tokenized wokeness: the rise of non-violent white saviours to fix the world

Throughout these past few months, media channels have been bombarding us with discussion of Greta Thunberg, political figures of the United Nations, the infamous Donald Trump, and their reactions to the climate crisis. In this sphere of polarization and the rise of comfortable/mainstream activism where people want tangible change without giving up their privileges—regardless if this is even possible—we must be critical and vigilant when there are these heavy endorsements of Greta and her forms of advocacy by world leaders, celebrities, and mass media; for it has become increasingly easy to equalize advocacy with action, and white saviours with activists. So, I ask you a simple question, whose answer may be immensely convoluted: why Greta? Why is Greta Thunberg the face of climate change activism today?            

There is a difference between attacking Greta because of her advocacy in questioning the audacity of world leaders in their lack of action against climate change and recognizing that certain bodies are always centered in global discussions—that of white Eurocentric perspectives.

But, let me just say, when Greta asked,

how dare you?

The power, the emotion, the rawness of that question, it inspired me. It was, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “one thing to know something intellectually and another to feel it emotionally”.                                                       

However, there is a difference between applauding this advocacy and working to dismantle the narrative that places certain bodies as the center perspective, as the only perspective, in public discourse, academia, and activist spaces. Recognizing the embedded nature of political dynamics to favor the less radical body does not mean that those with platforms should not utilize them in dismantling our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy. Rather, we need to actively work to recognize the mechanisms of popular advocacy and understand how these modes of prioritization are rooted in other forms of systematic exploitation and oppression.    

I applaud Greta, as should all of you, while still recognizing that those disproportionately affected by climate change, rarely if ever access platforms that allow them to voice their own lived experiences and embodied knowledge. If we never center marginalized voices, can we ever hear, understand, and change their realities? Greta, unlike many marginalized people does not face the continued blame, degradation and consequences of the climate crisis; we must then ask: why are communities who are continually exploited by transnational structures demanding ecological destruction, not the ones that are able to organize strikes, protests, and policy changes according to their own lived and embodied learnings? Why is Greta, somebody who has a platform, who is white, and residing in the Global North considered the face of a movement that does not affect her in the same capacity as it has the majority of the South?

World leaders, celebrities, journalists, news outlets, mass media, they will praise Greta and others that look like her and hold her privileges and will place them as the voice of climate change. This re-orienting of the white saviour and activist is nothing new. The white rescuer, protector, liberator has been practiced for centuries now, whether it was at times of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the continued colonization and genocide of the manufactured “Third World”, or the co-opting and appropriation of the gun reform and climate activism movements today.

For instance, the Parkland shootings in the United States revolutionized the way the media portrayed gun reform as those of primarily white advocates. When preventable disaster struck Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2018, claiming the lives of 17 students, black teens rose and stood up to the forces demanding the deaths of children, and shouted #NeverAgain repeatedly throughout the nation. They organized protests, marches, gun reform rallies, but their advocacy was not taken as seriously as that of their counterpart white student activists. This is when the Times put the white Parkland survivors who had gone through tremendous trauma, on their covers. Who chanted their names as heroes, brave, courageous activists repeatedly throughout the news while casting similar black victims of gun violence as vicious, gang-affiliates, “known to the police” perpetrators. Who cast them as the holy light against the corrupt NRA, who by the way supported gun control and reform when the Black Panthers carried them.

Why are we pretending that gun violence was not a systematic racialized and gendered issue before February 14th, 2018? Where are the black women founders of the Black Lives Matter movement—Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza (the one name I did not have to google)? Where are the organizers of the #SayHerName Campaign of 2015, who demanded Washington University publish their study that found nearly 60 percent of black women killed by police were unarmed? Where are the other awareness campaigns, like Project Orange Tree led by black and indigenous women who wear orange because historically that was a call between hunters not to shoot? Where are their stories, activism, and lived experiences?

It is not that Greta and the Parkland survivors should not speak to their own experiences, but that there is an incredible silencing of perspectives that differ from the idea of the dominant activist body that dictates solutions. People of colour advocates, especially black, indigenous, and “third world” activists are seen as the radical body, the othered body, the “colored” body. And when I speak about Greta and the Parkland survivors, I am not attacking them as much as I am attacking this system that utilizes them to maintain a conformist and white supremacist power dynamic.

Greta will be praised mainly because her forms of advocacy are nonviolent and are not rooted in the dismantling of racist and classist forms of colonial power that are embedded into climate change. Climate change is not an isolated issue. The climate crisis is one of a racial crisis. It’s one of a sexist crisis. It’s one of a colonial crisis. It’s one of a capitalist crisis. Greta is not advocating for justice that dismantles these intersecting layers of oppression. Accordingly, political leaders and mass media can praise Greta and center her as the climate saviour because her advocacy is not one that questions and challenges their own compliance and dominance in the continued genocide of our planet and its peoples.     

The voices of people of colour, women, poor, disabled, fat, immigrant, refugee communities are not centered precisely because they are working to dismantle that power structure beyond superficial layers. In the face of whose activism to choose, middle-to-higher class, rich, white, straight men will choose the activist that allows them to keep their comfort and privilege. By working to dismantle the consequences rather than roots of climate change, Greta can utilize these nonviolent forms of resistance and it works great for her, but we cannot and should not equate creating a climate strike day or organizing awareness marches, as equivalent to those who put themselves and their lives in danger every day. Who are on the ground doing the work, who are sitting in jail for protesting, who cannot find housing because they were displaced from their homes, who cannot find employment because of their past advocacy, who are surveillanced by the state, who are killed every single day, fighting for justice in a system that values everything but their lives. I think of the The Chaski Warmi of the Abyayala, a tribe of indigenous women demanding that the United Nations put indigenous culture and livelihood over mining and unsustainable development in Ecuador. To be honest, they are the only indigenous activists I know without having to search and sift through media coverage. Embarrassingly, I had to look up 15-year-old, Autumn Peltier, an indigenous water activist fighting against the exploitation and degradation of indigenous peoples and land in Canada, who is completely unknown to me even while I have grown up here.

I hope that just because Greta is inhabiting a less “radical” body, we do not put her actions, protests, and forms of resistance as superior than those of continually marginalized communities. Greta’s work and advocacy are an integral and important step of climate and environmental justice. However, let me be clear: we are aware, but awareness is just not enough.