It's Time for Environmental Studies to Own Up to Erasing Black People

Many aspects of environmental scholarship are inaccessible to Black students, including textbooks that don't acknowledge our history, and field work requirements that are ignorant of Black criminalization in the outdoors.
June 11, 2020, 3:39pm
Black environmentalist Wanjiku Gatheru standing in the wilderness
While I have dedicated the past four years of my life to the environmental movement, I still don't feel at home. Photo courtesy of author
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

More than 3,000 scientists from around the world stopped working on Wednesday to participate in the Strike for Black Lives, an event held in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the ongoing global protests against the racist killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people at the hands of police. There have also been hundreds of statements of solidarity from the environmental community in recent weeks, each seasoned with long overdue promises of a renewed commitment to a diverse and inclusive movement.

While I should feel relieved by these gestures I do not. Virtue signaling is not enough. What’s really needed is for the environmental community to own up to the slow violence that comes with our erasure.

It is no secret that the environmental movement’s history is red with the blood of Indigenous genocide. Many of the movement’s founding fathers, such as Madison Grant, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, were white supremacists that created the language of conservation to accommodate racialized conceptions of nature. Inspired by European Romanticism, these conceptions laid the groundwork for establishing environments worth protecting, and for whom.

Less is said about how this legacy continues to inform green scholarship. According to environmental law scholar Jedidiah Purdy, white-led conservatism continues to sit in tension with the environmental protection of communities of color. As a result, mainstream environmental scholarship reflects the interests of the mostly white and wealthy—at the exclusion of the lived experiences of people of color and Indigenous folks.

I experienced this first hand as a student, the only Black person in my programs and clubs.

As a budding environmental scholar, I spent my undergraduate career searching for my face amid my textbooks and classrooms. Staple environmental texts such as A Sand County Almanac and Desert Solitaire illustrated humanless landscapes that magnified the interests of my classmates and left mine in the dust. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to learn from an instructor of color or to delve into the science of traditional ecological knowledge, but it never came. The sparse mentions of Black history that did were almost always in reference to subjugation of the land, counter to the dynamic history I know to be the cornerstone of the Black diaspora experience.

Black person studying plants

Black people are rarely seen in environmental textbooks and classrooms. Photo by author

I couldn’t help but feel alone and frustrated. While my classmates and professors grew in perspective, I was stunted with exhaustion. I invested all of my intellectual labor in forcing my narrative into those spaces, heaving at the pain of explaining the error in my deletion. How could I remain in a field struggling to find worth in my life?

This question followed me into the halls of the Udall Scholar Orientation, a celebration of the nation’s most promising environmental scholars. I was one of four Black scholars in a space where no Black alumni, practitioners, or staff were invited. In the week of programming, not once were our crucial narrative and lived experience as Black people referenced. Even in a room that epitomized environmental leadership, we were nowhere to be found. Our lives didn’t matter. I cried on the flight home.

People of color experience climate grief more deeply than white people, because we are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and have a long history of racial terror. We also feel grief in being forgotten in a movement tasked with solving the biggest threat to our lives.

This erasure goes beyond the classroom. Mainstream, white-centered environmentalism designs the way the community operates and informs what—and whom—is funded, prioritized, and supported.According to the 2014 Green 2.0 report, people of color comprise 36 percent of the U.S. population, but account for only 12 to16 percent of the staff of environmental organizations, and it’s been like that for decades. A 2019 update shows that diversity has actually declined in recent years.

Why I Quit Being a Climate Activist

If I’m honest, I’ve considered leaving. Sometimes, I still do. But unlike many of my classmates, I did not choose my area of study on the basis of a childhood curiosity. I chose it out of fear of a climate future that ignores Black lives.

Just weeks ago, the environmental community watched Amy Cooper criminalize Christian Cooper, a Black birder and innocent bystander, in Central Park. As the community erupted in disbelief over the altercation, I couldn't help but notice the stark parallels in environmental scholarship. While organizations and labs strategically speak the language of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in grant applications and job descriptions, they do not have the collective lived experience to be aware of the tradition of Black criminalization in the outdoors, let alone any safety protocols for students and employers required to complete field work.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In the wake of the Central Park incident, Black environmentalists around the world created a social movement celebrating the joy of #BirdingWhileBlack. While the goal was initially to normalize Black people’s existence in the birding and natural sciences community, it revealed what our movement could look like if it were accessible to all of us. A week of programming not only led to authentic conversations surrounding racial equity and the outdoors, but it also sparked action. The National Wildlife Federation pledged to dedicate part of their Fellowship and Intern Programs to young biologists of color.

The good news is that the environmental community is finally waking up. Just last week Nature voiced the need for the enterprise of science to commit to working to end anti-Black practices in research.

Imagine what a year could do.

Celebrating Black life is not simply to mourn it; it is to affirm it. This is not new. Black scholars and environmentalists have been doing this work, actively and persistently. Implementing anti-racism into existing institutions needs time and a budget line. It’s not to depend on Black colleagues to do the work. Harvard Medical School’s student body president LaShyra Nolen put it best on Twitter: “If your anti-racism includes soliciting the free labor of Black students and faculty then you're doing it wrong.”

It’s time for the environmental community to learn from us, not exploit us. It’s time to open up your purse, listen, and change. It’s time to reimagine what it means to affirm Black life, reimagine what this movement could look like, made in the image of all of us.

Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru is a recent graduate from the University of Connecticut. She is the first Black person in history to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall scholarships. Follow her on Twitter.

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