In the summer of 1997, I lived in Seattle. I worked at a temp job while preparing to start my master’s degree in the fall. I was walking to a bus stop after a day at the office, when I stepped into a pothole on the street and heard my ankle crack.
Feeling lightheaded and fearing I would black out, I limped in search of a payphone, and found that when I looked to passersby for help, no one stopped. I reached a corner and saw a young white man and woman with two kids. With tears in my eyes, I asked for their help. But like everyone else, they backed away and left me alone.
As an African American woman who enjoys spending time outside, I have encountered this reaction – an absence of any desire, willingness or responsibility to engage – in both crowded cities and in nature.
For black people, navigating both city streets and hiking trails can be charged; at worst, they are fraught terrains where we are at the mercy of someone else’s interpretation of our presence. Too often, by default, black people are perceived as threats to white people’s physical safety. And as a consequence, it is our physical safety that is compromised, as the stories of Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher who filmed a white woman in Central Park lying to the cops about how he was threatening her (when all he did was ask her to leash her dog), and George Floyd, the man who died with a police officer’s knee on his neck, illustrate.
I have backpacked around the world and lived in Nepal and Kenya, and I’ve seen how my presence can be challenged or questioned. Earlier that year, when I lived in Seattle, I went hiking on Mt Baker with two white friends. It was a typically cloudy and cool day, and we stopped at the park lodge to warm up. At some point, my friends wandered off while I stood there with my colorful shawl wrapped around me.
I began to feel uneasy; I noticed an elderly, white woman staring at me. Suddenly, she jumped (as did I). She then said: “My dear, I thought you were a beautiful, Indian statue.” I was shocked, as I didn’t know whether to feel complimented (you’re beautiful) or insulted (I wasn’t even real). Not to mention her complete misidentification of my racial and ethnic origins.
My experiences backpacking through mountain trails and wildlife have forever changed the way I see and engage nature. I have channeled that passion into my work: I completed a PhD in geography, taught classes about the environment in our institutions of higher learning, written about the black experience of the outdoors, served on the national parks advisory board for eight years and work with environmental non-profits and government agencies on diversity and environmental issues. I am invested in finding ways to improve the quality of our relationship with the environment and our relationship to each other. But regardless of my age and experience, I still feel unsafe walking outside in the country of my birth.
I wish I could feign surprise at what happened to Christian Cooper when he encountered Amy Cooper in Central Park. I wish I could imagine it to be a blip in the United States’s history; an accident, an outlier, not at all reflective of the truth of how black people are all too often treated. But I can’t.
When Amy Cooper threatened to tell the police that “an African American man is threatening her life”, she revealed what it’s like to know, deep down in your bones that she would be protected, valued and saved by virtue of her skin color. By calling the police, she exemplified what James Baldwin meant when he said that whiteness is about power.
Our outrage as black people is justified. Let me say that again. Our outrage as black people is justified. As the CNN commentator Don Lemon said recently: “The knee has always been on our neck.” But your outrage, white America, is not enough. What many of us want is fundamental, consequential and absolute change.
The response to Amy Cooper by a justifiably angry public – the demands for her to lose her job, her dog and perhaps some “membership” in her community – is frustrating because it leaves me wanting. None of those measures would change the way Christian Cooper or any African American is perceived in any outdoor space, or any space for that matter.
The revelations about Christian Cooper having gone to Harvard and how he sits on the board of the New York City Audubon Society (which I’m thrilled to learn) should not matter as much as they seem to. This information helps us understand the passion and commitment he brings to birding. They do not confer his worth. At the end of day, it’s about everyone being protected, valued and if need be, saved, regardless of their station in life.
What happened between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper was, in many ways, simply an echo of what’s always been true in the US about our ability, as black people, to walk in the woods or on a city street. We are all Christian Cooper and George Floyd.
What can be done? We should recognize that systemic racism exists on both the streets of our cities and inside our national parks. We have to see full representation at every level in the environmental sector, and we need power structures to shift so that black and brown people are shaping policies and our national conversations. We need predominantly white environmental organizations and academic institutions to be more concerned with how the climate crisis disproportionately impacts black and brown people and give more resources to these communities. We need to change the prison industrial complex and law enforcement, which both undoubtedly shape how black people move through space.
This is not about political correctness. These changes must be the product of something learned, understood, believed in and practiced by our institutions, our leaders and our communities.
I believe that this country – which was founded on slavery and stolen land – can make a different choice, the same way Amy Cooper could have made a different choice. And I can aspire to live in a place where I will not be seen as an anomaly or something to fear or challenge, but instead, am embraced as a reflection of our common humanity that doesn’t deny our differences, but celebrates our possibilities.