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White Saviorism in the Environmental Movement

White Saviorism In The Environmental Movement

When you think of climate leaders or environmental activists who come to your mind first? Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough, Al Gore or Jane Goodall perhaps? BUT what about Robert Bullard, Wangari maathai, Xiuhtezcatl or organizations like Earth Guardians. Sadly, the environmental movement suffers consequences from the societal phenomenon of white saviorism. In this article I will explain to you how it shows up in the environmental movement and why it matters.  

First, what is white saviorism?

It’s a pattern seen over decades in our society of viewing white people as “rescuers” to other marginalized communities. An example would be “western people” traveling to “fix” problems in POC’S nations but without understanding first their history nor uplifting those actually in the frontlines of state affairs.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with recognizing the work and dedication of a white activists. The issue is CENTERING white voices as if they were the only saviors or representatives of improving the world or in the fight for justice progress (including the environmental movement).

Why it matters?

BIPOCs have also spent decades in the front lines of environmental issues and climate justice, and they generally face the worst climate change consequences. Unfortunately, black, indigenous and brown leaders are historically ignored (especially by the media) to the point of ERASURE.

The United Nations COP26 is an example of how this phenomenon is unfolding still to this day. During the conference in 2021, there was mass circulation on the media of Greta Thunberg and Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland) talking at COP26, making headlines everywhere. But what they did not show…. Vanessa Nakate (Ugandan activist) was also present the entire time.

Oh, and this isn’t the first time this Ugandan climate activist was erased by the media. The same thing happened to her back in 2020, where she says AP cropped her out of a press photo. The cropping out in press pictures of black activists like Vanessa is far more alarming than a simple “oversight”. It is a complicity in ensuring that the dominant narrative in the climate movement (and in society overall) is that only whiteness equates to goodness.

“When I saw the photo, I only saw part of my jacket. I was not on the list of participants. None of my comments from the press conference were included. It was like I wasn’t even there.” – Vanessa Nakate

Consequences of erasing BIPOC voices

  • A misleading and simplified portrayal of complex societies/cultures is developed.
  • Contributes to shame-based identity and sense of helplessness.
  • Creates centered conversations on one authority “helping” the “powerless”.
  • It prohibits the empowerment of local capacity and enables paternalism.

I quite frankly don’t see how any progress is supposed to happen when people of color, back and indigenous are intentionally ignored and erased. What’s even more sinister is this white saviourist phenomenon is consistently upheld by worldwide conference systems such as the United Nations COP. Like I mentioned before, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the recognition towards white activists.

But the communities who’s input matter the most and who will have (or already have) the harshest climate change consequences don’t need to be saved! They need you to work with them and most importantly a place in all rooms where decisions are being made.

If this topic on white saviorism phenomenon sparks your interest, you can read this article by national geographic on Leaders Trying to Change the movement.

Inspiration from: Sharona Shnayder

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