A Black Person’s Experience of BLM, Ecology, and Intersectionality
To preface: white people reading this, it’s going to be uncomfortable for you, and it should be. Reconcile with that feeling. Being uncomfortable means that you are learning and growing, it’s good to be uncomfortable in these situations. I welcome you to learn from a small insight into my life, where you may feel a small fraction of the uncomfortable feeling I am forced to deal with each day. On that note, if you do not understand any of the terms I’ve written, I task you to do your own research into what they mean, and make sure the definition comes from the group of people that it is about. Otherwise, words and meanings can get twisted into something more palatable for the oppressors, which removes the true meaning and culture in the word. This is extremely problematic, especially when stories have historically been taught via word of mouth in Black communities throughout the centuries and in the present.
Words and meanings can get twisted into something more palatable for the oppressors, which removes the true meaning and culture in the word
By writing this article, I am putting my career and life at risk because of my identities and how they intersect. Once this is published, I could be blacklisted from some teams. However, it is important to speak the truth, so here I am speaking my truth for my people, and others that cannot.
I am a Black person but I do not speak for all Black people: we are all different, with different thoughts and life experiences. Some may agree, some may not, some may agree with nuance, and every single opinion allowed and valid. Black people are not a monolith, that is the same for our thoughts and experiences of life. Intersectionality is at the core of my existence and should always be part of any discussion. Therefore, I cannot and should not talk about Blackness without considering my other identities. I am mixed-race, Black and white; bisexual; and non-binary. I recognise my privilege, and lack of privilege because of them.
Intersectionality is at the core of my existence and should always be part of any discussion
People are always shocked when I say I have a Biological Sciences degree. It baffles them at first, due to their racism and other preconceived notions. I imagine them thinking how someone from a low socio-economic background can be smart, Black, and woman-assumed? This is due to representation. I only had one Black teacher in the 20 years that I have been in education. I was lucky to have her, many Black people do not have that opportunity.
I am at the beginning of my journey as an Ecologist, specifically aiming to become a mammal behaviour researcher (if anyone has any places on their project in 2021, I am available). Although I have only truly started my journey as an Ecologist now, my journey as a multi-minority started before I was even born, so I’d say I’m an expert in my life and my experiences. I have had people’s opinions of my place in this profession metaphorically screamed at me. I cannot think of one Black Ecologist that I know of let alone a wildlife conservationist, and that is a problem. Every single academic, project leader, participant or volunteer, that I have experienced has been white, whilst the rangers or lower ranked positions have been Black or NBPoC. This is shocking, as PoC are the world’s majority, yet the minority dominates ecology. That is privilege in action.
The minority dominates ecology. That is privilege in action
From my experience, this is because of the cost it takes to become qualified as an ecologist, the costs it takes to be seen as employable, and then worthy of being kept on a team. These are monetary, mental, physical, and emotional costs that Black people already have to deal with enough of as minorities and people that are, historically and presently, likely to be from a lower economic background. Yet, here we are, fighting for our passion, and possibly connecting with our culture and ancestors through it all, coming back to the roots that have been ripped away from us. The first conservationists were the Indigenous Peoples and colonisation brought most, if not all of the major problems we have around the world today.
Due to imposter syndrome, which most Black young people will have, and people’s unconscious biases, I have not applied for job positions unless I know that I meet all the criteria, and even then, I don’t believe that I will get past the interview stage once they see that I am a Black person. Applying for jobs, I wonder if I should wear my natural hair down or will they see it as unprofessional, should I wear a bun so that its volume does not offend. I have to be doubly careful about my words to show that I am intelligent and can speak the queen’s English, any BBE would be forbidden. I have to come dressed in business wear so they take me seriously, and then I have to think about whether they will accept my gender and use my pronouns to refer to me. This is all on top of the regular job interview stress and anxiety that is normally experienced. I am proud of my intersectional identity and I wouldn’t want to work for an organisation that doesn’t accept the full me. However, that is not always a viable option, I am considered too much for many people and that may just be one of my identities, let alone multiple ones.
I have to think about whether they will accept my gender and use my pronouns to refer to me…all on top of the regular job interview stress and anxiety that is normally experienced
Luckily, I am currently in a paid training position as part of a project to increase the underrepresented in conservation. I am in love with this idea and it is truly needed, I wish it wasn’t but that is not the case. Unfortunately, in this progressive project, I’ve already come up against some obstacles. Lack of representation, lack of diversity training, having to ask for resources that should already be offered to us are some examples. One of the only Black people, or possibly the only Black person in the organisation, sent my fellow Black trainees and I an email saying that they’re proud to see more Black people as part of the organisation. It is important for us to have that because others don’t understand the struggle and we cannot relate to white people, or really, white people cannot relate to us.
For example, someone was giving me advice on how to get a job after this position, and said to just show your face to people and it’s more likely your application will get through. This is true for white people, but many Black people are already working and have a side-hustle, or are dealing with generational trauma and the trauma of everyday life, so don’t have the mental, physical, time, or monetary resources to volunteer. Unconscious bias means that people are less likely to hire me when they see my face. It was a very privileged view and it was obvious that they were not aware of their privilege and the struggles we face. That is how Black people get pushed to the wayside and our lives don’t matter to others. We are here, we are British history, we are part of the nature all around us and our lives matter.
Being Black and non-binary presents a whole other angle – my gender is not legally recognised. Even when asked in the recent GRA survey, we were a footnote and the report that resulted, didn’t even mention us. People don’t accept me for my outer appearance, and then they don’t accept me because of my gender. I am a woman-assumed person, so, misogyny, and misogynoir, transphobia, racism etc., go hand in hand for me daily. I am lucky to have found a paid placement in conservation that is accepting of all my identities and welcomes them. Otherwise, I would have to continue to hide my true self just to get money to survive. I don’t have the back up of money loans from my family, if they do loan me anything, they suffer until I can pay it back, and I am lucky in that instance. The rates of imprisoning Black people are higher in the UK than in the US, with the windrush scandal continuing on, gentrification of Black areas, and LGBT+ bars (one of the only places we are welcome to gather) having to close down due to lack of support, especially during COVID, our communities are constantly battling to stay with family where we can.
Being Black and non-binary presents a whole other angle – my gender is not legally recognised
2020 has been a hard year for all of us, but especially for Black people. The rise of BLM and the masses of trauma and death spread via social media has been extremely draining, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I mourn every Black life lost to police brutality, and on top of that any trans PoC life. In the US, this year has been called an epidemic of violence for trans people. It may be international but the affect is felt globally. You know the feeling when your favourite character dies in a book or on TV, and you mourn them even though you don’t actually know them? That’s what every Black person deals with continually, but with real life. I cry every single time I hear about another death. Then, for videos of people’s violent deaths and/or murders to be spread on the internet? It is truly dehumanising, especially when our community’s grief is used for popularity in reference to performative activism, or simply not recognised, whether that be in the work place or just in society. Black lives matter, not as cannon fodder for empathy, but when we are alive too.
Personally, I love the premise of BLM, our voices have been suppressed for too long. It has brought out some good. Organisations are receiving funding for underprivileged people to be a part of their projects. It’s a start. Most definitely not far enough but it’s a start. Because of this, I feel that I can truly be myself and not hide as I have to do in the work place which is truly damaging to my mental health, and my being in general. I can be outspoken and write things like this, and not have to worry about absolutely and completely ruining my career as someone has already accepted me, however I still worry because after centuries of oppression, there is a long record of that not working out for my people and I, especially in times of progress.
I don’t think I’ve seen any Biology company or organisation that’s not already linked to Black people, say anything about BLM. To them, and probably you reading this, BLM is political, but for me it is my life. My existence is political, but I am just a human trying to exist. Seeing no support in organisations, projects, groups, and the profession I’m dedicating my life to is absolutely soul crushing, and it’s going to take an uprooting of the system to change that.
Seeing no support in the profession I’m dedicating my life to is absolutely soul crushing, and it’s going to take an uprooting of the system to change that
You can start by taking action. Read up on representation and diversification in the workplace. Is there a role that would be great for a colleague in a minority group, or an underprivileged PoC in your community, especially a BIPoC? We’ve had to work twice as hard to get as far as white people: bring us in. The amount of money, let alone emotional toil, that it takes for trans people to be legally recognised is giant: bring us in. Remember, at work, we need continuous support that is already in place. We cannot be tokens, we need community, integrated language, protocols, and support systems before you even think about writing up the description for the job role. We’re all here because we care about the world around us, so let’s care about the people in it too, 365.25 days of the year.
An abridged version of this article was published in our membership magazine, The Niche, 51:4, December 2020.
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