Though the news about the spike in violence against Asian, Asian diasporic, and Asian American people has faded from the front page, the structural violence against them still happens. I want to highlight two friends who wrote amazing articles this month. This post features excerpts from them, and links to the originals as well as resources.
Tony Butterfly Pham and Tomi Nagai-Rothe wrote pieces a couple weeks after eight people, including six Asian women, were shot and killed near Atlanta. Butterfly asked, “Why do the most vulnerable among us have to die before we see them?”
Say their names: Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, and Young Ae Yue.
Butterfly reflects on his upbringing: “Don’t rock the boat” is an English cultural warning against saying something that may upset people…I can feel the force of intergenerational trauma and cultural conditioning of “politeness” pressuring me towards silence, not wanting to “rock the boat.” I feel my own woundings getting triggered, and to the six Asian women who were gunned down, I see you. And as part of seeing you, my intention is to practice right speech and right view to honor your lives, even if it causes discomfort to myself and others. Discomfort is not much to ask of those of us that can still breathe. The six Asian women who are dead can no longer speak.
In the remainder of the article Butterfly speaks to the broader system of patriarchy and racism that enabled a 21-year-old white Evangelical to commit murder. He connects it to the governmental history of violence against Asian people (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the colonialist wars in East and Southeast Asia, the harassment of citizens descended from the Middle East and South Asia after 9/11, and the former president racializing the COVID-19 virus with names like “kung flu.”) Throughout dealing with these abuses, many in the various targeted communities kept quiet out of fear and passed on the tradition of not speaking out to their children. Butterfly concludes by sharing his experience, and reason for breaking with that tradition to speak out:
My experience of getting raised in an Asian household meant being socialized to “save face,” which often meant not “making trouble.” As I feel the anger, despair, frustration, rage, and sadness in my body at the murder of six Asian women, I cannot ethically keep quiet. While white supremacy has exploited certain Asian social norms by “rewarding” silence with assimilation, I believe that Asian Americans can apply our location at the crossroads of multiple cultures as a tool for social justice. Being Asian and being American are not exclusive to one another. We can take pride in weaving our heritage into identity, and exercise a fundamental right of the United States: freedom of speech. May we use it wisely.
Tomi shares memories of racism from childhood and carries questions about the silence of other baby boomer white folks in the face of increasing vulnerability that she faces as she heads into elderhood.
“All the news of the past month and the past year – being killed for being Black, Latino, Asian or Indigenous – has been going on for centuries and is, in fact, the norm in this country. It is what this country was founded upon and what continues to fuel our economy.” And so when our blood, sweat, and tears are the fuel, no wonder it’s hard for people accustomed to using the fuel for decades to truly be bewildered as to the recent violence. In her next paragraphs, Tomi invites us to act, even if we are bewildered.
“I hope that what I have written is profoundly disturbing – especially if you have been upset by recent acts of racial violence. You should not be surprised at all because our economic, military, workforce, policing and incarceration, and land “ownership” systems are all working precisely as designed: to extract as much money and control as possible from communities of color and the natural environment at whatever cost. This includes making food, medicine and clean water difficult or impossible to access – and outright killing people.
The panorama of visible and invisible violence in this country hurts me, hurts my family and hurts millions upon millions of people who are survivors of racist violence spawned by the society that we live and breathe.”
I join Tomi in her hope is that even if you have not experienced racist violence yourself, you will be moved to action. It’s urgent, as she says pointedly “I have heard from White friends that they don’t have enough time to become informed or get involved. So my question is, What is the threshold at which this crisis of racist violence becomes both urgent and important enough to take action?”
She continues” This is not a rhetorical question. This is a real question aimed at saving lives. When does inaction stop and outrage and engagement begin? For people of faith the bar is higher because every major wisdom tradition centers the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.”
Part 1 and Part 2 are here in full, and they have links to resources where you can learn more and take action, from a 5 minute action to a deep dive!! It’s an amazing list ranging from addressing the Doctrine of Discovery to doing trauma-informed care.
I continue to be so grateful for Tomi and Butterfly’s words and inspirational presence in my life and the world. Even as we change months, let us deepen our commitment to protecting, truly appreciating, and building together with Asian folx.
In the midst of an extremely tough season for me mentally, Goddexx gave me the strength to preach the gospel, on Earth Day!
An altar call was traditionally a moment to invite sinners to repent, give their life to Jesus, and transform their way of living. The event of Earth Day is a global invitation for us to examine sinful racial capitalism, experience Jesus’ incarnation anew, and make (re)commitments to transform how we live.
In this video, I invite people to be converted back to their humanity through these questions:
How do you see, feel, experience the earth being crucified? If you were to make a station of the cross, what would be included?
How can your community better prioritize the saving of soil in addition to the saving of souls?
“What do you need to break free from the clutches of [industrial growth society, corporate petro chemical capitalism – the structure of sin that is holding us all hostage]?” How can your community support you in breaking free from this system? (We are in this together!)
Sarah’s note: I am grateful for the chance to have met Azmera, a poet who dreams and schemes with verses biblical and lyrical. We work together in the building of a political home for Black Christians for justice in Israel and Palestine, birthed out of the Black Church Call to End Israeli Apartheid (Haftara) that was conceived in the long legacy of solidarity currently. This nascent political home being nurtured in the organizational embrace of Friends of Sabeel North America. I was so focused on a reparations project and PhD coursework when all of this was happening, I could only get around to signing the petition and writing a quick personal email to Dr. West. Thank goodness there are others — Azmera specifically — who could and did the labor to give voice to our hearts as young scholar-activists of African descent whose future in the academy was already precarious before this happened.
What follows is her piece in its entirety. Shukran and mahalo, camarada. ❤
Dr. Cornel West, A Black Christian 4 Palestine
When I traveled to Palestine for the first time my heart was cracked open and shattered into a million pieces. I listened to Palestinians tell me about their homes being demolished, about military night raids, about neighborhoods being bombed for target practice. I listened to former Israeli Defense Soldiers confess to the inhumane evils they were asked to commit upon innocent civilians and I couldn’t help but to wonder what our Black Christian tradition had to say about this. When I heard Dr. West describe Jesus as a Palestinian Jew of Nazareth my curiosity spiked. What did he mean by that? I thought to myself. I met Dr. Cornel West in his course on the Philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois during my first semester of graduate school at Harvard. As a Masters of Theological Studies student focused on African/American religions I knew I’d gain so much wisdom from the class, but I couldn’t have known how many questions it’d open up for me moving forward. Years earlier, in my Popular Culture of the Middle East course while in undergrad at USC someone mentioned that there was no such thing as an Arab Jew, and that perplexed me further. Why would someone think that? And who benefitted from such a conception? I thought again.
In al-Khalil, the city where my grandfather was from, I saw dusty doors of buildings that made up a once vibrant marketplace on al-Shuhada street spray painted with the words “Death to Arabs” as young seven year old boys beckoned me for coins. The look in their eyes screamed “help me, please” but what could little old me possibly do? As I reached inside my pocket for some change I felt helpless knowing my efforts would be dismal. The boys reminded me of the beggars I’d frequently see on the bus ride to Bonoco station in Salvador Bahia, Brasil whenever I entered the community at Cosme de Farias for Capoeira class. Even there, I wondered what the Black prophetic tradition had to say about the pressures of poverty, war and racism. I saw white evangelicalism justify the anti-Black practices that attacked the marginal and religion weaponized to maintain the status quo. When I met Christians at Sabeel, a Palestinian Liberation Theology center in Jerusalem, I began to see a proverbial light, but the tunnel to freedom still seemed so dim and slim. I kept recalling Harvard’s motto, Veritas (Truth in Greek), and Dr. West’s words:
“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”
The structural violence was all too familiar; from the tear gas, to the community surveillance, to the corrupt court hearings and hired infiltrators, the same form of racist policing that plagued our Black community in the U.S. fiercely sucked the life and dignity away from precious Palestinians. Accustomed to what Dr. West may call the “sanitized and deodorized” western eurocentric portrayal of Jesus as a white man with blonde hair and blue eyes, it was the first time I’d heard anyone associate Jesus with Palestine in the academy. When whiteness constantly approximates itself to the Divine, not only does it reinforce false depictions, it also distances people of color from the possibility of carrying any sense of inherent worth and goodness. In other words, how we view ourselves in relation to God matters and those messages are constantly being communicated within our culture.
After learning that Howard Thurman, the first Black Chaplain of Religious and Spiritual Life at Boston University, a minister and spiritual counselor to Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, is who etched such understanding, I sought Thurman’s writing. By centering Jesus as a God of the oppressed Thurman’s work strengthened the Black community’s spiritual resolve, providing hope and vision as they navigated horrific conditions of living with their backs up against the treacherous wall of economic exploitation and racism in America. That Dr. West so openly called into question these inaccurate portrayals of God, deepened my respect for him, and also broadened my scope for what the Black Christian tradition could teach us about the quest for Truth, Beauty and Justice.
Calling upon the wisdom of the best in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim traditions to lovingly critique the violence that U.S. Imperialism imposes on innocent citizens, Dr. West’s commitment to the pursuit of justice is not only deeply rooted in the Black prophetic tradition but it is concerned with moral consistency. Whether referring to Edward Said, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Howard Zinn, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Anna Julia Cooper among many others in his praxis, each of these figures remained unwavering in charting a path toward freedom courageous enough to critique race and empire. When I returned from my trip, I noticed that Palestine was a taboo topic on campus, yet Dr. West continued to speak up in student organizations and events. After Michelle Alexander released her call to “Break The Silence on Palestine” in the New York Times, outside of her receiving the usual harassment and character assassinations that comes with such a stance, not surprisingly, nothing much changed in regard to campus climate. The disproportionate and undeniable misrepresentation of Palestinian voices within North American higher education became glaringly apparent.
If Dr. West is not able to obtain tenure, based on his principled stance that Palestinians deserve equal rights, what might that mean for the rest of us?
When I was asked to serve in a leadership role for Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) to facilitate the newly formed Black Christians for Palestine Network I was heartened to see that Dr. West was one of the organization’s advisors. Standing on the backs of work done by Rev. Nyle Fort, Taurean Webb, Sarah Nahar, Rev. Erica Williams, Rev. Graylan Hagler, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Leslie Callahan, Rev. Karlene Griffiths Sekou and so many others the Black Christian tradition teaches us so much about speaking truth to power, cultivating our spiritual sustenance amid senseless oppression, safeguarding truth and allowing suffering to speak. Could non-violent resistance and interfaith coalition building indeed be a bedrock for change and liberation in today’s increasingly plural world? In my role as Africana Spirituality advisor at the multi-faith chaplaincy on Tufts University campus I continue to ponder these questions. In the spirit of Howard Thurman, when our backs are against the wall, may we stand courageous and choose to answer the call.
Dr. West has demonstrated what an honest public intellectual looks like, inspiring generations to nourish, nurture and replenish the life of the mind. He’s unabashedly illustrated what Living and Loving Outloud means, honoring the least of these even while walking the ranks of those in the highest echelons of society. The joy he elicits, the change he sparks, the paideia — critical self-examination — he implores ensures that any person lucky enough to cross paths with him, learn from him, maybe even laugh with him are all the better for it.
May we continue to fight the good fight and uplift our dear brother Cornel West in the struggle for liberation, someone who represents and upholds the best in our Black prophetic tradition. Current Harvard Students penned a letter calling on the administration to rectify such a discriminatory decision, one that repeats an unpleasant history between the University and West that resulted in a no-confidence vote of then President Summer by faculty. I invite you to support Dr. West in continuing to exercise his right to academic freedom by taking action here today.
For the Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference I joined Marc Lamont Hill, Douglas Kivoi, and Oluwole Ojewale on a panel moderated by Lesedi Graveline about the the struggle for Black Freedom and building international solidarity in the face of the global militarization of police forces. I focused on the profit mechanism pushing forward police-military tactics and weapons exchanges and how a practice of abolition (even starting from the small scale of the household can actually reduce our reliance on lethal force.
I wanted to write at least one post about the centennial of the women’s suffrage movement, since I live in central New York where many of the early political organizing conversations happened regarding it here. But then all of the intensity of 2020 happened and now it’s December. So, since I just attended this event this evening and the film is freshly available for the next little while, I’d like to shout-out the film “Without a Whisper” because it says most of what I want to say in order to complexify the usual narrative about women’s suffrage in the United States.
White women learned a lot from Haundenosaunee women about what freedom looked like, smelled like, tasted like, and felt like. As they took up their fight for suffrage in the mid-1800s, some of them went for “piece of the pie feminism” and singularly sought the vote at the expense of intersectional politics of race and class (e.g. Susan B. Anthony). Others, like Matilda Jocelyn Gage went for “radical feminism” that truly examined the root of patriarchy in society, how the Christian church was reinforcing subjugation, and how the colonial state was doing damage to the original peoples of the land and their life ways.
Tonight the filmmaker and two main characters, Mohawk Clan Mother Louise and Women’s Studies visionary Sally Roesch Wagner spoke about the film in connection with the amazing Ska-nonh Center.
Two quotes from tonight that stick with me are when Louise talked about the need to continue to tell the truth to upend the falsehood and false narratives that this country (and some of its activist movements such as the suffragette movement) is based upon. She also mentioned just how much support is available for any one leader within the Mohawk system (5 people to 1).
Furthermore, Sally so meaningfully shared her own self-examination by saying “the day you say ‘I’m not a racist’ all you’ve done is admit you’ve hit a wall. White people who are willing to grapple with just how deep white supremacy goes will be recovering racists until the day we die.”
We live in a system that requires the police to use violence and validates their enacting of it.
-Communities United Against Police Brutality
The brutal deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and thousands whose names we will never know, are vivid expressions of the racism — and its strategic objective, white supremacy — that has shaped and defined the history of and current realities in both the United States and the denominations we represent. They remind us of the important role that state-sponsored violence plays in scrutinizing, policing, and controlling Black lives.
As Anabaptists, we have stood against the power of the state to use us in its enactment of war, understanding ourselves as a people called to “follow the Prince of Peace and his ways.” At the same time, however, we have often resisted understanding and dismantling the systems of supremacy that legitimize the scrutiny and policing of particular bodies and justify violence that is directed towards them. As stated in the MC USA statement, “violence is complex, and Jesus’ response was complex. We should not simply side with institutional violence because order feels like peace.”
We represent communities whose bodies have historically been singled out for scrutiny and judgement by both the church and society. We recognize that justice demands in this moment that all of us actively commit to dismantling the white supremacy that has been so devastating to communities of color, other marginalized populations, and to our nation and the church as well.
We invite others to join us as we:
a) Center the voices and experiences of people of color.
b) Work for freedom and justice for Black people, and by extension, all people.
c) Follow the leadership of people of color.
d) Reimagine community safety and scrutinize our relationship with the police. This includes actively engaging in community efforts to replace police functions and structures with appropriately trained, well-funded social service structures.
e) Raise conversations about how our church buildings, organizational facilities and community spaces can become “no police zones.”
f) Commit to develop skills in de-escalation in order that tense situations can be handled peacefully without police involvement.
g) Make use in our communities of the police abolition curriculum forthcoming from Mennonite Church USA.
Seeking just and equitable relationships –
Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBTQ Interests Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition Mennonite Jewish Relations MennoPIN (the Mennonite Palestine Israel Network) Pink Menno
Photo: The author (right) with her mother, Karen Diener Thompson (left) and her grandmother Carrie Yoder Diener.
Liberation: I view Anabaptism as a type of liberation theology that connects with the social movement centered on the renewal Jesus was pointing toward, the revelation he embodied and the revolution of values he was calling for. What seemed to be most salient for the early Anabaptists as they read Scripture were themes of justice, choice, peacemaking, testimony, judgement/apocalypse and sharing…
Lineage: …Lineage is important because it forms who I am. It’s not something I can shake off, even if I leave the beliefs and values aside…
Village: In addition to being from Elkhart and Goshen…Participating with other young adults in the cultivation of our global Anabaptist village gave me immense mentorship, learning and leadership development opportunities. Through them I received a meaningful initiation into global justice and international solidarity work. Over time I’ve also seen how Anabaptist movements and Mennonite institutions can fail, the harm people experience who then leave or get pushed out…
Sarah Nahar (neé Thompson) is from the Great Lakes watershed, and now lives in Syracuse, New York (traditional Haudenosaunee land) where she is a PhD student in Religion and Environmental Studies. She is licensed with MC USA’s Central District Conference.
What drew you to your work in religion and environmental justice?
I joined the board of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) while studying liberation theology at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS). As I learned more about CPT’s work I felt a deep connection between violence done to communities that CPT accompanied, and violence done to the Earth where those communities lived. Corporate and state perpetrators of this violence claimed shrewd magnanimity — that they were developing other people and their lands, or simply doing what was necessary to maintain the standard of living in the U.S.
I began to read my seminary texts on liberation theology differently, noticing how the struggle of the people and the struggle of the earth are one.
Though the biblical text has been used to displace, destroy and justify domination of the rest of nature, as I began to put ecological liberation theology into action, I continued to see how the imperatives for climate justice appear throughout the text, from Genesis through Revelation (see the Jan. 2020 Mennonite Quarterly Review for scriptural work on this theme). Then in 2013 I had the opportunity to join a motley crew of circus performers, storytellers and musicians to bring the good news of the Bible’s message about human belonging in creation’s interconnectedness in outdoor theater productions.
The Carnival de Resistance was a month-long faith, arts and ecological justice activism experiment in urban re-wilding. Participants agreed to live collectively: in tents, off-grid and as fossil-fuel free as possible. It was in this context that I had a sustained encounter with a waterless toilet. While I had camping experience, I had never used a composting toilet. Initially, I was disgusted! But by the end of the month I experienced a profound conversion experience.
In the days following the Carnival, I noticed for the first time how toilets enable us to flush-and-forget. This mirrored so many other aspects of my life which created alienation from the impact of my actions. My perspective on how I released excess from my body completely changed as I came to see the advantages of ecological sanitation and became motivated to remove our carbon from the hydrological cycle.
I was inspired to dedicate the next part of my life to asking questions that take me to the intersection of religious practice and environmental science, specifically thinking about the modern concepts of “waste” and “away” and inviting people to translate the golden rule into water systems. What does it mean for you to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you”?
What is the hardest thing in doing this work?
The hardest thing in this work is to keep my cool…and to stay warm. By this I mean that I encounter a lot of infuriating things in the news, particularly the murders of environmental justice activists all over the world. Each time, including today, that I see another person has been assassinated because they are working to protect ancestral, sacred, fertile land from being violated, I just dissolve inside. My heart sinks. I cannot keep my cool. So, I cry a lot.
And yet I somehow have to stay calm and focused in order to keep going in this long struggle. When I encounter people who don’t know about the massacres happening, the species and languages lost on a daily basis — and especially if they don’t care or tell me I’m too sensitive — it can be very hard for me to stay a warm and enthusiastic person. I used to keep a list of the names of the different aspects of diversity that went extinct, but these days it’s all coming at me too fast to maintain that practice. The speed of life being too much for all of us helps me have compassion for others who are also overwhelmed. I guess it helps that I laugh as much as I cry, hopefully a bit more.
What is the most rewarding thing in your work?
Making connections with others is the best part of doing this work. I’ve met people who are working at the intersections of religion, science, social justice, community cultivation, public works policy and rhetoric. It’s awesome! A fun coincidence is when I checked a book out of the library called The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society. Besides its catchy title that went straight to the heart of the matter, I noticed it was written by David Waltner-Toews, of Canada. I suspected this person was related to Mennonites in some way so I used my Menno-network to find him. I was able to get a phone call with him! It was a wonderful meeting. We have stayed in touch and he connected me to some people who work in key areas of water justice, popular advocacy and global sanitation issues.
How does your spiritual conviction integrate with your work?
Just as different parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12) cannot say to others that they have no need of them, we cannot say to the trees “I have no need of you.” For trees breathe in what we breathe out and we inhale what trees exhale.
Deeply incarnate, the body of Christ is the body of the world. The world is being crucified at this time, by the crowds of us who cannot seem to see the restorative options offered and by imperial systems that are intent on smashing dissent.
The world rises again, and the believers will rise again. Christ and creation are groaning together for redemption and the revelation of the children of God (Romans 8).
Even if your theology does not match my personal ecotheological perspective, there are so many ways to join together with other faith groups, through organizations like Interfaith Power and Light, to witness together on behalf of the common good.
What should the church know about climate change?
Humans have accelerated the climate crisis and we can decelerate it. This deceleration can be a part of our lifelong discipleship journey following Jesus in his path of communing with the elements, speaking truth to power, and embracing our humanity (including mortality and cosmic humility).
Doing ecological readings of Mennonite history can also provide new ways to see our movement’s relationship with the rest of planetary beings over time.
Addressing environmental racism is an imperative as we work towards a “just transition” — poor, Black, brown, and immigrant communities have been targeted for destruction more than other communities, and work for change should be led by those most impacted and their allies.
Taking action in this realm is not so much a matter of “feeling bad,” but analyzing systemic oppression and mobilizing resources and relationships to change the systems.
What can we do now to make a difference?
Try to create new liturgy that includes experiencing the elements as a part of the liturgy.
For example, you can use water for baptism from a local creek rather than the church tap. If the local creek is polluted, work with that theologically as well. Check in with Doug Kaufman for more info on this and other ways that help your church see that the climate catastrophe is “the moral equivalent of war and begin to take collective action” as Christian peacemakers.
Change can begin as simply as doing a traditional ritual outside the church (even in an urban setting…skyscrapers are part of Nature too). While paying attention to accessibility and safety, crafting ways for the church to enact ritual together outside will heighten sensation and deepen their meaning.
In English, waste is a verb that’s been made into a noun in order to place an arbitrary label on things we wish to push “away.” Since there is no away, one Sunday all congregants could bring in their garbage bags from the week, and pile them up in one location. Rather than shaming people for discarding (all living beings discard what they do not need) this activity is to bring the congregation together to collectively brainstorm about what could change since there is no away, and to see the items in the bags as discarded resources rather than “waste.”
We now know the 3Rs won’t cut it. Those are all about us as consumers. But we are producers and we need some producer responsibility. 90% of waste comes during the production of a product and 10% from its end user. There is an R for every disciple, and every son of Jacob! The youth group could memorize these and then create an image with them to be displayed in the church.
These rituals and opportunities for consideration could result in a lot of changes at the church… Cloth napkins for potluck?! Carpools to/from services?! A clothing swap in the fellowship hall!? Hire an environmental minister!?
Each congregation can come up with ideas that both bring people together, and bring people to the church, in the name of Jesus, in service to all beings.
Pray for those who are most vulnerable among us and who are most impacted by climate change, including those who have already been displaced.
Pray for the waters, the plants, all living creatures and the earth with gratitude, that we may recognize their sacredness and participate in their restoration.
Pray that we will find the motivation to respond to climate change in our own lives, congregations and communities.
Pray for local, community and business leaders to help make communities healthier and greener while centering those who are vulnerable. Pray that our political leaders and world leaders would become more active in reducing carbon emissions worldwide.
Pray for the youth and future generations, who will live with the growing consequences of climate change.
Marcus, a researcher in Portugal invited all his friends around the world working on this topic to submit a mini-podcast about their work with the humble toilet and crucial sanitation systems.
The topics are: sanitation and health, ceramic materials for water filtration, sanitation and climate change, pro-environmental behavior adaptation, mindsets, identity, and the plight of sanitation workers! I talked about defecatory justice, and since we recorded it on Halloween, I was also dressed up as a toilet!
Check out the POOP project to see what you can do with your contribution to the People’s Own Organic Power. Also Bill is right on time with his waterless toilet. The proof will be in adoption in the Global South and adaptation in the Global North. Also check out Sharon’s Lavatory Laboratory. Let’s create defecatory justice!
by Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter and Emily Laurens
Please note that we acknowledge the complex structural barriers to inclusion faced by people due to class, ableism, educational and financial privilege, prejudice related to gender and sexuality and so on, but in this article we have chosen to focus on and discuss racism and white privilege as a formative societal influence.
The authors of this essay, the ‘we’ referred to here, are Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter and Emily Laurens. We are white cisgender British women in our 40s, all educated to university level, all with children, all working in the arts. In 2011 we co-founded an environmental project called Lost Species Day and have dedicated a lot of time and love to the initiative over the years. In more recent years, this energy has become more reflective and critical of the movement and questioning of our work and its place in it. We have written this essay because, aware of the scale and rapidity of environmental degradation and its uneven impacts on people and places, we want to talk about white supremacy and how it plays out in the environmental movement. We hope that it will be useful to anyone concerned about climate and ecological breakdown, wanting to understand the history and drivers of this breakdown, and/or wanting to make links with social and racial justice movements. It is offered as a resource for people restless or dissatisfied with the language and practices of contemporary mainstream environmentalism. It is written in solidarity to frontline environmental and human rights defenders, and with love for everyone working for bold action on fossil fuels and extractivism.
Remembrance Day for Lost Species (RDLS or Lost Species Day), now in its ninth year, is coming up again on November 30th. It is an unfunded initiative, an invitation to people to hold events exploring biodiversity loss on or around this date each year. It started as a demonstration outside parliament – in May 2010, as part of an overnight climate vigil, a few friends created a pop-up installation of a graveyard for extinct species on a patch of grass opposite the Houses of Parliament. We were fed up with feeling helpless and excluded from environmental policy. We wanted to make work that spoke to the scale of the ecological problems we were witnessing.
After the climate vigil, we made a play, Funeral for Lost Species, in a real graveyard in Brighton. We imagined it was a graveyard for extinct species and that we were a team of celestial funeral directors, responsible for ensuring every species got a suitable send-off, thus ensuring the continuity of existence. It parodied the mainstream environmental movement and articulated Eurocentric culture’s de-sacralising drive, and the clash between science and spirituality in the Eurocentric paradigm. Mostly, though, we were glad to make a space for contemplation of biodiversity loss, and when the project ended we wanted to carry on doing this.
It turned out that some people were making a memorial to extinct species on a hill in Sussex at that time. It felt apt to work with them, to continue exploring how to make rituals for the Anthropocene. We held the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species in November 2011, with a lot of support and interest. A supporter designed us a logo inspired by the extinction symbol, which was based on the image of an hourglass inside the circle of the earth.
RDLS emerged as part of a wave of artist-led projects exploring the theme of mass extinction and collapse in the UK. Something important was being tapped into and explored, but the networks we were aware of consisted largely of white privileged people confronting the failings of capitalism and consumerism without including a proper analysis of the racialised underpinnings and workings of those power structures – an omission that could only come from a lack of awareness or care about how structural racism punishes some and privileges others.
After a few years, we saw that most Lost Species Day events were taking place in Europe and North America, and realised that an initiative like this, despite seeming imperative to us, unless examined, was largely irrelevant, particularly for people who are:
struggling for survival
on the front lines of climate breakdown
affected by conflict and colonialism
queer and trans people facing hate crimes, and other people facing human rights violations
in prison or at risk of imprisonment
facing persecution by the state and corporations
living lives that are entwined with those of endangered species and places
The list went on. We realised that our purported inclusive approach was in fact exclusionary due to its lack of an analysis of structural racism and classism. All are welcome!, went the cry – but these words, predicated on privilege, were hollow. Rather late in life, we realised that our brand of environmentalism was a product of racial and class privilege – and worse, that its ‘colour blindness’ colluded in the ongoingness of white supremacy. Privilege had led us to assume it was acceptable to focus on biodiversity loss without building this work on a foundation of solidarity and anti-racist practice. But as environmental communicator Susuana Amoah puts it, “white supremacy and colonialism are fundamental causal factors in the climate emergency”.
Might remembrance for lost species contribute to cultural erasure? Arguably, focusing on the stories of extinct species without studying and discussing concomitant harms to people and cultures perpetuates white environmentalism’s huge history of cultural erasure and genocidal acts. Environmentalism is not exempt from racism. We finally recognised the all-subsuming power of whiteness, and the rule of white supremacy as a hegemonic ordering force globally and in our psyches. Canada-based scholar Audra Mitchell’s writing on white tears for extinct species made for reading that was hard but that we were instinctively drawn to. We made commitments to:
turn to Black, indigenous, decolonial and people of colour activists, organisations, artists and academics for wisdom
pay attention to and amplify the voices of the people living through entwined genocides and ecocides
make the links between, rather than separate, the stories of harms to people and non-humans
remember that hurt feelings are not actual injuries, that as the beneficiaries of white supremacy we have a duty to speak and act on racism from our position of safety
ask ourselves daily, as scholar Imani Robinson invites us to, What are we going to do today to create the world we want to live in?
On Extinction Rebellion
We have watched Extinction Rebellion grow without building a critique of white supremacy into its central environmental messaging or organising structure. As part of a strategy that uses the rhetoric of emergency to reach the mainstream, this has been amazingly successful, and XR have done what they set out to do in terms of shifting the Overton Window on the climate emergency, and creating a mass movement – a colossal and vital achievement at a time when the speed of environmental change is escalating dizzyingly. There are doubtless many committed people working hard within Extinction Rebellion to address structural racism in its language and tactics, and to articulate a language of solidarity with impacted communities. But their efforts are not reflected in the public demands or practices of the organisation, which adopts – or co-opts – the tactics of the Civil Rights movement whilst maintaining majority white leadership, pro-police politics, and no demands or strategy for dismantling structural racism. Its language of emergency trumps inclusivity of process and depth of listening.
Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) / Wretched of the Earth (WOTE) activist Joshua Virasami describes the historic and contemporary lack of connection between animal rights / environmental activism and human rights / social justice movements as “tragic”, and invites neighbourliness and the centring of solidarity and inclusion as core practices in environmental action. When white people turn up they can have a massive impact. White people in the UK are the demographic majority, with confidence born of freedom from exposure to micro-aggressions, fear of false accusations, arrest, overt violence, risk of death and countless disadvantages due to systemic racism. This and other aspects of privilege are very useful in service to justice. As of yet, too little support has been lent to the efforts of movements led by people on the front lines of environmental disaster, surviving multiple apocalypses over centuries of colonialism and exploitation. The ongoing disconnection from, and failure to honour, these movements is due to structural racism and internalised white supremacy, invisible to the beneficiaries, ruinous for the survivors and the victims.
The mass silence and large absence of white people from movements that integrate work for racial justice does everyone a disservice. Without the warping lens of racism, it is obvious that movements for social change must centre and be led by those who are most affected, like the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and countless campaigns by frontline environmental protectors. The people most vulnerable to harms are the people most knowledgeable about those harms, experientially as opposed to ideologically. The white-dominated environmental movement must learn from other parts of the movement. It must centre and amplify the voices and perspectives of people with direct lived experience of climate-related harms.
XR is an infant movement that has become powerful very quickly, with the help of a lot of funding and influential supporters. Its senior team needs to move quickly to incorporate a commitment to racial justice within its practice and core demands. A movement that ignores or minimises its responsibility to address white supremacy risks:
Alienating diverse cultural groups and struggling to make up this lost ground later
Overshadowing and potentially diverting funding and support from pre-existing work by other activist groups
Intensifying danger for minority groups, as the absence of non-white perspectives in organising spaces creates more space for negative projections. Messages about scarcity and lack can feed prejudice about Black people and people of colour as ‘foreigners’ and ‘others’, and increase abuse and violence.
Perhaps most significantly, actions by an environmental movement that does not address racism can generate a false sense of hope. Campaigns that do not incorporate social justice as foundational will not change the system in the likely event of inadequate governmental action on climate breakdown. Arguably, Extinction Rebellion’s politics and structures reproduce the racism on which capitalism depends. To quote Wretched of the Earth:
“Climate change has not happened by a sequence of small missteps; the economic structures that dominate us have been brought about by ongoing colonial projects whose sole purpose is the pursuit of domination and profit. For centuries, racism, sexism and classism have been necessary for this system to be upheld, and have shaped the conditions we find ourselves in.”
Social justice must be the backbone of the environmental movement
With a focus on quality of process rather than the default white activist mode of urgency and panic comes curiosity, and a stepping-back from righteous anger into more reflective modalities that unpick assumptions about how to make change. Adrienne maree brown’s work on Emergent Strategy is inspiring here.
Having explored some of the ways in which white people use structural power consciously and unconsciously to ignore, undermine and erase initiatives led by Black people and people of colour, let’s explore how white people can consciously and strategically utilise racial privilege to serve and give power to frontliners. A few questions for campaigns and projects:
Are there already existing Black, indigenous and people of colour-led initiatives doing similar work to the project you are undertaking? Could you be putting your energy into their cause? Or at least listening to their advice? If not, why not? Suzanne Dhaliwal has written extensively about this.
Are your strategies adding to threats to the safety of people of colour? Do they support migrant solidarity? Are they inclusive? Who do they exclude, and how?
Who is on the front lines of your efforts? Where are they in your movement? Are their voices audible? Are they part of the leading team? If not, how might you work to change this?
Making space for lost species: remembering extinct species, cultures and places
These questions bring us back to Lost Species Day, and how and whether to move forward with it. Can this project be decolonised, or do its roots in white privilege mean that it’s conceptually too flawed to ever be truly anti-racist? We don’t know yet, but we pledge to:
Research our ancestors’ relationships with the places where we live, and use RDLS as a way to reconnect with our local ecosystem
Use RDLS as an educational opportunity for people who want to learn more about the reality of accelerating global biodiversity collapse through an anti-racist lens
Promote RDLS as a space for emotional engagement with the devastating effects of colonialism and the extinction and climate crises
Offer resources and service to Black and people of colour-led activist groups born from a drive for justice, doing explicitly decolonial and anti-racist work. For example, Black Lives Matter UK , Wretched Of The Earth.
We hope – and we would welcome others’ views on this – that a recurring day of ecological and bio-cultural remembrance can be of service and of social relevance at this time of multitudinous apocalypses and structural harms. It can:
Make spaces for remembering histories that are at continual risk of erasure and being forgotten
Offer a way for nature lovers into conversation about racism and its links with environmental harms
Offer space for exploring the concept of DIY rituals, and encouragement for people attempting the work of connection whilst being conscious of colonialism and cultural appropriation
Articulate the importance of the work of facing the grief of ecological severance, and make links between this and the grief of inhabiting inherited structures of white supremacy
Point towards possibilities for personal, interpersonal and cultural healing
Articulate the fact that all people and beings constitute a living connected system – there is no ‘other’.
We have removed the original Lost Species Day logo from the RDLS platforms because of its visual connection with the extinction symbol which is now synonymous with Extinction Rebellion. We are grateful to N.Puttapipat and Matt Stanfield for allowing us to use their logo while we explore possibilities for a new logo that better articulates our aspiration that Lost Species Day emphasises the interconnectedness of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures and ecological communities, and promotes the message that whilst these losses are rooted in violent and discriminatory governing practices, the day provides an opportunity for participants to make or renew commitments to all who remain.
October 20th 2019
With many thanks to colleagues and Lost Species Day project supporters who have advised on and helped edit this essay