CormoRANT: 5-27-2016: The Unbearable Whiteness of Birding

In the United States, one aspect about birding that has stood out to me is how “white” it is. There have been a number of papers and articles about this, with varying degrees of acceptance or scorn, and I don’t aim to have a solution here (this is a RANT after all), but consider the following two pieces on the subject. One is a USDA Forest Service Technical Report from 2005 and the other is a 2014 article from National Geographic. I heartily recommend reading both pieces.

Not what I meant.

In the Forest Service report, author John Robinson sent out questionnaires to  birders and African Americans to gauge how each group perceived birding and the diversity of its participants. In his conclusion, Robinson brings up an interesting point. He says that one way to respond to the dearth of African Americans (and indeed, other minorities) is by saying, “What’s the point?” That is, every individual is free to choose to bird or not. I like to call this the “Libertarian Argument.” Minorities are not birding, says this line of thinking, because they freely choose not to. Surely if someone wanted to bird badly enough, the resources exist to do so.

The Libertarian Argument, of course, fails to address any systemic barriers to certain populations, or of larger cultural attitudes. Robinson says that on reason for a lack of interest in birding among African Americans is part of larger tendency for that group to be less involved in other nature-related activities. The reasons for this are multiple. One reason is that many core African American populations tending to be more urban and historically having less access to green spaces. Another reason is what Robinson describes as a “Don’t Loop”. He says of birders, “many of these individuals most likely got started in birding as a result of having been introduced to it by someone else.” If someone never gets a chance to meet or interact with a birder, then they cannot pass the activity on to others, thus perpetuating the cycle.

In the eleven or so years since the paper was published, there has been little change in African Americans’ participation in birding.

Robinson’s paper is focused on self-identifying African American birders, though he does mention the overall concern with the lack of other minority groups. It doesn’t take much looking around in most field trip buses to extrapolate these trends to other demographics.

The 2014 National Geographic article, by Martha Hamilton, delves a little more into why diversity in birding (indeed, in any activity) is desirable, and how some organizations are tackling the issue.

This includes outreach programs that send birders (and other environmentalists) to schools and organizations, particularly dealing with kids, to get them interested and excited. But some organizations are realizing the need to attract adults, too. It’s very hard to convince someone that any aspect of the environment needs attention or “saving” if they aren’t somehow invested in it themselves. Teaching adults to connect the dots and see how their actions are related to their environment is key. Birds are a visible and accessible way to do that.

The author also brings to light the potentially hidden attitudes certain groups or clubs have toward “other” groups, without necessarily thinking much of it. It will take an explicit and dedicated outreach effort to pull diverse people into these groups, which will have to first identify and then challenge their own inherent biases. My own birding experience, for example, has been seriously lacking in diversity. I’ve had to decide how important that is to me.

What do you think? Is there a racial bias in birding? If so, is it something we should worry about? How would you address the problem, if you see one?


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