As an African American woman working in a predominantly white environmental space, I’ve had more than one engagement with white people who assume that just because I’ve worked in or with large environmental groups, I “get it” and must see solutions the way that they do. How very wrong.
The “how” we talk about climate change has become more and more important to implementable solutions as communities of color have started to recognize their value and importance to the answer. Truth is, privilege has always existed in the climate space just like it does everywhere else. But due to the urgency of the climate crisis and the small universe of climate groups, we no longer have the luxury of tolerating said privilege. Our planet requires climate action now, and it requires all of us.
The Guise of White Privilege
Acting under the guise of white privilege denies groups the opportunity to learn from each other and enact culturally innovative ideas that can solve more than one problem at a time. Let’s face it, when I say the words “climate change,” most Americans think vegan white people in Birkenstocks who care more about polar bears than people. While this perception of the environmentalist couldn’t be further from the truth, the practice of white privilege in our country and the resulting disconnect with communities of color are our present reality.
Privilege interferes with our ability to understand why people reject certain solutions. It prevents people from hearing the real-time pain associated with being left out of a decision that will directly impact them and their families for generations to come. No one is denying a variety of solutions should be considered, but how we discuss it prevents the implementation.
A glaring example is the conversation around food and its relation to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change United Nations Climate Report encourages the world to eat less meat in order to reduce the impacts of climate. The IPCC study shows that moving to a plant-based diet would be a positive adapter to a changing climate. However, when coupled with the message that in order to protect the Earth, we should search the grocery store for “sustainably” fished, organic or “grain fed” products, communities of color laugh, especially those located in food deserts.
The NAACP put it best: “Environmental injustice and climate change are about the fact that in many communities it is far easier to find a bag of Cheetos than a carton of strawberries. This only stands to get worse as drought and flooding impact the availability and affordability of nutritious food.”
The organization released a report on climate showing that more than 1 million Black Americans live within 1 mile of an oil and gas operation, placing us directly in the path of air pollution and the resulting health disparities. Nevertheless, the lens of privilege views the solutions as individuals taking self-initiated actions to improve their health and our planet. The notion that the very communities most impacted by climate change and systemically polluted throughout our country are somehow now solely responsible for the physical, financial, and social solution is unreasonable and ineffective at best.
Collectively, we need to better understand how to avoid privilege as a distractor and delay to climate solutions for all of us. Ultimately, there is no “right” way to talk about climate, just like there’s no right way to talk about race, gender, sexuality or any of the issues of humanity where we desire unity versus division. The key is to have open conversations with the intent to understand each other as we seek solutions.
POC on the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis
In an article in Green America, Dr. Beverly Wright, CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, explains how people of color are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. She points to the fact that both the IPCC report and The National Climate Assessment state that Black and brown people will be impacted more than our white counterparts.
Policymakers, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and funders should recognize that while poor people live in communities with the greatest exposure to climate impacts (pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, health disparities, etc.), these are the very same communities that we’re asking to not only change their way of life, but also then be burdened with more cost without the assurance of equity.
Serious solutions to climate change in impoverished communities must address existing deficiencies in energy access, housing, jobs, health care and infrastructure. Green gentrification (tax incentives and business opportunities that promote gentrification in the name of climate) is a real thing. There’s a big difference between someone losing their vacation home versus someone losing a family home to a hurricane.
Families in New Orleans and Key West, Fla., are told that climate change is making their homes unaffordable, all while they watch inaccessible tax incentives being offered to those that can afford to rebuild bigger, better and more sustainably. If it’s treated differently by the insurance, government and housing industries, then we should talk about it differently.
Dr. Robert Bullard, also known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” has preached this message for decades. When asked what gives him hope about climate change he stated: “I am encouraged by the diverse community-based and regional coalitions mobilizing around climate mitigation and adaptation planning, sustainability, resilience, and disaster response and recovery—all viewed through an equity and justice lens. For them, climate change is more than ‘parts per million’ and greenhouse gases. Climate justice is also racial justice.”
It’s the intersection of racial equity and justice that lead communities and organizations to consider options like tax incentives for companies that hire and train local residents in sustainable practices. It leads community-development organizations to include environmental corrections and part of their strategy to uplift a neighborhood. The Regenesis project in Spartanburg, S.C., is a case study in the success of inclusive and community-led climate solutions. If it can be done in the South, surely we can find ways to share and fund these strategies nationwide.
Moms Clean Air Force
We have huge opportunities right now. Moms Clean Air Force and its members nationwide (I am one) are pushing for a 100 percent clean energy economy with a particular interest in providing fair and equitable access to energy for vulnerable populations. This is one way we can not only push for climate action now, but also engage a diverse population of moms with the sole purpose of ensuring clean energy access for all. Regardless of race, class or socioeconomic status, we agree that all children should be afforded the same protections from air pollution and climate change. That also means recognizing that some communities have been treated differently in the past and need additional support.
We should not only be sensitive to the implications that proposed climate solutions place on other people’s culture and lives, but include these populations in the solutions as well. Simply involving low-income residents and people from vulnerable communities when developing solutions to climate change can make a significant difference and begin to bridge gaps among advocates of the climate movement.
The owner of the Weather Channel, Byron Allen, is doing just that. “As an African American man, hopefully I’m bringing more attention to climate and environment,” he stated. “Because so many African American neighborhoods are in bad environmental places, where it’s causing us to get sick and die earlier than most.”
At Moms Clean Air Force, one of my favorite programs is called Moms & Mayors. It not only urges moms to get involved in local solutions to climate, it also provides a tool kit that encourages women to get appointed to office because having a seat at the table doesn’t always mean getting elected. Local sustainability boards, planning commissions, and utility boards are key decision-makers when it comes to local energy solutions and reductions.
Majority organizations and groups can do a lot by helping seat people of color in these places. It’s called handing people the microphone instead of speaking for them. The fact remains that we’re running out of time, and significant changes to all parts of our existence must be examined. All of us, privileged or not, must push past the noise to listen deeply for solutions we can implement and grow for our future together. That is privilege used for good, and we have to find ways to do more of it.
Heather McTeer Toney is a board member of the Mississippi Free Press. This piece was published in cooperation with DAME, an independent, women-led and women–edited publisher that provides critical context around the political, cultural and societal issues of our time.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.