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Katharine Bierce headshot

Why Racism in the Environmental Movement Must Be Solved By White People

love and kindness are never wasted - art sign - anti-racism - disrupting white culture

If you’re a white person who cares about the environment and you wonder why there aren’t more Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) in your climate tech startup, environmental nonprofit or corporate sustainability program, keep reading. If you’re feeling like you’re struggling with trying to succeed in life, you want to “make a difference,” and not sure why however much money you make or whatever you accomplish doesn’t ultimately satisfy you, this is also for you.

I’ll start off by talking about some core aspects of white culture, white privilege, and how white culture impacts how we engage in communities around sustainability and the green energy transition. Examining white culture and white privilege are essential to diversity, equity and inclusion work, because work that is aimed at racial equity can ignore the background of white privilege that our society operates in. We need to take a bigger-picture view. 

As Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

White privilege is like an “invisible knapsack”

If you identify as white, you carry white privilege everywhere you go, even if you don’t realize it. Peggy McIntosh’s essay, "Unpacking the invisible knapsack," names 50 ways that white people have privilege, such as being able to walk into a retail store and not be suspected of shoplifting, never being asked to speak for all members of their racial group, and seeing people of my race widely represented in government and on TV.

As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk outline in an article for Grantmaking in the Arts, white culture is really hard to see because it is a set of “dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in the United States.” Just think: What does a “professional” look like? As Aysa Gray observed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, expectations of work attire, timeliness, speech patterns and work style are a few aspects of a bias toward white culture in the workplace.

White culture is a culture of separation 

More broadly, white culture is about creating separation. Separation looks like creating differences between you and me, belief in an “absolute truth” of what is “correct,” among other things. The Center for Community Organizations in Canada has outlined a summary of white supremacy culture in organizations. Have you encountered these values in your paid work or volunteering?

  • Perfectionism, including worship of the written word, “one right way,” and “either/or” thinking
  • Concentration of power, including power hoarding, paternalism and defensiveness
  • Right to comfort, including fear of open conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress is bigger/more, including objectivity, quantity over quality, and sense of urgency (the belief that “the ends justify the means”)

In this blog post, Heather Laine Talley expands on parts of white supremacy culture that she has observed in herself and others and that might be more specific to how white women bring white supremacist behaviors into the workplace, like:

  • Disavowal of power
  • Obsession with the future
  • Performative anti-racism
  • Over-delivering
  • Niceness above all else
  • Confusing informality with equity

Contrast the white supremacy culture of separation between self and other, human and non-human, to the Indigenous mindset of seeing nature as a family member. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book, "Braiding Sweetgrass," discusses the “grammar of animacy.” For example, Potawatomi has a lot of verbs, whereas English has a lot of nouns. If a bay is a verb, like “to be a bay” (think San Francisco bay for example), how can you possess a process? Whereas if you see nature as an “it” (like in English), rather than a relative, it becomes easier to see how white culture makes it easier to own, dominate, subjugate, and optimize nature rather than relating to nature as a relative to care for.

Coming back to climate action: This report from Indigenous Environmental Network highlights common issues with the nature-based solutions rhetoric. One example is that the exploitative power dynamics of colonialism and economic development are entrenched in “nature-based solution” approaches to climate change mitigation. (Thanks to Ian Tran for making me aware of that article.)

White culture — a mindset of separation — reduces the amount of joy you can experience 

You may be wondering: So what? Why should I care if white culture is dominant? How does white culture negatively impact my life as a white person?

As researcher Brene Brown shares in her famous TED talk with over 60 million views, we cannot selectively numb our emotions. If we use alcohol or a banana nut muffin (her example!) to numb fear or anger or other “negative” emotions, we also numb feelings of connection and joy. 

If you’re a man who has ever felt stifled by having to wear a tie to work, or if you’re a woman who has been told you’re “too emotional,” those are symptoms of white culture. These are examples of white culture because they are examples of Western bias in what counts as “professional” attire and the “rational” or “objective” over the “emotional” or “subjective.” 

More broadly, an obsession with the future over the present is a symptom of white culture since an obsession with accomplishing future goals can lead you to avoid being present with the joy that's available now. When was the last time you sang or danced or made art without caring what you looked like or what people thought of you? When have you last taken a vacation without checking email, or taken a week off from using a computer or smartphone?

While it’s healthy to be able to delay gratification to some degree, such as prioritizing exercise and cooking a healthy dinner over eating junk food and watching TV, focusing only on the future can lead to not celebrating what you have already. How often do you celebrate an accomplishment? How often does your organization take time to celebrate the accomplishments of its employees or volunteers? Making time for doing nothing and for celebration is one way of challenging white culture’s obsession with productivity. 

What does this mean for environmental sustainability work? If we want to make meaningful change, we need to investigate the patterns that keep causing advantage to some over others, both consciously and unconsciously. We need to investigate our inner systems so we can investigate and improve our outer systems. 

The psychology of self and other, ingroup and outgroup

As mammals, we see people close to us, like family, as “ingroup” members or “safe” and others or threats that might attack us as “outgroup” members. This is part of psychology called social identity theory: People tend to create and form groups of people they think are like themselves, and these can be based on any arbitrary characteristic.

Henri Tajfel and his colleagues found that people can form biases toward an in-group very quickly (in minutes!). These groups can form even based on completely arbitrary and invented discriminatory characteristics, such as preferences for certain paintings. And there is a neurological explanation for this based on activity in the fusiform gyrus area of the brain. Also, research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology indicates that individuals are faster and more accurate at recognizing the faces of ingroup compared to outgroup members.

How do we unstick ourselves from a culture of separation and from the harm that white supremacy culture has caused? The next of this two-part article examines some of the inner work that can get us there — click here to read it

Image credit: Ditto Bowo/Unsplash

Land Acknowledgment: Katharine is a Mayflower descendant who lives and works in unceded Lisjan Ohlone territory, what is now known as Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany, California. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an urban Indigenous women-led land trust that is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands, heal from historical trauma, and facilitate the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. May they be successful in their work!

Check out the (re)Biz one-month program for people who want to build a regenerative world and get unstuck from separation mindsets in sustainability work — note that you get $100 off if you mention my name as the referral source.

Katharine Bierce headshot

Katharine Bierce cares about bringing attention to what matters through marketing and mindfulness. She is a connector in business-driven social innovation with a tech marketing and startup background. In 2012, she was a Finalist for the Net Impact “Impact at Work” award for her “intrapreneurship” in a global employee volunteering group at work. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking and teaching yoga. Katharine graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Psychology from the University of Chicago.

Read more stories by Katharine Bierce