Making It Easier to Breathe

The white gaze is poisoning Black community

By Ashia Ajani

June 11, 2020

Black girl blowing bubbles in a green and verdant landscape

Photo by RawPixel/iStock

A couple of years ago, a mentor of mine said something that has stuck with me to this day. I was sitting around a campfire with a team of Black, brown, and Indigenous youths at Point Reyes National Seashore, listening to him talk about his experience conducting field research as a large Black man.  

“I’d rather conduct research in the Panamanian jungle than do it in the Deep South,” he said, laughing. "No, thank you.” 

As a Black environmentalist with familial ties to the South, I was shaken by this. But this worry doesn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. When I first started doing field research on Connecticut freshwater lakes, not only was I acutely aware that I was usually the only Black person on staff, but I had to constantly consider the risks of simply being outside. Cops and racist white people alike questioned my “place” in the field. I was watched closely in stores, at work, in parks, and on the street by people who saw me carrying about my daily life and thought that I might be a threat.

White people often deputize themselves to question the existence of Black people in a shared space, and this surveillance often leads to acts of terror. Even private spaces aren’t safe—Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and Botham Jean were all in their own homes, minding their business.

White supremacist notions of policing have poisoned low-income communities of color. They have poisoned the very land on which we stand, since for many, the lived experience of being violently policed and not being protected from toxic pollution coincide. Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, in close proximity to Cancer Alley. Eric Garner had asthma, an illness that disproportionately affects Black and brown residents, who are more likely to live near highways, refineries, and other sources of air pollution.

Black people are burdened with the onus of our deaths, with environmentally informed sicknesses punishing our bodies long before the police ever can. As rebellions across America rage on, Trump’s administration continues this attack, gutting environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and perhaps most chillingly, the National Environmental Policy Act, waiving the requirement for environmental review for construction projects. The fact that many of the people killed by police have already been victimized by environmental injustice is often used by police as an excuse for their death. In the case of George Floyd, officers and medical examiners tried to argue that Floyd’s preexisting heart condition caused him to go into cardiac arrest.

For the first time in history, defunding the police is a topic of discussion on a national scale. Six billion dollars go toward funding the police in New York City alone. That’s more than what NYC spends on homelessness ($3.2 billion), after-school programs and other forms of youth development ($15.6 million), and workforce development ($17.5 million) combined. Imagine what our parks (and what our cities) could look like if all of that funding went into social programs that encourage community care and justice, such as parks and recreation development, affordable housing, childcare, and community food banks and gardens.

Black queer theorists and activists have an ethic of care, informed by their own relationships with “othering,” seared into their collective conscious. Black queer theorists in particular factor in race, challenging us to undermine the American inclination toward surveillance, and instead look inward and ask, “Why am I so obsessed with control?” The conversation on how to be a racially conscious neighbor is shifting from “Don’t call the cops” to “Get rid of the cop in your own head.”

We have major questions ahead of us as we fight not just for equity but also for justice. We are going to have to participate in heavy conversations about access, entitlement, accountability, and preconceived notions of innocence. But conversations only go so far. White people in particular are going to have to reframe how they look at, and act upon, the actions of other people. To paraphrase Angela Davis, instead of seeing criminal behaviors, or perceived criminal behaviors, as an individual flaw, we must see them in the light of social conditions that engender that kind of behavior.

A critical question that needs to be addressed is “How do we undo America’s fixation on anti-Black punishment?” This country’s obsession stretches back to Europe, where it operated as a means of social control but also as a justification for hoarding resources. If a crop failed, it was because a higher power deemed that the farmer needed to be punished. If a farmer stole bread because their crop failed, the problem was not an environmental one, or even a social one, but an individual crime that needed to be punished by the state. 

These same ideas informed the colonization of the Americas. Thomas Jefferson used his inability to control Indigenous peoples as justification for genocide, writing, “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.” 

When we talk about making society more equitable, at first, conversations follow a pattern of “We need more Black people in decision-making positions” or “We need to educate ourselves on the history of exclusion in outdoor spaces.” But as we move toward a transformative justice model of thinking, we are also going to have to think about land in new ways. We’re going to have to ask ourselves, What is our world going to look like once we finally return the large swaths of territory that was seized through violence back to the Cheyenne, the Mohawk, the Ohlone people, and countless other Indigenous groups? How are we going to heal the thousands of lives that have been impacted by terror? How are we working to undo our own complicated relationships to punishment?

As a Black queer environmentalist, I maintain an ethic of care for my fellow humans that extends to my ethic of care for the natural world. Outside my window, I hear the sounds of Black children as they play. They are loud, shrieking with laughter. Like my grandmother watched me as I climbed the jungle gym across the street from our house, I keep my eye on them in case anybody wants to come and question their joy. I watch to protect, not to punish.