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Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…

Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

April 23, 2017
6 min read

To begin this story, cast your mind back a few months…

It’s May 2016. My facebook feed (the ultimate source of truth in our post-truth world) seems to be schizophrenic, or at least representing two entirely different worlds.

One world is the ‘green’ activists, who are in the middle of two weeks of global actions against fossil fuels. The spectacular actions in the US, Australia, the UK and most notably Ende Galende in Germany, have led some of my comrades to claim: “WE ARE WINNING!”

The other world is that of Monique Tilman, the young Black girl assaulted by an off duty police officer as she rode her bike in a car park. It is the world of police brutality, the world of indigenous people being dispossessed of their lands for tourism or ‘conservation’.

Surely, the ‘we’ that is winning can’t claim to include these people?

The green movement, under NGO leadership, seems to be content with shallow demands of CO2 reduction. Whilst the inextricable links between capitalism, ecological destruction, colonialism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy lie just below the surface, yet no one, within the nonprofit-industrial complex at least, seems to want to join the dots.

Fast-forward a few months and the world seems to have shifted. Brexit has happened and the world feels that little bit more dangerous for Black and Brown people in the UK, with a dramatic increase in racist violence over night.

In response though, anti-racist organizing seems to be gaining momentum. In the States, rage has spilled into the streets once more after police in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot a Black protest at a Black Lives Matter vigil over the police killing of Keith Scott.

Around the same time, the Standing Rock protection camp and the #NODAPL movement is gaining worldwide attention. Although the camp was started in April by indigenous youth, by now the camp has thousands of activists resisting the pipeline’s construction and protecting sacred sites.

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that this site has brought together so many structural forms of oppression that are linked to environmental issues and brought them to a wide public consciousness.

In the UK the group Black Lives Matter UK, also drew links between climate and racism, when they shut down London City Airport by occupying the runway. The action sparked controversy for the use of white allies in the action, an understandable choice, however, considering the differential treatment of protesters of colour by the criminal justice system.

Despite being attacked by both right wing and the supposedly ‘liberal’ media, the action successfully drew attention to the fact that racism facilitates climate change and the effects are disproportionally felt by Black, Brown and indigenous people, mainly in the Global South.

In the place of single issue campaigning that will appease the ‘liberal’ media, more complex, militant and intersectional forms of resistance are today becoming possible and will become increasingly important in the coming years but crucial questions need to be answered before rushing to join the ‘intersectional’ bandwagon.

Time and time again I’ve come across well meaning white activists in the ecological scene who want to improve ‘diversity’ or know how to make their camps/actions/organizations more ‘intersectional’. Yet, few of them have any idea how to go about doing this.

In a world where whiteness is the norm, a white supremacist society, to be non-white is to be ‘other’ and is to be defined by your ‘race’ in your everyday life. Do you know what it is like to experience your life as a white person? In order to do this, you need to understand and contrast this to the lives of non-white people.

Colour-blindness is a privilege that most people of colour don’t have, as they are being defined by their skin tone by other people whether they choose to identify or not.

As with other forms of oppression, racism is like a smog that surrounds us, and we breathe it in and breathe it out every day. Without conscious effort, just in breathing out, we recreate these oppressive structures.

For instance, the simple unconscious act of who takes up more space in meetings and who tends to be listened to more (typically middle class white cis-males) reflects and recreates oppressions along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality.

Raising your own consciousness, understanding your own privilege and other people’s everyday oppression, is therefore a fundamental first step. White people need to actively seek out texts and videos to learn about this. It’s their responsibility.

We also need to remember that privilege is structural and not individual, and therefore it is society at large that also needs changing, through collective resistance.

Working across relative privileges is complex, messy and certainly isn’t as simple as ‘taking leadership’ from the oppressed because no homogenous group of ‘the oppressed’ exists who share a political vision to sign up to, nor can uncritical following be a path to collective liberation.

However, decentering the white middle class subject as sole agent of revolutionary change is essential to this and listening, really listening, to others experiences is crucial.

Often, I’ve heard white people presuming equality, and proposing that both groups need to listen to one another, not realizing that some people have been forced to listen for long enough.

Additionally, it often falls to people of colour, women, trans and non-binary people to repeatedly raise problems within groups and challenge oppressive behaviours which, at best can be chances to learn about relative privileges and oppressions.

Yet, when specific meetings are called to tackle these issues key people fail to turn up engage in difficult conversations. Thus, the status quo is maintained through white silence.

As sexy and topical as ‘intersectional organising’ sounds, attempting to decentre those with privilege and making space for those with less, is a messy process that requires humility and patience.

Ultimately, stepping up to the challenge means getting dirty. It means that privilege of race, gender, sexuality and ability, needs to be up for discussion and difficult conversations about how these privileges play out need to be had.

This process, however, is crucial in order to be able to collaborate to dismantle the structures that create privilege and oppression in the first place.

If we fail to do this, in anti-racist settings white people can only be on the outside, and our struggles remain compartmentalised into different ‘issues’.

By getting dirty though, we can hope to expand the ‘we’ that is winning, we can begin to tackle the multiple oppressions that run through every ‘issue’ and we can truly win.

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