A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the extreme anxiety I was feeling as a teacher in the age of COVID. It was cathartic and just what I needed to clear my head before heading off on a mini vacation. Two days later I was spending the weekend in a cabin on the lakeshore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
I had four glorious days of wooded morning walks, long hours on the beach with a book, floating on the lake, gazing into campfire flames, and just generally not letting my anxiety get the best of me. I was glad I’d purged those intrusive thoughts that had been spiraling inside my mind. It gave me license to focus on the self-care that I desperately needed to go back to work in another few weeks. And it helped.
I came back home much more relaxed, with a clear head and an appointment to see my doctor about the anxiety. That trip was a blessing and a gift. It was also an example of White privilege.
It’s uncomfortable to admit that something that was so beneficial to my mental health might have a negative side, but it does.
Here it is, simply put: the UP of Michigan is a White space, and as a White woman, it’s a space that I can inhabit without fear.
The UP is almost entirely rural, and the vast majority of people who live there are White. That’s not to say there is overt racism going on. There are no anti-Black signs or symbols in public spaces or on private land (that I’ve ever seen, anyway), but there are a lot of pro-Trump signs. I’ll let you make of that whatever you will. And there are not many people of color.
During my four days staying in the cabin, I saw one Black person. I didn’t know him. I didn’t talk to him about his experiences in the UP, so I can’t speak for him. But I did imagine how his experience might be different than mine.
If I was Black, would people be as friendly to me? If I was Black, would my walking through the nearby neighborhood be seen as a threat? As a White person, I blended in. I could be anonymous, go about my business without being bothered. If I was Black, I would have stood out. Would I have had to defend my right to be there somehow? If I was Black, would people see me laying on the beach all day and watch my every move? Would they be worried that I was casing their nearby property? Would I be left alone to find my peace of mind, heal some internal wounds, or would the trip bring more anxiety and harm?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I suspect that at least some of them would not be pleasant.
I don’t know what to do with this. Does it make me enjoy my trip any less? No, it doesn’t. I needed that rest. It does, however, make me ache that not everyone has access to that beautiful healing space. Sure, Black people aren’t barred from going to the UP or staying in that very same cabin, but that doesn’t mean they have the same access to feel safe and comfortable there. What was so important for me was the ability to get away from everything causing my anxiety. If I was Black, I don’t think that would be the case. I would be an outsider, constantly worrying about how others perceived me and what consequences that might have.
What got me thinking about all this is reading the book How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, specifically the chapter on racialized spaces. So what else does Dr. Kendi have to teach me?
Before reading, I often thought that increasing diversity in the UP alone would eventually solve the problem. In fact, I thought the problem was limited to a lack of diversity itself. But Dr. Kendi writes about resource equity for racialized spaces as being more important.
Let me explain.
Maybe the answer isn’t to get more Black people to put themselves into White spaces until those spaces have achieved some level of diversity, and therefore are presumably less racist. That line of thinking puts the entire burden onto Black people to integrate spaces where White people are already comfortable. It also ignores the psychological harm to Black people that can be caused by all those factors I considered above, and probably many more I didn’t think of.
I mean, yes, diversity is beautiful, and the communities of the UP (and everywhere) should be more inclusive. But I’m learning that the problem is deeper than that.
The coastline of Michigan along the Great Lakes is protected as a public natural resource. It is recognized as a vital part of our state identity, and recreation and connection to nature are valued by our institutions enough to put in the time and money to preserve those spaces. Those time and money resources, along with laws that protect public land, are what keep our coastlines beautiful and accessible.
But what about the bodies of water in and near Black communities? The shorelines of the Detroit River and the Flint River have historically been industrial waste dumping sites. The Clinton River was subverted to pipes running under the city of Pontiac in the 1960’s. Most of the inland lake shorelines of the state are privately owned. Where are the public resources (time, money, laws) protecting and maintaining those spaces for use by Black citizens in nearby communities?
A quick google search led me to a map of the worst communities in Michigan in terms of environmental justice. Another led me to a map of the largest Black populations in the state. They are virtually identical. Sure on map shows data at the county level, while the other shows city-level data, but the overlay is staggering. The hotspots for environmental injustice — brought on by a lack of resources to care for the environment — are generally all in Black communities. Can this be a coincidence? Or is it more likely a deliberate movement of resources to Whiter spaces? I don’t mean that the people putting these policies in place are thinking, “Let’s not fund the Black communities.” It’s just that Black spaces aren’t prioritized. They are even considered when thinking about what natural spaces are worthy of protecting.
So I’m back to trying to figure out what to do with this. Clearly I alone cannot undo decades of devaluing Black communities. But wringing my hands in dismay and hoping for a day when racism is gone and diversity is welcomed in every space is also not a viable option.
Learning about these issues is a good first step. Recognizing and reflecting on my own privilege is a good first step. Starting conversations about it is a good first step. None of those, however, will actually change the policies that favor White spaces over Black spaces.
I want diversity to be welcomed. I don’t want people to be friendly to me just because I’m white and they see me as one of their own. I want people to be friendly because they’re friendly to everyone. I don’t want a separate White space to go to for relaxation and recreation.
I also don’t want Black people to have no other option than to put their bodies into unsafe spaces if they want to be in nature. We need both. We need beautiful Black spaces and integrated White spaces. We need to elect politicians who are willing to prioritize those dual goals. We need to support organizations that are already putting in the work to make it happen.
Many people who are smarter than me have been working on these issues much longer than I’ve been aware of them. In fact, as I was editing this piece for publication, this excellent piece popped up in my daily read. I highly recommend you read that too.
In the meantime, here are some ways you can learn about and support environmental justice in Michigan:
Donate to Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
Put pressure on Gov. Whitmer to keep the MACEJ working.
The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has a list of candidates they endorse. Contact those running in your area to demand environmental justice be added to their platform, if it is not already part of it.