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How to address liberal questions and comments about people of colour in the environmental movement

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.

Hey there! We just did a workshop on addressing racism when organizing around environemntal issues. One of our goals was to provide participants with a list of common “liberal questions and comments” and ways in which they could respond. We also thought we would publish responses to some of the most common ones. This way, you too can address racism.

So please recognize that this blog post isn’t much of an article. It is really just a list of liberal questions about organizing with people of colour and some responses.

Here we go....

People of colour (POC) just don’t care about the environment.

Really? Cause we know a ton of POCs who do. Are you only surrounded by other whities that you truly believe that to be true? But really...away from snarky and onto reality:

The mainstream environmental movement is incredibly white. If you are embedded in the mainstream environmental movement, it is easy to believe that POCs are just organizing on other things, but that is the law of closest proximity. You only hang out with white people, then you will mostly hear about what other white people do. Ask yourself: What is it about your “environmentalism” that surrounds you only by white people? Is it because you don’t talk about how environmental destruction disproportionately impacts POCs? Is it because you undervalue what POCs say when they are in a group with you? Or do other people you organize with do that (which would still alienate POCs, since they know you hang out with racists and aren't addressing racist behaviour)? These are all critical questions to ask yourself. And don’t feel too bad. We live in a racist world and make mistakes by mistreating people. But feel bad if you choose not to change it.

We’ve also heard this: POCs are busy working on “their” issues. Point of order: environmental destruction is their issue. In fact, it is much more their issue than it is the mainstream enviro movements’ issue. The Forest Ethics office is not being clear cut. Grassy Narrows, however, is being threatened by clear cutting and they have set up one of the longest running blockades (11 years this December) in canadian history to stop it. A fracking rig isn’t going into Council of Canadians territory. Fracking is, however, threatening Indigenous lands-just think of Elsipogtog, the folks who got their blockade to protect their land raided by RCMP just recently and who are still being attacked by cops from all over the maritimes. A tanker is not going to crash into Sierra Club’s AGM; however, tankers are taking crude through Tsleil-Waututh Nations lands in B.C. to predominantly black communities in Richmond, California to be refined. And a pipeline isn’t delivering crude to the Wilderness Committee’s office. Pipelines are, however, delivering crude to refineries in Manchester, a neighbouhood in Houston, Texas which is predominantly Latino and African American. The area is speckled with smokestacks and children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel are 56% more likely of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia than children only ten miles away. “Children are being bombarded with toxins every day of their lives,” says a local resident who has lived in the area since she herself was a child. To sum it up, environmental issues are POC’s issues.

For those of you who need numbers (ugh...how colonial. LOL), how about this: A 2009, national survey in the United States found that voters of colour prioritized environmental issues more than white voters and were willing to raise taxes and donate to these causes.  A 2011 survey shows that African-Americans (85%) and whites (88%) support oil and gas drilling fees going to conservation, while Latinos showed even more support (95%). There you have it. POCs actually care about the environment. WHAT!?

People of colour have been organizing to protect their communities against environmental destruction for a long time. These people aren’t always “activists” or part of non-profits. These are people who are defending their land because they are defending their homes, families, and lives. When POC’s health and families are threatened, they organize. Just like white people and paid non-profits. People organize. Organizing is not just something that white people do.

Believing that marginalized people do not organize is just ...a load of crap. The world hides these people’s stories, whether they are stories of how they are being impacted or the stories of how they show resilience and fight back. Let’s take responsibility for our own ignorance, instead of just assuming the information and stories don’t exist. That would be like saying “I haven’t heard of the U.S. bombing Afghanistan. It must never have happened.”

That is what google is for.

Why aren’t they coming to our meetings/events we organize?

“They?” Okay okay, organizing often contributes to social movements which are built on social relationships. Have you asked yourself if it is something about your behaviour that makes POCs not want to befriend you? Or are you only seeking to cultivate social relationships with other white folks or white environmental professionals? Are we only ever talking to white anarchos? Are we building a more vanilla base, or are we actually seeking to learn from cool POC organizing that is happening. There are POCs who are political (if you don’t believe us, keep reading the first comment).

Now we are not suggesting you go find a brown person and make them your friend, but we are suggesting that you ask yourself why you are not friends with POCs who would want to organize with you.

I don’t see race/I am colourblind.

If you use the phrase “colourblind” to refer to the inability to notice race, you may be disAblist...not racist (but perhaps also racist).

If you mean it to refer to people’s race, then you are choosing to ignore the fact that racism actually still exists. You would also be ignoring the fact that racism and white supremacy benefit certain people while marginalizing others. For some people, their daily reality is that the mere colour of their skin can make them more likely to get incarcerated or limit their access to housing. Their name may be a barrier to employment or immigration status. They may be seen as more rape-able, exotic, worthy of objectification. Their labour may be less valued, much like in the era of slavery which has just transformed into an era of exploited labour through temporary worker programs—just to name one example. They may have problems crossing borders or flying. These are all real problems. They still exist. We do not live in a post-racial society.

If you are white, a POC, or a POC who passes as white and have never experienced racism, that is great! It sucks for those who have. If you have never faced discrimination based on your race/ethnicity/skin colour, that is great. Wonderful. Hunky dorey. But just because you have never had to face that type of discrimination, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you are a woman who has never experienced being paid 70 cents to every dollar that a man earns, that is awesome. That does not mean that gendered economic inequality doesn’t exist.

Oh...also this. If you still aren’t convinced, read this. Not only will you think it is ridiculous, you may also laugh. Oh gosh...we really hope you laugh. If you don’t, you may not make it through the rest of this post...

I can’t be racist. I have a black friend.

We still don’t understand how those are related. Being racist has nothing to do with the ethnicity of your friends, it has to do with you! It has to do with how you treat people. Having a friend who is not-white does not make you all of a sudden aware of how your whiteness benefits you at the expense of others every single day.

It is crucial that we all address racism every day. When we see it in the streets or in our own behaviours. Do we treat an Asian woman at the grocery store with less respect than the white woman at the grocery store? Are we more entitled and demanding of respect from a brown cab driver than a white cab driver, or do we treat them both with mutal respect? Do we assume that Indigenous people do not have an education? Do we assume that students with an accent are not as smart as those without accents? Do we interrupt brown or black people more because we do not value what they say?

Having a black or brown friend does not rid us of assumptions we have been socialized to believe.

There is just so much corruption. That is why they don’t manage the environment properly.

We hate to break it to you. But the world can be a shitty place, with a lot of shitty people in power, who exploit their power and do shitty things to other people.

Like those Senators. Harper is in deep shit now...but those Senators have it worse. Their names are in all the newspapers along with the word “scandal” and it all wreaks of corruption.

Yep...it is shitty. Oh wait...you meant that brown and black people’s governments are corrupt. Well, we hate to break it to you. But the world can be a shitty place, with a lot of shitty people in power, who exploit their power and do shitty things to other people. By thinking that people who exploit power are only POC is racist. Equating corruption with racialized bodies is racist.

The population question...

Oh gawd. Where do we begin? Maybe we don’t begin. Instead, we may take the time that we would have actually used to talk about this to go ask all the brown, black, and yellow people we know to stop procreating. The planet just can’t handle all your babies.

But for some reason they can handle my hummer.

Oh wait...was that all racist?

Yes. That entire response was racist.

So, you hippies are constantly talking about colonization. If this land is all stolen, does that mean we should all leave?

Yeesh. Try this on for size: If you truly recognize the land on which you are walking as land that was stolen through coercion and/or violence then maybe you should walk a little more lightly and respectfully and without a sense of entitlement and attitude. Begin by acknowledging the history of the land, be it complicated or not fully known.

Let’s take other scenarios of this “get up and leave” scenario. Where do we put people? The British asked that when they wanted to get rid of jews just after World War 2. They thought of different places, including Canada, Argentina, and Palestine. They went with Palestine. Ahem...enough said. (Not enough said? Check out these dated maps). If people just “get up and leave” does that mean they just go steal land and homes from other people?

The answer may not be to just get up and leave. The answer may be justice. That means, colonizers (corporations, governments, militaries, etc.) should not keep running around like they own the place. They shouldn’t give away the rights to Indigenous lands as if it is their own. They should inhibit access to services that people need such as health care and housing...especially when one of the reasons people don’t have full access to these things is colonization in the first place.

Another reason why people may not be able to just get up and leave is that they may already be coming to KKKanada in order to find sanctuary. People are fleeing persecution for being queer, for being political, and for many other reasons. They may also have been forced out of their homes by large multinationals or Canadian resource extraction companies—particularly mining. Someone made a word for these people: refugees. Canada occasionally accepts them. It most often deports them or forces them to live within these colonial borders in constant fear of deportation and without access to services such as health care and often education, shelters, food banks, and policing (if for some reason they want that).

When we talk about stolen land, we may be well beyond the point of “getting up and leaving,” since the colonial government is deeply involved in situations that force people to get up from their own homes and come. So we aren’t going to say this is an easy one to respond to, but we will say that instead of asking this question in an angsty way, it may be more useful for you to help fight the white supremacist system which takes us all for fools and exploits our labour and wellbeing. It may be worth fighting for freedom to return, freedom to stay, and freedom to move. You can organize for a better world.

When can we stop saying sorry?

Maybe once there is justice.

So let’s start organizing for environmental justice and build broader movements which can’t be divided by the racist (as well as sexist, homophobic, classist, disAblist, etc.) media that exists out there. We’ve seen normalized racism try to divide environmentalists from anti-racists in messages from politicians, right-wing pundits who for some reason given a microphone (ugh...Ethical Oil), and even mainstream non-profits and liberal unions. Let’s stop saying sorry and recognize that both environmentalists and anti-racists don’t have to be different people, but rather should be the same people.

So...stop saying sorry, and change sh*t now.

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