Climate change and environmental racism: different but the same?

I didn’t know I was black. I was married to a white man, still in love, still fighting racism.

I didn’t know I was black. I was married to a white man, still in love, still fighting racism. I didn’t know I was black. I was married to a white man, still in love, still fighting racism.

I grew up in South Africa, when apartheid ended. I heard my white husband and my Muslim mother rant about their constant experiences of racism. I believed them and studied the statistics. But I wondered: were my experiences better than white Americans’? Were my life experiences all that much different? I had assumed that, for all our differences, black and white were basically the same. What else was there to be angry about? What else could possibly unite us?

I was wrong. Later on, I learned that people like me are not invisible to a black person, or even a poor white person. You can easily tell me I’m black; I can still laugh about the time my white boyfriend tried to talk about the deal-breaker in our wedding vows; and I can still shrug, as if we were an odd pair.

I know more now about environmental racism than I could have imagined as a teenager. Perhaps it’s because I see my own life’s experiences reflected in my father’s. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen racism in action, in the dramatic levels of destruction wreaked on mountains and forests in the hands of private developers, and in the gains of global warming, which hit the poorest people hardest.

When my family moved from one part of Africa to another, when there was air conditioning in the bedroom but no running water in the bathroom, there was no prospect of expanding our household because housing was scarce. While we endured droughts that killed grass and cattle, my father watched as development gobbled up the green spaces where he hoped to raise my younger siblings.

When his father died in mid-life, without his creator, my sister and I moved to a middle-class suburb of Johannesburg. I had, after all, married into the family business: a supermarket, surrounded by an expanse of development. Like the black Africans who prospered once apartheid ended, we saw our hard times end – but only after we made sacrifices.

Some took political action. Our neighbours helped us transport our belongings. I took part in the occupation of a nearby land, a dispute that ended in a humiliating loss. While we enjoyed air conditioning in the middle of the night, my sisters watched their campfire tipsfire burn to the ground.

When I lost my dad and my sister in a tragic car accident that left us at the mercy of family friends, while my parents mourned and drank, I was suddenly at the centre of a family dispute. I was caught between people who expected me to take over their unpaid duties while they grieved, and whom I expected to do the heavy lifting to heal the injury.

I know that colour is not a proxy for identity; that a man with a sixth sense is made of the same stuff as the president or a computer programmer. But surely, in the colourblind society we live in, perhaps a bit of the old strong black man could have been added to the strong white man and the “lady” president. The presence of knowledge and experience in each another is what unites us. Could it not have helped to have someone who looked like me but who was not, whom we could talk to, whom we could learn from? This is climate change and it’s something every government and business should be talking about.

I might be thinking of those familiar “you don’t know who you are” comments to white colleagues. But I wouldn’t be that surprised if the remark had something to do with the racial divide we seem to have emerged from. I’m like many white women – angry at the particular bias I’m prone to in meetings. It’s understandable that some white women see me in the same fashion as I see an elderly black woman – condescending, unaccommodating, even dismissive.

When my husband and I are sitting in the car together, do I feel I’m allowed to say anything about race? Must I suppress my solidarity with black America?

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