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Whitewashing Activism: Environmentalist Edition

By Jude Casimir

Little Miss Flint (Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny) leads the March for Science, April 14, 2018
Little Miss Flint (Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny) leads the March for Science, April 14, 2018. Photo credit: Hillel Steinberg.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish activist who’s credited with bringing much-needed attention to the climate crisis and reinvigorating youth environmental activism. You’ve most likely heard about how she passionately and bravely took the stage in September in the midst of the worldwide climate strikes to address the highly esteemed attendees of the United Nations Climate Action Summit. You’ve probably seen the #HowDareYou hashtag echoing throughout social media over the past few weeks. If you read Beacon Broadside regularly, you’ve definitely been introduced to her.

Point is, you probably know who Greta Thunberg is.

But you’ve probably heard much less about young people like Mari Copeny, otherwise known as Little Miss Flint, who has been bringing attention to the Flint water crisis since she was eight years old. You probably don’t know a lot about Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer and the Indigenous youth activist group ReZpect Our Water that formed back in 2016 in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. You probably aren’t tuned in on the Brown and Black kids and youth around the globe, from Myanmar to Brazil, who were out striking along with Greta.

If you didn’t know about these activists and groups, it isn’t your fault. There’s a reason why these groups haven’t been given as great a platform as Greta, and that has to do with the media’s consistent whitewashing of climate activism and White Environmentalism being framed as the only answer. And whether you’re ready to acknowledge it or not, you’re probably complicit in it. If you’ve shared the aforementioned coverage of Greta, you’re probably complicit. If you’ve said something along the lines of “the kids are alright” in response to your exposure to her, you’re probably complicit.

Whitewashing activism of any kind isn’t new. It wasn’t new when the abolition of slavery was centered around the morality of white people rather than the violent and systematic dehumanization of the actual slaves. It wasn’t new in the 1960s or 70s during anti-war movements, nor was it new last year in the wake of the Parkland shooting when the white child survivors were the ones centered and spotlighted as gun violence heroes.

It’s hardly surprising either. In a world shaped by subjugation at the hands of white supremacy, in systems built to uphold white injustice, it really shouldn’t come as any shock that this is the case. White supremacy is so prevalent it permeates through good intention and often perverts any good effort. So, it doesn’t surprise me. But it does infuriate me. As a Black disabled woman, it does wear me down. It’s exhausting that Black and Brown people who have been speaking and shouting and screaming about issues like this must constantly and consistently wait for white people to realize the value of nature before they can act and take anything seriously. It’s further dehumanizing to be ignored only to have white people be heard over you. Our message just isn’t digestible if it doesn’t come from white people.

And I’ve observed that the value white environmentalism extracts from nature is always abstract. It’s always rooted in a vague sense of being “out there,” and it never addresses very real environmental injustices like environmental racism. It never addresses the fact that pollution follows the poor most closely. It isn’t rooted in decolonization and anticapitalism as it should be. Rarely does it ever go deeper than veganism being super great and the idea that plastic straws should be banned even though disabled and chronically ill people, myself included, have spoken out repeatedly about the harm in pushing these as actual solutions. But, honestly, why should it? Middle- and upper-class white people, the people who are always placed at the forefront of these movements, the loudest ones, don’t have to worry about these things, so why should they care beyond abstractions?

I should stress that none of this is Greta Thunberg’s fault. The entirety of the impact of white supremacy and the media’s insistence on pushing white activism doesn’t fall on this one teen’s shoulders. In fact, she has been in the news recently for reaching out to Indigenous activists like Tokatawin Iron Eyes of the Lakota people, who participated in the Standing Rock protests and has engaged in climate activism for many years prior. Greta is paying the attention forward. But this isn’t enough. Greta may have a team behind her, but she is still only one person. Just as it isn’t her fault that white supremacy exists, it also shouldn’t all be on her to bring attention to environmental injustices that go beyond her reach as a middle-class white girl who has barely begun life. 

As Greta herself mentioned, this climate crisis shouldn’t be on any young person’s shoulders. But it is. And if you call yourself an environmentalist, if you take yourself seriously as an activist, you better be working on recognizing your complicity in white supremacy and listening to all the youth climate activists involved. If you truly think the climate crisis is an important issue, you need to uplift the voices of Black and Brown youth as much as you do the already megaphoned white ones.


About the Author 

Jude Casimir sometimes writes things, and her passions include movies, books, TV, (especially American Vandal, the best show Netflix has put out), and socialism. She lives in a small town in Central Massachusetts and is desperately hoping to get back to the city sometime soon. She graduated from Worcester State University, and she ultimately wants to start her own online publication for marginalized people. For now, though, you can find her on Twitter: @itsjustjude.