April 16, 2014

On Why The Environmental Movement is Failing to "Diversify"

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By Eliza Sherpa & Sarah Arndt (Skidmore College)

In the following editorial, we attempt to apply the study of whiteness to environmental action. We assert first that American society maintains systems of racism and colonization that center and privilege whiteness while oppressing and marginalizing other identities. As a result, the U.S.-based environmental movement is implicated in a racial system. We believe the movement fails to adequately acknowledge or respond to the racialized nature of the politics and processes with which it engages. This failure manifests at multiple levels, including on our own college campus, Skidmore. While the environmental community on campus has attempted to foster an inclusive space and increase diversity, it has failed to do so largely due to misguided approaches. It is necessary for campus environmental activists to identify, examine, and change the ways in which our actions are influenced by racialized and colonizing economic and political systems. This begins with each of us as individuals learning and actively engaging in the constant process of becoming better allies.

We would like to preface that we are speaking based on our own experiences and analyses of racism, whiteness studies, and environmental activism, particularly at Skidmore. We don’t wish to generalize to all environmental activists, but to recognize trends we’ve observed within many environmental communities through our own participation. We recognize that our lens is undoubtedly limited by our own white racial identities and facets of involvement as environmental activists. We do not intend to commend ourselves for doing something “right” nor do we intend to condemn other environmental activists for failures. Instead, we hope to engage in a continued dialogue with the purpose of collectively strengthening the work we are all deeply committed to.

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At Powershift in October, a conference to bring together youth climate activists, a woman stood up in a workshop on race and the environment and asserted that while white environmentalists have been talking about how to diversify “their movement,” that framing is entirely inaccurate. “This isn’t about including people of color in the white American movement, this is about including white people in the global movement that indigenous and communities of color have been fighting for over 500 years.” (pers. comm., paraphrase). Environmentalists looking to “diversify” the movement need a paradigm shift; rather than pursuing their own agenda, environmentalists must seek to listen, learn from, and join the global movement of indigenous and communities of color.

Environmentalism, especially on a small scale, is often criticized as a “white man’s fight” (see for example, Van Jones on why the “green movement” is too white). The goal of diversification is frequently talked about within environmental organizations, and something our own campus environmental community strives for. While commendable, we need to critically analyze the intentions, vision, and methods of diversification to understand why we seem to continuously fail at moving towards this goal.

One aspect of white privilege we often hear discussed is the ability to be treated as an individual in a white dominated society, as opposed to being profiled. While this may seem an obvious point, what this means within an environmental context is that gaining the participation of a few people of color does not mean we’ve successfully diversified our movement, since those voices can certainly not, nor should they be expected to, represent all communities of color. While it may seem an obvious point to make, many of us, perhaps unconsciously, make this assumption each time we wait for a person of color to raise the issue of race, assume that our own understandings of racial marginalization applies to specific people of color, or call our movement inclusive merely because of who’s sitting at the table.

To address these concerns, efforts to create a broader coalition of supporters must be framed not with diversity as the end goal, but equity, because it encompasses active engagement and participation. One organizer stated in reference to marginalized populations, “We inherited this reality, but we can be architects of the future” (pers. comm.). In this sense, it’s not only about gearing solutions towards underrepresented populations or even ensuring that organizing groups are diverse...

It is also about shifting the conversation to focus on lived experiences rather than attempting to apply concepts to specific realities we have not all lived out. While our impending environmental and economic crisis will, and in some ways does, affect everyone, we do not all experience its effects equally or even in similar ways.

Embedded within our social system is the centering and normalization of white experiences, and the assumption that those experiences are universal. While this may not be obviously evident, we accredit and validate people and their ideas based on intellectual credentials but not lived experiences, logical reasoning but not introspective analysis, and collected and articulate dialogue but not passionate assertions. These subtle interactions demonstrate the overemphasis on modes of communication certainly not exclusive to white people, but that are more easily developed through institutions more accessible and more populated by white people. In addition, lived experiences are often far more painful than “objective”analyses, triggering far greater emotional responses. On the issue, an organizer kat explained that “By invalidating our emotions, you alienate us” from the conversation.

We must restructure the American environmental movement so that it values a variety of experiences and analysesincluding those expressed through anger, pain, and other emotional responses.

Below we aim to demonstrate how the “alternative food movement,” as a subset of the environmental movement, offers a lens to understand how the embeddedness of whiteness affects environmental activism. Many advocates of alternative foods share the same goal of diversification as the broader environmental movement. Advocates often refer to the value of getting your hands dirty in the soil, the desire to know where your food comes from, and aninterest in bringing people together through spaces like farmers markets. This framing can lack appeal to the very communities that the movement claims interest in reaching out to because these values are not universal. While not exclusive to white communities, these values often coincide with certain cultural backgrounds and access to resources that not all communities share, and assume that certain populations aren’t already well-versed in these practices.

The attempt to universalize these values makes larger assumptions and generalizations about why alternative food is important, failing to contextualize historical and cultural factors. Historically, the explicitly racist ways in which labor has been organized (particularly the legacy of slavery), and the way in which American land has been colonized and re-distributed, is often neglected. In other words, not everyone thinks it’s so great to go dig up carrots, or sees it as a radical act, versus one born of necessity. The idea that alternative food spaces can fill a “much-needed” niche to foster community isn’t always relevant, or even desired, for people who foster community through other forums.

Not only are the alternative food values culturally-specific, but the strategies for change equally so. Activists and individuals draw from the ideas disseminated by public figures like Michael Pollan who popularized ideas like “vote with your fork” and furthered the idea that those who can afford to buy high-quality food in America should do so despite the fact that not everyone is able to. These goals measure commitment to environmental change through a narrow construction of what constitutes engagement that equates good citizenship with good consumption. Not only are these modes of change exclusionary, but they also don’t frame diversifying in terms of equity, and fail to challenge our inherently unequal capitalist economy.

Many people of color are faced with daily interactions where their racial identity is assumed to be essential to their thoughts, ideas, and means of communication. In contrast, due to a normalized racial identity, white people are rarely in situations where their race is apparent due to the centering of whiteness within much of our social structures and collective spaces, as exemplified in the values and methods of change-making in both the food and larger environmental movement.

While we often assume that unless one harbors racist ideals or acts in a discriminatory fashion one is in the clear, an anti-racist. In reality, embodying anti-racism necessitates an active process of constant engagement. What we aim to argue is that to be anti-racist, one cannot just recognize the way a minority identity affects one’s lived experience, but how a white racial identity affects one’s experience just as much (in very different ways).    

The environmental movement misinterprets the call for diversity as a matter of “reaching out.” The movement must recognize that sustainable diversity depends on reciprocity and is as much a matter of reflexivity - of looking inwards and understanding one’s own positionality - as a matter of reaching out.

In other words, positionality matters.

And we argue that to understand your positionality demands identifying, examining, and changing racially charged and colonizing mindsets. While these engrained mindsets may not be our individual faults, we all still partake, sometimes in subtle and unconscious ways. Put yourself in situations that demand you question your opinions, knowledge systems, and values - situations that make you uncomfortable. Situations that are common for everyone who doesn’t “look” white. Get involved with conversations and spaces that address social injustices, and don’t come with an agenda but rather to listen and learn. This may be uncomfortable, but only through discomfort can a meaningful conversation begin.

So no, “diversifying” the movement is not a matter of merely co-sponsoring an event with an OSDP club or inviting people of color to come to meetings and join “our movement.” It also takes more than just going to “their table,” partaking in a “cultural” food event, a dance, or watching a performance.

Instead, it is a matter of investing. Investing in the lifelong task of acting in true solidarity with people of color, who are proportionally more affected by the same systematic inequities that exacerbate climate change and other environmental ills. In order to create the mental and emotional space to truly act in solidarity, we must all engage in the process of decolonizing of our own understanding and mindsets.

By engaging in conversation, one that exposes and challenges the inequality in environmental organizing, we can begin to subvert the foundations of environmental and social injustice affecting all of us.

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We want to accredit those individuals whose ideas we drew from heavily in this editorial including the following authors and blog writers: Linda Alcoff, Margaret Anderson, Hernia Belalia, Woody Doane, Frances Kendall, Richard Dyer, Julie Guthman, Maya Lemon, Tema Okun, Scott Toi, and kat stevens.

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