Tuesday, October 23, 2007

a gift could be an enemy

I've been doing a lot of reading for one of my classes on the idea of environmental justice - or rather, environmental injustice. Just like reading Silent Spring, I was surprised by my own ignorance on the topic. The idea is that there is an inherent inequity both racially, economically and culturally, that allows minority groups to be exploited environmentally. Think of this as the ultimate and finite end to the "Not in My Backyard" argument. Hazardous waste has to go somewhere, and groups or towns that cannot afford to fight it, or do not have enough education to know the effects, or do not have enough socioeconomic power to oppose it, have the worst of the worst environmental pollution and degradation dumped in their own backyard.

I just read a few articles arguing that environmental justice and multicultural education should be integrated into environmental education, and I agree fully. I was left with a whole lot of thinking after reading one particular article about white privilege. It wasn't your typical article on racism as it did not point a finger at people who are white and blame everything on them, but it was a self reflection on the daily privileges that a white person is afforded in the country. The author, a white woman, said that this was very difficult to write, and I think I understand why. Some of the privileges that the author listed were things like:
  • I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can be reasonably sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
There were a total of about fifty of these types of assumptions. What she was attempting to do was to speak of the taboo of privilege. She made a very good point that most everyone in our culture understands that minorities are put a disadvantage, but most are wholly reluctant to admit that their own race is put at an advantage as a result, which would be quite logical if it were not so threatening of an idea to our own egos.

Think about it. If anything, the subject is unsettling because it deflates the sense that we've earned our positions (wherever we stand financially, socially, culturally, popularly) and it makes me, personally, wonder if I got to where I am on my own merit, or as a symptom of this system of privilege. I think our egos may be the strongest reason that were are in such denial of this. Because for me to face that it was not purely a result of my own hard work that got me here is very tough.

On the flip side, this really explains the perpetuation of this system of preference and advancement. If I don't have to worry about daily interactions and constantly have to apologize for, explain or try to live above the notions of my own race, then think of how much more I can succeed in life. When people are constantly having to prove their worth or potential, energy is wasted on that which someone who is privileged could use to further their own status.

Also, when we address issues of environmental justice, where a minority group is being exploited, we need to address the issues head on and through the cultural means present. It is not enough to say that we should strive towards living in a sustainable environment through education - most of that education will never reach these types of communities. Perhaps recognizing some of our own privileges we are afforded will get us to that point.

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