Confronting the Whiteness of Environmentalism

People’s Climate March 2017

Climate justice means hard work.

It’s tempting to assign labels or catchphrases to movements. The concept of climate justice or environmental justice has gained massive traction in organizing groups, but as easy as it is to put “climate justice” on a banner, it’s even easier to lose sight of what it really means.

Growing up in Beaverton, it was very easy for me to view climate change as solely a crisis of nature. It never occurred to me that the burden of the crisis was shouldered unevenly. I heard about the polar ice caps melting and polar bears dying, but not about the Pacific Islanders and seaside communities losing their homes at the same time. Workers at fossil fuel plants that need a steady paycheck, indigenous communities whose land is poisoned by oil, and low-income communities neighboring train tracks or dumping sites are not responsible for climate change or harming the environment. Yet, when we talk about derailed coal trains, toxic waste, pipelines, and horrific factory conditions, plants and animals receive empathy while the people affected by these tragedies are too often ignored by the climate and environmental movements.

Repeatedly, mainstream organizers and media view environmental crises are viewed in isolation from issues like economic and racial justice. However, whose health and safety are valued and whose are disposable are deeply tied to these problems. Would corporations have the power to dump toxic waste and garbage if those sites were in predominantly white, middle-upper class neighborhoods? If affluent white communities were dependent on the health of the oceans and rivers for daily survival, would the response to pollution be so moderate? No. This answer is, unfortunately, seen in movements such as “Not In My Backyard” and in the decision to move the Dakota Access Pipeline onto Lakota and Dakota land. When projects are based in wealthier, white neighborhoods, they’re shut down rapidly and moved.

As I began organizing during college, I realized this wasn’t because only these neighborhoods were protesting the developments. It was because these people had legitimacy and a platform because of their identities. I could explain here the root causes of environmental injustice, but there are many who have done it better than I could (see the links below!), but simply stated, the effects come from the toxic combination of capitalism and white supremacy.

Again and again, throughout organizing, I’ve encountered a mindset amongst white organizers that people of color and lower income folks aren’t fighting climate change. Often it is expressed with a sort of sympathetic, condescending tilt. When predominantly white environmental groups are asked why their campaigns aren’t drawing the power of more people to speak on their own behalf, there are some common responses: people of color are too busy organizing against racism, or lower-income communities are occupied with organizing for fair wages and better housing… or earning a wage.

And yet, the very term “environmental justice” was coined by poor, black, rural organizers in the 1980’s. People like Reverend Leon White, Reverend Ben Chavis, and Reverend Joseph Lowery fought in Warren County against a proposal to place a toxic landfill in their town. Environmental justice isn’t a free-floating term. It was originally used by Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific-Islander organizers to rebel against exploitative, unsustainable farming practices, fossil fuel plants, toxic waste dumps, destruction of natural landscapes they call home, and more. The harsh truth is that these communities have been organizing against environmental degradation from the beginning—white environmentalists just didn’t notice because the campaign message wasn’t flagged as pro-environment.

Here’s the crux of the issue. Any solution, yes, ANY solution that remedies environmental injustice, and that does not center people of color and lower income people in both formation and implementation is incomplete. Read that sentence again, and remember it. Because these false solutions fail to defend those most affected by climate change. There are issues and solutions that middle class, white organizers frankly cannot recognize and cannot know the solutions to by themselves, because the problems aren’t theirs.

I’m not going to pretend I’m an authority on what this work entails or that I have unlearned all the internalized classism, misogyny, or whiteness (given that I am multiracial, I too have a lot of whiteness I need to acknowledge!) that interferes with me being able to do this work well. But that’s just it—none of us are ever done learning (or unlearning). We have to constantly analyze and think about the platforms we might be taking from those who have been historically silenced. White people must acknowledge that their thought processes and false objectivity have been informed by whiteness and realize that they simply cannot, and do not, have all the answers. They must accept the tension in confronting their own biases, complacency, and role in allowing white supremacy to continue in the Pacific Northwest.

What is whiteness, and how is it different than having white skin, or acting with white supremacist tendencies? Challenge the excuses that pop into your head to avoid the topic, and check out some of the resources below, and that also show up on the environmental justice resources page. It’s really not that bad! 

Written by Rachel Levelle. Edited 7/07/17 with the help of Nicole Metildi


Basic Info on Environmental Justice

If you know about the phrase “environmental justice” but don’t know how to explain it to someone, start here!


White supremacy produces disproportionate environmental pollution

The Environmental Justice Movement

Are There Two Different Versions of Environmentalism, One “White,” One “Black”?


More About White Supremacy and Racial Justice

If you don’t know what “whiteness” means or think white supremacy is limited to hate groups and blatant racist acts, read these!

What Is Whiteness?

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism

Why We’re Still Unwilling To Admit To Systemic Racism in America


Examples of Environmental Racism

Read here to understand more about how the above problems cause real harm in communities around the United States.

‘Environmental Injustice’: Minorities Face Nearly 40% More Exposure to Toxic Air Pollution

Flint’s water crisis is a blatant example of environmental injustice

Climate Change Forces Northwest Natives From Their Ancestral Homes

5 Things to Know About Communities of Color and Environmental Justice


White People’s Role in Environmental Justice

Understand the above problems, but don’t know what to do next? Here are some ways to implement environmental justice in your organizing.

Letter to the Environmental Community, from Students of Color

Campus Environmental Group Insists ‘White People Step Back’

11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies

SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) VALUES


Remember, understanding white supremacy and unlearning racism is a constant journey. The most important steps are to listen and acknowledge mistakes made along the way!