Lion cubs swimming, and…

12 May

I came across this video of lion cubs taking their “swim reliability” test at the Smithsonian National Zoo (the cubs need to be able to swim before they are placed in the regular lion exhibit, which has a moat): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V29kEMwZeuE.

It’s worth watching just for what it is: a video of lion cubs taking a swim for the first time. And I noticed something else in the video. Go ahead and watch now, if you’d like. See what you notice.

What did I notice? It was actually what–or rather, who–wasn’t in the video. Namely, white men. About halfway through, it occurred to me that all of the handlers appeared to be either white women or men of color. And that surprised me, when I thought about it.

Why so surprised? (And, you might ask: why would I even notice that? Well, for the same reason that I noticed the animals being tossed into the water were lion cubs, as opposed to penguin chicks. I noticed because without even trying I identify what I see, in order to connect with and make sense of the world around me.)

As a passive viewer of Animal Planet (my partner loves that channel, so by default I’m a secondhand viewer of its many programs), I’ve seen a lot of shows about nature, the wilderness, and animals both wild and domesticated, the overwhelming majority of which are narrated by white men (more than a few of whom are from the UK or Australia). Thus, on an unconscious level, I’ve been forging an implicit association (https://www.projectimplicit.net/index.html) between white men and expertise regarding nature/wilderness/animals. What this means is that while I wouldn’t say that I believe only white men can be experts in these fields, I have been developing a bias that they’re more likely to be. This preference is subtly reinforced by the format of the programs, which rely on an “expert” to guide us through science-in-action (survival of the fittest, live! for the next half hour!) Because who embodies expertise in science more than a white man (http://www.faculty.harvard.edu/about-office/news/bias-white-men, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/science/bias-persists-against-women-of-science-a-study-says.html?_r=0)?

This is all to say that I am really excited about this lion cub video circulating beyond the usual fans of the Smithsonian Zoo crowd. Because while entertaining and educating us about lions and the zoo itself, it’s also defying some biases and stereotypes about who is and can be a scientist, animal lover, expert, employee of the Smithsonian and veterinary doctor/tech. All that, perhaps without our even noticing.

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