Look at any pictures of the recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, and you will see a sea of white faces. You may also make a judgement about wealth, class, education and so on, based on what you see too. Sure, this could just be media portrayal, a snapshot of a moment that doesn’t represent all that was going on – or is could be capturing something else.
From the off, let me be clear that I think social justice movements are made up of a variety of voices expressing their concerns and demands in a variety of ways; they are a coalition of the concerned, acting and speaking out in different ways that match their values and their circumstance – there will never be ‘one-size-fits-all’. Like when a choir sing a song, the different sections may be singing different notes, but they remain in harmony with one another. Social movements are rarely made up of one action – the civil rights movement had martyrs, marches, meetings, buses, letters, votes and so on. So to see pictures of just white faces at a climate protest in and of itself may not be reason for concern – but to see so many pictures of so many white faces might just start to raise doubts. However, it would be concerning if an arm of a social justice movement is moving in a way that actively excludes those who are suffering the injustice. Can a failure to recognise diversity, and a failure to create space for other communities, with different engaging actions, be actively excluding them? Or should a movement shout as much as it can no matter who is shouting it?
So much of a message is not about what is being said, but about who is saying it, how they are saying it, and how it relates to the context they are in. The concern is that XR claims to be a diverse group but that it doesn’t actually look or sound like a diverse group. XR explicitly outline again and again on their website that they are made up of people of all ages and backgrounds, of no political party affiliation. But if it just looks like a bunch of white, middle class lefties, then the movement can be dismissed as being such. Just saying that they’re “working to improve diversity” is not the same as actually providing a variety of actions that can actively include a diverse range of people – it’s just lip-service.
Others have shared their concerns on this too. The article on the BBC titled “Climate activism failing to represent BAME groups, say campaigners”1 describes how parts of London with high proportions of the population from BAME groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution compared to areas with a high proportion of the population who is white. And yet, BAME groups are underrepresented in activist groups, such as XR. Professor Akwugo Emjulu from the University of Warwick sees one of the main reasons for underrepresentation being due to the tactics used by these groups. Getting arrested is a very different experience for some groups who fear violence and hostility, as a result of racial profiling. Simmone Ahaiku, fossil-free campaigns coordinator at People&Planet is quoted in another article2 saying “I do think Extinction Rebellions are exclusionsary to people of colour”, agreeing that XR’s “glorifying of arrests” and perception of other institutional structures “smacks of race and class privilege”.
Sharing that view are the Wretched of The Earth, “a grassroots collective for Indigenous, black, brown and diaspora groups and individuals demanding climate justice, made up of many groups in the UK and around the world”. They wrote open letter to XR appealing to them to make changes to their approach. In it they say:
“Many of us live with the risk of arrest and criminalization. We have to carefully weigh the costs that can be inflicted on us and our communities by a state that is driven to target those who are racialised ahead of those who are white. The strategy of XR, with the primary tactic of being arrested, is a valid one – but it needs to be underlined by an ongoing analysis of privilege as wall as the reality of police and state violence. XR participants should be able to use their privilege to risk arrest, whilst at the same time highlighting the racialised nature of policing. Those some of this analysis has started to happen, until it become central to XR’s organising it is not sufficient.”3
They then provide a list of demands deemed crucial for a climate justice rebellion as part of XR’s next steps in pushing for specific policies that will ensure justice for all communities.
Indeed, XR themselves have responded to criticism about their emphasis on getting arrested. Under the FAQ’s on their website, they say:
“Yes, we are aware of the structural racism in our policing and legal system. We give people information about arrest and those of us who are white have acknowledged our privilege, in the likelihood that we will be treated differently / better than our colleagues of colour. People can take a variety of roles. We think it’s important for white people to use their privilege. People of colour (PoC) have been more at risk for generations in defence of the environment and their lands, both here in the UK and around the world. It is time to for white people to take this risk too so that PoCs, who are threatened by structural racism, don’t have to. The ecological crisis affects PoC more than it does white people currently. Environmental activists of colour in other countries have been killed for defending their land. We also try to acknowledge the police as human beings and to be respectful during our protests, but this does not make us naive about what the police have done to activists and communities in the UK. Activists have been subjected to lies, assault, the spy cop trauma and worse.”4
It is encouraging to hear these exchanges and one hopes that the next steps taken by XR acknowledge privilege and try to use it for actively dismantling privilege, and actively including those who do not experience privilege. This goes beyond just considering white privilege, but also reflecting on sexism, classism, ableism and others. This may mean that XR need to reconsider their emphasis on getting arrested – not something that they have mentioned on their website yet. Not doing so means that they will continue to engage just the privileged. Don’t get me wrong – the privileged need to be engaged – but saying that you are “open to all” whilst failing to nurture spaces that truly are inclusive is not being “open to all”. If you want a diverse movement, spaces need to be curated that are accessible for all to participate in a way that works for them.
By Lydia Messling