Right Hopes, Wrong Lens

This week’s comments are in response to a recently published (October 17, 2013) Washington Post AP blog post by Kevin Begos entitled, “Environmentalists stress people of all races, backgrounds key to green movement”. The post (which, ironically, is also listed as a resource on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change home page) is a report on the recent young people’s climate justice conference in Pittsburgh called “Power Shift”, where Begos quotes a number of participants ranging from college students to national leaders of environmental groups. The essential premise of the blog post is conference participants’ stated concern that there are not enough People of Color in the “green movement” and that “more diversity is needed” if this overall movement is to be a success.

Unfortunately, there are two fundamental errors in this understanding of the issue. The first is obvious to anyone doing climate justice work through a global frame – across the globe there are not only People of Color involved in the climate justice movement, but People of Color are leading this movement. If more White U.S.ers would lift their gaze to the work and voices of such activists they would clearly see that global, regional, and even national environmental work (see the many Native communities in the Americas that have been addressing environmental issues well ahead of White U.S.ers) is rife with leadership from Communities of Color. True, I am talking on a global scale, but if you examine the overall framework of this conference and of the climate movement as a whole, talk on a global scale is often the norm (e.g. even 350.org has a global action focus) and as such those at this conference should know that People of Color are already at its center. If those quoted from the conference, as well as Begos himself, had considered this they would likely have titled the article, “White U.S. environmentalists realize that they have not paid enough attention to global leaders of color in the rush to address the current climate emergency.”

The second error is the fact that wondering “where the People of Color are” and stating that the solution is to “get more People of Color involved in the movement” is not only racist by virtue of its invisibilizing of People of Color already in the movement (as stated above), but is actually the completely wrong question. It’s the wrong question because it implies that “the problem” lies in the awareness, consciousness, or circumstances of People of Color and it totally avoids any conversation regarding the White dominant framework that has been central to the mainstream environmental movement(s) for the last several decades. It’s also the wrong question because it reinforces the erroneous notion that the movement has been and currently is a benign and neutral racial space whose leadership simply needs to figure out how to get POC to realize that climate and environmental issues “are their issues as well”. The dearth of People of Color in core leadership positions within the U.S. climate movement is not due to a “lack of interest, motivation or information”, but rather is a function of a) the ways institutional racism impedes the ability of People of Color to participate in mainstream organizing, and b) the ways that Whiteness is baked into the foundation of almost every organization, movement, and institution in U.S. society. Therefore, the question is not “how do we get more People of Color in the green movement”, the question needs to be along the lines of, “How do Racism and Whiteness make the green movement inaccessible or unattractive to Communities of Color?”

Asking the wrong question is common to social movements, organizations, or institutions that are majority White and therefore it is not surprising that the White majority involved in this current climate justice moment is echoing the age-old White liberal “diversity and inclusivity” focus. I have trained in many organizations for whom this is the central pillar of their work around racial issues. To be clear, their hearts are in the right place, their commitments are also usually in line with the base elements of racial justice, but their lens and the actions they take through that lens are overwhelmingly White liberal and therefore doomed to never achieve racial equity, and by extension to never have an organization that is effective and forward-thinking in its work. What I and my colleagues offer these organizations, and what we are currently trying to offer those leaders in the climate justice movement who are interested, is a different lens – a critical race lens. This lens begins by helping majority White climate justice groups look deeply at the unexamined Racial Narratives in their midst and the ways that White normativity has pervaded their organizational practices from top to bottom. From this place, we help them identify specific manifestations of transactional Racism and Whiteness in their policies, practices and procedures and offer ways they can utilize the Critical Race Lens in transforming their organization from one that is White liberal to one that not only hopes for, but acts toward racial justice.

I know I am laying out an incredibly superficial explanation of the above organizational process, but I am less concerned about the details here and more concerned about the overall climate justice movement understanding that this idea of “getting more People of Color” into their organizations is not the goal, but rather a natural byproduct of an organization that is truly doing its work with regard to Race, Racism and particularly Whiteness. Elaborating on my above point, climate justice organizations would deeply examine questions such as:

– “How has the White privilege, White supremacy and overall White normativity in this movement literally and figuratively kept People of Color out of climate justice organizing spaces (i.e. through silence, dismissal and further marginalization)?”

– “How has our organization’s unconscious Racism made this movement unsafe and inaccessible to Communities of Color?”

– “How as our personal and organizational inattention to Whiteness in all of its manifestations undermined our work and the work of the environmental movement overall?”

And this is the rub, isn’t it. Those who are mobilizing for this movement are undeniably passionate in looking outward and addressing the unbelievable challenges we all face at the hands of climate change. And yet, an essential element of the lens we need for achieving climate justice lies within – not in a narcissistic sense where White people focus endlessly on ourselves. But rather in the sense that as people with race (and often class, geographic and/or gender) privilege we are the carriers of the “climate disease”, if you will, and as a result we need to look deeply at the way Whiteness and its constituent parts have impeded our ability to do good, effective, and truly collaborative climate work. This is not about fear, guilt, shame or denial, it is about ridding our movement of an insidious and corrosive thread that will always serve to undermine our deepest commitments regarding climate justice. Climate change and now climate justice is the greatest struggle our species has ever faced. Given that Whiteness was (and still is) one of the forces shepherding it in, it is only logical that racial justice, critical race consciousness, and the dismantling of Whiteness is required for any effective mitigation and adaptation.