was very much dreading ornithology, because I imagined birds to be the least interesting group of animals that the United States had to offer. But my professor was really strangely excited about birds. He seemed like he was on Red Bull whenever he was talking about them. Then on the first day of the lab portion of the class, he introduced us to the 10 most common birds in our area, and one of the birds that popped up was the blue jay. And I thought, “That’s a blue jay?” Because I had heard of blue jays, but I had clearly never seen one. And, of course, the next time I went outside blue jays were everywhere. So from that moment on, I realized that there is so much out there that I simply hadn't seen because I didn’t know it was there. I just didn't go out to look for them. And so that was my springboard moment.
Q: You mentioned that everyone in your group has experienced some form of what Christian Cooper experienced in Central Park. What challenges have you faced as a field biologist?
A: I’ve been extremely fortunate to never have had any sort of racist experience directed at me. But I know people who have been rolled up on by the police when they’ve been out doing bird research. And racism is something that I’m aware of and that I think about on a daily basis.
I do my fieldwork in the marshes, where I’m fully visible. It is right adjacent to the roadway and biking and walking paths, and people can see I’m a black person, I’m a black woman. Several times, people have seen me out there and driven off the road, right up next to the marsh in their trucks. And I’m thinking, “What do you want? What is this about to be?” But thankfully nothing has happened.
I know that there is a culture of racism here. Where my field site is, in Brunswick, Georgia, there is a plantation museum. And not one that is trying to condemn the racist history of plantations. No, it's celebrating and kind of reveling in the good old days of when plantations were thriving in Georgia. It gives horrifically inaccurate depictions of slavery. There are Confederate flags everywhere and “All Lives Matter” signs. It's a socially unsettling place to be. My adviser warned me about all this before I got here. She told me what she's seen and what she's heard so that I didn't come into this blindsided—and I appreciate that.
What made it even more horrible recently is that Ahmaud Arbery was killed down the street from my field site. I pass that neighborhood every time I go to the field. Before, I was always thinking, “Oh, that's a pleasant little neighborhood,” because of all the Spanish moss and live oaks. It's a really pretty area, as far as wildlife is concerned. And then that happened. And now every time I drive down there, it's a very disorienting feeling because I think about how my people are dying at the hands of white supremacy. And I'm out here studying birds, and I feel guilty for even engaging in something as disconnected as studying nest predation in seaside sparrows. I have this feeling that this is not what a black person should be doing right now—that I need to be on the frontlines of social justice.
On top of that, it's hard because I'm finally doing the thing that I wanted to do since I was a child. I'm studying wildlife—and this is not to be any sort of “woe is me” comment at all; I am just trying to illustrate what it felt like when Ahmaud Arbery was killed. I went back to that field site after it hit the news and I was sitting in my car and I was literally physically nauseated. I was sitting outside the marsh weeping and sobbing, feeling like I can't even enjoy this—this thing that I've worked so hard to do.
Granted, me being sad at my field site is nothing compared to having been killed by white supremacy. So I'm not trying to say I compare my experience and my sadness to the experience of people who have literally been confronted with racism. But it does make me feel a little hesitant to even encourage black people to do this. Sometimes—and I've never really actually said that out loud, I don't think—but it's like, I want black people to follow their passions in the outdoors. It’s nice to be in nature; it’s a joy to study nature. But I don't want anyone to have to drive past the place where a black man just got shot to go study wildlife.
Q: That also underscores why it’s important to talk about your identity as a black woman and your identity as a scientist all in the same sentence. You can't decouple those two things.
A: Yeah. And that’s what makes it even more hurtful when you hear comments from people literally going out of their way to tell you that you’re wrong. They’re saying that race disappears when you go birding and when you’re outdoors and that we’re the people in the wrong for talking about race as it relates to outdoor science or exploration. I can’t even wrap my mind around how one can even come to that vision.
I want to have grace and I want to be a good communicator and someone who advances the efforts of diversity. But that hurts, you know, it really hurts. And so I’ve actually been avoiding the comments section for the past day. It sucks because there’s so much more positivity, but those negative comments sit much stronger.
Q: A lot of people right now are asking what they can do to help tackle anti-black racism and racial disparities. What’s your advice for them, particularly for the scientists out there? Do you have recommendations for how academia can better support and recruit black scientists?
A: I think accountability is really the name of the game. This hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard of white professors who make an offhand rude, racist, or racially charged comment—either consciously, or because they’re not aware of its implication—and no one holds them accountable. I think that it is very important that individuals—individual faculty, individual scientists—hold their white colleagues accountable. Even if it is a senior colleague and you are a junior faculty. Even if you are the quote unquote subordinate in the room, and there might be a hierarchical pressure to not address that kind of behavior. I think that it is everyone’s responsibility to address it, and to condemn it explicitly. Because if you don’t, and that accountability is lacking, that culture will continue to exist.
I also think that it’s important for faculty members to advocate to their administration to invest strongly into strengthening diversity and equity initiatives. Diversity is important in academia because when you encounter challenges and have problems to solve, it is much more likely that you will have the answer in your midst if you have diverse voices, points of view, and life experiences at the table. It’s the same reason why you don’t want a whole population of cheetahs to be genetically the same—because if one stressor comes along that one of them is susceptible to, they’re all susceptible and they’ll get wiped out. We have good models for why diversity is necessary in the natural world. I encourage academic departments to apply that same perspective to diversity in the workplace as well.