ON ANGER, “LOVE VOICES”, & “DIVISIVENESS” IN THEIR ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
by kat yang-stevens
“Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation. My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes.”
–Audre Lorde, Keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. Storrs, Connecticut. June, 1981.
Yes. I am angry.
Many, MANY, of us are angry.
I will not hide my anger, grit my teeth, or bite my tongue. I will not silence myself or others to spare the hurt feelings, or guilt, or confusion, or tears, of privileged white people who fail to take even basic steps towards understanding our oppressions. Anger is an appropriate reaction to the rampant perpetuation of often invisibilized forms of racism and oppression. Anger is an appropriate reaction to the privileged gatekeepers of funding, resources, and power, when they fail to identify and challenge their understandings of our oppressions. Anger is appropriate when the earth is commodified for the capitalist agenda. Anger is appropriate when those with the most power in what they like to refer to as “our” movement — a movement that claims to want to stop the destruction of the earth — fail to invest in the painstaking, difficult, and lifelong work to truly act in solidarity with indigenous people and people of color, we who are the most affected by climate change and the industries and systems that are causing it. This means that those with the most power and privilege must be actively working to identify, examine, and CHANGE the white supremacist and colonizing mindsets — starting with themselves as individuals — that dominate everything in “our” movement.
Of course, I do not believe that all white people and otherwise privileged people are inherently bad, some of the people I love most in this world are white. I should not necessarily judge people for their privileges alone — none of us get to choose what privileges we’re born with. We are all born into a society that grants us power in some ways and marginalizes us in other ways. It is how we all hold our privileges and power, and whether we hold them with integrity, that is at question here. What each person does with their privilege is up to them.
When we, as people of color and indigenous people, use our anger as a way to express the frustrations that we have, which white people can never truly understand, we often find ourselves facing defensiveness and attempts to shut us down, silence us, and drown out our words. When white folks proclaim our anger is causing them “fear” and to “feel uncomfortable” it is usually a signal of underlying feelings of inadequacy and is always invalidating for all involved in the conversation. When they say they fear our anger, what they are often really saying is that they fear scrutinizing the ways in which they or their organizations may be complicit in perpetuating inequalities and systemic forms of oppression. This is when it is most crucial for white folks who want to align themselves in solidarity with us to hold their privileges with integrity and to hold themselves accountable.
Whether intended or not, without examining where those feelings are coming from, with careless use and without accountability, those words become tools for white people to silence and invalidate us, avoid identifying their own privileges, protect their ignorance (and in doing so keep their bubbles in tact), and to continue to protect white supremacist and colonialist mentalities and institutions. So, when white people say they’re “uncomfortable” when we use our words together with our legitimate feelings of anger what’s really making them uncomfortable is the content of what we are saying and the fact that to connect with us on a base level, they may have to change their lives by giving up a power, a privilege, or a belief.
When white people tell us that we need to “find our love voice” when responding to racism, white supremacy, and colonialism, they completely devalue the experiences and feelings that many of us have as non-white people and colonized people, who have been forced to assimilate or die, physically or spiritually. When white people say this, they are displaying their unwillingness to understand that we are dealing with violent legacies of intergenerational trauma due to racism and colonialism. and while they can accept this trauma, they can never “get” it. This notion that we need to always use our “love voice” indicates that when we express anger, our contributions are rendered useless, disruptive, divisive, or at best “not productive.”
The very fabric of the society we are living in has been woven together by ongoing legacies of colonization, genocide, slavery, white supremacy, imperialism, and cis-hetero-patriarchy, to name a few. All of these systems are necessary props to uphold capitalism and ensure that the earth will continue to be ripped, stripped, and blown open to turn a profit for the powerful elite. Many have thus far been unable to understand, and some just downright refuse to accept, that these props, these pillars, upholding the system must be destroyed if we are to put a halt to the cataclysmic harm being done to our earth mother. Those who refuse to learn this knowledge and to unlearn false paradigms that exist in direct conflict with the natural world are not only harming us and dooming our chances of halting the horrific abuses of our earth mother, but are harming themselves as well. When white people discourage others and themselves from confronting and attacking white supremacy head on, from smashing colonizer mentality, from destroying all systems of oppression, from doing the hard, self-critical, internalizing, and life-long work of building truly inclusive spaces, they are being divisive to the movement.
Whether white folks mean it or not — regardless if they believe they have “good intentions” — they are always contributing to the perpetuation of a society that privileges themselves and people like them while marginalizing people like us. The only exceptions are those moments that they are consciously identifying, acknowledging, and addressing these injustices and working to dismantle power and equalize relations between us.
We are surviving in a world whose dominant power structure has done everything in its power to erase, commodify, and hold in servitude and bondage the very existence of our peoples. The institutional, economic, political, social, and cultural dynamics of hierarchy, power, and privilege that define mainstream society also permeate the environmental movement. Identifying, acknowledging, and challenging these pervasive dynamics is NOT divisive. It is the true, difficult, and life-long work that must be undertaken by us all (that means you too, white folks who are reading) if we are to stop the destruction of the earth, our mother.
When white people demand that we use our “love voice” if we want to be taken seriously, they are really saying many things… They are saying that they know better than we do how to speak our truths. Regardless of their intentions they are reaffirming the paternalistic idea that we don’t know any better and that white people make the rules and set the standards and we are supposed to follow. They reserve dignity for themselves. They will only give us “dignity” if we play nice, play by their rules: if we use our “love voices.” Demanding that we use a “love voice” when pushing privileged people who hold the powers and resources we have been systematically denied, whether they are our allies or not (and remember, it is UP TO US, on an individual-to-individual basis, to decide if they are our allies), is belittling, paternalistic, and demands the re-centering of whiteness and white experiences. When they tell us to speak with our “love voices,” or else they cannot hear us, they display a privilege that we know they have, but which they most often cannot see — a privilege that allows them to maintain a calm demeanor because their livelihoods aren’t as much at stake as ours. They are re-centering whiteness by demanding that we, as people with less privilege, present ourselves in a way that they, the dominant group with more privilege, feel comfortable with and know best.
What about how we feel when we have to go into their spaces? Many of us live most of our lives in spaces dominated by white supremacy. In the spaces that those who dominate the “environmental movement” carve out for us at national, regional, and even local convergences and gatherings, we are expected to not only use a “love voice” at all times but also to articulate a well thought-out, sharpened argument on the spot while simultaneously outlining steps for moving forward in the future. We are expected to do all of this within the confines of the moments or minutes in which they allow our voices to be centered, which is often in a position of tokenization. We are expected to do all of this while some of us don’t have a place to live, don’t know where our next meal is coming from, aren’t sure if we’ll be arrested or deported tomorrow, aren’t sure if we’ll be gunned down for looking suspicious — we’re expected to do all of this while dealing with the realities of our lives made difficult due to widespread systemic inequality.
We are marginalized in many different ways depending on how the different systems of oppression we experience intersect. Many of us have limited or no access to social capital, leadership, and resources that are crucial to protecting or defending our communities from the industrial production and resource extraction. This leaves us vulnerable to being exploited by those in “our” movement who are more privileged. The leaders of “our” movement not only tokenize us in order to push their agendas, but also demand that we be grateful to them for allowing us to appear or speak in public at the national, regional, and local convergences and gatherings of “our” movement.
Some of us do use “love voices” all or most of the time. This is legitimate. Some people must use a “love voice” at most or all times for fear of losing funding for themselves personally, for their community, or for the organizations they work with. Some people use “love voices” all or most of the time because their mental well-being requires it. Some people use “love voices” because if they rock the boat too much, they will lose credibility with the dominant players in “our” movement, they won’t be invited to present another workshop, or they won’t be asked to give another keynote speech or lead another march — their communities will continue to be invisibilzed. For many, the “love voice” is a tool that we know how to use. But all of us are not able to code-switch all of the time. Sometimes we just need to be heard in our raw and natural state. And that is valid too. When we speak with anger when responding to racism, we are speaking with passion, we are speaking with the knowledge and expertise of our oppressions, which they can never fully, truly understand.
When white people who are also filling the roles of “key players” in “our” environmental movement tell us that we must use our “love voices” or we will not be accepted, we will not be validated or humanized, they are teaching us a lot. They are essentially saying that our very existence in their organizing spaces and the little funding and support we may get are dependent upon their goodwill. They are teaching us that they are so unwilling to acknowledge or let go of any power and privileges they have, that they will replicate the same power structures they claim to be opposed to in order to maintain their control which forces us in to an abusive relationship of dependence.
We are speaking. Our movement is happening. We can and are creating the space for transformation. Yes, we must use our love, but we must also use our anger. Assata Shakur tells us “nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” We must use anything we can and take a non-compromising stance towards collective liberation if we are to stop the globalized destruction of life and our earth mother. Yes, we are speaking, and those who do not understand us should listen, on our terms — whether we use our “love voice” or our angry, scared, exhausted, frustrated, or just plain fed-up voices.
When we are constantly prodded to explain ourselves time and time again, when we are constantly made to feel as though we must prove we are oppressed, this is white supremacy and entitlement in action. If white people truly want a dialogue about racism, white supremacy, and colonization, it will require that they recognize our needs and respect the ways we want to talk about our oppressions, including our anger. Many white people believe they are entitled to receive a quick and neat “feel good” answer given in the “love voice” to any question that they might feel like asking about racism, colonization, or white supremacy, from any non-white person they feel like asking at any time. The onus is never on us, as members of oppressed groups, to teach those who are oppressing us, those who are willfully ignorant of their status as oppressor. Many of us teach because we see it as a path towards collective liberation, but we cannot teach those who repeatedly and actively refuse to accept the knowledge we have for them as experts in our own oppressions. We do not have to subject ourselves to the re-traumatization of trying to teach or work with them.
We are not required to speak softly. We define the terms of our survival. If we need to shout from every street corner in unison to make ourselves clear (and I believe we do), then damn it, we are empowered to do it, with or without the approval of more privileged people. In fact if all of us use our “love voice” all of the time and continue to allow them to silence us, then they will continue to replicate the same dynamics that define the broader society, here within the so-called all-encompassing environmental movement. Evidence of how this movement is still replicating white supremacy and colonizer mentality is all around us: single-subject movements inevitably absorb every form of oppression which they do not identify and seriously begin to dismantle. More and more of us are realizing this and speaking this every day. By exposing and challenging unjust dynamics that exist in environmental organizing spaces, replicating the injustices in the world around us, we are refusing to allow these pillars that uphold the commodification of the earth to thrive, we are claiming our space and our power to direct this movement, and we are defining ourselves and OUR MOVEMENT.
-In Solidarity, Struggle, and Power and Towards Collective Liberation
Please also see this recent piece, “Why are the environmental justice activists so angry? Don’t they want to actually build a movement?” by comrade, and fellow QWOC, Jacklyn Gil.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.