White Privilege in the Environment

By
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

In honor of Latino Conservation week, EPIC and Latino Outdoors have partnered for a special bilingual redwood hike picnic Sunday, July 15th along the Hiouchi Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. For more information about the hike please refer to our Event Brite page.

Latino Conservation Week, an initiative by the Hispanic Access Foundation and Latino Outdoors were created to support the Latino community getting outdoors and participating in activities that promote environmental stewardship. These groups focus on expanding and amplifying the Latino experience in the outdoors; providing greater opportunities for leadership, mentorship, professional opportunities and serving as a platform for sharing cultural connections and narratives that are often overlooked by the traditional outdoor movement.

EPIC is honored to work with the Hispanic Access Foundation and Latino Outdoors, and join their collaborative mission to diversify the environmental movement. We see a unique opportunity to share with our community the significance of this collaboration, and why it matters.

The goal of this piece is to inform and empower you to reflect on positionality and privilege, and to examine how it affects environmental activism. Furthermore, it serves as a challenge to reflect on the past, present, and future role people of color serve in the environmental community.

White Privilege in the Environment

Let’s start off with a quick reflection practice. Close your eyes. Now visualize what you think of when you hear the word environmentalist. What kind of spaces do they enjoy? How are they enjoying them? What physical form do they embody?

If you imagined a classic John Muir-type trekking his way through “wilderness”, you’re not alone. In fact, if you Google environmentalist right now—your page will fill with tons of green shirt wearing, tree hugging white folk. This is no coincidence. This is our reality. And it’s a problem.

Positionality, Privilege, and Intersectionality: A Primer

Some of these terms might be new to you. That’s okay. Many of these concepts were born in academia but describe social phenomena that are commonly experienced—giving language to the lived experiences.

“White privilege” is a societal construction; it is the system of benefits that are conferred by society to those people who appear “white”—and therefore, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in society—beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people. White privilege can manifest itself in many different ways, such as access to employment, educational opportunities, or biased interactions with police and people of authority. It can even manifest in smaller ways, but ways that are still hurtful. In working with Latino Outdoors, we have heard about how people feel hesitant to go hiking in the redwoods simply because there is a lack of representation, or fear of not having the name brand gear that embodies much of the outdoor recreation world.

Positionality recognizes how important aspects of our identities develop our personal values and views. Our individual identities are multifaceted in nature; we do not tend to align ourselves merely to one characteristic, rather we relate to multiple factors such as race, class, gender etc. Understanding positionality is a means of assessing your position of power and privilege.

Intersectionality addresses this by acknowledging how forms of identity are not separate, but rather develop a relationship, affecting one another.

For example, I am a white, 25 year old, able bodied, college bachelorette educated, cisgendered female. These individual parts of my identity personify my positionhood, and have contributed to my role as an environmentalist. As a younger white cisgendered female my presence in outdoor spaces is not questioned nor a concern to others. There is wide representation of people who look like me in both the outdoor recreation and environmental nonprofit world. I am able to access recreational parks with relative ease, afford park admission for national and state parks, and even have a car to get me there. I have the leisure of buying organic foods, and carry around a reusable water bottle literally everywhere I go, for I know a water dispenser is always nearby. I have a roof over my head, an education, and a job. My positonality and privilege therefore enable me to peruse my identity as an environmentalist. Rather than concern myself with where I’m going to get my next meal—I, and the majority of the environmentalist movement have the privilege to focus our energy in our own individual environmental concerns.

Creating a More Just and Effective Environmental Movement

People of color are largely missing from the environmental movement, but that’s not because they don’t care about the environment. In fact, the opposite is true.

What gives?

For the past 100 years, the environmental movement has been dominated by white guys. Roosevelt, Muir, and Pinocht are some of the famous “fathers” of contemporary environmentalism, and their rhetoric has shaped the modern conversation movement we know today. Dialogues around race are often absent, and only in the past decade have environmental justice issues hit the mainstream. While the interrelation between race, white privilege, and the environment may not be immediately apparent to all, there are legitimate connections that deserve to be critically addressed in order to move towards a more progressive and effective movement.

Most large environmental organizations started in conservation, which unfortunately has left them largely tone deaf to the concerns of communities that live in the shadow of chemical and power plants, don’t have access to clean waters, and live compromised lives due to human impacts and the after effects of industrialization. Due to a large misconception that communities of color don’t care about the environment—these issues were then left to the social justice warriors of the world. Environmental justice impacts at a rate not comparable to other acts of racial injustice, and communities of color are often among the hardest hit by climate change and disproportionately on the frontlines in local environmental fights. But in large part, standard eco-events like Earth Day are mostly a thing for white folks.

Why?

A study in 2016 found people of color are “less polarized about the issues of climate change than white people” but that they are less likely to deem themselves environmentalists. The studies authors alluded that such beliefs can be linked to the lack of diversity within environmental groups, where racial minorities often see an “image of whiteness”.

So why does EPIC care? For the past 40 years EPIC has used our legal know how to advocate and protect the forests of north coast California. We are privileged with the unique opportunity to represent and speak on behalf of the environmental community. However, we recognize that this community consists of mostly white folks-like us. We recognize our individual positionalities, and how they contribute to the work we pursue. We recognize that social and cultural barriers often exclude diverse communities from outdoor experiences, and that there is a general lack of diversity in the environmental movement as a whole. But most importantly, we recognize the potential for allyship in our community.

Ally is an action verb, for it is an ongoing process. It is not a self affirmed title-but one given to you through the demonstration of your work and collaboration. These are the steps we aim to take—and we’re pleased to present our official Environmental Justice Policy to guide our future work.

Until environmentalists acknowledge and successfully address their white privilege and its effects on their own individual efforts—the planet will suffer. Click here to learn more about the many organizations working to diversify outdoor spaces.

 

Thank you to Samantha Stone and Shanti Belaustegui Pockell for the inspiration, dialogue, and resources that helped make this piece possible.