This short essay posits that larger structures and forces work together to reinforce institutionalized forms of oppression, which in turn ensures continued commodification and destruction of the earth as well as the continued oppression and subjugation of Native, Black, and other migrant/diasporic/settler peoples of color. Environmental organizing spaces are often dominated by white people but it is Indigenous*, Black, and other migrant/diasporic/settler peoples of color who are disproportionately affected by climate change and the systems and industries causing it.
Drawing from my own experiences in these types of spaces–experiences which have had life threatening implications for me, painting me as a crazy, angry, woman of color and expelling me from not only several organizing spaces but forcing me into multiple situations of prolonged houselessness– I am using this essay as a bridge to reach others like me who have been plagued with demands to use a “love voice”, whose critical thinking carried into vocalizations of their ideas have led them to be labelled divisive, and whose anger is criminalized, feared, and delegitimized at every turn.
Not all non-white folks who organize in these spaces have a critical analysis around race and understanding of the complex and nuanced ways in which white supremacy operates that they can reach to and verbalize at any time. This essay is my attempt at further internalizing and beginning to verbalize my thoughts around these nuanced dynamics that manifest in our organizing spaces and support and reinvest in oppressive systems–dynamics that can often be so subtle they are nearly completely invizibilized. I have written this piece because I see the inherent value of creating space to examine, critique, and address the ways that intra-movement racism, sexism, classism, and other isms, are creating barriers for meaningful alliance building and effective action towards collective liberation.
*When the term indigenous appears in this piece it is reference to and with the specific context of the history and ongoing subjugation and social placement of original peoples of the colonial so-called Americas.
note: this is a revised edition of a piece originally published on October 27, 2013 after a national Power Shift convergence in so-called Philadelphia, PA and specifically in response to the following Facebook post and the subsequent comments posted to it, many from “climate leaders” working as paid staff at big green NGO’s.
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.
Artwork/Image Credit: Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy & Fabiola Jean-Louis
Image Description: A collage. A cut out of Audre Lorde’s face from a black and white photograph. Audre Lorde’s face is surrounded with colorful and geometric adornments with a mixture of mediums that make up a hair scarf, necklace, and pair of earrings. // Why Use Image Descriptions?
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 and their inherent complicity in perpetuating them.
Anger is appropriate when the earth is commodified for the capitalist agenda, which is part of ongoing colonialism and the genocide of indigenous peoples and people of color world wide. 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 towards solidarity with the struggles of Native, Black, and other migrant/diasporic/settler people of color, we who are the most affected by climate change and the industries and systems that are causing it. 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 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 representative of their underlying feelings of inadequacy and is always invalidating for all others 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 claim to want to align themselves in solidarity with the struggles of Native, Black and other migrant/diasporic/settler communities of color (which MUST, by nature, require them to be against white supremacy and colonialism) to hold their privileges with integrity and to hold themselves accountable.
Whether intended or not, without examining where those feelings are coming from, without thought 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 of “safety” intact), by continuing to protect white supremacist and colonialist mentalities and institutions. Whether someone’s intentions are “good” or not means nothing when the results are the reification of our oppressions and their own privileges and continued domination over us. When white people say they’re “uncomfortable” when we use our words together with our legitimate feelings of anger and frustration, 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 power, challenging their privileges, and fundamentally changing their beliefs about the world we all live in.
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 nonwhite people and colonized people, who have been forced to assimilate or die (physically, culturally, 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, slavery, genocide, imperialism, and colonialism at the hands of white people. And while it is possible to accept this trauma as being real, white people can never “get” it or feel it. They will never contain within them the experiences necessary to understand and internalize what it is like to be anything other than the beneficiaries of these systems. 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 “love voice” is just another coded term white folks use to force us to engage in racist respectability politics.
The very fabric of the society we are living in has been woven together by ongoing and interconnecting legacies of colonization, genocide, slavery, white supremacy, imperialism, and cisheteropatriarchy, 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 together this system must be destroyed if we are to put a halt to the cataclysmic harm being done to our mother earth. 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 the earth, 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 lifelong work of building truly inclusive spaces, it is they who are being divisive to “our movement”.
We are surviving in a world whose dominant power structures have done everything in their seemingly impenetrable fortress of power to erase, commodify, and hold in servitude and bondage the very existence of Native peoples and peoples of color world wide. The institutional, economic, political, social, and cultural dynamics of hierarchy, power, and privilege that define mainstream society also permeate the environmental movement, even –and perhaps especially– those segments of it which claim to be “radical”. Identifying, acknowledging, and challenging these pervasive dynamics is NOT divisive. It is the true, difficult, and lifelong work that must be undertaken by us all if we are to stop the destruction of the earth, our mother, and move towards collective liberation.
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, or if we even accept allyship as a possibility), is belittling, paternalistic, and demands the recentering 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 recentering whiteness by demanding that we present ourselves in a way that they, the dominant group who derive their privileges directly from our oppressions, 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 whiteness. 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 face very real dangers due to white supremacy; 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. Often these marginalizations–such as queerness, gender identifications, “citizen” status, ability, etc.– intertwine and compound in ways that make understanding our own identities overwhelming and can leave us nearly incapacitate when we begin to try to untangle them and then weave them into broader frameworks and understandings of the world that surrounds us. Many of us have limited or no access to social capital, leadership, and resources that are crucial to protecting or defending our communities from industrial production and resource extraction. This leaves us vulnerable to being exploited by those in “our” movement who do have access to various types of capital. Many of the so-called “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 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 invisibilized. 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 those who benefit from our continued subjugation can never fully, truly understand.
When white people who are also filling the roles of “key players” and “actors” 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 retraumatization of trying to “teach” or work with them. When this is the dynamic, we are not just expected to “teach” we are expected to work to humanize ourselves and legitimate our pain and suffering in their eyes.
We are not required to speak softly. We define the terms of our survival. If we choose life and dignity by any means necessary, then damn it, we are empowered to do just that, with or without the approval of more privileged people. 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
kat yang-stevens // @greencircleas
kat yang-stevens is a cisgender queer woman and first generation Asian American of Chinese ancestry. kat grew up on and currently lives on occupied territories belonging to the Onondaga & Cayuga Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in so-called New York. Narrowly avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline & having no formal education or degrees, they understand the need to create spaces for education outside state and private structures and are instead linked into larger projects committed to community well being and liberation. A main focus of their work includes addressing intra-movement racism and the barriers that it presents to creating meaningful multiracial alliances. They are currently being politically targeted for their role as an outspoken critic of the non-profit industrial complex which includes work to subvert the placating and incapacitating effects that Big Greens have over struggles against extractive industries.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.