My son has discovered a love of birds.
It happened after I gave him a thrifted copy of a bird book. It wasn’t long before he was identifying every bird he could see, ingesting fact after fact, planning how he would transform our backyard when we got home to attract and sustain a habitat for his beloved creatures.
I love this, and encourage it. I’ve always thought that men who love birds are the kindest men. And I want my son to become a kind man.
Christian Cooper was birding in Central Park when a white woman used her power to threaten him.
Something about that detail — Christian Cooper was a birder — has mattered a lot to me. I’ve become curious about why it matters to me so much.
I’ve tried to be honest about why it matters. I think it may be because the actions of that white woman offend me more because he was birding than they might have if he had been drumming or playing basketball or asking for spare change. Because he was harassed and threatened while birding — an activity that I so deeply approve of as kind, as safe — maybe that means he had reached a different threshold of worthiness. Perhaps it made him more real, more human to me.
Maybe the birding mattered to me because it surprised me to be reminded of the peaceful, trustworthy men I know. Men who are white. Men who are safe. It surprised me to be reminded of my best hopes for my son. Maybe I need to admit that it surprised me to associate those things with a black man. And admit that this detail helped make me willing to feel hurt for what happened to him.
I haven’t figured it out yet, it’s something I’ve been wondering, been turning around inside of myself.
It’s been hard for me to know the best way to respond to the headlines of black violence and black death — to Ahmaud Arbury, to Brionna Taylor, to George Floyd, not to mention the disproportionate rates of black deaths due to COVID-19. The instincts I’ve relied on in previous moments — to organize, to rally — feel impossible, or irresponsible, during a pandemic. I still feel the same desperate energy and outrage, but I can’t find my usual targets. I’ve been forced to self-interrogate, maybe just to have somewhere to go with all the angst.
I’ve wanted to publicly prove online, for example, that “I’m not one of those white women.” I’ve wanted to share the memes and use the hashtags. But I haven’t done it.
Because I am one of those white women. It is so easy for me to tell you the logic that led Amy Cooper to speak those words, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” It is easy for me to imagine her thinking, because I swim in the same waters of entitlement that she does. These waters make someone else’s legitimate need look like a threat to my safety (or comfort, another distinction that entitlement helps me blur so easily, so often).
It feels desperate and terrible to be living in this moment — to watch the loss of black lives on our computer screens, again and again and again. To be stuck in our homes, afraid and powerless.
Would it serve you, too, dear white reader, to turn some of that energy inward? To spend a moment lingering in curiosity about why you want to know what Arbury was doing in the partially built home? Would your sadness over Breonna Taylor’s death change if there were drugs in her apartment? What makes you need to know more about the forgery charges against George Floyd? Do these things make those victims feel less like you, and maybe then less human? And does that make you feel less afraid? Less lied to? Less complicit?
I feel powerless during COVID-19. But perhaps that powerlessness can be useful to me. Perhaps I can choose not to waste it, but instead to let it shed light on the racism that has taken root in me.
My son got a birdhouse today. He’s been busy researching the best place to put it. He’s so curious. He’s changed his mind a few times already about where it should go, about what birds it might attract. He is so open-hearted. He wants the birds to feel safe, so all the birds will come to the yard. He is so kind.
May we be curious. May we be open-hearted. May we be kind. Let us be those things for ourselves, turning with kindness and courage to what lies within us that we might rather not see. And so when it is time to come out of our homes, and face our broken, hurting world, we can engage it better — with more honesty, more humility, more courage. This, I believe, is true kindness.