The Unbearable Whiteness of the Environment

beautiful brutal cape town
Just a little picture I took of nature, which I enjoy and respect

In the midst of an exhausting week, news broke of a paper published by University of Cape Town Professor Nicoli Nattrass in which she posits a few reasons for the low numbers of black South African students who choose to study environmental and natural sciences.  She writes:

[Such subjects] struggled to attract black South African students because persisting inequalities in the schooling system make it less likely that they (black students) will meet the entrance requirements for science courses. […] Yet there are likely to be other reasons too, notably materialist values and aspirations, as well as experience with pets and attitudes towards wildlife, all of which are likely also to be shaped by a student’s socio-economic background. Given the ‘Fallist’ protests of 2015/2016 (Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements) another possibility is that wildlife conservation itself might be regarded as colonial, and students might perceive a trade-off between social justice and conservation. 

It’s a strange argument to make, especially when considering the enormity of the inequalities in the South African schooling system. Those inequalities alone are enough of an explanation and warrant scientific examination. There does not seem a need to reach into black students’ psyche and their supposed non-history with pets. 

Nattarass’s paper reminded me of an experience I had in my work as a diversity facilitator. I was working with a group from AfrikaBurn, the African version of Burning Man. Faced with the low numbers of black ‘burners’ in attendance at each annual burn, this explanation was offered: black people don’t like to camp. 

Look, I don’t know what is in every black person’s heart and home. I don’t know if they hate camping and are disinterested in keeping pets.  But, as a black woman, I know enough to be suspicious of any sweeping generalisation made about ‘my’ people, especially when it is made by a white person. 

I also know this: like race, nature and the environment are social constructs.  The boundary between what we consider unadulterated and natural, and what we deem to be man-made is one that we construct when we fence off our parks and declare our reserves. The boundary is a reflection of our understanding of ourselves.  An analysis that looks at the probability that black students will choose to study natural sciences and spend a week camping in the desert and labels those as markers of those students’ relationship to nature says a lot about what the analyst thinks of themselves. In their view, their relationship to nature – perhaps finding expression in an interest in conservation, or a love of pets – indicates a respect for and understanding of nature’s importance. If you or I do not express our affinity to nature in the same way, they fail to recognise this affinity and assume we don’t care. Never mind the well-documented ways in which African mysticism draws on the natural environment to interpret and communicate with the spiritual world. Never mind the fact that Fallists have included, as part of their demands of whiteness, an honest approach to returning natural resources that were stolen centuries ago.

It is the height of whiteness. The experience of the white analyst is taken as the norm and centered. Any difference from it is deviation, to be explained, at least, or fixed, at most. Anything that exists on its own, not in relationship to the white centre, goes conveniently unacknowledged.  Side-stepping black people’s historical and spiritual ties to natural resources means you can ignore conversations around reparations and restoration of black ownership of resources.

Of course, we know that even when appreciating nature in traditionally ‘white’ ways, we are not immune from racism. Just ask Christian Cooper, the black birder on whom the police were called when he asked a white woman to leash her dog as per city regulations. 

For the record, in case you’re reading this, Prof Nattrass: I am incredibly proud of and grateful for the language my Humanities qualification afforded me. If I had spent my 6 years at UCT in another faculty, I may not have been able to see your ‘research’ paper for what it is: another empty and narrow analysis of the black existence, made only in service of whiteness and its alleged superiority.

If I could choose my majors all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.



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