What of the fact that they were white and I was brown? What of the fact that the systems we were to green were built by white people for white people?
This morning I attended an environmental roundtable where I was a minority. Again. I was one of four brown people in a Zoom of 26. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but when the well-intentioned moderator speaks in her gentle voice, my heart pounds almost out of my chest. My hands begin to shake.
Today’s topic is how to get more BIPOC to join the organizations represented by the white faces Brady Bunched on my screen. After all, do we know ecological collapse disproportionately impacts us? I am in a room of white people discussing how to get more folks who look like me to join their organizations. I feel both invisible and neon. Although my abstract desired presence is neon, my real presence feels invisible.
Since my face is in a square on everyone’s screen, I work to neutralize my features; a skill I’m developing so I can attend these meetings. I have been asked to not attend, fired even, because I couldn’t contain my outrage. That is, I lacked the ability, or desire, to make people feel comfortable. One could say I exuded an aggressiveness that made my impassioned questions and rants feel personal. I can own that. I thought I was an environmentalist with other environmentalists outraged about environmental injustice, indignant with our sloth-paced bureaucracy in the midst of ecological collapse.
I was not.
I have been asked to not attend, fired even, because I couldn’t contain my outrage.
I was challenging people’s sense of their own virtue, their goodness. What of the fact that they were white and I was brown? What of the fact that the systems we were to green were built by white people for white people? Whether I made them uncomfortable because of what I said, how I said it, or because I was a brown woman or some combination, I cannot definitively know. I just know that when the same sentiments spill from white mouths, they are lauded. Upon reflection, I now wonder if compliance with bureaucracy signifies a collusion with prevailing systems that epitomizes supremacy: we work within systems because they serve, protect, and reward us. I guess I was rocking that boat. After all, ecological collapse disproportionately impacts us.
But now, in the wake of #BLM, white people want BIPOC in their organizations. Would this be an objective if they weren’t suddenly newly aware of this country’s perennial racial issues? Was it a priority when racism was over in the Obama years? Are they equally interested in evolving their mission to accommodate the needs and dreams of those they want to bring aboard? Who does diversifying their organizations serve?
I wonder if the people in the room understand the miles of privilege—their own personally as well as systemic—between environmental injustice and prairie restoration. It is within these miles of native plants and solar panels that BIPOC fall into the global roadside ditches of extractive capitalism, become road kill on the way to the Green New Deal, once again sacrificed as externalized costs in economies and structures that never meant to account for BIPOC in the first place.
This fear feels confirmed with the opening activity: describe your favorite place in nature. I myself have opened presentations with this innocuous icebreaker. But today, as we each describe where we go to meditate or walk, images flash through my mind. I see avocado plantations run by drug cartels in Mexico, the villages in China where electronics get “recycled,” uranium mines in Bolivia. I think of indigenous land defenders threatened with death for protecting their homes and way of life; not an outdoor area where they do yoga. I see a thread between access to natural spaces in the global north and extractive practices in the global south. Maybe that thread is more of a fulcrum leveraged on the backs of the global south. It is a form of privilege to be preoccupied with protecting natural places here while everything we consume comes through destruction of natural places elsewhere. That privilege turns to supremacy when global northerners, whose relations have colonized 90% of this planet in the pursuit of empire, want BIPOC, whose relations have been and are continually displaced for empire, to then add color to their websites.
I begin to sweat. White fragility has burned me hotter than the heat flooding me now. Then again, aren’t we all fragile? Maybe my own fragility is a lens through which I eye their intent with suspicion and scrutinize their language.
It is a form of privilege to be preoccupied with protecting natural places here while everything we consume comes through destruction of natural places elsewhere.
But damn, even the phrase—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It reinforces, once again, that this is about white people because it centers whiteness. It gives whiteness the power to include, to determine equity, and above all, to determine what and who is diverse from it.
Imagine an all-black organization with a DEI policy scouting white people, without understanding, maybe even unaware that they are ignorant of the historical and lived experiences of those they want to recruit. Yeah, that makes me feel fragile. My right eye twitches and my poker face begins to disintegrate.
I have to speak.
I acknowledge my pounding heart and clammy palms, my vulnerability in frequently being the only brown woman in these conversations. I want them to understand that inviting people to the table makes them the owner of the table; it doesn’t equalize power. And if they invite people to the table, they have to learn to cook and serve what those people want rather than assume what they dish out is appetizing or even palatable to others. If the meal you serve doesn’t nourish in deep and broad ways, they won’t come back. It may even make more sense to try to get invited to other tables. Further, just because us diverse folks aren’t talking to them, doesn’t mean we’re not talking. To paraphrase David Bowie:
and these people you’re ignorant of
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations
they’re quite aware of what they’re going through
Since I allowed my heart to speak, it returns to its natural rhythm. I wait. Maybe for pushback, maybe for judgment, I don’t know. Will my comments impact the conversation’s trajectory? Fragility—no, vulnerability—draws my shoulders to my ears. I breathe deeply and shimmy them down with the assurance that I spoke with calm clarity and truth in an effort to help us evolve into an equitable and pluralistic, not diverse, community.
I am thanked for sharing. A woman ponders how awkward it would be to go to other tables to offer her services. I respond. You’re not going there to offer your services. Not just yet, anyway. You’re going there to learn. To learn what it is to be the minority, to be disoriented as one would in another culture. You’re going there to experience what you are asking for from BIPOC who are historically accustomed to expect hostility from people who look like you. Who expect to be used, once again, by you for your agenda. You’re going there to learn humility and vulnerability. You’re going there to listen. Deeply. To hear what may transform you and your organization, if you allow it. After all, ecological collapse disproportionately impacts us.
Although originally from Egypt, Mary Silwance is a mother, gardener, poet, environmental writer, and speaker living in Kansas City. While her poetry appears in numerous publications, Mary explores environmental issues from an intersection of justice and spirituality at tonicwild.blogspot.com. She is a recent recipient of the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship for environmental nonfiction.