When I first started getting involved in activism, I recognized almost immediately the lack of diversity present within many sectors, one being the environmental community. I have been working in environmental justice for around three years. The rhetoric many white environmentalists use to push their agenda is not only racist but ableist as well. I run my own environmental group, and I have noticed the overwhelming majority that joined me in activities such as beach clean-ups are predominantly white. I was disappointed that my values were not reflected in my organization. We need to be able to hold space for those that feel like their voices have been suppressed by the community and help amplify it as allies.
Black and Indigenous people have been subject to poor living conditions since the 1800s, and while times may have changed, many of their situations have not. These communities who have been hit the hardest when encountering environmental issues such as climate catastrophes and are constantly left out of the conversation. Women are, of course, hit the hardest. According to the NRDC, women tend to experience more poverty than men worldwide, and when natural disasters hit, this makes it even worse for them.
During Hurricane Katrina, 83% of mothers were unable to return home, while a majority of the city had recovered; many black communities in low-income areas were hit hardest by the storm and have yet to recover fully. Some of the jobs that immediately open after a climate disaster are labor-intensive such as construction, which are typically male-dominated, therefore, not allowing women to bounce back as quickly when recovering from these natural disasters.
What the white environmental community fails to realize is how they have suppressed the voices of marginalized groups, leaving their opinions and policies THE only solutions to the climate crisis. While we can talk about how important it is to cut back on CO2 emissions at home by going zero waste or changing our diets, what they fail to realize is many of these options are not economically beneficial to marginalized groups. Instead of finding a way to make these more accessible for these communities I have heard a lot of “If you only eat certain foods you can easily go vegan/vegetarian on a budget.” or “Well this is the only option, so should we not advocate for anything instead of advocating for something that could be helpful to the planet?”
The answer to this is to not see these options as the end-all, but find ways to make these options more affordable and accessible for these communities. Furthermore, the community also fails to notice how climate change affects black communities on a global scale. In Africa, up to 90% of Lake Chad has disappeared. Within these Indigenous groups, women have to walk farther for water as the dry seasons become longer. They are putting their health at risk by having to work harder to find water. What they need to do is to educate themselves on racial issues on not only a national scale but global as well. They must realize that climate change is racist and sexist, making it easier for them to understand how these movements can go hand in hand.
Another issue that has been suppressed by white environmentalism is how the Native American community is significantly harmed by climate change as well. They face groundwater contamination, illegal dumping, air pollution, habitat destruction, and mining waste. This seems to have dated back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. White environmentalists care about two things, pollution and population, sure they care about preserving land, but only uninhabited land. During Earth Day in 1970, Native Americans disrupted this gathering to challenge white environmental leaders, because they left them out of policymaking related to Indigenous tribes.
How can a white environmentalist know what is best for Indigenous people, when they themselves are not? This has been an issue for quite some time as well. They think the Indigenous and black communities are so concerned for their rights that the environment is hardly something that concerns them. The issue with this is, if these communities are most affected by climate changed, how could they not feel this is their concern? Climate change is a Black Lives Matter issue, and it is an Indigenous Rights issue. This must be understood by white environmentalists in order to make their activism intersectional and not just one-sided.
According to Dorceta Taylor, a professor at the University of Michigan, “White people may tend to live in much safer spaces, they focus on “animals, trees, and plants,” while this is important, so is the well being of those who inhabit it. They do not have experience being barred from parks or beaches. It’s a different frame. We want the same thing: safe places to live, work and play, clean spaces, and sustainable, long-lasting communities.”
What white environmentalists need to realize is that environmentalism, minority rights, and climate issues go hand in hand. Climate change is both racist and sexist. Therefore, without tackling these issues first, we will never be able to fully fight for climate justice.