Illustration by Alexxander Dovelin
This article is one in a four-part series on climate change. Read the full series here.
As ecosocial disasters brought about by climate change and discriminatory planning occur at an accelerated rate, targeting the most marginalized among us, the institutions charged with supplying aid to those in need still tend to ignore how multiple oppressions work to keep the most vulnerable—especially Black women—the least attended to. While the biggest players in the disaster relief field usually follow an apolitical script in their work, some groups provide data and follow through on how ecosocial disasters disproportionately affect women. Few of them mention race. And none, that I could find, focus on the specific burdens and needs of Black women during these times.
Ignoring how the power dynamics of institutionalized oppression work to keep those at the bottom of the hierarchy lacking in access to their day-to-day needs is a violence; doing so during an environmental crisis is a form of massacre. When queer Black feminist scholar Dr. Moya Bailey coined the term “misogynoir” a few years ago, she did so in the context of Black women’s depictions in American pop culture. But the term has expanded to apply to the many layers of anti-Blackness and misogyny that Black women face throughout the world in all contexts. Particularly in the Global South and the “third worlds” that exist within our so-called “first world,” Black women are the folks most affected by the intersections of climate change and disaster capitalism. As sea levels rise and the chasm in global inequality rapidly broadens, we who are not Black women, who depend on them for so much as a society, continue to fail them so blatantly.
I have learned…to greet enemies disguised as friends and new neighbors I never wanted.
When we compound the realities of women’s disproportionate risks during disasters and Black people’s disproportionate environmental challenges, we can see how misogynoir functions in times of eco-crises. It’s not hard to figure out why disaster relief and development groups fail to address the needs of Black women in the aftermath of unnatural disasters: They rarely acknowledge race, and most who work in the field are white Westerners. Women and trans people are more exposed to sex- and gender-based violence (SGBV) during and after these disasters, but the issue is treated as an afterthought, if it’s considered at all. While some data is available on how violence against women spikes during conflicts and disasters in high-income countries, the same research is not compiled in developing countries, which tend to suffer greater losses due to climate change. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies states that “those responding to disasters are not aware that GBV may increase in disasters, and are neither looking nor preparing for it. Lack of data on the prevalence of GBV during disasters contributes to this lack of awareness.” Much as liberals and conservatives alike whine about people like Bailey inventing new terms, it is in naming these silenced violences that they can then be addressed. And if breaking silences is at the heart of the work of ending violence against women, then we can’t afford to pretend that Black women aren’t a part of that equation. After all, misogynoir is a participatory project.
It is the overwhelming savior-coated whiteness (or, rather, non-Blackness) and male dominance in relief work that erases how anti-Blackness and misogyny function together in the aftermath of disasters. Former international development worker France Francois explained to me how this gaze affects relief work, saying, “When people speak about gender in development, it is never broken down into racial or ethnic groups to deal with barriers specific to them, since most people working in development are white Westerners; they assume that being a woman is the only or greatest challenge one can face.” Francois contends that in her five years of working in a prominent development agency doing relief work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, no research was conducted on the needs of Black women. “Even when gender was part of the analysis, it was often looked at through a Western lens that brought cookie-cutter solutions to complex gender dynamics, rendering the Haitian women themselves as silent observers in their own quest for equality.”
You must know, it is for your divinity that you are persecuted. For your power, are you eschewed.
Existing forms of SGBV like domestic violence and sexual assault are exacerbated when ecosocial disasters hit, as many men tend to react to disaster by turning to alcohol and using what little power they have left to punch down, according to the aforementioned Red Cross study. New forms of SGBV, like child marriage where it did not exist previously and transactional sex (performing a sexual act in exchange for aid) by people who had not engaged in sex work before, have been found in these aftermaths as well. In Kenya and elsewhere, girls who marry early after disasters are called “famine brides” and transactional sex became commonplace in transitional camps after the Haitian earthquake. International media latched on to the latter issue, adding to the stolen agency these Black women and girls were experiencing. The foreign gaze of these articles tends to exploit victims for shock value, as increased coverage does not seem to affect policy change or disaster relief frameworks at all, and there seems to be little intention to pressure the institutions charged with the care of these women and girls at the center of such reportage.
Francois adds that lack of attention to race by disaster relief groups is a way for them to play it safe politically, saying, “Even if a program is designed to target a specific minority—for example, Sudanese women living in Egypt—it is not often that the design of the program addresses racial or ethnic barriers, usually as a way to avoid offending the host government.” It should come as no surprise, then, that the same institutions that exploit disasters for their own gain, like these ineffectual development agencies, won’t hold governments accountable for abandoning Black women when they need help the most. To ameliorate the burden on Black women in times of environmental crisis, the rest of us need to prioritize socialized, community-led disaster preparedness and relief work with an analysis of structural power in mind. This is also a participatory project.
Earlier this year, the Movement for Black Lives coalition addressed environmental racism in several points in their six-part platform detailing the challenges and possible solutions Black people are contending with. As they wrote, “Black people are amongst the most affected by climate change,” and the U.S. military is the number one contributor to fossil fuel emissions, which in turn contributes to Black people’s “lack of access to breathable air.” It is no accident or oversight that those forced to the bottom of existing hierarchies lose the most both when climate-triggered disasters hit and in the ensuing “reconstruction” (read: displacement) efforts. As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, disaster capitalists have learned to use the climate as a weapon against the disempowered in order to create more opportunities for “growth.”
We are recurrent dreams, broken free, and sprung afresh. We are the funeral and the dance, the air and the dust, the two-step on a grave, the flame and the bush, not yet consumed.
Both the Movement for Black Lives coalition and the National Equity Atlas, among others, have provided plans for how to address these issues of environmental racism at the community and federal levels, and we should follow through with them. But we who are not Black women must also do the multidimensional, usually interpersonal and cultural work of removing the burdens we place on them. We must not passively take advantage of our positional privilege but instead reinvest that power in the protection of Black women. Honoring their cultural work is key to resisting dispossession. Economic and human losses aren’t the only things at stake; the cultural landscapes maintained by Black women in regions targeted by environmental racism are, too.
For example, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit a majority-Black region in Ecuador this past April left Black women and girls scrambling for aid from agencies that didn’t even acknowledge their existence. Do most non-Black Western aid workers know what or where Ecuador is? Are they aware of the functions of misogyny during disaster? Do they know Afro-Ecuadorians exist? And do they know what environmental and cultural risks their cultures face? I’m gonna bet no on all of the above. What I can speak to as a non-Black Ecuadorian is what I’ve seen, and that is that most heads of households in the affected regions were Black women; most affected local, independent businesses were run by Black women, whether directly or indirectly (since men tend to take leadership positions but women do most of the work, making less or no money); and Black women owned the least land. Lack of land ownership makes those women all the more susceptible to post-disaster displacement as developers seek to pounce on cheap real estate.
The communities that depended so much on Black women for their labor disintegrated as these women struggled for basic survival, usually caring for others. A foreign aid worker might arrive at the epicenter of the quake and supply what they can there, but a local, a Black woman, would tell you that though communities with the highest concentrations of Afro-Ecuadorians resided further away, their infrastructure was already lacking (read: abandoned, withheld) pre-quake, exacerbating the effects of the sociopolitical disaster so that it could outlast the immediate impact of the environmental one. “People directly impacted by climate change, particularly Black communities, know what the issues are most and should be at the forefront,” states the Movement for Black Lives in their platform. Disaster preparedness, relief, and rebuilding work can’t be left to exclusive entities that are complicit in disasters themselves.
This isn’t to say that Black women aren’t already playing key roles in environmental and disaster work, rather that their efforts are often erased. Take the late environmental activist Pam Dashiell, for instance, who championed the eco-sustainable rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans as co-director the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development prior to her passing in 2009. As former relief worker and writer Jeri Hilt wrote to me, “Despite the parasitic practices of disaster politics, Black women are often present at every level of the conversation leveraging whatever we can to get the resources and access needed for our communities.” She continued, “Because we are great at it, we are often recruited to do the same for other communities who have been made vulnerable by ecological disasters.” But do those communities return the favor?
“I decided a few years ago to live for the legacy and not the details, to build for three generations ahead because some battles have already been lost,” Hilt wrote on this site last year about returning to New Orleans after retreating in the wake of Katrina. “Trauma is evidence that time is not linear, and, also, that destruction can be the gateway to radical liberation. My grandmother came to me in a dream. She told me this.” I’ve placed the words her grandmother told her in the dream throughout this piece. If we’re going to do the work of environmental justice, the words and work of Black women should be our guide. That work can only thrive if we divest from misogynoir and reinvest our power in the livelihoods of Black women.