The Sierra Club’s privileged caste: Is the green movement white?

Sierra Club decalThe folk-rock group I play with, Mallworthy, was asked to perform at a holiday party and awards ceremony for the Sierra Club in Boulder last night. The event was held in the cafeteria of a Unitarian church, and there was a constant clatter with a couple-hundred people standing in line for the array of potluck food and then sitting and eating the food, while they talked and laughed.

We could barely hear ourselves play our brilliantly rehearsed setlist, never mind anyone in the “audience” paying any attention. One woman who stood about four feet in front of me while she waited in the food line leaned over and said she could barely hear our instruments but not our voices at all.

So when a well-heeled middle-aged woman in all black began banging her wine glass with a fork — during one of our songs — so the crowd could quiet down and listen to her announcements and several pages of “Bushisms” that she’s collected, I had had enough. It was a reflection of how invisible and unnecessary we were to the festivities at hand. Almost half an hour later, while the merry members held their raffle giveaway, we decided we should just pack up and go home.

We couldn’t even consider this a rehearsal since we couldn’t hear each others’ parts. It was nice to just get out of there.

But I had a cloud nagging at me all night, long after I’d gone home and started watching TV to distract my brain.

Even before the presumptuous woman interrupted our playing, I had looked out over the room and noted a disturbing fact: Besides myself, there were two Asian faces (women, who appeared to be there with Caucasian partners) and one African American woman. I wasn’t sure if anyone in the room was Hispanic. But it was clear that overwhelmingly, the room was filled with eager, erstwhile, Earth-loving white people.

With a full day’s contemplation behind me, what lingers isn’t the irritation of being stuck playing a gig where we were neither needed or wanted (the organizers even forgot to introduce us, or thank us during any of the many announcements they made in between songs, much less after they interrupted us). What bothers me more — and still — is the sheer and utter whiteness of the group that represents the heart of Colorado’s environmental movement.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the group was all Boulderites. I love Boulder; wanted to live there when I grew up, only it got too expensive. I have lots of friends in Boulder, including my Mallworthy bandmates. It’s a hotbed of liberalism and good causes, a lot of things I agree with, including a passion for environmentalism.

But it’s not very diverse. According to the US Census, Boulder was 92% white in 2006 (Denver is now less than 50% white). The University of Colorado in Boulder has a history that goes back years, of racial problems on and off campus.

Last night’s Sierra Club bash wasn’t just Boulderites, though. There were enviro-geeks from all over the state, because they were handing out awards to people working in Southern Colorado (a heavily Hispanic region, the city of Pueblo) and up in the mountains.

It turns out that the green movement in general trends towards whiteness. This theme has been a persistent thread for years.

A Time magazine article from this past spring addressed the issue. Earlier in the year, the Gristmill blog featured a guest commentary by Marcelo Bonta, founder of the Center for Diversity & the Environment and the Young Environmental Professionals of Color.

The Seattle Times ran a story in March, “Overwhelmingly white, the green movement is reaching for the rainbow,” which quotes attorney and activist Van Jones, who is black, giving a speech titled, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Green”:

“… if the only people who can participate are the kind who can afford to put solar panels on their second home, the green movement is going to be too small to fix the problem. If we want to beat global warming, there’s no way to do it without helping a lot of poor people. If you design a solution that does not do that, it’s a solution that’s too timid.”

It’s not just a racial issue, it’s a class and privilege issue. Too much of the environmental movement is made up of people who can afford to drive a Prius, who can take the time to recycle everything in their lives, who can drink filtered water. The reporter describes the sellout audience for Jones’ speech, noting it’s mostly, “Boomers wearing fleece, techies fiddling with gadgets, eco-chic in ethnic garb.”

This could be a snapshot of the festive Sierra Clubbers in Boulder last night.

I believe in environmental work. I recycle, take the bus as much as possible to work. I study up on climate change and try to reduce my carbon footprint. I wish more people like me, and more people of color, could get into it too.

It’s great that these privileged, well-meaning white people are working hard to be green. We need them to be. So I can’t be angry about that. I’m glad they volunteer for the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club does great, important work. The crowd last night included Boulder City Council members, and recently-elected Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, a very cool guy.

But I agree with Jones: The big changes aren’t going to happen until we get people of color and poor people to think about this stuff too.

As for Mallworthy, we’ll turn down future gigs for the Sierra Club. And for anyone who actually wanted to hear us last night, here’s the last song we would have performed if we’d stayed, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” videotaped last summer on the Pearl Street Mall. From left, that’s Leland Rucker, Steve Meyer, Sharon Meyer and yours truly:

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6 Responses to The Sierra Club’s privileged caste: Is the green movement white?

  1. Casey says:

    Gil, this is pretty similar to the experience I had with the student environmental groups at my college. It really soured me on the environmental movement. But then I discovered the whole world of environmental justice activism that is at the intersection of race, class, and environmental issues. I think Groundwork is doing some good work to address environmental justice issues in Denver.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Casey! There’s a guy at the Colorado Environmental Coalition that also agrees that the green movement is too white, and I’ve joined their Cause on Facebook. I’ll check out Groundwork.

  3. Alpha Asian says:

    I just have an adverse reaction everytime I think of environmental groups or animal rights groups. They’re predominantly white, very insular and not very welcoming to people of color. Plus they have a very condescending attitude towards people of color, as if we’re a bunch stupid natives who don’t have our own philosophies of environmentalism, which is far older and ingrained in Asian cultures.

  4. isaac m. says:

    Sorry for the bad experience….

    As someone employed by one of these environmental groups (and also on the board of the local Sierra Club chapter), I must say I agree with this general stereotype, which holds true even in a place as diverse as Hawai`i. That said, I know that my organization, Earthjustice, as well as other environmental groups, are very sensitive to these “demographic” issues and are making concerted efforts at coalition-building with other groups and increasing diversity within their own ranks. Particularly in Hawai`i, our office has worked hard over the years to incorporate the Native Hawaiian perspective and a local sense of place in everything we do. Of course, I can’t say the same for every environmental organization, and obviously many of them still have a long, long ways to go.

    I’m curious: are you suggesting that there was a racist element to this crowd’s treatment of your band, or that there was something culturally “white” about their general attitude?

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Isaac, sharp observation about what I’m suggesting: it’s true I collapsed two issues here. I noticed the race thing because of the privileged nature of their attitude. And they treated the band and our music with that sense of privilege and entitlement. It’s because I was irritated by their treatment of us that I noticed how haole the crowd was.

    It’s interesting to hear how the same issue exists even in Hawai’i, a place I tend to think is so multicultural that typical mainland race relations don’t exist.

    I forgot that you’re involved with the Sierra Club and the movement there — no offense!

  6. isaac m. says:

    FYI, for what it’s worth, it occured to me that there is at least one Asian on Sierra Club’s national board, a woman named Allison Chin. And I believe there was and maybe still is a South-Asian fellow on the board as well. I must confess I know almost nothing about the national organization or these people except that their names pop up from time to time.

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