#SciFri: Lessons from #BlackBirdersWeek
With the success of #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter this week, I thought I’d take some time to reflect the lack of diversity within herpetology (at least from my perspective). First off, for those of you that don’t know and without going into too much detail #BlackBirdersWeek was planned in response to an incident that happened in Central Park, New York. During this incident, an African-American gentleman named Christian Cooper who was out in Central Park when he confronted a woman named Amy Cooper (no relation) about putting her dog on a lead. Somehow this simple request caused Amy Cooper to erupt and phone the police, stating that an African-American man was threatening her life whilst also feigning panic. Thankfully Christian didn’t end up as another statistic but things could have been very different and it’s clear from the video that has been circulated online that this was Amy Cooper’s intentions.
If you want to know more about the backstory, it has been extensively covered in the mainstream media. Professional journalists have done a much better job than I ever could. With this incident in mind, #BlackBirdersWeek has been busy showcasing a number of individuals and their research/conservation work as well as engaging with the online community. I have found this very rewarding, the content has been extremely wholesome which is especially needed in these dark times. It’s also been the perfect opportunity to find new people to follow and to discover exactly what research is taking place. One thing I’ve noticed is that a number of the birders are also herpers, which isn’t surprising as both groups of animals are abundant in the right habitats. In fact I spent a lot of time growing up watching birds, particularly in the winter when amphibians and reptiles were hibernating.
Most of the participants that have been showcasing their work are based in the US, which totally makes sense given the Christian Cooper incident and the recent tragic loss of George Floyd. This got me thinking, how many people of colour do I know working in herpetology here in the UK? As someone who is quite well networked (and also has a slight addiction to conferences), I was expecting to be able to reel off a number of names in quick succession. After wracking my brain for hours, I’ve only got a very short list. I wasn’t only thinking of academics but also amateurs and hobbyists which didn’t help expand the list much. To me this is quite worrying.
Why is the list of names so short? I dug deeper into my memory and worryingly, I realised something. Throughout each of the successive stages of my education, there have been less and less people with non-European backgrounds taking part in the same courses as me. Now I’m not claiming to know every herpetologist in the UK but since starting university in 2012 I have met a fair few. I wonder if other fields in the natural sciences also suffer from this dearth of diversity?
To me, formal education and access to it is the main stumbling block. If there are only a handful of people of colour moving up the ladder each time across all aspects of zoology and conservation then this is only going to lead to further dilution. Around the world through my various networks, I know of a number of amazing herpetologists carrying out work in their home countries. I’m currently working with some of them and I hope that in the future, I’ll be able to work with more. We can all bring different things to the table and contribute to a project as a collective. Without this diversity of backgrounds and ideas, things get one-sided very quickly. Just look at the history books, only the victor chooses the course of history. I feel that this is often overshadowed but I hope one day soon it will change.
In recent times there has been a number of ways that have seen opportunities created for women in herpetology, which again is great to see. However the field is still very male dominated, especially by white men. There is still a long way to go, but we’re on the right tracks. Now being a straight white male myself, I’m very aware of the privilege that comes along with this. However as highlighted this week throughout #BlackBirdersWeek, not everyone is stopped by the police whilst conducting fieldwork or has their motives questioned (even when carrying a clipboard and wearing a high visibility jacket). Hell, I’ve even had officers come and give me a hand for 5-10 minutes or even provide some historic information from when they did a similar thing whilst growing up. Yet if my skin contained slightly more melanin, things could be very different. It’s something I’ve never had to think about and I thank everyone to opening my eyes to my previous ignorance during this week.
Whilst equating my experiences here in the UK to those of others in the US may not be a perfect match, both countries are industrialised and diverse in terms of culture and people. To me, that is one of our strengths – multiculturalism. However more needs to be done to improve the access to higher education and other formal training needed for everyone to take up some form of profession within herpetology (and the natural sciences in general). I would love to see more representation within herpetology within my academic lifetime, now that I’ve established a baseline it will be easy to compare with as time progresses. I think herpetology as a field can learn a lot from #BlackBirdersWeek, I’d like to take the time to thank all of the of the organisers and participants for their hard work.
Finally if you’ve been spurred on, you’re wondering about university and if it’s the right thing to do or you want to know how to become a herpetologist, please do get in touch. I’m always happy to help point people in the right direction to further information that may aid in their decision making as well as discussing the potential options open to you. You can easily do this via Twitter or the Contact page. As a society we need to work to break down barriers, remove prejudice and make sure everyone has an equal opportunity. This is also true for members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities. At the end of the day, we’re all human and diversity matters.
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