What White Birders Can Learn From Amy Cooper About Their Own Racism

Outrage isn't enough. Robin DiAngelo, the author of ‘White Fragility,’ explains why the birding community must examine itself.

Like much of the nation, the birding community is going through a racism reckoning. It started over Memorial Day weekend when Amy Cooper, a white woman, was filmed calling the police to report Christian Cooper, a Black birder and NYC Audubon board member, after he asked her to follow Central Park rules and keep her dog leashed in the Ramble, a protected woodland that provides habitat for 230 bird species. She exploded in indignant anger and warned him: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” (He did not threaten her.) Then, in an increasingly hysterical tone, she told the 9-1-1 dispatcher just that. In short, Amy Cooper lied about Christian’s behavior to justify summoning the police and invoked racist ideas to ensure swift retribution.

The now infamous incident occurred less than three weeks after two white men were finally arrested for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man fatally shot in February while jogging near Glynn County, Georgia, and four days after the FBI opened an investigation into the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed in March when white officers barged into her home (none have been charged). It also occurred on the same day, May 25, as Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, sparking international antiracist protests that continue a month later. Together, the stories of Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and Cooper make undeniable connections between anti-Black racism and unaccountable police brutality.

The Amy Cooper video shined a bright light on the kind of everyday racist behavior that white people aren’t typically privy to. Her response—the panic, fear, anger, and escalation on a hair trigger—is a perfect example of white fragility, the term of art from the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, a cisgender white woman, has lots to say about Amy Cooper (read on for the full interview). But she doesn’t want that episode to distract from the grave problem it represents: the deeply held and often denied anti-Black racism that all Americans, and especially white Americans, have been socialized into since birth.

“We like to focus on the Amy Coopers because then we can say, ‘I would never do that.’ The Amy Coopers allow us to reinforce this identity of ourselves as not racist,” DiAngelo says. “We white people are never completely antiracist. A white person’s behavior can be racist in the morning and antiracist in the afternoon.”

The environmental and birding communities are certainly not exempt from anti-Black racism. As birders made clear during Black Birders Week, an organized response to the Cooper incident, in most birding clubs, environmental organizations, and ornithology departments there is often a sharp boundary between white and Black peoples’ experience. In addition to sharing their joy in birds, in June, Black birders took to social media and live online events to describe encounters with police and overt racism while birding, and also being treated as oddities by well-meaning white people they encounter.

Taken together their stories convey a sense of alienation from many birding communities because of their skin color. That fits neatly with DiAngelo’s theory that white culture, above all else, perpetuates a sense of belonging and dominance among whites at the exclusion of other races. This white culture touches everything, and as she points out, it’s incumbent on white people to dismantle it in all areas of life including in bird clubs, organizations, and workplaces. Below is our conversation. As a cisgender white woman, I am learning and my hope is Audubon’s readers will, too.

Hannah Waters: I want to start by hearing a little bit about you. What has your path been to becoming a white interpreter of racism for other white people?

Robin DiAngelo: In some ways, nothing prepared me. I had just graduated from college when I saw a job announcement for a diversity trainer. I thought I was qualified for that because I’m open-minded. (laughs) I applied and got the job.

That was the most profound learning experience of my life. For the first time, I was working side by side with Black people who were challenging the way that I saw the world. I had gotten that far in life—I was 34 at that time—and I had never had my racial worldview challenged in any sustained way and certainly not by Black people. It’s part of being white. Most white people avoid talking about race at all costs. I had a job that required me every day to talk about race. It was an extraordinary experience. I recognized that, and when my contract ended I went on to get my PhD. So I am someone who went from practice to theory, not theory to practice. I began to teach and write and speak about race relations with a focus on the white end of that relationship. That led to an academic article published in 2011 that went viral. It resonated so deeply for so many people worldwide that I knew I needed to develop it into a book, and that was White Fragility in 2018. I put language to something that certainly people of color understand and have been dealing with for centuries. But I helped make it recognizable also to white people. Even white people manifesting white fragility recognize what I’m talking about.

In other ways, there were a couple of key aspects to my life that did prepare me. I grew up in poverty, and I’m also a cisgender woman. Because I swim against the current in those aspects of life—in other words, I experienced class oppression and gender oppression, classism and sexism—I could draw from those experiences. That’s not to say it’s the same as racism, or it’s just as bad, or I can’t have privilege because I grew up poor or because I’m a woman. But it’s helpful to draw connections and parallels.

HW: What is white fragility? Why the word ‘fragility’? Why is that the term of art?

RD: Because of how little it takes to cause white people to erupt in outrage. Simply generalizing about white people will cause white people to erupt in umbrage. We think we are each unique individuals free from the burden of race; race is something that happens somewhere else. Our sensibilities are mighty delicate, and that causes Black people to have to walk on eggshells lest we lash out. It causes them to twist themselves in knots trying to decide whether they should try to talk to us about what they’re experiencing or feeling, and if they decide they are going to take the risk, how to talk to us in the most diplomatic, delicate way so as to not get punished.

The impact is not remotely fragile. It marshals behind it the weight of historical and current institutional power. It functions as a kind of everyday white racial policing to keep Black people in their place and to maintain ours. I see this as the sociology of dominance. And we couldn’t have come up with a more classic example than Amy Cooper.

HW: Thank you for bringing Amy Cooper up. Do go on.

RD: Amy Cooper, who upon being requested to follow the rules, erupted in a meltdown that was absurd in its intensity. But she absolutely expected the weight of the institutions to be behind her. She may have had an initial response to Christian Cooper being Black—that’s implicit bias. But when she says, “I am going to call the police and tell them an African-American man is threatening me,” she knows what she’s doing. She’s not describing a person on the telephone to the police. She’s letting Christian Cooper know that she’s going to get him in trouble, and how she’s going to get him in trouble. That’s explicit. I’m not going to grant innocence to that. It’s the weaponization of her feelings. And the weaponization is—I’m going to call the police who could kill you.

HW: One thing I found remarkable about Amy’s behavior is that everyone seemed to recognize that it was racist. I saw very little attempted defense of her. What do you make of that?

RD: We like to focus on the Amy Coopers because then we can say, “I would never do that.”  The Amy Coopers allow us to reinforce this identity of ourselves as not racist. But I have to ask, how do you know you wouldn’t respond that way? That didn’t happen to Mr. Cooper every day in the park. There was a compounding of factors. One was his presence in her space and then, two, he pointed out that she had broken the rules, which is an indignity for her. So, we don’t really know that we wouldn’t respond the way she did.

What I want people who don’t identify with Amy Cooper to do is ask themselves: If I’m willing to acknowledge that racism is societal—that it’s infused across the society and that it’s not a question of either I am racist or am I not—then how is my socialization into a racist society manifesting in different situations? We’re all on a continuum. In that moment, Amy Cooper was closer to the racist end of that continuum. If we think of the ends as “racist” and “antiracist,” we’re all on it, and we’re on different parts in different moments. Where are you in a given moment? What role have you played?

Do you see what I’m trying to get at? It’s not an either/or. Don’t use her to put yourself on the antiracist side because we white people are never completely antiracist. A white person’s behavior can be racist in the morning and antiracist in the afternoon.

HW: To dig a little deeper, Amy’s police call has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so since it directly connects individual white fragility to structural police brutality. But if we can put aside the 9-1-1 call for a second, where is her initial emotional response coming from? You described it as part of implicit bias.

RD: We need to understand how deeply race is encoded in geography. In my workshops, I ask people about the early messaging around race that we absorb just by geography. For example, I could name every neighborhood in my city, and I could tell you its perceived quality and equity in the housing, and I could also tell you its racial makeup. I could also tell you the relationship between those things. Everyone can do that. Even if you are white and you grew up in a small farming community and the nearest house was 40 miles away.

Sometimes white people will say, “I grew up in a rural environment, there were no Black people, I didn’t know anything about race.” To which I ask: Then at what age were you aware that Black people existed? Did you watch Disney movies? Did you go to the grocery store and see Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup? I think it’s reasonable to say by five years old. So, where were the Black people? They had to be somewhere but they’re not here, so where are they? What is it like where they are? How did you know? Where did you get your information? Were you encouraged to visit places where Black people were and get to know them and build relationships? Or were you discouraged or even warned against doing that? How was all of that conveyed without anyone ever having to come out and say it?

Now, they likely did come out and say it. But there are many ways they didn’t say it and you still observed it. Race is deeply encoded in geography. That’s one of the ways we make sense of the world. Those messages are much deeper than what I could tell you now as an adult about redlining in the 1960s. I might have a structural analysis today, but the deeper messages from my childhood are actually driving my responses. Amy Cooper sitting calmly in one of my workshops might have been able to understand housing policies. But in that moment, what erupted was the deeper stuff, the early stuff.

HW: What you’re talking about here is socialization.

RD: Apparently a lot of white people don’t understand socialization and actually think that we are exempt from this and say things like, “I was taught to treat everyone the same.” To which I reply: No, you were not taught to treat everyone the same and you do not treat everyone the same. You could be told to do that. You could be told that everyone’s equal even as you live in segregation from Black people. There’s a difference between what we say and the actual practice of our lives. Children are absorbing more deeply the practice of our lives, not the words that we say.

HW: If race is geographically encoded, then are you saying that Amy Cooper experienced Christian Cooper’s presence as a violation of her space or her territory?

RD: Any space deemed valuable for white people is also expected to be white space. When are the police called? To report: What are you doing in my space, in my neighborhood? Because you don’t belong here. I don’t expect to see you here, and I’m immediately going to assume danger and criminality because that’s what I absorbed from the culture since I was a child. You’re in a dorm room at a college—you don’t belong here. You’re in a Starbucks—that’s a middle-class, white institution. You’re at an AirBnB in my neighborhood? You’re jogging? You’re in Central Park? You don’t belong in my space.

What happened to George Floyd has been happening to the George Floyds of the world for decades and centuries. But we didn’t care if it kept George Floyd over there in his space and policed the boundaries between his space and my space. People will say, “I’ve got good equity over here, so whatever needs to happen over there—out of sight, out of mind. Besides, I don’t even believe that happens because I don’t see it.” But then: “Oh, you can prove it happens now, with cell phone video? I am pretty uncomfortable. But I need you to prove it to a degree that I’m so uncomfortable that I can’t sit back anymore.”

This is the question I’ve been asking: Why this moment? What did it take for you to ask what to do about racism as a white person? Why weren’t you asking that when Trayvon Martin was killed? Why weren’t you asking that when Black Lives Matter emerged? Why weren’t you asking that when Colin Kaepernick respectfully went down on one knee to protest police violence? What did it take? And I mean that sincerely. Do some deep reflection on what it took.

HW: It’s hard for a lot of white people to accept the idea that we are racist by not actively being anti-racist. Why is that so difficult to grasp?

RD: When white people say, “I am not racist,” they say that even as they most likely live a completely white life, a segregated life. So how can you even know? How can you feel that confident and make that claim when you don’t even know or interact with Black people? You live in a white neighborhood, you go to a white school, you work in a white workplace—and yet you are confident that you’re not racist and that’s never challenged. And when it is, all too often look what happens.

Mainstream society teaches us that racism consists of individual acts of conscious and intentional meanness. Therefore, most of us don’t see ourselves as racist. Most of us would never engage in conscious and intentional mean acts that hurt other people. But if you look around, you will see something is going on all over society that challenges that definition. If you want to be equipped to engage with any kind of nuance or skill, you’re going to have to understand that that is not the operating definition of racism that people who are educated on the topic use. It’s on you to gain an understanding of what is meant by “systemic racism.” I highly recommend you start with Dr. Eddie Moore’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge.

HW: I want to walk through some Facebook comments that represent common fragile responses specific to the birding community. These comments were written in response to Audubon articles about Black Birders Week and the National Audubon Society’s press statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ll read you one and you can respond or not.

“What I don't get is why a Black Birders Week? There isn't a white, brown, yellow, green, blue, or pink birders’ week? This kind of week is what separates people. The only color is what the birds are.”

RD:  It is deeply insulting to take an issue as profound as racism and trivialize it by using colors that human beings don’t come in. Racism is real and it destroys people’s lives and you can look around and see that. We are past a point of nonsensical trivialization with this pink, purple, polka dot comparison.

We’re not talking about the color of the bird. Race is a human construct, but it is profound in its meaning and its impact for people’s life outcomes. Based on our race we can literally predict whether we and our mothers are going to survive our births. People have different experiences based on race just like they have different experiences based on gender. If I was the only woman in an all-male workplace and one day I spoke up and said, “I need to talk about what my experience is here as a woman and how often there are assumptions made about what roles I should take.” And I went to a male colleague and shared my frustrations with him, and he said: “I don’t see you as a woman.” Would that just be unfathomable and ridiculous? You’d better see me as a woman and you know that you do. I am having a different experience that you need to pay attention to.

HW: “I have to ask, is there a White Birders Week? Or is that considered racist.”

RD: Because white is the default for human in American society, we don’t need to name white. And in not naming white, we continually grant to white people individuality and objectivity. When people say Black Lives Matter and the response is All Lives Matter—yes, of course all lives should matter. But until all lives do matter, we have to name those that don’t matter.

The idea is that white is the norm so it never has to be named; it’s the expectation. Black Birders Week creates a space to say that not everyone watching birds is white, and there are some experiences that Black birders have that are unique based on the expectation that birdwatchers will be white.

HW: “I don’t understand why anyone would discriminate against a birder just because they aren’t the same color.”

RD: It is on you to seek to understand that. Your lack of understanding is part of what makes it so difficult for Black birders to tell us about their experiences. That needs to be an indicator to you not that there is nothing going on, but that you’re missing some very, very critical information. Do you care to get that information? And if not, why not? Would you be open and receptive for a Black birder to share with you that they are having a different experience than you? Or would you just insist that there is nothing going on? Would you say to their face: “That’s not true, there’s nothing going on, it hasn’t happened to me, I don’t see it, therefore it cannot be happening to you.” If so, we call that gaslighting.

HW: “Stick to birding and not politics.”

RD: Where is the line in which something is political? Where is that boundary? Social life is political. Language is political. I’m wondering how someone sharing the discrimination they experience in a particular community is political. If a woman shares that in her birdwatching group one of the members was sexually harassing her—would you tell her to keep politics out of birdwatching?

What if I told you that there was something happening in your community, in your birding community, that was deeply hurtful and excluding to a certain group of people. Would you want to know that? I and many others are telling you that there is something happening, and that even the responses you’re having when told that are hurtful. Do you want to know? And if you don’t want to know—you are contributing to a climate that is not welcoming to others. And if you’re okay with that, carry on, but let’s be honest about the fact that you don’t care.

Interview edited for clarity.