Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#745 - The Environmental Movement -- Part 5: White Privilege Divides The Movement, 27-Feb-2002

The environmental justice movement appeared spontaneously in
different places during the 1980s. In their book, FROM THE GROUND
UP, authors Luke Cole and Sheila Foster compare the movement to a
series of streams coming together to form a river.[1] They see
the movement encompassing civil rights and environmental racism;
the anti-toxics (environmental health) movement; native American
struggles for land, sovereignty and cultural survival; the labor
movement for a safer workplace; a group of academics who began
researching the disproportionate contamination of certain
communities based on race and class; and a few traditional
legal/scientific environmentalists. (See also REHN #744.)

In this issue, I want to broach a taboo subject: the matter of
race within the environmental justice movement. I want to do this
because I believe race is creating misunderstandings, which can
prevent us from working together effectively.

In some peoples' minds "environmental justice" is still only
about environmental racism but I personally believe the fight for
justice is not ONLY about race -- as central as racism is in this
world, especially within the U.S. I believe environmental justice
is about domination, exploitation and injustice of many kinds,
wearing many different faces. If we maintain the narrow
definition, that environmental justice=environmental racism, then
the movement may turn its back on a large number of allies and
potential allies, greatly diminishing the likelihood of gaining
political power in the larger society.

I have to acknowledge a valid concern that, if "environmental
justice" includes white people, then white people will tend to
dominate the movement and they will receive most of the available
funding, which is meager at best.

The funding picture is indeed dismal. As Daniel Faber has shown,
annual philanthropic giving in the U.S. totals about $22 billion;
of this, 5.4% or $1.23 billion goes to "environment" including
animal welfare and wildlife; of this $1.23 billion, only $49
million (or 4%) goes to "environmental justice" using the broad
definition of the movement.[2, pgs. 32-33.] The other 96% goes to
the traditional legal/scientific environmental movement and the
animal protection organizations. To get the $49 million into
perspective, we note that the five core groups of the
legal/scientific environmental movement (National Wildlife
Federation, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Environmental
Defense, and Natural Resources Defense Council) have combined
annual budgets of $325 million (from all sources of income
combined, not just philanthropy).[3] When we identify the
highest-paid individual in each of these five organizations and
add up their annual pay, it totals $1.4 million, or 2.8% of the
$49 million that is available to all of the environmental justice
groups in the country. In other words, the legal/scientific
environmental groups are receiving substantial funding while the
environmental justice movement is left to fight over what amounts
to scraps that may fall from the philanthropic table. Given the
path-breaking accomplishments of the environmental justice
movement, which I will discuss in detail next issue, this
imbalance of funding is nothing short of scandalous.

So lack of resources is probably the greatest source of racial
tension within the movement. But there is something else,
closely-related, that creates racial tension and mistrust within
the movement as well, mainly because it is so rarely discussed or
even recognized by white people: white privilege.

One white writer, Peggy McIntosh at Wellesley College, has
published her personal reflections on white privilege in her
college work. She says, "...As a white person, I realized I had
been taught about racism as something that puts others at a
disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary
aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage."[4]

She goes on, "...I have come to see white privilege as an
invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing
in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious.
White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of
special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes,
tools and blank checks."

In her academic job, Ms. McIntosh had been examining male
privilege. She says, "...After I realized the extent to which men
work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that
much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered
the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom
they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are
justly seen as oppressive, even when we don't see ourselves that
way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin
privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its
existence." Here are the first 25 items she listed:

1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my
race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or
purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I
would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will
be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured
that I will not be followed or harassed.

5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the
paper and see people of my race widely represented.

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about
"civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what
it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular
materials that testify to the existence of their race.

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for
this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of
my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods
that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop
and find someone who can deal with my hair.

10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on
my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial

11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from
people who might not like them.

12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer
letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad
morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without
putting my race on trial.

14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called
a credit to my race.

15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial

16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons
of color, who constitute the worlds' majority, without feeling in
my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear
its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural

18. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge"
I will be facing a person of my race.

19. If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax
return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my

20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting
cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of
my race.

21. I can go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to
feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place,
outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without
having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of

23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that
people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the
places I have chosen.

24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race
will not work against me.

25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of
each negative episode or situation whether it has racial

Ms. McIntosh draws a conclusion that seems to me crucially
important. She says, "I repeatedly forgot each of the
realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white
privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.
The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give
up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not
such a free country; one's life is not what one makes it; many
doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own."

She goes on, "...In proportion as my racial group was being made
confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely
being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness
protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and
violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn,
upon people of color....

"Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States
think that racism doesn't affect them because they are not people
of color; they do not see 'whiteness' as a racial identity. In
addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems
at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of
having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability,
or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual

"...In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned
advantage that rest more on social class, economic class, race,
religion, sex, and ethnic identity than on other factors. Still,
all of the oppressions are interlocking....

"One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking
oppressions. They take both active forms, which we can see, and
embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant groups one is
taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as
a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in
individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in
invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my
group from birth....

"To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their
colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding
privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking
about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned
advantage and conferred dominance by making these subjects

"It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like
obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated
in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy,
the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.
Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is
there for just a small number of people props up those in power
and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that
have most of it already," Ms. McIntosh says.[4]

--Peter Montague


[1] Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, FROM THE GROUND UP (New
York: New York University Press, 2001; ISBN 0-8147-1537-0).

[2] Daniel R. Faber and Deborah McCarthy, GREEN OF ANOTHER COLOR
(Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University, 2001), pg. 2. Available

[3] Pay (salary, benefits & expense account) as reported in
November, 2001; see
Organizational budgets are available at www.guidestar.org.

[4] Quoted from Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the
Invisible Knapsack" (1990). Available at
http://www.uwm.edu/~gjay/Whiteness/mcintosh.htm and
and http://modelminority.com/society/whiteprivilege.htm and
http://seas.stanford.edu/diso/articles/whiteprivilege.html and
and http://intra.som.umass.edu/transitions/whiteprivilege.pdf .

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (29)