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

Written By Kanishka Sikri

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 the climate crisis. Something I find necessary to interrogate in this sphere of polarization and radical “wokeness” 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?”—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 find it increasingly important to 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 public discourse, academia, and activist spaces.  

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. Rather, we need to actively work in recognizing the mechanisms of popular advocacy, and understanding how those mechanisms of prioritization are rooted in other forms of systematic exploitation and oppression. 

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 embodied knowledge. If we never centre these marginalized voices, can we ever hear, understand, and change their realities?

Greta unlike many marginalized communities does not face the continues blame, degredation and consequences of the climate crisis; we must then ask: why are communities who are continually exploited by transnational structures demanding ecological destruction, not the ones that are able to organize strikes, protests, and policy changes according to their own lived and embodied learnings?

Why is Greta, somebody who has a platform, who is white, 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 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 is exactly what is happening with the gun reform movement and the climate crisis.

For instance, the Parkland shootings revolutionized the way the media portrayed gun reform as those of primarily white advocates. It is not that Greta and the Parkland survivors should not speak to their own experiences, but that there is an 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 an assimilist and white 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 the continues genocide of our planet and its peoples. 

The voices of people of colour, poor, disabled, fat, immigrant, refugee communities are not centered precisely because they are working to dismantle that power structure beyond superficial layers. 

By working to dismantle the consequences rather than roots of climate change, 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.

I hope that just because Greta is inhabiting a less ”radical” body, we do not put her actions, protests, and forms of resistance as superior and dominant than those of continually marginalized communities. Greta’s work and advocacy is an integral and important step of climate justice; but to be clear—awareness is great, but awareness is not enough.

Kanishka Sikri

writer—poet—post-de-colonial theorist—transnational feminist working to dismantle our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy

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