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Whiteness in Sustainability

Black and white background of mountain scene. Block white letters in center read "White Privilege"
February 2, 2021

White people and privilege are the faces of a movement that is rooted in Indigenous values and championed by people of color. This must change.

“Privilege: an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious” - Peggy McIntosh

Sustainability was founded on Indigenous values of living in balance with the world. BIPOC activists have spent decades advocating for sustainable measures like environmental justice. People of color and low-income communities are putting in a lot of the climate work because the issues directly and disproportionately affect them. Yet white people remain the face of this movement. 

White privilege must be addressed in the sustainability movement. Gatekeeping environmental action and media creates a further divide in an issue that requires the collaboration of and opportunity for all. Climate justice and environmental justice both advocate for listening to marginalized communities and supporting their work. However, in order to address climate disparities, we must also dismantle oppressive systems like systemic racism.

When talking about racial inequality, most conversations discuss how racism puts people of color at a disadvantage. What needs to join the conversation is how racism gives white people an advantage. There is a great pressure to avoid speaking of white privilege because it is uncomfortable and entwined within societal structures. Confusion often accompanies the term “white privilege,” with defensiveness following close behind. For clarification, white privilege does not mean that a white person’s life cannot be difficult and hard. White privilege means that a white person’s life will never be difficult and hard because of their race. Western society presents white as the normative, which influences tactics like white saviorism. 

 White Saviorism
In reality, white saviorism is a self-serving attempt for white people to “save” minority communities and cultures. Instead of helping though, white saviorism is a colonization narrative that attempts to erase minority cultures, perspectives, and issues. Occasionally, white saviorism tries to come from a positive desire to help other people and ease suffering. However, white guilt and shame helps no one, and no one is asking white people to produce the answer. 

Barging into a community where one doesn’t belong and trying to fix it won’t fix anything. Instead, it places a white narrative and solution in front of a community who will not benefit from it. It is not easy to grapple with the privileges afforded to one group because of skin color, but it is not the burden of people of color to educate whites on their privilege and the system they created. 

It’s important to mention that BIPOC have been creating positive changes in their communities for generations. While white saviors have the privileges of safety and choice from which to “rescue” others, marginalized people fight for their communities out of necessity when faced with physical, environmental, or systemic harm. 

White saviorism in sustainability can look like ethical fashion companies promising to donate a clothing item to the Global South if the consumer buys one. A new pair of shoes won’t solve the systemic poverty in those countries though. Instead, it acts as a band-aid that attempts to cover up the detrimental effects of colonization from the rest of the world. It creates the narrative that the business is “saving the world,” and subsequently increases their revenue. 

White Spaces
Equally concerning is the unwelcome atmosphere that white people have created for people of color in the outdoors. In 2014, the United States national parks received almost 300 million visitors, yet 78% of those visitors were white. Most outdoor campaigns and media over represent white people outside, which perpetuates an exclusive community. 

When people of color are enjoying the outdoors, many white people have made them feel unsafe. Christian Cooper, a Black man and bird-watcher, was birding in Central Park on May 25, 2020 when he saw an unleashed dog, which is against the park rules. He told the dog’s owner, a white woman named Amy Cooper, to put a leash on her dog. Instead, Amy Cooper called the police and told them an African American man was threatening her. Racial incidents like this are not rare, especially in the outdoors. 

Representation matters. White people don’t experience “race-based stress” because their communities, classrooms, media, and outdoors are shared by people who predominantly resemble them. Everyone deserves to enjoy the outdoors, and yet not everyone can. White people need to address these disparities and work to make these white-dominated spaces inclusive for all.

Climate Change
Additionally, white people are less negatively impacted by climate change. Consider, for example, the impacts of climate change on urban heat islands. Urban heat islands raise temperatures in cities across the U.S., but Black neighborhoods are seeing significantly higher temperatures than white neighborhoods within the same city. How is this possible? Redlining. 

Starting back in the 1930s, city maps were color-coded and neighborhoods outlined in red signified “high risk” areas which discouraged banks from issuing mortgages in those areas. Residents in red-lined areas were often Black, which limited Black home ownership while creating opportunities for white residents. Alongside blocking this wealth-accumulation opportunity for Black families, cities didn’t invest in the development of redlined neighborhoods with things like greenspace, tree cover, and parks. That lack of development decades ago has current residents of historically redlined areas feeling the heat while white neighborhoods enjoy the cooling shade of mature trees. 

Redlining in Duluth separated the “risky” neighborhoods from “safe” ones depending on who lived there, not the quality of the housing stock. The neighborhoods that were redlined in Duluth primarily constituted of Black people and immigrants. Over time, white neighborhoods gained wealth from this initial loan discrimination practice, while other neighborhoods suffered. 

Not only are white people less impacted by climate change effects -- they are making money off of this crisis. As the frequency and magnitude of natural storms increases due to global warming, insurance companies receive more profit. Shipping companies have started saving transportation costs by using new routes through the Arctic due to melting ice caps. Many oil and gas companies are trying to claim newly discovered oil reserves in the melting Arctic. And the vast majority of executives of these companies are white. Eventually, the climate crisis will reach and harm all. For now, the rich continue to prosper as marginalized groups suffer.

Climate solutions must be intersectional in addressing disparities between race, sexuality, ability, gender, nationality, socioeconomic status, and many other identities. If white people continue to gatekeep sustainability and the outdoors, society will not be able to progress and tackle intertwined issues of justice and sustainability.

White Work
White people must work to dismantle these oppressive systems that have benefited only them for so long. This includes exploring your white identity and subsequent privileges. Absorb knowledge, ideas, and resources from a diverse array of sources. Address your privilege and get uncomfortable with it. Learn how you are contributing to oppressive societal systems and work to change that. Use your privilege to lift up minority voices and support their platforms. Engage other white people into conversations about intersectionality and race. Vote -- both with your rights and your wallet. 

Anti-racism is a continuous process without an end destination. The first step that white people must take is to get acquainted with their privilege, and then decide how to use it.