As I surfed the net the other day eager for some cost-free distraction from my overly taxed mind, I came across an article on Pocket Media about a photo series by Chris Buck entitled “Let’s Talk About Race.” In this series, Buck took three pictures that are at once iconic and ordinary, and flipped the script, challenging our collective assumptions about people and place. In the first photo, we see a young White girl standing in front of a stack of shelves in a toy store that are filled with dolls in pretty packaging. Nothing unusual here, except all the dolls are Black. In the second, we see women in a nail salon communing with each other while getting a pedicure. All the women giving the pedicure are White; all the women receiving the pedicure are of Asian descent. In the last photo, there is a Latinx woman in luxury clothing, surrounded by opulence, being served a drink by her White housekeeper.
The series reminded me of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a different take on Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s iconic story of the South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as experienced by a White woman. Randall asks the question, What if that story were told from the perspective of a Black woman? No longer simply a backdrop to the White experience or even worse, Randall’s work opens up a Pandora’s box of contradiction, falsehoods, myth-making, and possibility. (Her work inspired me to write a one-woman show about an imagined conversation I would have with John Muir — more on that in a later column.)
So what happens if we flip the script as it relates to who we see, engage, and imagine in any environmental context (or in any context, for that matter)? Let me ask you this: When I say “environmentalist” who do you picture? What do they look like? Who do you see when I say “nature writer” or “hiker”? Can you picture Emily Ford, the first known Black woman to hike the Ice Trail in Wisconsin in winter? Does something shift when you picture her?
Now, when I say “environmental justice” or “toxic waste dump” who do you think of? What places do you think of? What often comes to mind is Black and Brown people in urban settings. Which is not untrue — it’s just not the whole truth. One of the first stories that put environmental justice on the map was Love Canal, a predominately White community in Niagara Falls, NY that became the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in the 1970s.
Flipping the script can make us think differently about the practices and beliefs we’ve codified into universal truths that can make invisible or deny the realities of people different from ourselves. It can also help us envision and create different ways of moving forward together. Take the seemingly fast-paced development of a Covid-19 vaccine. I recently listened to a scientist explain the accelerated research process used by their team. It’s not that they skipped a step or were any less rigorous; instead, they undertook different tasks simultaneously, not linearly as had been done before. They flipped the script on how it’s done in order to meet the moment.
We can do the same when it comes to the environment. We can address both environmental issues and diversity. It isn’t rocket science. It’s harder. There’s nothing easy or comfortable about acknowledging and letting go of ideas and a status quo that serve some more than others. The truth is, when you engage in anything different, you must be prepared to change.
In his searing documentary, Exterminate All These Brutes, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck says: “You already know enough. What is missing is the courage to know what we know.” Ultimately, it’s about flipping the script on our assumptions and our bias while letting go of some narratives that have been masquerading as facts and certainties. It’s about seeing ourselves and our possibilities differently in relationship to a changing environment and each other. And it will cost you something. It will cost me something. But I believe you — we — are worth it.