Is your climate activism “just about white”?

During the 2016 primaries, my brother emailed me to complain about some Black Lives Matter protesters who had shown up at a Bernie Sanders rally, resulting in the rally ending before Bernie could speak. My brother said that the protesters should support Bernie because he’s a leftist. An avid environmentalist who named his son after Teddy Roosevelt, my brother believed what I and many people believed, which is that our planet’s climate could barely survive another mainstream Democratic administration, let alone a Republican one, and his passion for Bernie Sanders made him all the more resentful of protesters who he thought should have been on “our” side.

My brother, like many white people, was not aware of the extent to which white supremacy was still wreaking havoc in the lives of Black people, and like most people, he was not aware of what he was not aware of. But that didn’t stop him from having opinions about other people’s awareness. “Those BLM protesters don’t understand the stakes! They can’t see that the climate crisis is more important than the issue of police brutality!” Psychological projection is a defense mechanism that people use in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Rather than admit to and deal with the thought or feeling in themselves, they project it onto someone else. This contributes to a situation with so many white people believing that Black people are violent when any honest assessment of the history of cross-racial violence would show that whites have by far been the more violent party. In the same way, many whites project their own denial about racial realities onto people of color by saying that those people of color are in denial about the environment, or the importance of voting, or some other issue that is of concern to white people.

So what’s my point in bringing this up? Is it to shame my brother? No. He’s just a product of his conditioning. Is it to make myself look good? No, I’m a product of my conditioning as well. But it is worth asking, if both my brother and I are white, how is it that we were conditioned so differently when it comes to perceptions of racial realities? Well, in fact, my brother and I are not exactly white. Our mom is a white woman from the midwest, and our father was a brown-skinned immigrant from Iran. I like to say that I’m half Midwestern and half Middle Eastern. Most people are surprised when I tell them I’m half Iranian, because they looked at me, but my brother’s Iranian heritage is actually much easier to tell from his appearance, and yet, somehow I could more easily see that the BLM protesters’ cause was just. 

What was going on? Well, I’m three and a half years older than my brother, and our parents divorced when I was 7, so my brother doesn’t even remember living with our biological father. In addition, four years later our white mom and white step-dad encouraged us to change our names from common Iranian names to more American-sounding names, right as we were moving from Berkeley to the largely white suburb of Moraga, California. As a result of this, both my brother and I went from having foreign-sounding names and a multicultural family and living in a multicultural town to having white-sounding names, an all-white family and living in a mostly white town, but for my brother these changes took place at a much younger age. Obviously, there are probably many other factors influencing our racial consciousness, but this one can’t be overlooked.

To be white is to be steeped in denial, another common psychological defense mechanism and a major characteristic of white supremacy culture. Denial about our past (enslavement of Africans, genocide of native Americans), and therefore denial about our present (what the current social order says about people from different groups). All people have problems, even white people. And all people’s problems are real, even white people’s. And all people believe that their problems are important and deserve attention. But to be white is to be in denial about the fact that there are a whole host of problems that we will never have. Denial about white privilege comes from the inability to accept just how much more difficult life would be if we didn’t have everything that we have. And that is very human. No one wants to think about how lucky they are to have what they have, because that will force them to think about how much harder life could be, and that’s scary.

One of the things we white people have is a history without enslavement, and the accumulated generational wealth and opportunities that were only made possible because of the exploitation of Black bodies. And we definitely don’t like thinking about how lucky we are to have the history we have, because the history is past. If my ancestors participated in a racist economy for their own benefit, but due to their own financial choices I grew up with less wealth than I’d like anyway, I’m much less likely to want to acknowledge that legacy.

My brother and other white environmentalists and 2016 Bernie supporters are right to be concerned about climate denial. To be a functioning member of civilization in the 21st century, we must not think about how lucky we are to have a functioning ozone layer, how nice it is when fires, droughts, hurricanes, and floods aren’t a daily occurrence, or how much of our abundance  of wealth and opportunities depends on the exploitation of fossil fuels. And in order to not think about those things, we have to be in denial about the fact that life could be much, much harder—either because we would have to find another way to do the work that we currently depend on fossil fuels for, or because we may one day have to live on a planet much less hospitable to our needs due to climate change. Many white people hate “identity politics,” not realizing that white people invented identity politics by inventing race. By inventing whiteness in order to justify anti-Blackness. Research shows that white people are more likely to be in denial about climate change than people of color. White identity is rooted in denial.

Ending white supremacy is essential to combating climate change because the root of our nation’s pathological state of denial is found in the origins of white supremacy. White climate and environmental activists for too long have said that the environment is a more pressing concern, which might be true if it were possible to address it without first addressing white supremacy, but it is not. Fixing the climate crisis without first addressing racism is like trying to stage a mutiny on a slave ship without first freeing the slaves. It makes no sense, it’s delusional, and it comes from a mindset of unexamined denial and white supremacy thinking.

If you believe, as I believe, that the climate crisis must be fixed, you probably also shake your head at the generations of Americans who have passed the buck since the threat of climate change was first discovered in the 1950s. Well, consider this: there were Europeans in the Americas who knew that slavery and white supremacy were wrong as early as the 1500s. If you are a white environmentalist and you truly want humanity to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, lead by example. Follow BIPOC environmentalists and get involved in antiracist activism. Two mantras that I live by are “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything” and “you can’t change one thing without changing everything.” Our carbon-based economy is part of a racist system. The green utopia we dream of must be an antiracist one.

How does your identity shape your perception of the world? As change makers, we must be aware of our conditioning in order to step outside of exploitative systems and eradicate them. And as people, our quality of life will also be improved the more we understand our inner worlds. The truth may hurt, but in the end, the truth can only set us free.

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