With Greta Thunberg’s rising fame, it has become increasingly clear that the world listens first and foremost to white voices in the climate dialogue. The world jumped on the chance to make Thunberg the face of youth climate activism. She became someone they could listen to and admire for all her youthful bravery and dedication. Don’t get me wrong, I think what Greta’s doing — spreading awareness about the climate crisis, inspiring other young people to do the same, and urging those in power to take action — is great. The criticism she receives is groundless; she’s a minor with no real responsibility to do anything more than what she is already taking on.
But I’m interested in the why of her fame, above others. It’s not necessarily surprising how much attention is given to Thunberg as if she is the only young person spreading this awareness, rather than the countless young people of color who are likely much more intensely impacted by and closer to the climate crisis than she is.
When are we going to stop telling young black and brown girls that their experiences don’t matter, that their stories are expendable?
On January 24, 2020 The Associated Press at Davos posted this photo of climate activists Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille.
That same day, AP received backlash after it was revealed that Nakate, 23-year-old climate activist from Uganda, had been cropped out of the photo before it was posted.
In a video Nakate posted to Twitter, she explained how it felt to be essentially removed from the conversation of climate change by an established news source:
“…it was the hardest thing because everyone’s message was being talked about and my message was left out. And my photo was left out as well…What really hurt me the most is that I was just thinking about the people from my country and the people from Africa and how much I’ve seen people being affected by the climate crisis in Africa and how I’ve seen people die, lose their families, their children, their homes and everything they ever dreamed of and hoped for and I saw this — and thought who is going to be able to speak for all these people and try and help these people bring their message across?”
Nakate’s response was more than warranted. From a single altered photo, she has been erased from the discussion of climate change. She has been given the messaging that because of her race and nationality, her voice is not as valuable as her white peers’. The damaging effects of this are palpable. When are we going to stop telling young black girls that their experiences don’t matter, that their stories are expendable?
The whole movement of sustainable living and climate activism is incredibly whitewashed. Take the clean, light-colored aesthetic of sustainable living Instagram accounts run by white women, or the middle class white vegans who claim that if you don’t practice a vegan diet, you must hate the planet. Sure, most vegans don’t actually say this, but there is an undertone of morality associated with veganism or vegetarianism. And those who don’t have access to these diets whether it be geographically or economically are placed at a lower rung of the moral ladder. Unfortunately there is a high correlation between people of color and lack of access to unprocessed, fresh, organic food.
There’s a million ways we could dissect the climate activism movement and see how it has been whitewashed. But let’s take the time to learn about and acknowledge some of the young activists of color that have seen firsthand what climate change has done to their communities, and are doing something to fix it.
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