Climate Resilience Requires Dismantling Internalized White Supremacy
Note to readers: In this article, I am specifically writing to speak to white people who are working in the climate resilience sector. As a white climate resilience designer myself, I center my own experience, including some of my own internal struggle with white silence, with the intention of resonating with the experiences of my intended audience. Note that what I share may be triggering. I draw on and reference writings and resources produced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), some of whom are a part of the LGBTQ community, as north star for doing the work I discuss in this article. If you haven’t already, I invite you to read my positionality statement.
In April, I sat in a large banquet hall with long tables arranged in a classroom-style configuration. The room was about three-quarters full and well air-conditioned on a warm, muggy Midwestern spring day. I was attending the National Adaptation Forum, a bi-annual conference that gathers professionals in the public, private, non-profit, and tribal sectors to share research, case studies, and best practices for adapting to climate change impacts. This year, the event was held on the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk Nation in the place we call Madison, Wisconsin. I was listening to a panel about using equity as a lens for building community resilience to climate impacts. The panelists were all white or white-presenting with the exception of one Latinx person invited on stage during the Q&A session after the main presentations concluded to share their community’s perspective about a specific project in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A woman sitting to my right raised her hand and expressed that as an Indigenous woman, she felt uncomfortable listening to a panel of white or white-passing people tell her how to better engage her own community. Others in the audience — myself included — clapped, nodded, and spoke words and sounds of agreement and support. As the panel moderator began responding (Thank you so much for pointing that out…), a white woman a few rows in front of our table turned around and mouthed, “Thank you for saying that.” My stomach did somersaults. My inner voice cried out, “Why didn’t you say that?!” Then I felt immediate shame — ”Why didn’t I?! Why did I remain silent, waiting for BIPOC to do the labor?”
Transformation starts within
I share this story, knowing that it centers my own experience of white silence, because I’m hoping it will resonate with other white people specifically who are doing climate resilience work. We need to stop being complicit in white supremacy. We need to stop being afraid to speak up because we don’t want to get it wrong and risk sounding less aware, less conscious, or not “woke”. We need to see ourselves as part of the problem and that our work to dismantle white supremacy — starting from within ourselves — is a crucial part of the transformation that is needed not only for ending oppression and liberating BIPOC, but also for moving the needle on our climate crisis. We need to be willing to give up the privileges that we have — the power, authority, leadership roles, executive roles — knowing that our grip on these privileges is our grip on white supremacy and systems of oppression.
To be clear, I’m specifically speaking to white professionals doing climate resilience work. Whether you’re in the mitigation, adaptation, or other field that is a part of the puzzle of climate resilience (e.g., healthcare, housing and real estate, transportation, etc.), we need to deeply understand that transformational justice is essential to truly building climate resilience. Recognizing that we (white people) are part of that transformation, we need to do our work internally if we want to build resilience in the communities we serve.
I am sharing this message because I feel compelled to do so at this point in my own work to confront and dismantle white supremacy that I’ve internalized. After Trump was elected, I felt more urgency than ever to support racial justice, but it wasn’t until more recently when I understood more intimately that my individual beliefs and actions held power to either uphold or dismantle systems of oppression. My understanding came to light only after I rewired my life to really hear messages and information directly from BIPOC about what was needed for racial justice. After listening to podcasts, reading articles and books, and attending events, realized that I needed to first examine how I was complicit in upholding systems of oppression I wished to transform my actions into tools of disruption. And so I went to work. I started working through Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy Workbook with three other white folks who I could trust to hold me accountable with compassion. I attended a Holistic Resistance workshop to learn and continue the excavation. I am still in the midst of this work and I have not arrived at any place of authority. There is no state of arrival or completion; this is forever work.
One major lesson I’ve learned so far is the importance of white people ending the silence that supports white supremacy by reaching toward other white people to call for and support them in taking the bold step to look inward and examine all the thoughts that we hold deep inside because we are ashamed to admit that they exist. I am writing here and now to break the silence and encourage white readers to take that bold step. I noticed this message was missing from the conversation about how to improve climate resilience work among white-dominated circles that I have been a part of or know about, so I felt compelled to name it.
Climate resilience demands transformation
Equity and inclusion cannot be just a few strategies and actions in cities’ climate action plan. It cannot just be making sure that you hold public open houses in accessible places for communities of color. Those are important to be sure, and we need to do more, to go deeper. It also cannot be false solutions that continue to extract resources, concentrate wealth, poison communities, and reduce the crisis we face to merely a matter of reducing carbon emissions (see Climate Justice Alliance for more on false solutions).
If you, as a white professional in the climate sector, can trust that ultimately you will be able to survive and even thrive when climate change impacts become more extreme, then you are benefiting from white privilege. We must see that a society, economy, and political system built on a structurally imbalanced foundation, one that marginalizes and makes vulnerable BIPOC so that white people can thrive, will never withstand the worst storms and shocks that are to come. It will crumble, and those beams at the bottom that bear the greatest weight of that imbalanced system — people and communities who are the most impacted by systemic inequalities — will be hurt first and worst. If we don’t lay a new foundation, then everything we do to try to increase resilience will be for naught.
So what does a transformative justice approach to climate resilience work look like? Several organizations have already produced excellent resources and tools on this matter. I offer some of those here:
- NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program has a robust action toolkit covering a wide range of topics from climate impacts like sea level rise to economic and restorative/criminal justice.
- The Movement Strategy Center (Oakland) and the National Association of Climate Resilience Planners produced a Community-Driven Climate Resilience Planning Framework that offers guiding principles and a host of case studies that demonstrate the seven components of the framework.
- The Climate Justice Alliance provides a working model of the Just Transition Framework that is in clear conversation with the two resources noted above.
But on an individual level, for us white people working to build climate resilience, what does this look like? It means putting our skin in the game. It means believing to the core of our being that our survival as a species depends on, and our responsibility as individuals requires, doing our work from the inside out to dismantle white supremacy for the liberation of BIPOC. It means questioning our complacency with white supremacy in every aspect, and getting raw and messy so that we can begin and continue the dismantling and transforming from within. This is central to our climate resilience work. How do we do this? Again, I offer some resources that have been instrumental to my own process:
- Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy Workbook is an immense gift to the world and will greatly aid in internal decolonization. It originally started as an Instagram challenge and now is coming out as a full book ready to be pre-ordered before its release in February 2020. Layla’s Good Ancestor podcast is also an excellent resource.
- Holistic Resistance offers workshops, personal coaching, and a host of other amazing services to help white folks reach toward Black people as well as other white people in dismantling white supremacy and supporting liberation of BIPOC.
- Meditation, dance, movement, and embodied practices are tools for transformation from the inside out. Seek out places where you can get back into your body and listen to its wisdom. This not only builds personal resilience for doing this work, it also helps heal personal trauma.
These are just a handful of resources that I offer to support white professionals in the climate resilience sector do their inner work to make their outer work effective, generative, and healing rather than recreating damaging patterns and systems that brought us to where we are today. As we do this work, it’s important to hold ourselves and each other accountable. Build in systems for how to do that and to ensure that the work you do to build climate resilience is truly justice-centered. This is an ongoing, iterative process. It is an essential step we all must take if we want to stave off the worst of climate change impacts and ensure that we all thrive in a changing world.