Stand With Vanessa

The Associated Press scandal accidentally provided the perfect visual metaphor for the anti-Global South bias, but this fight is long from over.

It’s 2020, and racism is alive and well – and it’s killing people.

Let me preface this by saying that none of what I am writing is new or revolutionary; marginalised voices have been saying this with far more knowledge and eloquence for far longer than I’ve been alive. However; more people saying it makes it more likely that people will hear about it. The issue of racism in Western society has caused suffering far beyond that mentioned in this post, and although this is a post about the climate crisis and racism, the impacts of racism on the climate crisis also run far more deeply than anything I have touched upon here

On Friday 24th January, Vanessa Nakate had, for three nights, been camping at Artic Basecamp in order to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Subjecting herself to uncomfortably and unfamiliarly cold conditions in order to bring the plight of an entire continent to the attention of leaders was something that Vanessa was prepared to do, especially as she was aware that she would have to go to great lengths to bring attention to the crisis in Africa, as it is systematically overlooked on the world stage. However; Vanessa was not expecting her fight to be so cruelly erased from history by media that did not think twice about cropping her from a photo with her fellow activists. The actions of the Associated Press caused outrage, but this incident serves as a fitting representation of the fight that marginalised activists and communities have had to put up for generations. Vanessa said it perfectly; removing her from the photo was more than just removing one person; it was removing an entire continent of those most affected by the climate and ecological crisis.

If we give AP the benefit of the doubt, and fully believe their excuse that the photograph was published without Vanessa because of an unsightly building, we expose a deeper problem. The fact that no-one had any issues with removing Vanessa, who is a vocal advocate for the Congo Basin and about the climate crisis in Africa, from the photo shows that the media still does not understand the true scale of the climate crisis.

The reality is that the Climate Emergency is hitting the hardest in the places we in the west hear the least from. If the media cared about the survival of civilisation, then they would know this, and they would be doing more to platform the voices that have experienced the crisis first-hand. The reason that we do not hear about this is because the global system is one that is inherently racist, and, more concerningly, is one that gets away with being racist.

Racism is more than racial prejudice; it relies on power imbalance and results in systems of oppression against the discriminated group. When I hear “racist”, I automatically picture an overweight, middle aged white (well, ruddy) man or woman of below-average intelligence, who openly uses the N-word, and who says “white power” a lot; the sort of person one would sarcastically scoff “behold, the master race” at. We are used to racism being defined along these terms, and the majority of people openly condemn it. This makes those at the top of the power dynamic feel like we have “beaten” racism in some way, and lures us into a false sense of security that challenging outwardly racist people is all that needs to be done.

However, racism is alive and well, hiding in hard-to-see places, pulling the strings of global proceedings. We see it in Trump’s regime, we see it in the response to the Brexit vote, we see it in the reaction to the Coronavirus. More concerning, though, are the places that we do not normally see it in, because this makes it much harder to challenge.

The massive attention that Vanessa garnered when she bravely challenged the press for cropping her out of the photo was an example of a time where this more subversive racism tugged too hard on a string and was exposed. The media were quick to call out this overt racism, but their relative silence on the climate crisis in Africa is proof of another kind of “slow-burning” racism that has existed for so long. The continued failure to report on the realities of the climate crisis in the Global South displays the systematic silencing of the suffering of marginalised communities, which leads to trauma and despair.

“Vanessas” of all kinds have been erased for generations; any activist or community that has spoken up about the direct effects of the climate crisis in their lives has been largely ignored until very, very recently.

If the powerful countries in the West did not operate with systems that had racism woven into them, then we would have been listening when Lake Chad began to dry up, or when the Indigenous communities in North America had their drinking water contaminated, or when the logging industries began murdering Indigenous protectors in the Amazon. Perhaps if our societies valued all human life equally, we would have cared when the climate crisis began to bite into Africa. We would have known, if we had been listening. But instead, the voices that were speaking out, trying to inform us, trying to warn us, were silenced and erased, just like Vanessa almost was. And while Vanessa Nakate was supported by so many people after her story broke, countless other Vanessas have been silenced irreversibly by the slow-burning racism that still ravages our societies.

The fact of the matter is that, if the West valued all lives above exponential economic growth, then the climate crisis would never have worsened to the point it has. In fact, it probably would never have happened at all. If the global power imbalance was balanced, if people in governments and corporations with economics degrees didn’t equate black and brown lives as worth less than black and brown solid fuel, then we would have acted meaningfully on the science long ago.

As it stands, people offering Vanessa support during this horrible ordeal is not enough to expose the racism that we often do not see so overtly. When we see that a Ugandan activist was cropped out of a photo, we see a visual representation of the system that has cut Africa out of the conversation for as long as there has been a conversation, but we do not see all the other activists from all marginalised communities who have been so systematically silenced for so long. We do not hear their stories

Marginalised voices must be front and centre in the climate conversation, but it is not for activists to put themselves there; if we want to survive this crisis, then it is our responsibility. An activist with such an important message should not be cut out for standing at the end of a line.

Stand with Vanessa Nakate, and stand up for Vanessas everywhere.

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