On Monday evening, I attended a panel in north London discussing the question: is climate change a feminist issue? Now, I’ve had a blog post with this same title percolating in my drafts folder for weeks, so I knew had to buy a ticket to the event before committing anymore words to paper – uh, screen. There’s only so much you can glean from books and I was looking forward to hearing opinions and information from women with actual experience on the subject. The panel was interesting, if a little meandering at points, but did provide me with plenty of thoughts, enough to spark not only one blog post, but three or four, which I hope to publish over the next few months when I’m done mulling these complicated questions over in my head.
However, there was one moment during the panel that I can’t stop thinking about. As I cycled through London on my way home, I kept replaying a certain exchange over and over in my head. I knew that I had to write it down now, straight away, because the point I want to explore here is probably best communicated while my head literally won’t stop yelling at me to write it down. What’s the point of blogging regularly if not to capture and record moments I think are noteworthy while they are still noteworthy?
The panel focused heavily on intersectionality, as it should, with each of the speakers being honest about their own background and experiences, reaffirming that is primarily the lives of women of colour in the Global South who are on the frontlines of climate change and talking about how intersectionality impacts their own work and how they run their own movements and projects. The panel was comprised of six women, including the moderator: two were white, one Chinese and the other three South Asian. Most were middle class and well educated, by their own admission. They talked passionately about neocolonialism, reparations and social justice for almost an hour before the conversation turned to questions from the audience, a group of forty to fifty people. Three questions were taken one after another, with all responses waiting until all three questions had been gathered. The final question came from one of the very few black women in the audience. She made the point that, while words like colonialism, imperialism, oppression and justice had been used regularly, not a single person had used the word racism once. “I want to know why.”
There was a pause. Then, the moderator jumped in to say that her next question was on environmental racism, and that it was her fault that it had not yet come up. Obviously, this response entirely missed the point. I knew that. The question asker knew that. The moderator should have known that. The original question asker then reminded the moderator that everyone had spoken over the preceding hour, and that while a specific question may not have brought up racism specifically, there was nothing stopping any one of the speakers from using that term and choosing to speak concretely about racism and racial justice when it comes to climate change and women. I don’t know if anyone else had picked up this glaring omission, but I hadn’t, almost certainly because I’m white and less attuned to omissions of this kind, which is something for me to reflect on.
What followed was… embarrassing, honestly. It was almost laughable that this diverse group of women, all of whom had meaningful experience in feminist activism and discourse, absolutely floundered when very understandably and respectfully called out for their exclusion of racism from the discussion. Instead of pivoting to that question and giving it a thorough response, most of the women chose to primarily answer the other questions. This next section must have been going for over ten minutes before someone actually started to address the elephant in the room. The responses started by reaffirming that of course racism is a core part of the discussion, and that using words like colonialism and imperialism in place of racism is not good enough, before switching to talking awkwardly about the balance between mainstream and radical ideas when you’re trying to bring people who are at all different stages in their feminist and environmental journeys into these conversations.
It sounded to me like many of these women were saying that addressing racism as part of feminism and environmentalism was somehow radical, as if the preceding seventy minutes of conversation hadn’t completely centered on how it is the experiences of people – especially women – of colour from the Global South that must take centre stage. I mean, you can’t say in one breath that centering racism in this discussion is vital but then say that you are trying to balance that with including the posh mums at the school gates in Ealing who are just learning how to compost, and for whom the word ‘racism’ would be too big, too off-putting and too radical – except of course, that someone did say this. Does this not sum up many of the issues these women were supposedly there to bring light to? This panel of six women had at various points of the evening all been calling on men (especially privileged white men) and corporations – those in power – to take stock, reflect and do better as we try to build a more inclusive, just world that it isn’t perpetually on the brink of environmental collapse. But then, they were asked to do just that, and they all got defensive, made excuses or avoided the question. The same reasons why these women floundered so severely in response to being called out for a pretty huge omission are the same reasons why privileged people everywhere double down on their harmful thoughts and behaviours, instead of reflecting on all the ways that racism is baked into our society and doing better in the future. The panel’s response was not to reflect, to apologise and to start a meaningful conversation about why such an experienced group of women in both feminism and environmentalism had been thoughtlessly exclusive, in an event that, for the most part, was supposed to revolve around the importance of including those who have typically been marginalised. It was to perpetuate that silence further by not engaging with the question or showing any admittance of wrongdoing.
I mean, do you think this woman left the event feeling included, like the women who we were supposed to regard as authorities on the topic had her best interests at heart and kept her needs front of mind? Or at least, were interested in learning how best to do that? This event skirted around racism and discussing racial justice explicitly, and then, when pressed, avoided and minimised the issue by suggesting that racism might just be too radical when trying to have conversations that appeal to a wide variety of Londoners. Such bullshit. Racist bullshit. Obviously that exchange will have been deeply exclusive to that black woman, and probably to the other black women in the audience too. It was bad enough that racism had been erased from the conversation; it is shocking that no useful conversation was then had about that omission, and speaks to the core issues that prevent both the climate and feminist movements from becoming truly intersectional today.
I’m glad I attended the event, and most of the speakers shared something useful that I’m sure will go on to inform my posts on feminism and environmentalism. But it was tarred by how badly that question was handled. It was so clearly an indication of exactly the structures that cannot cope with self-reflection, or realising that they might have fucked up, structures which we need to figure how to address in order to make change. We could have had an opportunity to do that the other night; the panellists could have modelled for all of us how to take responsibility and admit that you made a mistake that excluded and hurt someone. Instead, the panellists showed us that we still have a long way to go to make both of these movements truly inclusive, and that even those who think they are doing all they can are not immune to being the perpetrators sometimes too. Something for us all to think about.