Whose apocalypse do you care about?
I was originally supposed to write this blog post about why we need the climate movement to get huge, and discuss Harvard researcher Erica Chenoweth’s discoveries about how relatively small proportions of the population are needed to overthrow tyrannical governments. This is all still true and important; I highly suggest you watch her TED talk here.*
However, today I have something even more pressing to discuss. I want to talk about why all climate activists should become anti-racist activists. If you are a white activist and recent events have stirred you to start down the path of anti-racist practice, welcome, this post is for you.
For those of you who are people of color: Our hearts are breaking for you. If you have a story about what’s going on you’d like to share, we’d love to amplify your voice. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work with you on this.
I’d like to first acknowledge that I benefit from white privilege and it’s important to put my words here in that context. That isn’t to say I haven’t experienced challenges, and I have other parts of myself that are not fully liberated in this country (notably, I’m a woman, queer and neurodivergent). Many of my family members have experienced poverty for generations and still continue to experience it today. But yet even with all of that being true, I still very much benefit from a history of white supremacy. And *all* of the challenges I face are made easier for having white skin. This is a foundational principle of intersectionality (a term coined by a black woman): no struggle is faced in a vacuum That is why we will never truly win on a single issue that is “good for everyone” without specifically addressing how racism undermines our movements. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout history, from black suffragists excluded from the women’s movement, to 53% of white women voting for Trump in 2016.
Anti-racist practice is the constant examination of the way that race interplays with every aspect of life, and at every stage demanding differently. Scholar Ibram Kendi compares racism to the cancer he lives with; unexamined, it metastasizes through the whole body. The treatment is to remove tumors (racist policies) and medicate the entire system (commit to anti-racist education).
How do we move forward from here?
So if you are white, how do you go about educating yourself and others about race?
Step one: Always trust black and brown people’s authority on this subject first.
Seriously, don’t just take my word for it. No matter how woke you get, or how much you are connected to black people in your personal life, if you are white you will not understand what it is to personally be subject to racism and wake up black every day (this poem by Candace Williams helped me to understand this emotionally). Black and brown people have been doing this work intergenerationally. Another analogy here – doing anti-racist work is like doing calculus in a burning building, where people of color are the experts and white people have not started learning basic addition. If you’re just coming into this understanding, there is a lot of learning and listening to do. This means frequently passing up the microphone, and committing deeply to self-work.
Now, important caveat here: You should absolutely read resources authored by people of color and listen when they are speaking, but do your best not to come with too many questions to individual people of color. A constant state of rehashing basic principles and convincing people of your humanity is exhausting. Research shows that this is the number one reason for burn out among anti-racist acitivists of color (more tips for avoiding this contained in the link).
This is one of many reasons step two is very important: White people need to talk to other white people about anti-racism.
To Kendi’s point, these ideas need to permeate the whole system. If you are a white person, you have access to white spaces and ears that black and brown people do not. Be that person and bring up this issue everywhere you go, from the policy table to the dinner table. As you progress on your journey, you will also learn how to speak to other white people at different levels of understanding (back to that calculus analogy – this is like forming a study group). You have the opportunity to leverage your relationships and position strategically. While big visible protests can be really important, we would not need them if we committed to doing this work full time. This is -really- hard. I’m certainly not an expert, but groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) work on this effort constantly.
Whiteness in the climate movement
Now with all of that given, let’s talk for a moment about whiteness in the climate movement specifically. First, let’s establish that if you truly care about the principle of a stable climate, you should absolutely care about racial justice. Think of all the grief and post apocalyptic imagery that we understand so well in the climate movement. Do those images involve terror, conflict, lack of access to safe water and food? We have seen constantly in the news that many people in this country are already living that reality for being black. Native activists have also written about already living in a post-apocalyptic world. So the apocalypse is already here, it just might not have touched you yet. And climate change will absolutely make all of these problems worse for people already facing extreme living conditions.
Meanwhile, the environmental movement has centered white voices and priorities for decades and is overwhelmingly white. A 2014 study conducted by environmental expert Dorceta Taylor examined the composition of environmental groups and found what we can see anecdotally; through and through white faces dominate at events and on staff. This research also examined some of the reason that might be the case, including a lack of funding dedicated to this cause and a lack of transparency about the state of diversity in our movement (here at CCAN we are working on understanding the composition of our own base; you can take a survey here). Not understanding this has significantly cost progress, and as we move into a “majority minority” composition in this country, we will suffer for it if we don’t quickly adapt. Even more disturbing is the fact that white supremacist groups have begun co-opting environmentalist messaging. Allowing this to sit unexamined will become a truly deadly cancer indeed. We need to make sure that at every turn we are denouncing racist practices, in our spheres of influence and especially in ourselves. This is why it is so important to listen to POC community leaders and incorporate their policy demands into our climate policy.
We always have the opportunity to do differently. We can each decide to change our own mindset and start learning that calculus with urgency. In addition to the many resources I have linked throughout this post, I have also linked below a compilation of resources I have found helpful. The best time to start is now; the building truly is on fire. I would be happy to study with you.
- A list of resources compiled by SURJ that includes books, podcasts, online articles and resources for children
- Resource for policy makers: Associated Black Charities Ten Essential Questions for Policy Makers
**(also, please note that while Chenoweth’s research shows that non-violent movements are ultimately easier to carry out and are often more effective in the long run, she does not condemn rioting when there are no other options left. Many black scholars, including Martin Luther King, have written about why rioting occurs and should be understood in context)