The Big White Middle-Class Problem With Environmental Activism

Photo by Ilenia Tesoro / EyeEm
Much of the coverage and consternation around Extinction Rebellion's (XR) "climate rebellion" involved calling out white middle-class activists, who many said could afford to take time off work to protest. The protestors got slack for purchasing single-use plastics and takeaway lunches as they brought parts of London to a standstill last month. Of course, much of this was a lazy attempt to deflect discussion from the real issues the movement is designed to draw attention to (our current ecological and climate emergency, no less); but that doesn't mean this iteration of climate activism is beyond criticism – especially when it comes to diversity and inclusivity.
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Earlier this month, the grassroots collective Wretched of the Earth (comprised of members of Black Lives Matter UK, various anticapitalist groups and others) wrote an open letter effectively calling on Extinction Rebellion to check its privilege, and to better understand the centuries-old colonial projects that have caused the climate crisis. "For centuries, racism, sexism and classism have been necessary for this system to be upheld, and have shaped the conditions we find ourselves in," the letter said. "In order to envision a future in which we will all be liberated from the root causes of the climate crisis – capitalism, extractivism, racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other systems of oppression – the climate movement must reflect the complex realities of everyone’s lives in their narrative."
A fortnight prior, gal-dem's Leah Cowan charged XR with "whitewashing climate justice" with its focus on civil disobedience, i.e. getting arrested. The group's rhetoric, she wrote, "fails to recognise that the very institutions they are so keen to interact with, such as police and prisons, have been systematically killing people of colour and lacerating our communities since day one."

It falls on people of colour within climate groups to actively educate the rest.

Simmone Ahiaku, 21
Simmone Ahiaku, 21, fossil-free campaigns coordinator at People & Planet, agrees that XR's "glorifying of arrests" and perception of the police and criminal justice system as benign structures "smacks of race and class privilege". Ahiaku credits them for bringing the issue to the masses in the UK but like Wretched of the Earth, she also argues that it glosses over the historical causes and impact of the problem. "I do think Extinction Rebellions are exclusionary to people of colour," she told Refinery29.
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Courtesy of Simmone Ahiaku
In her own capacity as an activist, Ahiaku says she has felt unwelcome in university climate societies because of their "lack of race and class analysis". On one occasion when she emphasised the disproportionate impact of rising sea levels on low-lying Pacific islands in the global south, her fellow activists "did not entirely understand how it was specifically a 'race issue', so [they] thought it would be better to frame this as 'all people are suffering under climate change'."
"This is something several of my PoC climate peers have also found frustrating, because it falls on people of colour within these climate groups to actively educate the rest, when there should be a collective effort to not only understand racism and the different ways it manifests, but the ways we can tackle it."
Youssra Elmagboul, 21, co-president of equality and liberation at the SOAS students' union, has felt similarly out of place. She told Refinery29 she didn't take part in XR's civil disobedience actions out of "fear [of] the white, Eurocentric narrative around climate change activism". "Though I've had my criticisms of climate marches in the past, it has never stopped me from going to them because it is hard to have a movement that perfectly aligns itself to all of your political beliefs. The difference with XR is that it is fundamentally based on an ideology (so-called 'civil disobedience') that I cannot engage with."
Courtesy of Youssra Elmagboul
Elmagboul believes a movement that puts arrest at the forefront, as XR does, "is not only exclusionary to people of colour, it is offensive. To not recognise the racist and brutal nature of the police and the experience people of colour have with them, is in itself racist," and ignores "the very real and violent struggle that people of colour and, in particular, black people have when interacting with the police on a daily basis." She says that while some XR supporters have told her they are strategically using their white privilege to garner media and government attention for its aims, she doesn't believe this sentiment is recognised by the group as a whole.
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"When the movement release a video that says they do not want to give more work to the 'overworked and undervalued police force', they tap into the white, liberal belief that the police are here to serve and protect everyone. I just cannot imagine thousands of people of colour collecting peacefully and it not being seen as a 'threat' or 'endangering' members of the public."
Zamzam Ibrahim, 24, vice president of society and citizenship at the National Union of Students, believes the recent spurt of interest in climate change in the global north, just as we're beginning to feel its impact ourselves, is itself indicative of our privilege – and this extends way beyond XR to other groups. "For decades, our families and communities in the global south have faced land exploitation and poisoning, toxic waste dumping and ecological disasters," she emphasises. "While entire communities were facing catastrophe in the '80s from climate catastrophes, [the wider environmental movement] chose to focus on penguins, polar bears and fluffy animals, thereby sending the clear message that they did not care about these communities."

I just cannot imagine thousands of people of colour collecting peacefully and it not being seen as a 'threat'.

Youssra Elmagboul, 21
As for the accusation that climate activism is "just a group of middle-class left-wing activists", XR pre-empts this criticism on the FAQ section of its website. "Extinction Rebellion is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world. From under 18 to over 80 year olds – there are thousands of people willing to put their liberty on the line to fight the climate and ecological emergency and protect biodiversity and atmospheric health," it says, but admits it needs to do more to welcome the less financially secure, who cannot afford to skip work and/or risk arrest for the cause. "We are working to improve diversity in our movement."
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"I’m a black, Zimbabwean-born and raised person and have felt welcomed from the moment I started at Extinction Rebellion," says Samantha Moyo, who works between the group's International Solidarity, Media and Messaging and Regenerative Culture teams. She says one of the group's founders introduced her to an elder woman of African heritage "so that I could speak to someone should any emotions arise regarding postcolonial pain".
The group is launching a new programme called Extinction Rebellion Together, Moyo says, which focuses on anti-racism, decolonisation and anti-oppression. "We are beginning with a training programme for the internal teams and will then start hosting public events to better understand [critiques and] barriers of entry that people of colour and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may have."
She highlights the fact that people of colour can work for XR in other ways without being on the frontline and being targeted by police, and that it offers volunteer living expenses to everyone regardless of their role, gender or race. "The expenses system is based on need rather than status or skills, so you end up with the people who are traditionally paid less for their work claiming more than those normally on higher salaries."
While the rhetoric surrounding climate change is in many places still too individualistic and focused on consumers' capacity to shun plastic and take public transport – as opposed to challenging the massive corporations responsible for the majority of carbon emissions (and disproportionately ruining lower income people's lives around the world) – positive change is happening. Other groups are also striving to put people of colour at the forefront of their goal to fight climate change and lobby the government: Elmagboul points to SOAS' Decolonising Environmentalism society, while People & Planet and of course Wretched of the Earth share a similar vision. Greta Thunberg's #YouthStrike4Climate has engaged a new age demographic on the importance of environmental protection and standing up to authority, while the newly launched Labour campaign for a Green New Deal seeks to bring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's vision of greater economic equality and climate justice to the UK.
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