During Greta Thunberg's rise to superstardom, what mainstream types talked about exclusively was the climate activist's age. Those on the left celebrated it (she is only a teenager and yet so passionate, so knowledgeable); those on the right dismissed her precisely because of her age (she knows nothing, she should go to college and study economics, what she needs is a movie date). But over the past few days, we have seen a shift from her age as the main topic to her race. She is white and comes from a very white country. This fact became apparent when the photo editors at the New York City-based news agency Associated Press decided to crop out a young black African climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, from a group photo taken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. That photo has Thunberg at its center.
The other activists in the photo are also white. Only the black one was removed. To make matters more racial, it's highly unlikely that the predominately white media professionals at AP and elsewhere would have even recognized or made a peep about the cropping had Nakate—whose blackness, which, like the actress Lupita Nyong'o, has the richness and deepness of those who live close to or in northeast Africa, and is striking against European whiteness—not mentioned it in a tweet that expressed more surprise than anger.
(An important note to make before continuing this post: There is not one type of black in Africa. Blackness in the Dark Continent is its own rainbow.)
Knowing that she was in the group but not in the photo taken of the group, Nakate tweeted: "Why did you remove me from the photo? I was part of the group!" As you may have guessed, the whole ugly story does not end there. AP admitted that the cropping was done precisely because it wanted to emphasize the young and white Swede.
As the cropping controversy circulated on social media, an 8-year-old climate activist from India, Licypriya Kangujam, came out of her part of the world and demanded that the press stop calling her "India's Greta." The practice, she claimed on Twitter, covers and deletes her own story, which is, of course, the story of a person who is not white, who is brown, and who is from the Global South.
If you call me “Greta of India”, you are not covering my story. You are deleting a story.
— Licypriya Kangujam (@LicypriyaK) January 27, 2020
Nakate, by the way, also raised this issue of color/identity deletion.
What are we to make of these new developments? Let's begin with the understanding that AP did not make a mistake. Let's admit that the editors, who are to be subjected to diversity training (more about that below), were right. The reason why Thunberg's whiteness is of such great importance is for the simple reason that the deadly consequences of climate change will be racialized. Already, its impact on people who look like Nakate and Kangujam is much more severe than on people who look like Thunberg.
One only has to compare how Trump's administration responded to the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, a state with lots of white voters, to that caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, a US territory dominated by brown voters. Because the climate of our planet's biosphere will change dramatically in the near future (I'm a climate realist—meaning, I think it's a done deal), and because the current economic system can be expected to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, which means there will be an increase in the capitalist-directed liberation of carbon (not a decrease, which would, anyway, be worthless at this point), the solutions for the inevitable (the decimation of vital ecosystems, the disruption of seasonal rhythms and precipitation patterns, the normalization of droughts in large parts of the earth's surface) will not be practical. They will be as irrational as the wall rising on the US/Mexican border or as the Muslim ban or as Brexit—in short, any policy that has as its source the West's seemingly inexhaustible well of white supremacist history.
As I said, this is already happening. And so, in the future around the corner, we can rightly expect the climate crisis to empower the far right, who will say to desperate white voters: "The game is up. It's now really down to us against them." The reason why the far right will provide the final solution is not a mystery: Capitalists, in the face of the crisis, still and will continue to refuse to let go of the economy and insist at every opportunity that we don't stop playing the exact same bad game that caused climate change. That means emergency solutions that involve the mass mobilization of resources and populations, and the total reconstruction of the economy (or the our metabolic relations with nature), will not be available to humans as social tools until it's too late, until whites at the bottom realize they are not (and never were) the same as whites at the top.
Please think about this carefully, if you are white. Racism is deep in this climate mix.
The most realistic solution to the crisis at present doesn't involve its reversal, but the kind of gigantic planning that humans would use to fly to and survive on another planet that, in many ways, is as inhospitable as Mars. (The major difference being no dangerous trip through life-dead space is needed to reach planet-not-earth-anymore.) And yet, AP is focused on whiteness. And it would be nothing but the biggest mistake to not take this racial focus seriously. It is our coming future. There is nothing in the world we live in that says race will have no part in the bleak outcomes of the crisis. (I'm also a racial realist.) Yes, Thunberg denounced the cropping with great force. Yes, the white members of AP will receive diversity training (no need for its minority of black and brown employees to do that). But this display of good taste, not matter how heartfelt, will not matter an itty bit when, in the near future, lots of whites are forced by the final solution to descend into a form of madness ("the only thing keeping you safe is the color of their skin") that would make even Kurtz look sane.