Environmental Racism Police Violence George Floyd The Narwhal

‘This is about vulnerability’: Ingrid Waldron on the links between environmental racism and police brutality

As North America is gripped by growing demonstrations against police brutality, The Narwhal speaks with one of Canada’s foremost experts on environmental racism and the vulnerabilities that link minority communities through the impacts of climate change, COVID-19 and state violence

As a teen, Ingrid Waldron knew she had a unique outlook on life. Raised in Montreal, she spent ages 11 through 15 with her family in Trinidad, where she witnessed empowered Black people in high-profile jobs.

She recalls having Black teachers surrounding her during her time in the Caribbean with the message of “you can do it.” But she knew the reality was much different for Black kids in Canada, in schools surrounded by white teachers telling them all the reasons why they wouldn’t succeed at life. 

But the time Waldron had in her early teens to develop a positive self-regard still didn’t protect her from how the outside world saw her. 

It didn’t protect her from the white men who came into Burger King where she was working at the age of 16 and called her the n-word. 

“Imagine, someone hurling the n-word while ordering a burger!” 

Waldron is associate professor of nursing at Dalhousie University in Halifax and head of the ENRICH Project that tracks environmental inequality among communities of colour in Nova Scotia. Waldron is also the author of the book There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities, which spawned a documentary by the same name hosted by Ellen Page.  

Her experiencing uprooting structural violence and systemic racism in Nova Scotia, which she says is often referred to as the “deep south of Canada,” gives her unique insight into the current demonstrations, riots and calls for accountability after the May 25 killing of George Floyd. Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed Black man died after a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

The Narwhal got Waldron’s thoughts on the importance of social unrest the day after hundreds of Nova Scotians took a knee on Halifax’s Spring Garden Road for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Q: When you turn on the TV right now or read the news, what stories are you seeing and what messages are you hearing?

A: I see the same narrative that I always see when this happens, which is an unwillingness by media and government to look at the underlying issues. They look at the rioting without understanding why people are angry.

Unlike a lot of people, I believe white people know exactly why we’re angry. I think people are pretending not to understand. They have done that for decades.

I’m cognizant that Black people are hated in this world. Our very existence is considered problematic. As a Black person I know what hate feels like.

Everybody seems convinced this is a turning point. 

I remain skeptical. Protests are great. It doesn’t mean much unless it leads to systemic changes.

Q: Do you see a relationship between the mechanisms behind police violence and environmental racism?

A: Black and Indigenous people are not on the minds of white people. The harms that come to us are not on the minds of white people.

When [Nova Scotia Premier] Stephen McNeil announced the closure of Boat Harbour last year, I thought, wow, the Indigenous community has been calling on the government to close Boat Harbour since the ’80s. [The Northern Pulp mill in Pictou, Nova Scotia, discharged waste into Boat Harbour in the territory of the Pictou Landing First Nation for more than half a century until the plant closed in January 2020].

Why would it take so long after all the activism the communities have been engaged in for this decision to be made?

When it comes to addressing environmental racism, if it has a positive impact on the white community, you keep it going. Closing the mill and addressing environmental racism is often a risk for white people in power who are profiting from these industries. It’s great that the mill was closed at the end of the year, but for the past several decades there was enough evidence to indicate this was harmful to the Mi’kmaq community and it continued anyways.

With police violence, it’s similar. It’s different, but it’s similar in that the physical and emotional impacts on Black bodies are not the kinds of things white people care about.

When I look at George Floyd, I see a white policeman trying to terrorize the Black onlookers. That kind of terror is about the policeman saying, ‘This is what can happen to you. I can put my knee on his neck. This is what I want you to see.’

He was not just harming George Floyd, he was harming those who were watching.

The way he positioned his body — positioned directly in front of the people screaming at him to stop — there’s an arrogance there. He had a knee on the neck and a hand in his pocket. It was a performance.

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I’m an academic, I write books and read theory, and we make racism so complex. But it’s not complex in terms of how I receive it. 

Emotionally and spiritually we should focus on the body, on how policemen inflict harm on Black bodies. It’s about terrorizing us emotionally in a way that keeps us caged. 

When I think about environmental racism, I think about terrorizing. 

I had a friend who said, ‘Last night I couldn’t sleep because I kept seeing the image of George Floyd.’ That is what racism is all about. 

Q: It feels like we are living in unprecedented times. We were already coming to grips with that in a world altered by climate change, but now with the pandemic and ongoing racialized police violence, how do you understand the way these big recent events exacerbate the vulnerabilities of minoritized and oppressed populations?

A: There is certainly a moment happening in terms of climate change and the killing and murdering of Black people and then COVID reared its ugly head and further exposed vulnerabilities. I’m thinking about these things happening — and happening in close proximity to one another. People are waking up. 

And people who haven’t seen — or didn’t want to see — disparities when it comes to income, gender and social class are starting to get it because these things are happening one after another.

This is about vulnerability and how some people are exposed to some of these issues or oppressions more than others. These people tend to be Indigenous, racialized and poor. 

I teach nursing at Dalhousie and the way we teach nursing needs to change, the way we teach health needs to change. Nursing wasn’t historically well equipped to deal with inequality.

In 2013, I had just started in the nursing department and I was talking about racism. I knew it was important for students to understand their patients, their races, their cultures, their different understandings of health, because people are diverse.

A lot of hostility was thrown at me early on from nursing students and they tried to get me out. One of my students said to me: ‘why are you teaching us sociology?’ There was a petition, a letter that was sent to my director, to have me removed. My director was great and she went to the students and said, ‘I reject this letter’ and explained why I was teaching what I was teaching.

You have to understand as a Black person walking into a classroom talking about race — that brings with it a certain kind of complexity. 

There are white men who teach what I teach and talk about racism. I’m not only teaching about racism but I am racialized. I wasn’t teaching this in a way that’s safe — I was talking about white privilege. Students became very uncomfortable.

They look at me and think what I’m saying is subjective and not objective. They will look at my white colleague teaching the same thing and think it’s objective. These students look at me and think, ‘I wonder if what Ingrid is teaching us is based on fact, because it’s probably based on personal experience. She’s probably angry. I need to dismiss this.’

I come in with baggage that a white professor would not. There are comments from students that ‘all Ingrid talks about is race.’

There’s an impression that all I talk about is race because I’m racialized. 

And I contextualize racism — environmental racism, Black lives matter — I contextualize it to make it real for them.

Right now I think people are more exposed to this reality. And I hope those students who gave me a hard time in 2013 are looking at the news now and thinking, ‘Hm, now what Ingrid taught me makes sense.’

Q: How can this moment break through to the larger change you hope to see when it comes to systemic racism?

A: If this moment can be sustained through further conversations, I think there can be a breakthrough.

These are the myths about Black violence and the danger of Blackness. That is extremely embedded in white consciousness. That’s what people see in the media.

The media is the most powerful institution that we have. I can understand why it would be difficult for white people to have a breakthrough because of the myths that they have been fed through the media. 

When things are emotional and visceral and people’s hearts are softened — there is a moment that is an opportunity.

I think white people are scared to broach these topics with Black people because it’s uncomfortable, they feel vulnerable, they may have to look at themselves. And sometimes Black people are very angry and they may not be able to say what they want to say because of that anger.

These are things that are very difficult to break through. But right now people are vulnerable. 

When I think of [hundreds of people kneeling in solidarity with protesters on] Spring Garden [Road in Halifax], that was beautiful. I do wonder, is this real? It’s a moment where white people were showing vulnerability. Right at that moment is where there is an opportunity to engage in a conversation that allows white people to hear Black people. That doesn’t mean we will be easy on white people.

But if we want to hear each other, we have to let go of what we hold so dear. Black people are tired of explaining. White people are tired of being blamed for what is going on in Black people’s lives — these are difficult things to abandon.

But we can if we take that opportunity. 

We also have to lay down our arms. That includes Black people because of our unbridled anger at white people who don’t get it, that comes across as blaming. On the side of Black people we need to truly hear people. On the other side, white people need to lay down their weapons and the worst weapon they have is denial. 

White people need to be able to listen to hear Black people and stop the denial because they are weaponizing it. That is the thing more than anything: if you don’t get it then you continue doing it. 

Nowadays with cellphones and Twitter, for any white person to say they don’t get it, they’re terrorizing the Black body and mind: I don’t see it. I don’t know it. I don’t get you. That’s the psychological aspect of racism. 

The killing of Black bodies is horrible. But telling Black people you don’t see it? That is white terror. 

And if you don’t get it, you can continue profiting — in the case of environmental racism — keep benefiting. A lot of it is privilege. You have to start to share, you have to give up some of that privilege.

We need white people to do that work.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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