Princella Talley is a climate activist based in central Louisiana, and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Three weeks ago, I crossed paths with a tall, slender white man who looked to be in his early 50s on a neighborhood trail. I smiled and said hello; he folded his arms and stared, looking angry, watching me without a word. I grew tense as I guided my Shih tzu closer to me, while his Doberman — not on a leash — barked and growled. We faced each other, neither of us taking a step. Then I made a snap decision: I picked up my dog, turned, and walked quickly the other way, praying his dog wasn’t chasing us. Still within earshot, I heard him finally calming his dog, saying, “It’s OK.”
Sadness washed over me as I remembered, yet again, that everyday actions like recreationally walking or running can result in heavy consequences for Black Americans.
My mind filled with questions about what I may have done wrong. Was it my blue and black braids? Black hairstyles continue to be seen as an act of rebellion against white cultural norms. Was I being too playful with my dog in public? In the eyes of white supremacy, even Black joy is its own type of riot.
And there was no way I was going to ask that man to put his dog on a leash, because I worried that I’d be blamed for any conflict. Remember when Christian Cooper rightfully asked that of Amy Cooper, a white woman, while birding in Central Park? She dialed the police, sharing her plan for a winning argument: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
I’ll never be able to confirm if the man I encountered was being his usual self or reacting to my presence. Racism is one of the most silent yet powerful forces one has to experience to understand — you can feel it without verbal acknowledgment. And the truth is, in my predominantly white community, I don’t have the privilege of playfully walking my dog in a shared neighborhood space without possibly walking into racism, which speaks volumes about our country’s brokenness.
I’m aware that at every step, Black lives remain more policed than white lives, by institutions and by individuals. But I still attempt to focus on my life’s work: fighting to ameliorate the effects of climate change. On any given day, I’m advocating for climate policies by making calls or sending letters to members of Congress, attempting to set meetings with elected officials, and working with community members to address local food insecurity through the lens of sustainability.
But advocacy is far more complex and stressful knowing that my skin has historically been grounds for political warfare. It’s difficult to shake hands with elected officials and smile in some of the same offices where decisions have been made to promote discrimination through policies that continue to discourage, demoralize, and dehumanize Black communities.
I think of how the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act may have created better working conditions for mostly white workers in 1938, but sidelined Black workers. I think of the redlining of Black families for residential segregation — the reason many of the neighborhoods that are home to my family and friends remain in economic crisis with less access to transportation, high-quality education and health care, and fresh foods. Even food equality is much harder to achieve because of racist policies against Black farmers that limited access to federal funding and led to a dramatic decline in Black-owned farms.
Too often, I’ve been the only Black woman in the room, overhearing questions about why Black activists aren’t dropping everything to focus on climate justice.
Once I was stopped in the hallway by a white activist at a climate conference. He had been to one community meeting in a Black neighborhood and wanted to know: Why weren’t Black community leaders talking more about climate change? At a local luncheon, a white woman leading a nonprofit asked me, “If Black communities are climate-concerned, why aren’t they more willing to support the climate actions I present? Why aren’t more Black climate protesters marching the streets?”
These two questions stand out in my mind, but I’m approached with similar inquiries so often that I’ve lost count. Of course, I shouldn’t be expected to answer on behalf of every Black community, and I hear less of it thanks to the visibility of Black Lives Matter. But these questions still come my way.
I usually take a silent pause to quietly collect myself before providing a general answer about how activism doesn’t look the same for everyone. What I really want to ask in response is: In a society where race is weaponized against Black individuals, why would you expect our activism to be the same? Look no further for recent evidence of how Black protesters are treated than the BLM protests last summer following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In Chicago alone, 2,172 arrests were made over the course of one weekend — more than 70 percent of those arrested were Black. In Washington, D.C., 316 arrests were made during BLM protests compared to 61 arrests during the Capitol riot.
I brace myself when checking in with climate protesters who look like me, because their stories often land heavy on the heart. One friend was arrested while peacefully protesting, his face pressed into the dirt while handcuffed. Other friends have been spat on and called racist slurs.
Communities of color have contributed the least to climate change. People who question our commitment seem to lack the understanding that the threat of racism is just as urgent, and just as deadly, as climate change.
As a Black woman in the climate movement, I’d love to feel unwavering confidence in my work to help save this beautiful planet. But how can I have the confidence to fight climate change when my right to exist feels controversial? When I don’t have the confidence to walk my dog on a sunny day without wondering if my humanity is debatable?
Every day, I begin my workday by sitting quietly in my backyard and meditating. I’m searching for a sense of safety from harassment and discrimination, a buffer from the collective pain of racist acts on the news, social media, and in personal circles.
I can’t be all or nothing for the climate when so much of my energy must go toward recovering from being questioned or considered suspicious. I’m often too worried or exhausted to prioritize lowering CO₂ emissions or protecting ecological systems.
For me and many other Black activists, changing our climate for the better has to start with eradicating racial injustices. I work with white climate leaders in Louisiana and Texas who share this vision. They are friends who dedicate themselves to anti-racism and answer the calls for climate justice based on the needs expressed by communities of color. They don’t bear witness to oppression from afar, they do the work to challenge it. They don’t use their privilege to take up space, they use it to challenge oppressive narratives.
Sometimes the work happens professionally, sometimes it happens among friends and family. It’s never easy, but we move forward together with a commitment to learning.
Rather than questioning Black communities’ commitment to the climate crisis, white climate activists should spend more time listening and building trust where injustice has caused the most harm. Then invest time, energy, and resources toward mitigating climate impacts in ways that don’t sideline Black and brown people.
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