Growing up as a white settler child in unceded Musqueam and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory toward the end of the 20th century, I was regularly overwhelmed with grief for beings I had never met. I was raised to ‘love animals’ and ‘nature’ at a time when it was becoming clear that they were ‘disappearing’ at alarming rates. At school and through educational programs, I was taught to be ‘aware’ of endangered species, and encouraged to raise money for conservation efforts. As gifts, I was given cuddly toys and figurines that represented – and fetishized – endangered species. Clinging to these symbols both soothed and sharpened my feelings of futility. I couldn’t reach these beings, or do anything meaningful to ‘save’ them. So, instead, I generated sadness and anxiety, as if inhabiting these states was a form of action. When it became too much, I buried those feelings for almost 20 years. This made it possible for me to get on with my life, learning and working within the colonial-capitalist systems that privileged me – and that continued to drive patterns of ecological destruction.
This is a common story. The emotions of white and other privileged children (and adults) are continually mobilized to generate support for global conservation efforts. Grief amongst white and other privileged people for the
plight of ‘endangered’ or ‘soon to be extinct’ life forms is amongst the most potent of these emotions, along with anger and frustration. The social power of these emotions became obvious in the international furore over the 2015 killing of ‘Cecil’ the lion by an American recreational hunter. More recently, video footage of an emaciated polar bear, released by photographer Paul Nicklen, went viral, igniting an outpouring of regret and anger on social media. Nicklen described the footage as ‘soul-crushing’ and related that his entire team had to ‘push through tears’ as they watched the bear scrounge for food in the last hours of its life. (See this article in which Inuk hunters peer review the video, showing how a lack of understanding of polar bears is often manipulated by conservation discourses)
The emotion generated by white and other privileged people when confronted with images of impending extinction is real, and quite powerful. It makes its participants feel as though they are involved, that they care about the beings at stake. And it may generate substantial donations to conservation organizations with good intentions and a genuine desire to ‘save’ the ‘endangered’.
But these releases of emotion can also be deeply problematic, and can entrench the forces and structures that drive global patterns of extinction – including racialized patterns of ecological violence. I am beginning to understand them as manifestations of ‘white tears’.
‘White tears’ refers to the eruption of emotion that occurs when white people are confronted with the violence and harm that our ways of life and the structures that benefit us enact against people of colour. It is an expression of distress and frustration that emerges when we find that we are complicit in deep injustices, in spite of our professed values or conscious intentions. Whether or not they are expressed as a gesture of solidarity or caring, white tears have serious and destructive implications for people of colour.
First, as Robin DiAngelo notes, they involve the appropriation of grief and other emotions from those who are directly experiencing violence and harms to their communities, relations and worlds. They divert attention and social resources such that “rather than focusing on the lived experiences and traumas of People of Color…the focus is placed on the host of emotions that white people go through when confronted with racism”.
White tears involve the colonization of emotional space, along with the labour required to attend to those experiencing grief. Indeed, one of the most insidious aspects of white tears is that they make people of colour responsible for dealing with the guilt their white friends or colleagues feel – for participating in systems that oppress them. Instead of directing this energy towards their own emotional wellbeing and healing, or performing the hard work of mourning (which I’ll return to in a moment), people of colour are pressured to shoulder the weight of white guilt in liquid form.
In many cases, white tears can be (re)traumatizing, and they can remind people of colour of the depth of white peoples’ indifference to their struggles. In particular, DiAngelo points out that white tears tend only to emerge in times of public crisis, or when harms to people of colour puncture the protective boundaries of white privilege. This downplays everyday structural violences (including environmental racism) which people of colour confront in societies constructed to privilege white needs and aspirations.
In addition, white tears are a powerful move to innocence. They offer white folks confronted with injustices in which they’re implicated release, relief and a sense of having ‘responded’ to the suffering of others. However, they do not tend to translate into concrete action against racism or other forms of structural violence, which cause the harms in question. In some cases, they might detract from this kind of work by making white folks feel as though they have already ‘done something’ (see my story above). What’s more, this sense of having ‘responded meaningfully’ may be used to mask complicity and to disavow one’s responsibility to dismantle structural violence.
How do white tears function in the context of extinction? Let’s look at each of these aspects in turn.
Appropriation, displacement and colonial crying:
When white and other privileged
people grieve for the beings destroyed by the structures and forces that privilege us, we take space from those who are directly affected. As I have discussed in previous posts (Decolonizing Against Extinction P I and P II, ) ‘extinction’ is a deeply racialising phenomenon. Driven by modes of global structural violence such as colonization and extractive capitalism, it targets and primarily impacts Indigenous and other peoples of colour – and their other-than-human relations. In particular, the plants and animals threatened with what Western science calls ‘extinction’ are the relatives – Ancestors and offspring, sisters, brothers, cousins and kin – of these peoples. Their ‘extinction’ is the destruction of these relations, and of the (human and other) peoples nourished by them. Indeed, in my research I argue that one of the hallmarks of what Western science calls ‘extinction’ is the destruction of these relationships.
For the most part, the white and other privileged people who cry ‘for’ ‘endangered species’ in the abstract simply do not have these relations with the beings in question. We are not directly experiencing the destruction of the intimate relationships – with plants, animals, Ancestors, land, water air and more – that have sustained our collective existence for millennia, and that are necessary for its continuation. We do not daily tend and depend on these relationships, or put their bodies on the line to defend them. In short, the beings targeted for extinction are not ‘ours’ to mourn.
Crying for someone else’s kin is problematic in (at least) two senses. First, as in other manifestations of white tears, this dynamic diverts attention, energy and resources away from the people (human and otherwise) who are directly affected, channeling it toward anxiety and guilt of those who benefit from the harms in question. Note that the global conservation movement focuses on protecting ‘biodiversity’ for ‘humanity’, rather than directly addressing the harms, losses and violence experienced by specific peoples whose relations face extinction. However well-meaning, these efforts are oriented more towards securing and reassuring donors and their futures – whom the term ‘humanity’ interpellates – than to addressing the direct trauma of extinction in ways appropriate to the communities affected.
Second, this kind of crying can be deeply dispossessive: it asserts proprietary claims over grieved beings. Indeed, this sentiment – worry over losing ‘our’ ‘biodiversity’, or my childhood anxieties about not ‘having’ rhinos or koalas when I grew up – embodies the colonial impulse in which the global conservation movement has its roots. As Bill Adams’ critical history shows, the global conservation movement was rooted in colonial policies, initially in southern Africa and India, then later in the west of Turtle Island, designed to protect ‘stocks’ of large game for elite hunting. Contemporary conservation organizations have largely moved away from this approach. In fact, the case of Cecil the lion demonstrates the extent to which contemporary supporters of conservation oppose the killing of what they consider to be ‘their’ endangered species, protected by their donations. Yet the proprietary impulse remains: anger and sadness over Cecil’s death relates directly to the belief, propagated by conservation organizations, that the ‘world’s biodiversity’ is a commons, to be protected as a source of enjoyment, economic stability and scientific knowledge for ‘humanity’. This is particularly clear in the case of UNESCO ‘World Heritage Sites’, which actively name and claim areas of ‘particular cultural and biological significance’ as the property of ‘humanity’.In a related sense, many conservation strategies – in particular zoos – involve an implicit tradeoff in which support for conservation grants open access to the life forms in question. Indeed, it is rare to hear of strategies oriented towards the protection of beings for the sole use of the communities who depend on them, or in ways that restrict the access of white and other privileged people to them. Within this global regime, conserved lives are the property of ‘humanity’.
As I have argued elsewhere, the idea of humanity enshrined in global governance discourses is framed in terms of Western ideals such as individualism (or ‘identity’-based collectives), self-sufficiency, integration into market economics and biopolitically-regulated forms of health. In other words, it is modelled on liberal-universalist norms that map well onto modern Euro-American social imaginaries – and exclude or marginalise others. So, when land, life forms or even peoples are claimed as the property of ‘humanity’, it is a very particular version of homo sapiens (one that possesses these qualities by birth or assimilation) that is intended to benefit. By mobilizing the tears of white and other privileged people, global conservation encourages these members of ‘humanity’ ‘save’, annex or accumulate other peoples’ relations for their own (future) use and enjoyment. At the same time, treating these beings as part of a ‘commons’ belonging to a ‘humanity’ defined in their image erases relations between Indigenous peoples and their kin. In this sense, the mobilization of white tears contributes to a globalised dispossession of kin that helps to sustain contemporary global colonialism.
Offloading labour onto those most affected
When white and other privileged people cry for beings who are not our relations, and whom we continue to colonize, we make our feelings someone else’s problem. Specifically, we offload them to the communities who are directly affected by the destruction of their relations, expecting them to absorb the costs and labour of protecting them for ‘humanity’ (meaning us). This is not primarily to ensure the ongoingness of these communities and their relations, their sovereignty or well-being, but rather to assuage our guilt, and our fear of ‘losing’ beings that might prove essential to our own well-being (or that of an abstract ‘humanity’).
In the context of global conservation movements, this can take many forms. One of the most common is the expectation that Indigenous people give up their land, practices of hunting, gathering and growing or other ways of life in order to create parks or other ‘protected’ spaces. Indeed, as Dan Brockington and Jim Igoe have shown, the creation of national parks in southern Africa involved the eviction and displacement of thousands of Indigenous people from their Ancestral or traditional lands, continuing well into the 1990s, in order to meet goals derived from Western conservation practices. In other cases, the process of offloading responsibility is more subtle. It may involve framing Indigenous people as ‘stewards’ of ‘biodiversity’ and simply presuming that they will take on the labour of protecting it; or encouraging Indigenous communities to engage in ‘biodiversity banking’ or offsetting. These strategies are essentially means for stockpiling biodiversity to hedge against its continued destruction and ensure the ‘sustainability’ of the systems that exploit it.
Indeed, white tears for extinction not only divert attention away from those who are directly experiencing the harms, and the violent nature of those harms, but also from the structures that perpetuate them. By outsourcing the labour of conservation to Indigenous communities, this system expects those communities to provide cushions and guarantees for the same systems that oppress, expropriate and target them.
The tears themselves are also a potent move to innocence. They enable white and other privileged people to feel that we are performing constructive emotional labour that generates empathy, compassion or solidarity with the others whom our structures have harmed. In some cases, these acts may (re-)traumatize or provoke anger amongst those whose relatives and worlds are targeted for destruction. Having to deal with this additional emotional labour, or the need to ‘educate’ and confront those shedding white tears, drains vital energy from the crucial work of resurgence and caring for one’s relations carried out by Indigenous and people of colour.
We only care in a crisis, or when it affects us
The primary reason that I and other white children were taught to ‘love’ endangered species was that we grew up during an era in which extinction had been identified as a crisis that might effect us. Specifically, extinction was, and continues to be, framed as a trend that might endanger ‘human security’ or the wellbeing of ‘humanity’ as a whole. In other words, the crisis was becoming large enough to endanger the futures of some of the most privileged people on the planet. The same kind of fear animates contemporary concerns with ‘global catastrophic risks’ – phenomena so enormous in their scale and totality that they even threaten the global elite. Indeed, if billionaires such as Elon Musk consider it necessary to colonize other planets as an ‘insurance policy’ against the total destruction of earth, then it is clear that the threat has spread to the world’s most privileged niches. Preoccupation with moments of spectacular collapse or disruption that puncture the protective bubble of white and other forms of privilege can be deeply destructive. Specifically, they draw attention away from the everyday, persistent, ‘slow’ and deep forms of everyday structural violence that drive global patterns of extinction.
Understood in this way, tearful fear and anxiety about the ‘loss of species’ is linked to the desire to protect white futures, and the beings that are considered necessary – or simply desirable – to them. The selectiveness of globalized grieving for the extinct is telling here. The poster children of conservation campaigns are disproportionately megafauna that dwell in places colonized by Europeans – from polar bears and lions to koalas and lemurs. Through colonial education systems, they have become so thoroughly embedded in cultural imaginaries that Western children are more likely to recognize megafauna from other continents than plants endemic to the lands where they live. The ‘loss’ of these beings creates ruptures in this possessive imaginary and the models of global political order it supports.
In this way, the stimulation of white tears for ‘endangered species’ privileges certain relationships and futures over others. Indeed, while it is common for conservation organisations to promote the protection of animals that white tourists find ‘majestic’ or scientifically fascinating, it is much rarer to see global campaigns to protect life forms that primarily enable Indigenous food sovereignty. For instance the decimation of the buffalo on the great plains of Turtle Island is not often held up as an example of extinction, nor are the buffalo prioritized as images of the urgency of conservation. This is almost certainly because this attempted buffalo genocide was integral to the foundation of settler colonial states of Canada and the United States, and does not fit within the passive, non-violent, ‘natural’ notion of extinction upon which global conservation focuses. More to the point, the buffalo are integral to Indigenous futures on Turtle Island, but not to white imaginaries of how this land should be occupied. This helps to explain why there is relatively little grieving for them, or demands for their urgent return, amongst the settlers of Turtle Island.
Moves to innocence, or, crying away complicity.
White tears for ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’ life forms help to gloss over one’s complicity in the structures of destruction. As mentioned above, focusing attention on spectacular crises that affect the world’s privileged helps to distract it from the formations of everyday, cross-cutting violence – land-based, gendered, racializing and more – of which ‘crises’ are one aspect. This is one of the reasons why ‘extinction’ is so rarely understood as a manifestation of violence. Failure to recognize the nature of the oppressive relations that drive extinction precludes meaningful responses to it. In short, performing grief for beings with whom we do not have intimate relationships – either out of guilt and shame or fear of ‘loss’ – is unlikely to translate into concerted action to dismantle the systems that drive the violence in question. Instead, it enables white and other privileged people to feel that we have cared, or responded, without having to make substantial changes to our own conditions or lives.
This dynamic can be observed in the environmentalism of the rich, a system in which guilt can be translated into financial support for projects that ultimately confirm and bolster existing political economic structures. This is the case, for instance, when oil companies fund scholarships to support environmental research, or when multi-national corporations participate in corporate social responsibility measures that slightly moderate their ecological impact. It is also reflected in more seemingly grassroots initiatives. Widespread strategies such as ‘raising awareness’ and ‘building community’ to support conservation projects hide an important fact: these strategies are undertaken almost exclusively on our terms. We decide how much money or labour to give, which life forms we deem crucial, what means will be used to ‘protect them’, and what means will be used to constrain others’ interactions with them. This is another way of securing futures designed for us, rather than working against the structures that preclude the futures of others.
White tears should not be confused with mourning: the tender, brutal, intimate and collective work of remaking worlds that have been ruptured by the death or destruction of cherished relations. The settler scholar Deborah Bird Rose, collaborating with the Yarralin community in what is known as the Northern Territory of Australia, shows that mourning is a profound form of work carried out in order to “turn death back into life”. Within this world, life and death are braided and must be re-joined in order to ensure their ongoingness. Through mourning, grief is embodied in ways that make and sustain shared worlds in the absence of the beloved. For this reason, it is carried out by those who are co-constituted by their relations with the grieved. It is literally a way of renewing those relations – even with beings that Western science considers to be long-extinct, such as sabre-toothed tigers or plesiosaurs – to ensure the continuity of worlds.
Although it may involve crying, including ceremonial forms of keening, mourning cannot be reduced to the physical release of grief. According to the laws and protocols of each community, it may entail exhausting ceremonial labour, such as prayer, feasting or fasting, the performance of Ancestral songs or dances, journeys, preparation and care for the remains, and efforts to ensure the safe passage of the dead to another world. Mourning may also involve efforts to heal those surviving relations deeply hurt by their loss. For instance, Haudenosaunee communities (on whose lands I live and work) engage in condolence ceremonies in order to heal the community from the loss of loved ones and leaders. A ‘big’ condolence ceremony involves three steps: Journeying on the Trail, which recalls the installation of the original 50 Chefs; Welcome at the Woods Edge, which prepares those who are lost (in this case, bereaved) for their return to the longhouse community; and the requickening address, in which the 15 sympathy strings of the wampum belt are offered to the grieving family in order to relieve their pain and clear their minds. The entire ceremony can take six to eight hours to perform and may be spread across two days.
These forms of mourning are specific: they express and affirm particular forms of spiritual, political and social order, upholding the laws and protocols through which humans and other beings co-constitute one another. They are oriented towards (re-)building unique relationships, and so they cannot be performed by just anyone – they are carried out by the bereaved, the kin of the deceased. What’s more, they are not performed in the abstract, for categories such as ‘species’, but rather for particular beings and the worlds they make possible. Indeed, mourning is about loss, but it is also future-oriented, promoting healing and the continuity of worlds ruptured by loss or violence.
Clearly, it is not possible for many of those who shed white tears for the ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’ to take part in mourning – they simply do not have the necessary relationships, Ancestral knowledge or authority to participate in this work. To attempt to do so without explicit invitation by the communities affected would be highly inappropriate and damaging.
None of this means that white and other privileged people should not experience or express grief and other forms of distress when confronted by the destruction that our ways of life are driving. As Diangelo writes, “white people do [italics mine] need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it. In fact, our numbness to the racial injustice that occurs on a daily basis is key to holding it in place. But our grief must lead to sustained liberatory action”. Indeed, how we choose to express and channel these emotions, and how we address the conditions that prompt them, matter greatly.
We can respond to our emotions (and begin to process them constructively) by asking ourselves a series of questions: who, and whose relations (human and otherwise), are being harmed? How can we support them, on their terms (even if this means staying out of it)? What structures, conditions and processes are enabling that harm? How, and in what ways are we involved and complicit in those structures? How, and in what ways can we identify, hold to account and, crucially, take concrete actions to dismantle these structures of harm? How, if appropriate, can we support and hold open more space, relieve excess labour, or transfer resources, to those who are carrying out the crucial work of mourning? This latter question does not suggest that those who are in a position to mourn should undertake this labour for us. Rather, it suggests that we put ourselves in service to those communities as part of our efforts to take responsibility for the structures of destruction that support our lives.In some circumstances, the work of mourning and resurgence may be supported directly through careful, respectful solidarity work carried out under the leadership of those directly affected, and only at their invitation. However, I believe that our more important role is in critiquing and weakening the structures that secure our existences at the expense of others – including colonialism, racism and extractive capitalism.
We can also direct this energy towards forming meaningful, direct relationships with, and assuming responsibility for the care of, the beings on whom our lives depend. Crucially, this will most likely involve learning to respect the laws, treaties and protocols – including those between Indigenous peoples and other life forms – that have created and sustained the land on which we are settlers, or at best guests. If we live on the land of our own ancestors (for instance, in Europe), this approach may involve working to revive land-based ways of living, including small-scale agriculture.
What matters, I think, is taking concrete responsibility not only for the violences in which we are complicit, but also for the other beings who make our lives possible. This can only happen when we form, or recognize, strong relationships and kinship bonds, ones on whom our lives and existences depend, whom we are willing to care, sacrifice and suffer for – and whom we are thus able to mourn when they die.