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Too white & middle class: XR’s chaotic protests show EXACTLY why people of colour rarely get involved in eco activism

Too white & middle class: XR’s chaotic protests show EXACTLY why people of colour rarely get involved in eco activism
With Extinction Rebellion causing major disruption in London, one thing immediately apparent is just how white the group is. The reasons for the lack of diversity are many and varied, and reflect poorly on the eco movement.

In 2008, while covering the US election for the Mail on Sunday,I wound up in an Urban Outfitters in Washington DC looking for classic Americana and ‘Obamanalia’ for friends and family back home. My old friend, Suzanne Moore, who at the time was the MoS’stoken leftie columnist, had ridden shotgun with me from Kentucky to the US capitol because (a) I wasn’t to be trusted on my own and (b) she can’t drive for toast.

Despite being the journalistic equivalent of ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ by the end of the road trip I’d learnt much about America’s enduring racial fault lines, including the contentious notion of ‘liberal racism’ courtesy of a little gem Suzanne dug up in Urban Outfitters’ book section.

“David, I’ve got just the thing for you,” cried Suzanne. Waved high above her head like a pair of knickers at a Beatles gig was a copy of ‘Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions’by Christian Lander. From the title alone, I knew I was going to love this tome.

‘Stuff’sconceit is that trendy urban white liberals have a distinctly bourgeois, right-on, slightly left-of-centre appreciation of achingly worthy middle-class goodies. It’s hilarious, if a little on the one-trick-pony side, but it does a great job of skewering the sort of pretentious white liberal ‘lifestyle choices’ that right-wing grifters such as Ben Shapiro, Darren Grimes or anyone working for GB News have resolutely failed to do because, hey, reactionaries love wearing New Balance trainers, too.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Lander (who’s white and very liberal) takes the piss out of his tribe’s love of everything from organic food to overpriced free-trade coffee, non-profit organisations to yoga, and David Sedaris to, er, Barack Obama.

But following a week in which Extinction Rebellion activists generated huge publicity for the climate change cause, I was reminded of another another ‘Stuff’target: ethnic diversity.

While Lander notes that, “The most important role that black friends can play in white culture is that they can be used as physical evidence that white people are not racist,” Extinction Rebellion and the broader environmentalist church somehow missed the memo. Every time I turn on the TV news, scan social media or, heaven forfend, find myself in Central London, and I come across XR and their mung-bean-eating band of merry persons, I’m struck by how overwhelmingly white and indeed middle class the movement is.

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The global climate change movement must rank as the whitest, non-racist, mass movement for a generation, which begs the question: if most of the planet isn’t white, but the most severe impacts of climate change have historically affected everywhere outside of Europe disproportionately, then why does XR have all the ethno-diversity of a Guns N’ Roses concert?

The answer may well lie in the question.

In 1900, a quarter of the world’s population resided in Europe – some three times that of Africa at the time. But by 2050, it’s predicted that just seven percent of the world’s population will live in Europe, and will equal a third of Africa’s population. Despite the right’s constant ranting and raving about immigration, predominantly white nations are seeing declining populations thanks to the rise of the elderly and falls in fertility – a demographic deficit that can only be overcome by migration from developing nations once you also factor-in growing numbers of singletons, child-free couples, reverse migration, sexuality and gender identity, and a host of other changes that are reducing global white numbers.

This month, it was reported that the US’s white population declined for the first time ever, with the 2020 census finding that it has now fallen below 60%. In 1951, three years after the British Nationality Act was passed, the ethnic minority population of England and Wales was little more than 100,000. Today, out of a population of 56 million in England and Wales, some eight million people identify as coming from an ethnic minority.

When I look out into the world and see a sea of black, brown, yellow and red faces looking back at me, I glory in the wondrous nature of human diversity – and the sheer size of the human race. But for many white people, not just on the paranoid right, but also in the rational left-of-centre climate change movement, I suspect they see a world that doesn’t look like them – and with ‘their’ race in decline, that fills them with existential dread.

Having worked in the third sector on environmental issues around the world, and from talking to friends and indeed family who are involved in climate change activism, I’ve witnessed a degree of Eurocentric extinction anxiety that simply doesn’t exist among black and brown people – certainly not on a conceptual level. White XR types love the idea of a climate catastrophe being on the horizon. In this way, they’re no different from pagans or religious nuts who have obsessed about the ‘end of days’ since the dawn of time. Yet somehow they think the apocalypse can be avoided if we simply listen to a load of recycled ranting and raving and superglue ourselves to the pavement. This is naïve and self-indulgent.

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Be it Tuareg I’ve broken bread with in Niger’s Sahel or Aboriginals I’ve had a jar with in Australia’s Outback, climate change isn’t an environmental bogeyman or this week’s secular Doomsday: it’s a living, breathing, eternal problem foisted on humanity by Mother Nature, because such people have existed for millennia in hot, inhospitable and dangerous environments where climate is just one of many threats to their existence. In other words, ‘people of colour’ are far more used to living on the edge than white people are, so perhaps we’re less engaged with the climate movement because we just don’t have the sense of urgency that our European brothers and sisters, who are now playing catch-up, have.

Likewise, the climate change movement is set against a backdrop of other perceived existential threats that ‘BIPOC’ (that’s ‘black, indigenous and people of colour’ to the uninitiated) don’t view with the same apocalyptic zeal. If the MSM is to be believed, Eurocentrism is just one migrant dinghy away from being wiped out by radical Islam, China, multiculturalism, feminism, the LGBTQ+ community, Covid, cancer, obesity and countless other panic-inducing real and imagined enemies. Hell, white people are even at each other’s throats fighting various phoney culture wars, left-right ding dongs, class battles and sundry identity crises.

This isn’t to say that people like me don’t care about the environment or see the worst ravages of nature as a fait accompli. If anything, now that I live in the Caribbean, a region that’s highly vulnerable to anything from rising sea levels to volcanic and tectonic activity, I am more conscious of climate change than ever. But I’m also aware of how #sowhite the climate change movement is, and the inherent arrogance at the heart of it.

Take Greta Thunberg, for instance. While she’s become an icon of the climate change movement, for BIPOC she’s a ‘triggering’ reminder of the sense of entitlement that a middle-class kid on the spectrum can have. Compare that with entire populations of black and brown people who live in constant daily environmental danger but lack the access to Western media, politicians, lobbyists and greenwashing corporates that Thunberg has.

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She also exemplifies how white hegemonies carve up the world – and its problems – to suit their own agenda. This hypocritical ‘privilege’ was plain to see last year when the Associated Press cropped out Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate from a photo that featured four white female activists, including Thunberg. In its defence, AP claimed the crop was for “compositional purposes” but such a cant excuse merely reinforces a cynical, ethnocentric view that climate change is just another ‘white thing’ that is lobbied, managed, framed and packaged to the public in its name and on its terms.

Aside from the daily environmental challenges that people in the developing world face, their cousins in the West have more pressing issues to deal with than gallivanting around London naked with a spray can in one hand and a tube of glue in the other. For one, getting an education, a job and putting food on the table is uppermost in the minds of black and brown people who are still overrepresented among the working classes. We simply don’t have time for attention-seeking jolly japes.

But XR’s emphasis on encouraging activists (or “rebels” as they like to call them) to semi-martyr themselves, by getting arrested and even jailed while protesting, is antithetical to the black experience. With stop and search, deaths in custody and a disproportionate level of black people languishing in British jails, the last thing any black person wants is contact with the criminal injustice system. That might work for Oxbridge-educated Jemima, whose mummy and daddy can pay a fine or call in a few favours with their chums in chambers, but that ain’t working for Jermaine who’s having to work three jobs to get through uni and faces a mountain of debt and an uncertain job market when he graduates.   

As Extinction Rebellion London has communicated, “We are asking the police and legal system to concentrate on issues such as knife crime, and not non-violent protesters who are trying to save our planet.” Such a sentiment might sound noble to the socks-and-sandals brigade but, to black people, this smacks of white liberals telling the police to run along now and stop hassling good middle-class kids and their noble cause, and go round up those nasty inner-city black kids with their gangs and their knives and their drugs.

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As another old friend, Tottenham MP David Lammy, said, “When it comes to the climate emergency there has been too little mention of saving black lives. For too long, racial justice efforts have been distinguished from climate justice work.” Lammy, and the likes of Black Lives Matter, are pushing for inclusion and support of black and minority leadership on climate issues, along with global recognition as, “we can't solve climate change without racial, social and intergenerational justice.”

Ultimately, XR has a #sowhite image problem – and that’s a major barrier to getting black people involved. As my 15-year-old son told me, “Black people don’t want to be seen out in public with those people,” because he’s patently aware that “those” people don’t really want to be seen with him – unless he’s got weed.

For XR to get us ethnics onboard they thus need to raise their game culturally as well as environmentally. Maybe then their movement will sound more like the stuff black people like.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.