An Open Letter to White People Who Want to Use Their Platform to Dismantle White Supremacy
Photo courtesy of Ivana Cajina
We frequently get asked by white people, particularly those who work in environmental jobs, in the national park service, or public lands, if we can offer them advice, tips, or resources on how to address white supremacy and ongoing colonization. Whether they are leading conservation groups, responsible for teaching natural history, or are in charge of hiring, white people come to us with their concerns about how to address systemic oppression and acknowledge the true history of the land without centering whiteness. Because of how we as white people are conditioned in a white supremacist nation, racism manifests in our thinking, behavior, and actions.
Most recently, a program coordinator for a historic preservation program reached out to us for guidance. We are enthusiastic about this opportunity to share our knowledge with other folks who are dedicated to decentering whiteness. Erin Monahan, Terra Incognita Media’s founder, believes it is important to share the advice publicly. You can read her open letter below: (Information about the correspondent and their workplace will remain anonymous).
Thanks for wanting to hold space for discussing the legacy of ongoing colonization, the complex structures of oppression that are inseparable when talking about “public lands,” and for acknowledging how your position as Program Coordinator bears a responsibility to rethink how the narratives about Turtle Island and the historic sites of which you work are being told. As white people, it is our responsibility to dismantle settler colonialism and challenge existing white supremacist systems and paradigms. I am grateful to be in conversation with you about this important and necessary topic.
Because as white people we are fish in the water of whiteness, our commitment to the construct, along with our unexamined racism, inevitably influences the way we think about the land, which transfers to how we talk about the land, as well as how we treat the land. This also means it influences how we talk about the legacy of indigenous peoples who are very much still here and thriving to this day, which is unfortunately not what our history classes teach us.
Right off the bat, an obvious thing would be to research the history of the places and sites where you are working. Land acknowledgements are important and you can check out native-land.ca for more info about who's land you are currently on. It is a priority to find resources and websites written by Indigenous people.
Adrienne Keene is a professor who writes about cultural appropriation among other important indigenous issues. She just wrote this amazing article that provides advice for non-indigenous instructors who guide native studies courses. This could be helpful for you even though you are working within a different context. Nambe Pueblo Scholar Debbie Reese is a great resource as Professor Keene discusses in her article. As Professor Keene also suggests, maybe seek out some Indigenous activists or scholars who could come for a day to speak to your group? Would your organization have money to pay for their time, their travel, accommodations? Keep in mind, the speaker should not have to do any paperwork or pay for anything out of pocket/wait for payment. Professor Keene links to this helpful website in her article. Could be worth finding out and asking if your organization could do this.
Facilitating conversations about ongoing colonization should be done with a lot of care and intention. This is no easy or simple task. I recommend checking out AORTA for resources about facilitating discussions from an anti-oppressive approach.
An important thing to always remind folks you are engaging with is that you are not an expert. This is what de-centering whiteness and de-centering colonialism means. We have to remain vigilant in our humility and constantly transparent about our lack of expertise about the experiences of those who have been removed from their homelands. Transparency and humility are your best friends. I learned this the hard way. I am always reminding folks to take what I say with a grain of salt. I'm a cis white woman from a middle-upper class background who is still doing my work of unlearning white supremacy. It is good to remind people about who we are and where we are coming from, and always point people in the direction of indigenous writers, activists, speakers, and scholars.
We must remember to speak from our own experiences, and not speak for anyone else. L. Glenise Pike of Where Change Started came up with a great formula for discussing our own process of unlearning racism and white supremacy, which could come in handy as you facilitate conversations with your crew. I subscribe to her Patreon and have learned so much from her about how to check my racism.
It might be useful for you to offer your crew some required reading by indigenous writers, and set aside some intentional time to discuss what you read. Take time to unpack the glorification of undeserving environmental "heroes" like John Muir, and the like.
One major thing that cannot be skipped or overlooked if we want to engage people in conversations about settler colonialism, racism, and white supremacy is our own internal work. I recommend digging at your own white supremacist conditioning. I would research about white supremacy, read books by white people who talk about whiteness (and take what they say with a grain of salt) like Robin DiAngelo, Debby Irving. These people are not perfect examples of allyship, and neither am I, but I think we can all learn from each other, where we are getting it wrong and where we are getting it right. I am just finishing up Debby Irving's book "Waking Up White," which was helpful for me. Also, the podcast Seeing White by Scene On Radio was really eye-opening and life-changing. I must also credit Kenya Budd and Kalissa Scopes, two equity and inclusion consultants in Portland, Oregon who have been guides for me navigating my internalized whiteness. Sally Eck has also been incredibly helpful to me, like a mentor, and this is a great video of her talking about interrupting oppression.
You are in a position to advocate for more indigenous leaders in your organization. You can start a conversation with your colleagues about hiring indigenous people to your staff. Simultaneously, you will want to make a plan with your organization about how you are going to be addressing white supremacy in your organization, so that the indigenous people you hire want to stay. This might require hiring an equity and inclusion consultant in your area. If you are dedicated to this work, you can suggest that your workplace figures this out. And if your organization brushes you off, keep engaging them and don’t let up on the pressure. If your workplace expresses a commitment to equity and inclusion, but you see them coming up short, schedule a time to talk to them about it. If they are truly dedicated to equity then they will prove it by examining how they operate. With your encouragement, your organization can make tangible steps toward dismantling its white supremacy. Part of the equation will require that the white people at your organization are held accountable for doing their own internal work of unlearning their own racism and white supremacist conditioning.
The foundation of this work is cultivating relationships and building community. How can you create community and relationships with the local indigenous people of your area? Are you friends with any indigenous folx? Being a part of your community in this way can help create understanding about where you can give up your power, and how you can make room for indigenous voices in your organization.
I would also encourage you to check out these Instagram accounts:
@mmiwhoismissing @indigenouswomenhike @sunny_redbear @honortheearth @lylajune @jolievarela @nowhitesaviors @wherechangestarted @aprilharterlcsw @rachel.cargle @laylasaad @ihartericka @mynameisbam @lalobalocashares @queernature @baniamor @douconsideryourselfafeminist
If you are interested I also guide a six-week "Detaching from Whiteness" series that could be helpful for you as it would provide a cohort of folks for you to discuss the challenges you are facing with unlearning white supremacy, and brainstorm solutions to take action within a supportive, compassionate group. Registration is now open for our next series.
I hope some of this is helpful! Let me know if you have any more questions or need clarity about something. I am so grateful to be in solidarity with you as you push to change the status quo in your field. We must never stop interrogating systemic oppression and the impacts of ongoing settler colonialism. It is energizing to know that there are people out there like you who want to acknowledge the true history of this country, give up our power, and push for change.
Founder, Terra Incognita Media