Tokenized Wokeness: The Rise of Non-Violent White Saviors to “Fix” The World

These past two weeks have been bombarded with discussion of Greta Thunberg, political figures of the United Nations, the infamous Donald Trump, and their reactions to climate change and the climate crisis. Something important to note is that when there are these heavy discussions and endorsements of Greta and her forms of advocacy by world leaders, celebrities, mass media, and those with massive followings, it has become increasingly easy to conflate and equalize actively working to dismantle the effects of climate change and co-opting the pretense of climate change to appear politically and climately conscious. 

I want to start this off by speaking specifically about Greta and then forward with a discussion about radical “wokeness” within climate change spheres and the co-opting of activism. There is a difference between attacking Greta because of her advocacy in questioning the audacity of world leaders in their addressal of climate change, and recognizing that certain bodies are always centered in global discussions—that of white eurocentric perspectives.

But, let me just say, that “how dare you?”—just the way that Greta asked it; the power, the emotion, the rawness of that question, it was, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “one thing to know intellectually and another to feel emotionally”. I still however, assert that there is a difference between applauding this advocacy, and working to dismantle the narrative that places certain bodies as the center perspective, as the only perspective in many cases, in these global discussions beyond just climate change. 

Recognizing the embedded nature of political dynamics to favor the less radical body does not mean that those with platforms should not utilize them in dismantling our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy. We need to actively work in recognizing the mechanisms of popular advocacy, and understanding how those mechanisms of change are rooted in other forms of systematic exploitation and discrimination. 

I applaud Greta, as should all of you, while still recognizing that those disproportionately affected by climate change, rarely if ever access platforms that allow them to voice their own lived experiences and positionality. If we do not ever center these different voices, can we ever change their daily realities? 

Greta, unlike many Black, Indigenous, and Asian populations does not face the consequences of the climate crisis in the same capacity and plane as these preceding communities. And the question that will and should come up is why are populations who are affected by this crisis, not the ones that are able to organize strikes, protests, and policy changes according to their own lived experiences and realities? Why is Greta, somebody who has a platform, is white, able-bodied, attractive, and residing in the North considered the face of a movement that does not affect her in the same capacity as it has the majority of the “Global South”? 

World leaders, celebrities, journalists, news outlets, mass media, they will praise Greta and others that look like her and hold her privileges, and will place them as the voice of climate change. This re-orienting of the saviour and activist is nothing new. The white-saviour has been practiced for centuries now, and in our contemporary world this is exactly what is happening with the gun reform movement and the climate crisis.

The Parkland shootings revolutionized the way that the media portrayed gun reform as those of primarily white advocates. It is not that Greta and the Parkland survivors should not talk about these issues and their own experiences, but that there is an incredible, incredible silencing of perspectives that differ from the idea of the dominant activist body that dictates solutions. Black, Indigenous, and Asian advocates are seen as the radical body, the othered body, the “colored” body. And when I speak about Greta and the Parkland survivors, I am not attacking them as much as I am attacking this system that utilizes them to maintain a assimilist and supremacist power dynamic. 

Greta will be praised mainly because her forms of advocacy are nonviolent, and are not rooted in the dismantling of racist and classist forms of colonial power that are embedded into climate change. Climate change is not an isolated issue. The climate crisis is one of a racial crisis. It’s one of a sexist crisis. It’s one of a colonial crisis. It’s one of a capitalist crisis. Greta is not advocating for justice that dismantles these intersecting layers of oppression. Thus, political leaders and mass media can praise Greta and center her as the climate saviour because her advocacy is not one that questions and challenges their own compliance and dominance in power structures. 

BIPOC voices are not centered precisely because they are working to dismantle that power structure beyond superficial layers. Greta’s advocacy is based on dismantling the consequences of climate change, but not on the perpetrators, not on the state that enables its existence, not on the United Nations, not on capitalism, not on colonialism, and not on white supremacy. 

By working to dismantle these consequences, Greta can utilize these nonviolent forms of resistance and it works great for her, but we cannot and should not equate creating a climate strike day or organizing awareness marches, as equivalent to those who put themselves and their lives in danger everyday. Who are on the ground doing the work, who are sitting in jail for protesting, who cannot find housing because they were displaced from their homes, who cannot find employment because of their past advocacy, who are surveillanced by the state, who are killed every single day, fighting for justice in a system that values everything but their lives. 

A violent state needs some degree of resistance to dismantle its oppression. To conflate a climate strike as synonymous to the very real and harsh realities of protests that are currently going on in the world is a tactic utilized to maintain control over how, we as communities, understand and practice resistance. 

I hope that just because Greta is inhabiting a less radical body, we do not put her claims as superior and more dominant than those of Black, Indigenous and Asian communities. Greta’s work and advocacy is an integral and important step of climate justice. But, to be clear—awareness is awesome, but awareness is not enough.