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Black, Brown and Going Green
Last fall, there was a Slow Food Nation event held in San Francisco. The city's Civic Center was turned into a temporary show-and-tell community garden and vendors sold overpriced organic foods. People spoke on the importance of learning to grow our own food and cook it fresh, leaving the world of microwaves and processed foods behind. At one point, my mom and I walked past a middle-aged white man speaking to a small crowd about meat recipes. He lectured on how they needed to learn to use the entire animal, leaving none to waste. My mom laughed and said to me in Tagalog, "Chinese and Filipino people have been doing that forever. This dude is so ignorant." I laughed, reminding her that all peoples before industrial capitalism used the entire animal or vegetable.
I start with this story because it is a prime example of the distance many people of color feel from the idea of eating organic and living sustainably. Until very recently, the white-dominant green movement rarely acknowledged the fact that many immigrants come from rural backgrounds but are forced into factory work to stay fed and provide for their families in an industrial capitalist system.
As a woman of color from an urban and working-class background, I'd like to share the process I've gone through and how I have come to care about environmental issues as much as social ones. They are, I have learned, the same thing. I can't just tell you to "go green" like I have in past articles; I have to share how I got to this place myself.
City Kid Baggage & Brown Girl Pain
In order to move forward, I had to unpack the baggage that I have held around environmental politics. In the process, I realized that it all traced back to my relationship with white liberalism, and all the times I was told by white liberal and radical intellectuals that my city background (my very identity) was less valid because it meant that I was alienated from the land. What I brought to the table -- growing up in San Francisco and Manila, and in rural and urban New York -- was valid and important. A movement to revolutionize how we live and consume must include all these perspectives.
There was also a lot of pressure for me to step out of my comfort zone and be open to new, non-urban experiences, but no expectations in these circles for white folks to challenge their comfort and privilege.
What I realized is that as much as I had taken ownership over my politics, my relationship with nature still needed work. I needed to feel more comfortable in the dirt: sitting on it, digging my hands into it. I needed to realize that the city was not the center of the universe and be open to learning new skills -- basic construction, farming -- and build up my wilderness awareness. Without a calendar, I didn't know what moon cycles we were in, without a compass I didn't know north from south. I was just like a lot my teenage students now. I thought the environment was the last priority after all the immediate social injustice our people face. But in reality, these issues are one and the same. Every instance of human oppression -- whether primarily motivated by race, religion or otherwise -- consistently goes hand in hand with oppression of the land and peoples' resources.
But you can't process this all by yourself because it's bigger than yourself -- it's about your community. As I write this, many of my students are eating hot Cheetos for breakfast, terrified of getting their hands dirty, and preferring MySpace over chillin' at a beach. I needed a space with a majority of people of color to acknowledge how we have been alienated from the earth and then discuss how we could change this with our students. I've been fortunate enough to find that space with my co-workers.
Here are my tips for confronting white privilege and moving toward an environmentally sustainable lifestyle:
- Learn Your History
Once you unpack the baggage, you have to get empowered and fill that suitcase with things worth carrying around, like inspiring images and history. Where else to start but your roots? Challenge yourself to learn your environmental history. Learn what background(s) your family members come from and how they have interacted with nature in the past. If you have relatives who live elsewhere, how is their relationship to the land different than yours? Go to your grandma first and ask why she maintains aloe vera plants in the kitchen. You can hit a solar power workshop later.
- Get Out of the City
Get proactive with what you have learned. Get out of the city. And I don't mean hit the suburbs, 'cause that urban sprawl steez couldn't be any more unsustainable. Hit farms, yo. Get your kicks dirty and go remember how fun it used to be to play in the dirt. You may discover how much you actually like it. You ain't gotta move to a new place and change your whole life in a day. If you're strapped for resources, start with nearby urban farms. In the Bay Area, we're fortunate to have tons of community gardens and urban farming opportunities.
- Get Scared
In other words, stay educated. Invite your homies over to watch Soylent Green. Trust, the post-global-warming police brutality in that film will wake you up. In all seriousness, I don't want you to spread panic and stress. Revolution isn't about stressing out all the time; it's actually about being healthy and constructive. But use media to spotlight the issue, then start havin' those serious conversations. Watch movies, share a book you bought, show off your reusable mug, ask co-workers to bring plates to work to reuse instead of disposable utensils. Can you and your roommates start composting? Do homies wanna start buying from a farmer's market on the regular? You get the idea.
Kristia is an environmental justice advocate and educator based in San Francisco.