Are You an Environmentalist?

Posted in activism, environmentalism, politics, race on July 10th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Am I an environmentalist?

It depends on what you mean by that.

Going to college at American University — a school on environmentalism overload — I was under the impression that most university-aged students were concerned with “the environment.” However, twice since starting to teach at CUNY, I’ve attempted to get my students reading and talking about environmentalism of different kinds, and both times it has fallen pretty flat.

The first time, I assigned articles about corporate exploitation of environmental disasters (the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Initially, I found their lack of criticism about either event disconcerting but understandable, since both had happened far away from their urban New York homes. But one student’s assertion that they just didn’t really care about the environment — not even considering that there isn’t one single “environment” — made me angry.

This summer, I tried to make environmentalism more relevant, and I asked my introduction to cultural anthropology students to read an essay by Melissa Checker, whose work about an urban, African-American environmental group (HAPIC) from Georgia seemed like it would speak much more directly to my students. But I received a similar lack of response from most of them as I got before. One reason I think Checker’s work is so interesting is because of the way her interlocutors characterize the environment: it’s “where we live, work, and play.” Furthermore, they see their group as distinct from the mostly white, middle-class groups that typify environmentalism in the U.S. These groups are generally based more on an interest in conservation and “green” consumption practices — two activities that most members of groups like HAPIC can’t afford. They are concerned about environmental justice, in which improving the place where they live, work, and play will counter some of the inequalities they’ve suffered from for many years.

I felt that this description of the environment and who should be concerned about it would be much more interesting to my students. After all, this is the kind of environmentalism that concerns me. Interest in making places that people live healthy and safe for them and their families is relevant to all sorts of environments. But my impression of New York-style environmentalism is that it mostly revolves around bike lane controversies, organic restaurants and local food movements, and Greenpeace volunteers in your face asking for money all over Manhattan. Environmentalism in New York is not presented as a working-class issue. This isn’t to say that people of all backgrounds aren’t or can’t be environmentalists (check out Melissa Checker’s newer work on Staten Island), but it makes it understandable that the environment doesn’t resonate with most students. Most of their families are working class, and many are immigrants — environmentalism here is still seen as a bourgeois issue, and they don’t see themselves as participants.

So, what does it mean to label oneself an environmentalist? Several of the activists in the anti-mountaintop removal movement who I so admire — and who have been recognized by worldwide environmental organizations — have been hesitant to call themselves environmentalists because of the term’s association with exclusively white, middle-class clubs. A concern with environmental justice isn’t quite the same thing. If it’s not characterized as “environmentalism,” would it seem more approachable to my students? In the end, I think it’s impossible to convince them they should think about the environment in one or two classes; it would take a long and critical look at the different manifestations of the movement over time to move away from the assumptions people make about environmentalists. This is a project that I’ve been working on for years, and I still can’t decide if I’m part of that group.

Here’s where I ask for your input: do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Why or why not?

Rednecks are Stupid, and other important facts I learned from Anthropology

Posted in anthropology, environmentalism, race on November 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Sometimes Anthropologists need some little reminders:

We often forget that the discipline was initially founded on the tenets of scientific racism.

We often think we’re smarter than everyone else because we’re so critical of the way the world works.

You can probably imagine what happens when someone forgets both.

I recently joined the Environmental Anthropology listserv, which typically has some pretty interesting discussions about the nature of environmentalism, conservation, climate change, and other relevant topics. Recently someone posted a link to a really interesting and provocative (because of its incomprehensible conclusions and misuse of anthropology) evolutionary psychology article which suggests that people who stay up later and are productive during the night hours are simply smarter and more evolved  than those who don’t (i.e., those who live in “undeveloped” countries where lack of electricity means people sleep when it’s dark and are productive when it’s light). Because of its really problematic application of “anthropology” to describe how different cultures have typically “used” the hours of dark, it received a nice trouncing on the listserv that I thoroughly enjoyed reading until one post happened, which I’ll quote in full:

“Not to reopen debate on this issue, but I have traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people, and likewise have read much literature and other works from an extremely diverse amount of cultures. Now, shouldn’t everyone be in basic agreement that every single group of people in this world, no matter which way they try to push or pull it, in fact has some smart people, and a blisteringly, overwhelming amount of dumbasses? (Pardon my French; the more blithely the point put forth, the more I tend to speak French)

Kind of like how every country in this planet has a small core of “sophisticants” and an American dessert portion gram-cracker coating of rednecks? Even checking out Wikipedia it states “with the median set score at 100, and a standard deviation of 15″. Egads! I didn’t exactly score genius level on any standardized tests, but I was smart enough to look up that, on the whole, excellence in standardized testing proves that you are extremely capable of standardized testing (but doesn’t show much else).”

I’m not sure if it was the haughty reference to being more well-traveled than most people or the use of “cracker” in the same sentence as “redneck,” but this just pissed me off (in plain English. As someone later pointed out, the euphemistic pardoning of one’s French doesn’t excuse one of being disrespectful). And so my entry into the world of listerv participation was this:

“So now poor, rural white folks are not just backwards and ignorant – which are bad enough stereotypes as it is – they are the marker for what it means to be stupid in this country?

There are many ways to describe how thoughtless a statement like that is. I’ll just take one example: two Goldman Prize winners in the past decade are women you’d probably call rednecks. Having “traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people” doesn’t absolve us of our biases, especially toward the groups we think we know the best.”

I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself for only writing four sentences, none of which stooped to the level of calling this person a dumbass right back, but it is unfathomable to me that a person who describes her or himself as an anthropologist does not recognize the problems with such a statement. It’s one thing to actually think rednecks are stupid. It’s entirely another to pretend that you know more about everything than anyone else because a. you’re smarter and b. you’ve had a good education and c. you’re well-traveled and still be suggesting that there is something inherently stupid about being poor, rural, and white. It sickens me that anthropologists (and other academics, to be sure) so often think so highly of themselves that they think they no longer have any prejudices, and then they fail to see the ones right in front of them.

Maybe this person doesn’t know the interesting history of the word “redneck” or how poor whites were long part of the list of groups targeted by eugenics proponents with (as described by another respondent) “such bad ‘genetics’ as alcoholism, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, having twins, being a migrant worker, single-parent family, pauperism, homelessness, being of Franco-Canadian descent, being of Indian or African-American descent” and that in the 1920s it was suggested they be sterilized along with the other groups mentioned to stop breeding among “bad” sorts of families. Or maybe this person doesn’t recognize the important work women like Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe have done in places like Appalachia and what their presence means to so much of what environmental anthropologists tend to care a lot about. (I also don’t wish to assume that Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe self-identify as rednecks, though they very well might. I think I’m probably safe in guessing, though, that the uninformed poster would categorize these women as such, being rural white folk and all.)

Then the poster had the nerve to relegate the response to the lengthy conversation about the “redneck” comment to a post-script:

“PS: I think I see where some hot buttons were – “rednecks” and “sophisticants”, which immediately dredged up socio-economic concepts. Please disregard – I was attempting to state that there is no segment of any society in the entire world that does not possess individuals of high intelligence. This includes rural regions. “Redneck” was a poor choice of words when posting to a listserv filled with individuals who exercise precisely named categories for groups.”

Disregard. No, I won’t apologize, or suggest that I might have offended someone, or recognize that I might not understand the complications of this term that I so carelessly flung about, or – dare I reference the great Pierre Bourdieu – that I misrecognize my own assumptions about what it means to be poor and white, therefore perpetuating the stereotype that they really are the stupid segment of our society and certainly don’t deserve a place in all this academic talk.

There’s a reason we “exercise precisely named categories for groups.” Maybe it annoys you, poster. But it annoys me that you’re careless enough to think that such statements aren’t examples of how deeply embedded such stereotypes are. Yes, pop culture loves to portray rednecks as dumb, but apparently, some anthropologists still think they are too. Redneck was a poor choice of words here, period.

Anthropology has come a long way from studies that measured brain sizes to confirm that African-Americans were less developed than Whites, and most of us recognize that there’s still a long way to go to really get to an anti-racist anthropology (on this topic I highly suggest Leith Mullings’ 2005 “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology” in the Annual Review of Anthropology (vol. 34)). But I have to insist that we take this criticism further, because it’s obvious to me that people still do associate stereotypes with people of certain races and from certain places, and one of the easiest targets of such stereotypes is the rural white poor. Maybe they’re the least exotic, and that’s why they’re the most ignored group by anthropologists. They’re the most invisible and therefore the least complicated. We think we already know everything about them, so they are useless to us and our significant academic contributions (though Eliza Darling’s work is an exciting intervention into that last bit).

I’ve always liked anthropology because of its ability to provide critical perspectives on the assumptions we have about the way society works and the way we think about one another. But I wonder if this discipline is guilty here of its own misrecognition (according to Bourdieu, “the fact of recognizing a violence which is wielded precisely inasmuch as one does not perceive it as such”). Anthropology recognizes the violence we’ve done to other groups of Others that we’ve constructed as counter to our Selves, but we miss out on the fact that just saying we do violence doesn’t mean we stop doing it. Or, just because we recognize that anthropology was long complicit in constructing racism doesn’t mean that we still don’t have really awful stereotypes about people that we continue to accept without question because we think we’re past all that. We’re critical enough of everything else that if one group gets left out, it’s no big deal. We don’t see that such unchallenged assumptions, such acts of misrecognition perpetuate the invisibility of groups like the rural white poor and therefore allow inequalities and subjugation to remain ignored.

I sure do hope I’ve used that ‘misrecognition’ thing right. Otherwise they’re going to kick me out of that ‘sophisticant’ category and into the American-dessert portion graham-cracker redneck group of dummies.

Then again, would that really be so bad?

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