In the past week something took place reminding me (once again) how far we have to go to dismantle systems of oppression within the environmental movement.
It looked like this:
Ugandan Climate Activist (and Ally of our youth lead climate justice movement African Climate Alliance), Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of a photo with fellow activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille.
As African Climate Alliance, we released the following statement:
“Our Ugandan ally @vanessanakate1 (23) has rightfully accused the Associated Press news agency of racism during the @worldeconomicforum after they cropped her out of an image featuring fellow climate activists @gretathunberg, @luisaneubauer, @isabelleax_, and @loukinatille (swipe to see the original picture).
This is what the perpetuation of white supremacy looks like. It is these tone-deaf decisions (even if they are subconscious) that actively erase Africans and people of color from the climate justice conversation – even though they are the most important voices in this movement. In a heartfelt video she posted on Twitter (link in our bio), Vanessa explained that this was the first time she truly knew what the word racism meant. She has later said that the Press ‘didn’t just erase a photo, you erased a continent’. Keep going Vanessa, Africa is behind you all the way.”
Some people suggested that Vanessa should have positioned herself in the middle of the photo or that it made stylistic sense to crop her out of the photograph because the other four activists were closer together and all looking at the same camera. Here’s why both these statements are problematic:
- Vanessa shouldn’t need to think about positioning herself differently out of fear of being cropped out. No white activist would have to think about this. Therefore why should she?
- If it was really about a stylistic reasoning I believe the image would have then cropped out the other white women next to Vanessa who was looking at the same camera that she was.
This is only one of many examples where white supremacy and racism is perpetuated in the environmental movement. I have spoken out about this before and I’ll say it again: environmentalism that doesn’t dismantle systems of racism and colonialism is just white supremacy in a morphed form. Lest we forget that white supremacy and colonialism are exactly what got us into this environmental mess in the first place!
Don’t believe me. Watch this talk by youth climate activist Jaime Margolin:
For my fellow white people: dismantling and unlearning racism and white supremacy is no easy task and I don’t have all the answers. (heck just by being white means despite our best efforts we will be complicit to it a lot of the time). All I do know is that it is a lifelong commitment that takes a lot of inner work, learning and unlearning, listening and trying to let go of the entitlement we’ve been taught we deserve.
I once heard a great analogy for it that went something like this:
Unlearning white supremacy is like being in a sinking boat. You have to constantly scoop the water out of your boat to prevent it from sinking completely.