From the U.S., where it was shown that Black mothers and infants are at higher risk of health-related issues because of global warming, to Malawi where the number of child brides increases with climate disturbances, by way of the “feminization of poverty” in the Caribbean which makes Black women more vulnerable when faced with climate shocks: there are countless examples of the disproportionated effects of climate change on Black women across the world. That is because this demographic has the particularity to face the unfortunately widespread burden of sexism combined with the specific effects of either (neo)colonialism or racism targeting both Afro-descending and African folks.
Their consequent vulnerability is aggravated by crises that consolidate with multifactorial pre-existing social inequalities. Sadly, climate change is just one pressing issue, among many others, that our world is currently facing. The excessive exploitation and waste of natural resources against a backdrop of historically unconstrained capitalism led to this climate imbalance. But who “possesses” (or at least lives on) the lands of these resources? Who extracts them on the field? Who processes the raw materials in the factories? Who is at the frontline when climate-related catastrophes occur? Add to that the unstable social place of women that have less access to financial independence, less access to proper care plus less freedom of movement and of life choices, and you basically have the main reasons why climate change hits Black women the hardest.
As said by American freelance writer Gloria Oladipo, Black women “‘save’ others to save ourselves.” So, similarly to their fights against other pressing social issues mentioned in the introduction, Black women are highly invested in the stoppage of climate change both in Occident and in so-called third-world countries. However, despite their oh-so-necessary contributions that are directly influenced by their unique experience with climate change, these activists tend to be less mediatized and less considered. Jasmine Davenport (formerly Sanders), executive director of Our Climate, a Washington D.C.-based youth advocacy organization, emphasizes the fact that indeed “it’s not that diverse individuals weren’t around, but rather that we have been passed on, used and burnt out and/or not acknowledged.”
A significant example of this non-acknowledgment was the mediatic erasure of Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate by the Associated Press (AP). Back in January 2020, she took part in a press conference in Davos with other known young climate activists. However, when the AP covered the event, they illustrated their article with a cropped picture that only highlighted the four white activists next to Vanessa. While AP quickly produced a statement expressing their regret, Vanessa was skeptical: in an interview with the Guardian, she pointed out that instead of un-cropping the photo in question, the AP simply replaced the photo with one where she was in the middle after public outcry, which meant they had made a choice to select a photo erasing her in the first place. And indeed, way beyond the AP controversy, Vanessa, unfortunately, gets less exposure than her white counterparts.
If Black women have some of the keys to tackling this crisis, then we need to make sure that they are rightfully considered in society.
This phenomenon is not specific to the fight against climate change and is the consequence of misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey, an associate professor at Northwestern University that defines the specific discrimination Black women face because of the combined effects of racism and sexism as briefly evocated earlier. Therefore, understanding and healing its causes may contribute to partly dealing with the climate issue. If Black women have some of the keys to tackling this crisis, then we need to make sure that they are rightfully considered in society. As analyzed by Dr. Francena Turner, an Adjunct Lecturer in History at Fayetteville State University, a public historically Black university in North Carolina, United States, we could define three processes that lead to the systematic erasure of Black women’s contributions:
Focusing on the results and not also on the construction of social movements. Social movements aren’t just about the visible demonstrations and hardly earned victories; they require countless hours of organization, preparation, and thinking. This “dirty work” is classically done by Black women. A historical example of this process, from the Civil Rights Movement era, is given by Dr. Belinda Robnett, a sociologist who served as the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for UC Santa Barbara before her retirement: “Given the context of their [Black women’s] lives, their anger and humiliation served as the basis for not only spontaneous acts of rebellion but also their strategic and planned activities”. Similarly, what we observed with the climate change crisis is that African women were among the very first to both be alarmed by the situation and take action to put an end to it. Nevertheless, their contribution is barely ever mentioned, notably because it’s less popular storytelling; thereby we need to learn to recognize their visionary labor.
Devaluating founding contributions by considering them less important. Dr. Bernice McNair Barnett, an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), analyzed this hierarchization of contributions in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and that can be put in parallel with the preceding point. Indeed, if organizing, planning, collecting funds, and educating, among other “dirty work” that is mainly carried out by Black women, are systematically considered less vital than being in the spotlight by communicating about the fights, then Black women’s contributions will never be considered properly. In the case of climate change activism, this explains why so many initiatives coming from Black women are being overlooked. Unfortunately, this process deprives humanity of ancestral knowledge and potentially revolutionary new-found ideas.
Reducing every organization or social movement to a single leader. This tendency is observable through the media almost solely focusing on Greta Thunberg when they mention the new wave of climate change activism. Personifying this movement, that doesn’t lack other spokespersons, oversimplifies its history and changes its narrative by making it Western-centric. Climate change-associated problems are way too complex and country-specific to afford this unnecessary mediatic habit. How could we change this? Well, for instance, when the media report Greta speaking about the importance of agriculture sustainability, they could close the circle of the conversation by showing concrete actions like those of Lydie Kambou, an entrepreneur who works in the field to encourage rural Women in the Ivory Coast to produce climate-smart shea butter while gaining their independence. In fact, as said by Wanjuhi Njoroge, a Kenyan climate activist who worked on supporting farmers to progressively move to more sustainable farming practices: “Conversations are in cozy rooms, but we need to get out.” Thus, we can’t only mediatize stances from Western activists, as relevant as they may be, because they don’t encourage enough action since countries from the Global North are not bearing the brunt of the worst consequences of climate change (especially since the worst has yet to come).
But far beyond the question of erasure, we also must reconsider our ability to feel compassion and to act accordingly when confronted with the suffering of Black women. Because while data shows that this demographic is the most impacted by climate change, no radical changes were made to protect them. One would expect movements that fight for Black women’s rights, namely antiracist and feminist ones, to prioritize this issue. However, a previous study published by the American Psychological Association showed that Black women are precisely being ignored by these social justice movements. They are stuck between two main biases from them. On the one hand, they are facing a sexist lack of consideration when it comes to the social suffering of women, despite this demographic being more likely than men to develop poor mental health because of socio-economic factors that are being affected by climate change. On the other hand, they are considered less “woman” and, this, combined with the historical dehumanization of Black people, leads to unfair treatment. As best said by Professor Stewart Coles, who eventually became a colleague of Dr. Barrett’s at the UIUC Department of Communication, “‘intersectional invisibility’ means that movements that are supposed to help Black women may be contributing to their marginalization.” But is it okay for Black women to suffer if others aren’t affected as much?
We are left here with one realization: nobody truly uplifts and listens to Black women. They have, at the same time, the “misfortune” to be women and not being “woman” enough because they are Black. That is why they are often mythicized for their never-ending investment in social fights despite the burden of the multiple injustices they face. However, this habit contributes to their dehumanization. Black women aren’t superheroes. They deserve help and consideration too.
We are left here with one realization: nobody truly uplifts and listens to Black women. They have, at the same time, the “misfortune” to be women and not being “woman” enough because they are Black.
Fundamentally, fighting climate change isn’t only about dismantling capitalism, or at least oligarchs and their merchants of doubt, but is also about making sure that Black women, the most vulnerable group facing climate disturbances, can navigate properly in life. Either as militants or just as “regular” human beings, they should be in full possession of their rights and able to use their voices for the greater good. This fight for more equality and for a better climate shouldn’t be carried by the sole shoulders of Black women but should never be appropriated (nor diminished) by other demographics. Loy Azalia and Ciara Mackey-Hall of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund put this concept succinctly: “In the same breath that Black women are revered and honored for their effort to reimagine and create a better future for their children, families, and communities, they are also dehumanized, undermined and dismissed and in many ways, unfairly described as superhuman. Black women have struggled to be seen as whole humans who experience a multitude of different emotions, feelings, highs, lows, joys, and challenges and it is time that their humanity is treated as such, and they are no longer deemed invisible.”
Actually, listening to Black women is not enough anymore. Let them take the necessary place to develop their platform, finance their works and their initiatives, acknowledge but also publicize their contributions, and learn how to fight against their struggles… in short: be active allies for them, just as they have been allies anywhere there is injustice.