Where to look when you can’t un-see.
Author Barbara Ballenger is a Board Member of PA Interfaith Power & Light, and Associate for Spiritual Formation and Care at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Philadelphia.
The recent march of white nationalists and KKK members upon the city of Charlottesville, and the accompanying terrorist attack upon counter demonstrators, has again placed racism in the public eye.
At the moment, there are some things we cannot un-see: a car driving directly into Black Lives Matter members, killing one and injuring 19. White nationalists armed more heavily than the police. Young polo-shirted men marching with swastikas and shields.
The racism that undergirds our national infrastructure, and the bigotry that keeps it in place, is not a simple thing to dismantle. Just removing the monuments that celebrate its architects and defenders brings out the torches.
photo: Jess Ballenger
But while our eyes are open, it’s important that white people engaged in justice work take a hard look at the racist infrastructure itself, not just at its staunchest defenders. Because those of us with white privilege also benefit from that architecture. It shapes white-normed organizational systems, including how they are led, and who tells the story about what the world is like. That’s why white supremacy, which is invisible to too many, often undermines the effectiveness of organizations’ best efforts, leaving many of us scratching our heads about why the movements aren’t more diverse and leading many to jump to the wrong conclusions about why more people of color aren’t involved in the efforts.
This is true for climate justice organizations, whose leadership and membership remain predominantly white.
“Given the environmental threats posed by a Trump administration, it’s more crucial than ever that Americans work together to fight climate change. And in order to achieve broad, collaborative action, the mainstream environmental movement will need to take a hard look at how its overwhelming whiteness has thus far hobbled its efforts,” four University of Oregon journalism professors write persuasively in an article for Quartz.
The authors further point out that people of color are very much concerned with, conversant about and active in addressing climate disruption. Yet large-scale climate justice efforts do not reflect their leadership or membership.
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light has also struggled with being a far less diverse organization than we hope to be. We have been noticing and naming the dominance of white voices leading and engaging our work—people of faith responding to climate disruption as an urgent moral issue. We know, too, that wrestling with the legacy of white domination and supremacy is also a growing priority for many of the congregations and denominations involved in our work. This is a key moment for climate justice and racial justice to meet at the crossroads and begin speaking to each other.
In both of these movements there is great urgency and imminent threat. At the same time, there are no quick solutions to undoing the legacy of racial exclusion and distrust that white-dominated justice movements have inherited and perpetuate.
photo: Jess Ballenger
But there are some immediate actions that we need to take. The first is that white people in the environmental movement must make it a priority to explore how the white privilege and supremacy learned from infancy affect the ability to be racially competent in addressing a crisis that affects many people of color first and worst. As a black colleague puts it: “When white people do their work, I am safer.”
When white people do racial work with mindfulness—listening more than talking, learning what it is to be an effective ally, making space for long-silenced voices and experience—our hope and prayer is that environmental justice work will be done differently: in ways that shift power dynamics, that amplify voices that typically go unheard and quiet those that dominate, and that make visible the experiences of climate disruption that have gone unnoticed and unnamed.
The evidence of things hoped for, substance of things unseen, is the very definition of faith. As an organization committed to bringing people of diverse religious traditions together in common cause around environmental justice, a shared faith in the dignity and gifts of one another may be just the thing to help us keep our eyes open in the days ahead.
Images from Philadelphia rally and vigil, August 2017; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling in the upper R was in Charlottesville with other clergy gathered to stand together in that space.