Privilege in Green Choices: Recognize It and Use It for the Good

On recognizing white privilege as a factor in one’s ability to choose a simple low-footprint life. And how we (fellow white people and I) can use our privilege for the good.

Back in 2017 when I wrote my book, I pointed to USA mainstream consumerist culture as the main factor in planetary ecosystem degradation and worldwide human suffering. In the years since, as I’ve been educated by the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist courses and writers/speakers, I’ve come to refer to the culture I was born into as the Anglo-Euro USA-merican culture; and more recently, the white colonialist USA-merican culture.

In a recent post on her Facebook page, anti-racism educator Ally Henny mentioned a Hollywood couple who had talked publicly (in some media interview) about their family’s bathing habits. From what I gather (without having heard the interview), their mode or frequency of bathing is something less than the USA-merican mainstream social norm of daily showers with full-body soap-and-water scrubbing.

In other words, it sounds to me like the Hollywood couple are bathing themselves and their baby in a manner that’s familiar to many of us “low-footprint” folk. Many of us in the 90 Percent Reduction (Riot for Austerity), Zero Waste, Degrowth, Deep Adaptation, and related communities/movements bathe or shower only every few days (some of us even less often in winter); many of us don’t use soap on our whole bodies, at least not all the time; many of us opt for sponge-baths a certain percentage of the time rather than always doing full-body baths.

Over the years, dermatologists, other doctors, and scientists have come out saying that a more “casual” approach is actually better for our skin and immune systems. So, in addition to being better for the environment and easing our utility bills, a more relaxed approach to bathing is actually better for our health.

As to the Hollywood couple’s reasons for their relaxed approach to bathing themselves and their baby, I don’t know. Could be health; could be environmental; could be something else.

But regardless of what their reasons might be, the point Ally Henny is making in her post is that because this couple is white, they have the freedom to go against the social norms without being penalized. For example, they probably don’t have to worry about having their kids taken away by Child Protective Services. A fear that Black parents, Native American parents, and other parents of color face day in and day out.

In addition to being white, I’m sure this couple gets extra slack for being rich and Hollywood-famous.

After all, many a white but not-rich-and-famous “hippie parent” I know has been ostracized (with varying degrees of subtlety or not-so-subtlety) regarding their alternative practices on everything from child-rearing to lawn maintenance or just even how they dress, and threatened with consequences by their neighborhood association, their child’s school, and other self-appointed guardians of mainstream “respectable” social norms. Sharon Astyk, who co-founded the Riot for Austerity, even wrote about this topic in one of her books. How to live and raise one’s family in an “alternative” way without drawing unwanted attention from “authorities.” (If I find a post or article, I’ll share the link here.)

Ally Henny’s post is not about Black parents getting in trouble for going against white colonialist culture norms. Rather, the point she’s trying to make is that here’s this white couple going against the norms and not having to worry about consequences (other than maybe getting made fun of on social media), while Black parents are constantly having to be on guard to avoid getting in trouble, maybe having their kids taken away from them, for anything that’s perceived (in the twisted mind of “the system”) as being wrong or indicating neglect.

My takeaways right now as a climate activist:

• No matter how much grief we white people might get for our “alternative/green” lifestyle choices, it pales in comparison with what Black people and other people of color face who are just minding their own business, not even trying to be “alternative.” Therefore, to the extent that we believe in our “low-footprint lifestyles” as having the power to shift our toxic cultural norms and cushion humanity from the worst impacts of climate change, we have to muster up more courage and push back harder against the norms. We have an obligation to current and future generations to use our white privilege to make the difference. (By the way, the various low-footprint lifestyle communities/movements have attracted Black people, Native Americans, and other people of color, but these communities/movements are very predominantly white, and this post is addressed to my fellow white people. We need to step it up and use our privilege to shift our toxic culture.)

• In addition to having an obligation to all current and future humans, we also have an obligation to Mother Earth and all her creatures to clean up the mess our ancestors started when they (sometimes deliberately; sometimes not knowing better) created a “culture” characterized by the bleaching-out of culture. All of us originally (ancestrally) came from countries where the ways of life were more sustainable and closer to nature, more entwined with the natural rhythms of life, and not coincidentally more spiritual, than what we ended up co-creating with industrialized colonialist USA-merican “culture.” We may not be able to fix this mess overnight but that’s no excuse not to make it a full-on priority.

Further Exploration:

Over the past 2-3 years, my understanding of the many facets of racism has grown considerably, and I owe this evolution in large part to two educators, both Black women.

Ally Henny, (Facebook posts; podcasts; Patreon)

• Nicole Cardoza, Anti-Racism Daily (daily email newsletter; podcasts)

• “Unpack stereotypes on cleanliness” (Nicole Cardoza, in the August 23, 2021 edition of Anti-Racism Daily). “Recently (and why, I do not know), a series of white celebrities shared their bathing habits with the press. Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, and Kristen Bell said they only bathe their kids when they smell bad (People). Jake Gyllenhall noted that he finds bathing “less necessary” (Vanity Fair). Commenters were quick to note that these sentiments were shared by white celebrities, and non-white stars like Jason Momoa, Dwayne Johnson and Cardi B were quick to express their love for frequent showers and baths. These conversations seemed harmless and amusing, but historically, the cultural conversation on cleanliness hasn’t been this casual. The notion of cleanliness has been wielded against immigrants, communities of color, and other marginalized groups to justify oppression and ostracization. Everyone is welcome to bathe however they choose, but not everyone has the privilege to talk about not bathing without the weight of racial implications. … Stereotypes of cleanliness fuel other forms of discrimination: antisemitism, anti-fatness, and discrimination against disabled people, the unhoused, and those with HIV/AIDS. These tropes center whiteness — specifically the whiteness of, wealthy, able-bodied, skinny, cisgender, heterosexual people — as the definition of purity and cleanliness. To dismantle racism we have to deconstruct this narrative.”