Racism and Nature.
The lack of diversity in nature illustrates inequalities across racial lines. In 2004, academics from the University of Leicester, Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland, edited a book called Rural Racism, which expands upon the correlation between race and nature in Britain in great detail. Since hearing of the term last year, I can't help but see it all the time.
As a family we love nature, walking, and the outdoors in general. The benefits of nature are extensive and well-documented and, if we're to live in a fair and equal society, these benefits will be known by all and accessible to all but, all too often, a disproportional number of people of colour, many more of whom live in cities, have their mental and physical health, their connection and engagement with land, and their education with natural sciences, all compromised.
In 2004, Trevor Phillips, the then chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, spoke of a ‘passive apartheid’ in the British countryside. Figures show that the 9 per cent of Britain’s population who were from an ethnic minority constituted only 1 per cent of the visitors to the countryside. I believe this is now up to 2 per cent.
Chakraborti and Garland followed up on their research and in 2011 investigated the white world vision and found that: “Minority ethnic incomers were often treated with suspicion as many white rural residents felt that they belonged only in the city, with all its concomitant ‘negative’ attributes of noise, pollution, crime and, crucially for some, multiculturalism. The rural, in their eyes, was an escape from all of those things, and the presence of a minority ethnic family suggested that the city was somehow ‘invading’ the space of the tranquil rural they so treasured.” People of Colour, in turns out, are so fundamentally associated with urban spaces that in informs how we expect the countryside to look to.
The reason why we have this shocking disparity is complex and historical. Part of the entitlement to land and the countryside is written about superbly in Nick Hayes's book The Book of Trespass. The British have built their legacy on claiming ownership on stuff that isn't theirs. They carved up and stole from Africa and India as part of their imperial reign, they enslaved over 3 millions Africans, we continually culturally appropriate other cultures in the name of capitalism and white supremacy and, yes, the British elite also have a long history with taking land for their own gain and leaving the poor to deal with it.
Commoners in England used to be allowed to farm most land - people would share and rotate land in order to keep their families fed. This was restricted heavily when William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066. Over the subsequent centuries, more and more land has been taken by the rich to house their own private forests, not only removing commoners' access to land for food but access for shelter. As a kick in the teeth, homeless people were labelled as vagrants and were often flogged or imprisoned. As British colonial rule got into its stride, these vagrants were often shipped off to other countries to produce forced labour. The dividing up of land by William the Conqueror, and by the Church, to assert authority and obedience is still seen today. For the last millennium, England has continued to build walls. Thinking of some people's reaction to housing more asylum seekers suggests that exclusion and hostility is a mindset with deep roots, and one that still blossoms.
The ownership of land, the privatisation of land, the taking of land from commoners made the wealthy wealthier, the powerful more powerful and the poorest even poorer still. As The Book of Trespass reminds us, many politicians, peers, and royals also inherited their status from the profit of slavery. Some translated their blood money into huge new estates back in England by the end of the 17th century with 300 new manor houses were built to impose the absentee owner's power. Indeed, 93 of the National Trust sites have links to slavery. And, to keep this cycle turning, the poor still cannot visit these sites because they have to pay.
It is the upper classes that effect us all. Yes, their greed and power have a disproportionate affect on People of Colour, but to those with denial about British rule and about white supremacy, this should be a point of unity.
The environment is an intersection that we all belong to and that we should all be defending and promoting but, once again, it can be overseen and denied by those who feel more entitled.
An article called 'Environmental racism has ‘ripped’ Black people away from nature', discusses a term called ecofeminism, which again exposes the links between slavery and the present-day effects it has on black people:
Ecofeminism is both a philosophical and political theory. It is a movement that recognises that the exploitation and destruction of the natural world by the white man parallels the subordination and oppression of women, particularly Black women and gender non-conforming people.
The idea that Black people are inherently disconnected from nature and less inclined to care about environmental issues is largely a myth rooted in anti-Black racism. The reality is generations of Black people have been displaced from their native lands by European settler-colonialism over centuries; the mass migration resulting in the severing of vital social relations and important traditions that keep Black people spiritually and physically connected to the earth. The ripping of Black people from their roots and role as caretakers of the land has been detrimental to their livelihoods and the planet. Black women have been at the forefront of sustainable farming practices, herbalism, and healing rituals, but these traditions were disrespected by white slaveowners.
Ecofeminist theory tells us that such practices are, and were, devalued as they are rooted in the liberation of Black women as a subjugated class, and caring for the Earth and reconnecting with nature is the most radical thing we can do.
I, once again, refer to the rise in human entitlement. The rise in neoliberalism and humanism and, obviously, the centuries of colonialism, centres human beings (white people, in particular) as worthy and superior. The Earth is considered a resource to be exploited to propel the capitalist machine. As is written in the brilliant book Superior: The Return of Race Science:
There's an implicit assumption that higher productivity and more mastery over nature, the presence of settlements and cities, are the marks of human progress, even of evolution.
It's overwhelmingly upsetting that I have to point this out but what is bad for People of Colour is bad for 'white' people too. In 2017, it was reported that 50,000 trees were cut down in 5 years in London. At the beginning of 2021, the 'Tree of the Year' (also dubbed the Happy Man Tree) was chopped down to make way for 584 new homes. As the Guardian wrote this month in an article entitled City trees are as under threat as our forests: “Natural capital accounting” and the business bottom line is here also to blame. If you're selfish and only care about yourself then, newsflash: This. Affects. Everyone.
We are, it seems, obsessed with using the Earth on a whim, and it is often People of Colour who suffer disastrously. At the end of the month I will be sharing a book review of Climate Change is Racist by Jeremy Williams, an illuminating book which shows the unavoidable link between climate change and racism. But I will include one of the book's quotes now, by Leah Thomas, that sums up this interconnection perfectly:
The systems of oppression that have lead to the deaths of so many black people were the same systems that perpetuated environmental injustice.
If we are to take better care of our world, and if we are to better challenge racism, we need to better at understanding the historical impact of environmental destruction on black lives. I also think that a closer connection with nature improves one's empathy. I read about this Gaelic word in Emma Dabiri's brilliant new book, What White People Can Do Next, Dúthchas, which encompasses this concept of connectedness and inter-relationships between land, people and culture. Maybe we should all try and feel more connected to nature and realise that the joy it brings belongs to everybody. Nature, simply, needs to be more inclusive.
If I haven't convinced you yet, here are a few more depressing statistics for you:
70% of white children spend time outside once a week compared to 56% of non-white.
39% of POC live within a 5 minute walk from green space compared to 58% of white people.
In 2018, it was estimated that 18% of children living in the most deprived areas had not been on any trips into nature. Black people are twice as likely as white people to live in a household with no access to a car or van – vital for getting around the countryside.
When you add the factors of cost included in rail fares or petrol, not to mention the need to stay somewhere overnight, access to land is both a postcode lottery and biased against those that can’t afford it.
People of Colour are disproportionately affected by where they live. Think Grenfell, think Covid. Black people were 50% more likely to die after being infected by Covid partly because they were more likely to live in flats and have less access to outside space. Social mobility needs to improve. POC are less likely to access nature because they think it's not for them. Advertising and marketing needs to be more inclusive and diverse. There needs to be more green space, generally. More funding needs to be put into making urban green spaces safer and more appealing. Nature is everyone. Let's start acting like it.
In an attempt to end on some sort of optimism, there are campaigns that are rocking the boat and promoting change. I love Black Girls Hike U.K, who provide a safe space for Black women to explore the outdoors. There is also Black Girls Camping Trip, tailored outdoor retreats for black women and non-binary people in the UK; another amazing idea that helps challenge the status quo.
People and organisations are out there, shouting about this stuff and trying to make a difference. We just need white folks to do it to. #breakingwhitesilence.