It was one in the morning and I was typing my zip code into the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. Little icons popped up and I learned that the closest hate group was in Lynchburg, about 90 miles away from Blacksburg.
Was I surprised about the closeness of a (registered) hate group to my new home? Not really. I’m in wildlife, and more often than not, the universities that offer concentrations in wildlife science/conservation are in rural areas. It seemed natural that rural areas would have a higher concentration of white people that didn’t like minorities. Wasn’t that how it went?
A few weeks later, a new acquaintance suggested I go with them to check out the surrounding area. We’d hit the nearby cities. Like Lynchburg. I declined their offer.
“Make sure you don’t go out into the forest alone with any of those white boys.”
“Dad, that’s kind of what my field is.”
What is it like being an African-American in wildlife?
It’s being the only black freshman in your major. It’s waiting for two years until you are no longer the only one. Now you’re one of two.
It’s working in rural areas and not seeing any other black person for weeks. Funnily enough, it’s having your heart begin to race after mistaking a sign for an Episcopal church as something belonging to the KKK. Not so funnily, it’s being stared at by people when you’re eating in tiny diners with your crew, people who you smile at without reciprocation. It’s glimpsing this on lawns while driving down lonely roads.
It’s being seen as someone on whom to rest the responsibility of mentorship for any other minorities in your field, even if you’re already stretched thin. It’s being seen as the person who of course has the answer to how to get more minorities into the field. Or how to keep them in the field. Because they’re slipping through the system like grains of sand through a net, and you just happen to be one of the grains that didn’t.
It’s winning awards or fellowships, or being recruited for positions, and thinking in the back of your mind that they are just trying to fill a diversity quota. Woman? Check. Black? Check. If I was gay, I’d be hitting the Diversity Trifecta.
Speaking of which…it’s being a pomegranate in a land full of peach-lovers. Black women are already supposed to have a tough time in the dating game and being in a rural, mostly white town doesn’t help the situation. Good luck if you’re one of those black women who isn’t open to interracial relationships. But even if you’re down with the swirl, save your breath, because no one’s checking for you anyway.
It’s feeling out of place, uncomfortable, nervous, even a little afraid, among general ‘wildlife’ culture. Because you’re an African-American with an Irish last name, and you’ve learned in graphic detail exactly how you got it. Because stories reaching up from very recent history, from the darkness of Missouri and Mississippi, grip you, warn you, pummel into your mind certain rules, certain people to be careful around.
Good ol’ boys. They wear camo jackets and boots. They use dip and drive pickup trucks. They have Confederate flags on their bumpers, on their hats, wall-sized replicas in their houses. They go huntin’ and fishin’.
Don’t go out into the forest alone with any of those white boys.
You grew up with this stereotype in the back of your mind, people who hated, maimed, killed people who looked like you…and suddenly you seem to be surrounded by it. Except that now they’re your peers, or students that you teach, or the local people that you work with. Because you’re in wildlife, and if you’re working in wildlife in the United States, you’ll be dealing with people who hunt. And fish. And maybe use dip, or have Confederate flags on the bumpers of their pickup trucks, and wear camo.
It’s realizing that you are unfairly, inexcusably assuming things about people.
It’s being disgusted at yourself for your preconceived notions of others.
But it’s also being too afraid of what could happen to stop assuming.
It’s going to a wildlife conference and only feeling comfortable chatting with your friends because of that cultural barrier. It’s being friendless at a minority STEM conference, because everyone else is in a medical field.
It’s being too black in an all-white environment. It’s being too white in an all-black environment.
It’s expecting to be excluded…which might or might not be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s reading, over and over and over again, about people who look like you being hurt or killed. It’s feeling as if you’re in the middle of a war, suffering from invisible wounds that are shared through an omnipresent black consciousness, and looking around aghast to see your peers going about their day as usual. It’s knowing that even if you could dredge up the energy to explain what’s going on inside you, you’re not sure you could come up with the words to make them understand.
Ultimately, it’s figuring out just how close the nearest hate group is from your new home and accepting any distance with a shrug and a sigh.
Because you’re in wildlife, and that’s just how it goes.