Fighting dual racisms: People of colour in the environmental movement

Flint, Michigan. Kettleman City, California. Countless other locales across the country with two things in common: They’re communities of colour, and they’re laden with environmental contaminants that cause serious, long-term health problems. These two things are not coincidental, as it’s communities of colour that are hit the hardest by this kind of degradation, thanks to environmental racism — systemically, culturally, it’s considered acceptable to dump unwanted industries and waste upon the communities deemed least capable of fighting for themselves. These communities are struggling to create a culture in which this doesn’t happen, and it’s an extremely difficult battle.

This is an outgrowth of racism, and something communities of colour are expected to deal with as a component of structural inequality. Racism harms people in lots of ways, and research demonstrates that it actually makes people sick, coming with significant psychological implications, but it makes people sick in this way as well. People of colour are more likely to experience disabilities and chronic health conditions because they live in regions with triggers that cause asthma, that cause neurological damage, that cause neutral tube defects. This is what racism hath wrought.

This kind of structural inequality is paired with another issue: The environmental movement itself has a race problem. People of colour are often excluded from the environmental justice movement, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, but always in ways that make it clear that their communities matter less than white communities — that despite the disproportionate problems they experience, they have to wait their turn. People of colour are thus often forced to advocate for themselves, alone, not only without solidarity from white people but sometimes encountering active hostility because of ‘competing interests.’

Thus, a dual racism: Racism in the environmental movement, racism that creates environmental inequalities. Despite this, people of colour have been, and are, rising up around the world to confront environmental issues that are harming their communities — they are fighting polluting projects in the U.S., they are standing up for indigenous rights, they are highlighting the effects of climate change on their communities. With or without white environmentalists, they are getting work done, and it is important work, and white environmentalists need to get their act together and actually talk to and work with people of colour rather than ignoring or trampling their needs.

This is a culture in which racism runs through everything, and it snarls all up around the environment. White people don’t want polluting factories in their back yards, but they don’t complain when those factories go ‘somewhere else,’ so long as they don’t have to look at them. They want toxic waste sites cleaned out, but don’t care where the waste ends up. Pollution is a thing we need to address — but the answer isn’t exporting it. Waste sites do need to be cleaned up, but the solution to the problem isn’t to dump the waste in another location, creating yet another contaminated site.

There is a tendency to dump problems upon communities of colour and to be surprised when those communities rise up. At the same time, activists of colour are exceptionalised and treated as unique and startling when they make the white media — as though they are the only ones doing this work in their communities, as though other people of colour do not care about the environment. This disparity in coverage isn’t the fault of those activists, who are fighting vigorously to protect their communities, but rather a media that only becomes interested when it can find an intriguing hook.

Culturally, the belief that people of colour are Other has played out in many ways, and this is one of them. There’s a bizarre notion that people of colour don’t care about the environment in their communities, and that they’re indifferent to larger climate issues. Or there’s an equally bizarre notion that they have some kind of magical special relationship to the Earth. The thought that they, like white people, are aware that we only have one Earth to live on and they would like to protect it for future generations, is apparently too much to cope with. And the thought that they are fully aware of how they are marginalised and how their communities are abused is also evidently too much to cope with.

People of colour are constantly fighting intersectional oppressions; they are more likely to be low-income, to be disabled, to experience other complicated social factors that put them at the axis of two or more oppressions. Environmental racism and exclusion from the environmental movement is just one example, but it’s an important one, with climate change a growing problem and pollution in communities of colour coming to the attention of white people on a regular basis now, despite the fact that these communities have been well aware of it for decades.

Seeking out activists of colour, and listening to them, should be a priority for white environmentalists who want to learn about different kinds of environmentalism and the communities they should be working in solidarity with. Not ‘advocating for,’ and certainly not ignoring, but actively working with: Because without evidence that white people are invested in respecting their communities, environmental activists from communities of colour have absolutely no reason to trust them.

Image: Rashod Taylor, Flickr