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community building | environment

EF!-We See Color And It Fucking Matters

Why are people of color so few in EF!? What patterns are perpetuated within EF! today that inhibit people of color from getting involved, and how can we change this?
Some of the authors of this article:
Some of the authors of this article: "No Nations! No State! Obama '08!"
Any serious discussion of race within our movement must begin with the candid recognition that Earth First! is a predominantly white movement. Following this recognition, a spring of interesting questions will naturally begin to arise from the curious, anti-racist, environmental activist. "Why are people of color so few in EF!? What patterns are perpetuated within EF! today that inhibit people of color from getting involved, and how can we change this? How can we better illustrate the connection between the struggles of people of color and ecocide? How can attitudes of white domination be dealt with openly and positively? What can I do?"

This was the general tone throughout the Anti-Authoritarian People of Color (POC) caucus at the EF! Winter Rendezvous in February. Moreover, we consistently came to the shared understanding that strategies for combating this not-so-invisible form of oppression are still in their infancy.

Why Caucus?

While many of us are tired of having to hold white people's hands with regard to recognizing privilege, the fact remains that there continues to be a simple misunderstanding—as well as outright ignorance and intolerance—about the need for an exclusively POC space.

Here's why we caucus: POC-only spaces serve as safe spaces in which those of us most directly affected by white supremacy can find solidarity with each other's shared experiences without having to deal with accusations of "reverse racism" and outbursts of white guilt. Moreover, they serve as a kind of social pressure valve where we may safely air our grievances. That way, outside of these spaces, we can have more productive conversations—keeping these feelings bottled up is emotionally and psychologically unhealthy, and is certainly not conducive to getting shit done.

So, for a few hours at the Winter Rondy, a voluntary and temporary line was drawn around a plastic tarp in the Everglades with about a dozen POC in attendance. During a simultaneous white auxiliary caucus, white allies gathered to discuss how they could use their privilege to support the struggles of people of color and oppose white supremacy in movements they are a part of. When we all came back together to continue with the gathering's workshops, we had a slightly better understanding that, although we are all inheritors of a long racist past, we have also inherited generations of hard-won progress in breaking free of that past. We shouldn't bring that progress to a halt by acting like we've already won, pretending that race is now a relatively negligible issue or claiming to be "colorblind."

White Dominance in EF!

Proceeding from the recognition of white dominance in EF!, the question arises of how historically dominating aspects of white culture are still embodied in EF! culture. White culture has been nurtured, defended and imposed by the forces of imperialism for centuries. This is the inescapable reality of white privilege: It has been bought with blood. Wherever white privilege is in use, without being understood and acknowledged for what it is, patterns of white supremacy are not far off. To the extent that white dominance and supremacy prevail in EF!, the movement will continue to be marginalized by enemies and potential friends alike as a movement stuck within its bubble of white privilege.

To illustrate the patterns of white dominance and supremacy experienced by participants in the POC caucus and by POC in the environmental movement as a whole, we have included a brief run-down of tendencies POC have consistently run across.

Dealing Constantly With Unchecked White Privilege—This ranges from the absurd assertion that "we are all colored" and/or "tribal" (own up to your whiteness, honkies) to the equally ridiculous claim that POC can "drop out" just as easily as white people (by squatting or dumpstering, which many POC do anyway as a matter of survival), to the insulting declaration that white people "know what it's like" or "understand" because they had the privilege of spending a Summer in Chiapas or some other "exotic" community of color. Also, white activists who live in "marginalized" subcultures still have white skin privilege and the ability to choose whether or not to remain marginalized, a luxury that people of color do not have.

Rampant Cultural Appropriation/Fetishizing Indigenous Cultures—This ranges from white people and their "tribal Earth rituals" and dreadlocks, to the war cries you hear at every protest, to the wolf howls at gatherings (which has the potential for being pretty disruptive to local wildlife patterns). You have your own culture(s) and ethnic roots that date back over millennia; research and embrace them instead of stealing ours. Added to this is an obsession with what is essentially the "noble savage" myth and the recurring imagery of POC with spears in literature that is not even about actual indigenous struggles.

Tokenization—This includes asking us for our "unique" opinion on something as if we could speak for the global community of POC, expecting us to do the necessary outreach to POC communities and expecting us to bottomline anti-racist and environmental justice organizing within our movement. These phenomena are annoying and offensive.

The unfortunate reality is that none of these things are new to POC within EF! (or the radical environmental movement as a whole). Our individual experiences echo those written about in the article, "Facing Off the Radical Environmental Lynch Mob" (see EF!J September-October 2004).

With examples like this, it is not hard to see why POC often haven't found EF! to be a welcoming and inclusive place. Understanding the ways in which a culture of white dominance excludes POC from participating in radical environmental movements is crucial when asking why those movements are so white. It's not like POC are less affected by environmental destruction than whites: Worldwide, environmental injustices are more often committed against communities of color. POC, as a socially and economically marginalized group, live in neighborhoods with the worst environmental conditions and countries with the lowest environmental standards. Within a bubble of white privilege, EF! is in a weak position to combat this problem and redraw the connections of environmental issues to issues of race and economy.

Typically, EF! is identified as a wilderness protection movement, fighting for the remaining unspoiled and undeveloped areas of the Earth. It's not hard to see how this complements the image of EF! as a white, middle-class movement—the folks who get to enjoy the wilderness are usually folks with the economic means, leisure time and social background to do so. It seems that, as long as the definitions of radical environmentalism extend only to the unspoiled or "uncompromised" landscape, its demographic will extend mostly to whites.

Beyond Tokenism

With these difficulties in sight, and a shared understanding of the long-term nature of this discussion, POC and whites have a lot of work to do in confronting white cultural domination in the movement. While many POC within EF! want to work on anti-racist organizing and are often more aware of patterns of white supremacy, exclusivity and racism in the movement, it is imperative that they are not expected to take on the bulk of the burden of dismantling said patterns. White allies must work to be aware of these issues, using their privilege to challenge them and ensuring that there is an active anti-racist organizing component to EF!.

Developing this anti-racist framework within our movement will also help avoid tokenizing POC. Too often, white-dominated movements believe that the first step in anti-racist action is bringing in POC. This can stem from a belief that a movement that is multiracial will also be anti-racist. It ignores the dynamics of white cultural superiority that create a movement that is not truly inclusive, and it trivializes the organizing in which POC are already engaged. It is crucial that we simultaneously confront issues of white supremacy within our organization and work to build solidarity with POC-led organizations and campaigns.

There are many POC-led organizations working on transformative campaigns that EF!, as a predominately white movement, could support. Indeed, some examples of this kind of solidarity include support for indigenous resistance to the 2010 Winter Olympics and EF!ers marching with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for fair wages and working conditions.

Looking Ahead

With the last few minutes of the POC caucus, participants brainstormed how to make future Rendezvous more open, inclusive and hospitable to the rest of our POC comrades. Sitting in the middle of a swamp, miles away from the nearest urban body, it wasn't hard to imagine how attending this conference could be far fetched for people of some demographics: The ability to get enough time off from work to go out into the woods for a crazy camping trip is a privilege many folks in cities can't afford. While zero caucus members advocated having fewer conferences in swamps, the idea for an urban environmental conference, focusing on urban environmental issues, sparked plenty of excitement. Possible plans for a radical POC environmental/animal liberation gathering also surfaced. The call for strong anti-oppression and anti-racist workshops at every Rondy, including more caucuses of this type, was echoed around the tarp.

It is also important to honestly evaluate the culture of EF! and identify ways that it perpetuates white privilege. This will help ensure that the transformations that need to happen in order for EF! to become an inclusive movement don't just end at the Summer or Winter gatherings. For example, the EF! focus on civil disobedience at actions creates a situation where POC, who are often targeted by the police, may not be able to comfortably participate in actions. To help with this, we need to have more open conversations and analysis of our movement's culture.

In closing, it's necessary to emphasize that, while this report sets out to demand recognition of the unpleasant realities of white domination within our movement, it is not the intention of POC to stir up more feelings of white guilt within EF!: Guilt is never proactive. Instead, POC in EF! hope to further the conversation around developing a strong anti-racist framework within our movement and encourage our white allies to act on these issues.

It is also not our intention to establish the fight against white supremacy above or before fights against other forms of oppression: In fact, in short fragments throughout this article, the word "white" could have been substituted with words such as "male," "straight," "middle-class" or "able-bodied." We also encourage people within the radical environmental movement to realize that we cannot build a strong and powerful movement to oppose environmental destruction without incorporating a deep understanding of the links between ecocide and all other forms of oppression. The habit of separating race, class and environmental struggles with contrived divisions is a privilege that we, as one movement in a shrinking world, can no longer afford.