Nylah Burton, VICE, May 14, 2020
When the wildfires hit Australia last year, Bee Cruse was horrified at the sight of the red sky, the black ash falling like snow, and the smoke choking the whole East Coast.
The fires were a direct reminder of the British genocide against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people like her, and the tearing of them from country and their traditional ways of land management.
In an article for Vox, Cruse, a Wiradjuri, Gomeroi, and Monaroo-Yuin storyteller, told me, “We see and feel the spirit of our animals and our land; they are our ancestor spirits. We don’t own country, country owns us; we come from her to protect her. When country hurts, we hurt. When our animals, our spirit cousins, cry, we cry.”
What Cruse was describing was climate grief, a psychological phenomenon that affects Black and Indigenous peoples, and other people of color, in uniquely devastating ways.
Just as we are seeing with the COVID-19 outbreak, environmental racism forces people of color, especially Black and Indigenous peoples, to bear the brunt of global disaster. We are not only disproportionately affected by the climate crisis—breathing in more pollution, living in communities with higher temperatures, suffering from more medical conditions, experiencing more natural disasters, and being displaced at much higher rates—but we carry the pain of the climate crisis deep inside us.
“Just like other stressors that people of color experience, ecological grief is often magnified,” said Dr. Tyffani Dent, a licensed psychologist and author, in an interview.
“People of color know…society is going to make sure we’re impacted first, and impacted the hardest,” Dent said.
Research has bolstered the idea that white supremacy has led to the climate crisis. Scientists from University College London found that the mass genocide that accompanied the colonization of the Americas in the 15th century permanently altered Earth’s climate, due to “a huge swathe of abandoned agricultural land” that “pulled down enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to eventually chill the planet.”
Our grief can help us stay motivated to do this work. Mary Heglar, a Black climate justice essayist and writer-in-residence at Columbia University, says that climate rage is a normal response to these injustices and continued violence.
“I started writing because of rage, to be quite honest. And the rage, the grief, the love… all of these emotions drive my writing,” Heglar said.
Heglar, whose work is rooted in her experience as a Black person from the American South, said her anger “has been a really powerful outlet to keep me from cycling back into depression and shock. But I still go back there sometimes. I have nightmares a lot.”
Those nightmares are a daily reality for people of color, who are too often left behind. When ecological disasters strike, white people often receive resources long before those resources reach communities of color. A March 2019 NPR report found that out of more than 40,000 records in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) database, a staggering 85 percent of post-disaster buyouts went to white, non-Hispanic families.
Heglar says that too often, the white-led climate community leans on the idea of hope, which can lead to inaction.
Hope is “such a white concept,” Heglar said. “You’re supposed to have the courage first, then you have the action, then you have the hope. But white people put hope at the front. Their insistence on hope for all of these years has led to exactly where? Nowhere.”
Working in the climate movement while trying to process climate grief can be difficult for people of color, whose voices are so often silenced and ignored.
“There’s a certain loneliness that comes with being a climate person,” Heglar said. “Then there’s an extra layer of loneliness that comes with being a climate person of color, because you’re just stuck in this perpetual position of trying to save white people from themselves. And it’s so fucking exhausting.”