You may have missed it in the crush of news about protests across the country and the globe last week, but it was also #BlackBirdersWeek, in which black birders and naturalists took to social media to share the photographs of their hobby.
The story of black bird-watcher Christian Cooper, who encountered some overt racism in Central Park as he was out communing with nature, became a kind of preamble to the last two weeks of unrest in America. No one was killed or injured by police in the incident, thankfully, but the implication of the unfortunately familiar tale was clear: As a white woman, Amy Cooper believed she could harness her societal privilege to call the cops on a black man who was speaking to her out of turn, and telling her to leash her unleashed dog.
The act of doing this, along with any entitled display by white women in public, is now a meme-embraced idiom: #Karening.
Way back in 2005, artist, musician, and avid bird photographer Walter Kitundu was living in San Francisco and working in the artist-in-residency program at the Exploratorium. He had a longtime passion of watching birds, and he took a shine to a red-tailed hawk whom he named Patch. He followed the hawk around Pacific Heights, observing him in the typically Caucasian environs of Alta Vista Park, and then had to contend, on multiple occasions, with white people questioning his right to be there — sitting still, with a camera and binoculars, watching the bird.
The incidents prompted him to put up posters — a bit sarcastic in tone but he says they were actual public service announcements, not mock-PSAs as they've been called — informing the Pac Heights neighborhood of his harmless presence. "The police were called on me so many times, I made this sign."
"Do not call the police unless you see him being accosted by another party," the sign reads. "Save your fear for something that counts."
A Redtail landed right next to me, 4 ft away, unafraid, and ate a caterpillar. I was hooked. Documented it’s transition to adulthood. Watched it avoid hazards while avoiding my own. The police were called on me so many times I made this sign. #BlackBirdersWeek #BirdingWhileBlack pic.twitter.com/xYe7UyjlOU— Kitundu (@birdturntable) June 3, 2020
As black birders became a topic of national conversation, the Washington Post interviewed Kitundu — now a resident of Chicago — about his experience in San Francisco and how it colored his view of the Central Park incident from two weeks ago. He was vocal on Twitter about how inspired he felt by Black Birders Week, and how it "greatly expanded [a] sense of community" among black birders, who are usually pretty solitary when they do their nature walks.
Kitundu tells the Post,
I think as a black person, as a person of color in this country, every time you walk out the door, there’s always calculus running in the background about how to present, how to keep yourself safe. It’s a muscle that’s well exercised by people of color in this country. I can’t really think of anything more wholesome than standing under a tree and watching a hummingbird build her nest, but I think if our activities fall outside of the framework of possibility that’s established for us by the white imagination, then we’re at risk.
I didn't have dog. I didn't have a partner. I didn't have a stroller. I didn't really fit into the generalized idea of who the park was for. And I was black in an affluent neighborhood. And I was being still for long periods of time. I feel like the white people in the park who called the police were owners of limited imaginations that were stunted by racism.
Young Cooper’s Hawk on the hunt. bolinas, CA pic.twitter.com/xE0xx0ydt4— Kitundu (@birdturntable) June 7, 2020
Kitundu goes on to say that Black Birders Week helps to shine a light on those nerdy communities of black people who don't fit into many white people's stereotypes — and how that oftentimes quiet attitude of alien-ness has likely deprived the world of many talented specialist in fields they didn't feel welcome in.
"We won’t know the knowledge and perspectives that could have shaped the future of those institutions and the people who might now be in positions of leadership if not for the legacy and tenacity of racism in this country," he says.
And for the institutions, academic and otherwise, that ostensibly want more diversity but fail to achieve it, he says, "It’s about addressing the nature of those organizations, not bringing people into a space that is still riddled with the same issues and toxicity. You have to change the space. Because otherwise you're inviting people to contend with all of those issues."
Follow him on Instagram here for many lovely shots of birds.