Confessions of a recovering good white person: An environmental autobiography




…The time will come

when you, too, have to drop

all the ways you’ve made yourself

worth loving,

and finally learn how

to sit quietly

right in the center

of your own small life...

—from A Winter Poem by James Pearson






(Written in August of 2021)


It is ten in the morning and the temperature in my apartment is already well on its way past 80. My desk is tucked in the corner of an open living room/kitchen, with wide windows covering the east and south sides. While I’m near downtown Oakland, California, with a park to the east and low profile homes and apartments across the street, the room gets direct sunlight all day long. The blinds were let down days ago in a futile attempt to keep the heat wave out. Typically, I am gazing at the oaks buoyed by the breeze, delighting in the robin calls as their rust bellies broadcast from telephone wire, feeling the expansive presence of sky, and in these exquisite late spring days, letting the subtle sweet aroma of buckeye blossoms wash over me. With the windows blocked, my world shrinks. Suddenly the most expansive seat in the room becomes the most restrictive. The ceiling presses down on me. I feel claustrophobic and trapped but I proceed with my to do list.


I’m calling my great aunt Sue with a mission: to gather information from the family genealogist for an assignment for Environmental and Earth Justice, a course in the Community, Liberation, Indigenous, and Ecopsychology (CLIE) program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. The assignment is to write an environmental autobiography, which is an opportunity to explore one’s identity, social position (e.g. race, class, gender), family history, and/or socioeconomic and political events in relation to natural resources and the natural world.


The instructor of the course, Carolyn Finney, graciously offered her own story as an example, which you can read about in her book Black Faces, White Spaces (2014). She grew up on an estate in New York, where her parents were the caretakers for many years. When the property was sold and the new owners gained a conservation easement, the deep connection and hard work of her parent’s lifetimes on that land vanished in the narrative of white environmentalism. Carolyn’s story reveals the racial injustice of access to land ownership and the persistent and devastating erasure of African American participation in the natural world. Hearing her story was intimate and moving. And it seemed to me to be wrapped in a powerful and poignant bow describing perfectly the subjective experience of a black family within structures and dynamics of oppression.


While Carolyn wrote explicitly on the syllabus “there is no right or wrong here”, I felt pressure to deliver the same: a story that reveals how I am situated within systems of oppression, something like a narrative corroboration of critical race theory. Since I am a white woman, rather than sharing the story of my oppression, I was to tell the story of my privilege, how my parents secured a legacy by robbing Carolyn’s parents of theirs. This is why I am calling aunt Sue.


I knew that my mother’s father’s family had settled in Iowa right about when that state was established, which means they received land from one hand of the government, while they stole from, killed and displaced indigenous people with the other. I see the value of such a piece of critical family history. It offers the opportunity to be in honest relationship with what made me possible, to clarify my values, to upend national myths that are rooted in oppression, and to honor a historical ground for accountability (Sleeter, 2016). Yet, if I was being honest with myself at the deepest level, I wasn’t after that. It was about a hope for redemption, beneath which was a belief that I am bad. My time in CLIE has been animated in large part by this hope and belief.


I came to the program with a profound allegiance to the Animas Valley Institute, an eco-depth psychological organization that guides adults in the discovery of their mythopoetic identity, the ecological gift they were born to deliver. I have caught sight of why I was born through the models, practices and eldering the organization has offered me and through intimacy and revelation in the beautiful, capricious, and sometimes-dangerous wild places where their programs are held. The work is a foundational aspect of my worldview and the vision of my ecological gift uncovered in their care is the most precious thing to me.


I kept all that a secret from my cohort for at least the first two quarters in fear they would see me as a settler emplacer (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015), culturally appropriative, a spiritual bypasser, or able to “think like a mountain, but not like a person of color” (Anthony, 1995). I wanted them to know me as a virtuous good white person before I spilled the beans about the all-white organization that saved my life and revealed my primary allegiance to Earth and mythopoetic identity over any social ill.


As I followed all the rules of what I thought a good white person should do, I began to feel cornered by the importance of vigilant reflexivity, the critical analysis of Western thought, and the perspectives of critical whiteness studies. It seemed to me that in order to belong (to this program, to the anti-racist movement, to those who are working for justice, to the righteous ones), I was required to unearth and admit my badness, my guilt, the terrible people my ancestors were, and also to dedicate my life to redeeming myself. You can say that is not the objective of those discourses and I would not argue with you. I profoundly value their merit. And I have to be honest about how they have made me feel. This is a common sentiment among white people on the Right (Lerner, 1996) so you can imagine why I’d be terrified to reveal it, and why it took so long to even admit to myself.


In these discourses, I feel that what is being asked of me is to think of myself first and foremost as a privileged white settler, but that is not the primary way I experience myself. I feel I am firstly an animal of this Earth. I believe I was invited. I have a deep intimacy with and profound sense of belonging to the natural world and I know I have a unique niche here, a special role to play in the web of life. In this program, am constantly asked to be critical (of my access to nature, of my conceptions of nature…), but rarely seen for the creature that I am.


In another ecopsychology course, I wrote a piece about how Animas is complicit in settler colonialism. It was exactly what I thought I should write; the most woke analysis I could muster. The professor was enthusiastic about it. She replied, “WOW! This is a stunning short essay that sees with critical clarity. You are right on the mark and have your work cut out for yourself. Your writing is clear and sharp and your case crystal clear. Keep going! You are on your path!” The problem was I didn’t believe it. It was an unfeeling regurgitation. I was on a path, but it wasn’t mine.


I spent my summer fieldwork bringing the critical analytic skills I’d developed in CLIE to evaluate Animas’ models. My motivation certainly included developing the work to be even more powerful, inclusive, and liberatory. Unconsciously, I was motivated by redemption. I was looking for a way to justify my love for the work and my belief that it could change the world. I brought with me my sense of badness and projected that onto the organization, as if to say, “You are bad too, but we can repent”. Remarkably, the elders there didn’t share my deep sense of guilt and shame, which would have angered me had I not already begun to fold under its weight.


The whole fieldwork project broke my heart. One of the most devastating parts is that I grew increasingly uncomfortable in the natural world, because on some level I felt I did not deserve to be there because the ways of being I had cultivated with Animas’ help were wrong or insufficient or colonial. I wandered over and again with the question of how to be a thinking animal. Critical analytic thinking and my creatureliness felt irreconcilable because what I heard from critique was “You don’t belong” and what I hear from the wild is that I am all belonging. All of the study I’d undertaken to denaturalize nature, understand the history of wilderness and the construction of white identity and settler colonialism (e.g. DeLuca, 1999), challenge the narrative of natural sublimity and universalism (e.g. Outka, 2008), assert the central importance and indigenous specificity of decolonization (Tuck & Yang, 2012), etc. divided me from an ease of relating and belonging with the natural world. Critical analysis gripped my consciousness and immobilized other ways of knowing. I felt I needed to justify myself to the land, make excuses for my life. Remembering my profound, connective and expansive experiences in nature before this program, I wept and cried out for ignorance. If this is righteousness, it isn’t truth.


As I analyzed the work at Animas, I realized that I had previously placed them on a pedestal as the one right and perfect answer. In ceremony, I gathered a perfect bouquet of flowers and then buried it, lying to rest the idealized image I held. Now I bury another bouquet, or feel the deeper impacts of my ceremony. There is no perfection out there for me to aspire to. I cannot find the answer separate from myself; there is no right way, but only what is mine to do. I’ve come to think of this as an internalization of a Semitic God on high who looks down on and judges me, holds me accountable to His commandments. I’ve been living my life at the gate of heaven, trying to reason with God to let me in. I have believed that I was born a sinner. Slowly slowly I am standing firm in the truth that I am unconditionally good, or rather, that I do not have to be good.


I have tried so hard to be good, to carry the right analysis, to check my privilege, to analyze what feels meaningful to uncover its coloniality. It made me miserable and I don’t believe it made the world any more beautiful. I am no longer interested in leading with critical analysis. I want to practice a politics that is rooted in the gift of life and our unshakeable longing to serve it, which sees that each person belongs here as a divine being and an animal, with a particular offering for the world. While I celebrate analysis that looks for the ways we carry on what we most hope to overcome, a way of being built on identifying how people are wrong or bad or even complicit, is not generative for me. We are all complicit in this mess. It is devastating. I submit myself to that devastation, but I refuse to let it define the value of my life, my work, my connection with Earth.


The poems that weave through

In addition to the opening epigraph, Mary Oliver’s “Dreams” and her “Wild Geese”, as well as Lyla June Johnston’s “And God is the Water” animate this essay.


References

Anthony, C. (1995). Ecopsychology and the Destruction of Whiteness. In T. Roszak, M.

Gomes & A. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 263-

278), San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

DeLuca, K. (1999). In the shadow of whiteness: The consequences of constructions of

nature in environmental politics. In T.K. Nakayama & J.N. Martin (Eds.), Whiteness:

The communication of social identity (pp. 217-246), Sage Publications.

Finney, C. (2014). Black faces, white spaces. University of North Carolina Press.

Lerner, M. (1996). The politics of meaning. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Outka, P. (2008). Introduction: The sublime and the traumatic. In Race and nature: From \

transcendentalism to the Harlem renaissance (pp. 1-26). Palgrave Macmillan.

Sleeter, C. (2016). Critical Family History: Situating Family within Contexts of Power

Relationships. Journal of Multidisciplinary Resarch, 8(1), 11-23. Retrieved 19 April,

2019 from http://www.jmrpublication.org/portals/jmr/Issues/JMR8-1.pdf.

Tuck, E. & McKenzie, M. (2015). Place in Research. Routledge.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity,

Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40. Retrieved from

decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/download/18630/15554

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