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  • emilye.maloney

A Crash Course in Intersectional Environmentalism: What Being Green Has to Do With Supporting Black

Despite growing alongside (albeit many miles away) an incredibly aware and empathetic sister who wears pretty close to a size zero in Carbon shoe, I am a person who until quite recently was entirely missing the point. Passive in my support of environmentalism, I generally understood the damage humans have done (and are doing) to our Earth, but I treated it as a problem that was someone else’s responsibility (my sister was doing great!) to fix. Any environmental actions that caused me substantial inconvenience, would often go untaken.

This, I’ve learned (within the past month!), is privilege. I haven’t been directly and negatively impacted by the way we treat our Earth. I published Jackie’s flow chart in front of these words, so you could “follow the money” right to my exact point. The people directly and negatively impacted by poor environmental practices are low-income families and individuals. I’ll run you some surface numbers. In America, as of 2018, there are a little over 38 million people in poverty. About 9% of people making up that number are white. The wealth gap is, as one might say, Black & white, and this is all due to systemic racism upon which this country was built. We’ll get more into that in the weeks to come, in a million different contexts.

I’ll pause here to give you a choice. Ignorance is absolute bliss at a time like this, if you have the privilege. For those lucky enough to make this choice, just know that reading further will require work. It’s all work. Perhaps you’ve been fighting against racism for the past few months. Maybe even years! Unfortunately, you can’t learn the stuff i’m about to relay to you, and carry on as a fighter for equality, without altering your habits. “Going green” and I mean truly going green, is work. Contemporary convenience is so very rarely “green.” But if you’re out there fighting for racial justice, you’ve got to understand that without environmental justice, other racial justice doesn’t exist (and Buddy, it’s vice versa, too).

More than 30 years ago, [Professor of Law at UCLA & Columbia Law School and big time authoritative figure in the realms of Civil Rights, Black feminist legal theory, race, racism and, obviously, the law] Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality.” She wanted to deal with the overlap between so many social justice problems. Racism. Sexism. Classism. The parts found in the middle of the Venn Diagram accounted for multiple layers of injustice; spaces where perhaps more nuanced social issues were overlooked

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” - Kimberlé Crenshaw

The environmental movement cannot fully show up and truly advocate for the planet and the people, unless it is intersectional. Accounting for just one social problem at a time erases the people who experience multiple injustices at once. Additionally, considering environmentalism through an understanding of intersectionality allows us to see the injustices happening to the most vulnerable communities (and the earth) into focus, and does not minimize social inequality. Long story short, we’re inclusive!

And speaking of inclusivity, one last thing before I let you go. The bell hasn’t rung just yet. We have to recognize how racism is entangled in the roots of environmentalism. Very, very quickly, we’ll run through a few names: Henry David Thoreau: naturalist and abolitionist. Thought the white farmer looked better on American land than Native Americans. Wrote about it. His disciple, John Muir, co-founded the Sierra Club. Muir thought the Indigenous people of Yosemite were “hideous” and had no business being on this land. Referred to Black people as “lazy Sambos.” Co-existing with Muir is Madison Grant, a well-known conservationist who wrote The Passing of the Great Race, which influenced a whole mess of racist acts. Hitler called it his bible. White terrorists (I think some people still call them Nationalists) reference it in their hate speeches to this day. I feel as though my point is made, and I am going to end this paragraph here, and trust that if you’d like to know more, you’ll be resourceful. Here’s a place to start.

Huge names. Did lots. I hate to keep talking about them. We can do better. But we will not jump in and ‘help’ how we think others need it-- we will listen. We will empower and amplify and we will stop making assumptions. We will learn how we are needed, and how we can help.

It’s all about education, community (we all need support! We are so strong together!) and action items. Here are a few:


Three books to get you started (from your local Black-owned bookstore, perhaps?):

Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney

A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet A. Washington

Two articles:

And one grandmama resource:




Ok. Class dismissed. See you next week.

Big thanks to Vice’s ‘Tipping Point’ and @IntersectionalEnvironmentalist on Instagram for being a constant source of engaging education.

Also thanks to the 2018 census for some quick stats. Speaking of census, take it. Why wouldn’t you? You count. Being counted helps determine how hundreds of billions of dollars gets pumped into your community every year (for the following decade). Education fund allocation. Road repair. Child abuse prevention. Wildlife support. Wildfire support. Senior housing assistance. Surely you care about one or more of these things. Take the 2020 Census.

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