Black Faces, White Spaces: Rethinking Assumptions About Race and Environment

For cultural geographer Carolyn Finney, who will visit F&ES on April 14, issues of race and identity are inseparable from conversations about environment engagement.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Studies suggest that African Americans account for less than 10 percent of visitors to our U.S. national parks. But that doesn’t mean they’re not engaged with the environment, says Carolyn Finney, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky.
“Sometimes we make the leap from, ‘We’re not seeing them at the park, so [therefore] they’re not engaged with the environment,’” says Finney, the author of “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship Between African Americans to the Great Outdoors.”
carolyn finney Carolyn Finney
For example, while there are three big national parks in close proximity to Miami, records show there aren’t large numbers of people of color going to the parks. “But every single day you can drive all around Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and down towards the Keys, and see black and brown people fishing from bridges and the canals,” she says. “And that becomes invisible. It doesn’t get counted in the conversations.”
Finney will speak about race and the environment at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 14 in Burke Auditorium. Her talk, “Homecoming: Black Faces, White Spaces, and Stories of Future Belonging,” is part of the “Diverse Voices” lecture series launched last fall.
Finney believes that people assume that African Americans don’t have the money to access the outdoors. But in conversations, she found that race, not class, is the dominant factor in terms of how people engage with the environment. “What they were telling me was that the history of this country about race influenced a lot of their thinking about the environment,” she says.
“Class isn’t the issue here,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not important, it means that’s not what’s coming up. Something else is coming up here about the issue of race.”
For Finney, the topic of African Americans and environmental engagement is deeply personal. She grew up on a 12-acre estate just outside of New York City where her father was the caretaker — but not owner — of the property. When her parents had to leave the estate after caring for the land for 50 years, Finney began to think more critically about issues of ownership, identity, and environmental engagement.
For people like my parents, who worked somebody else’s land, that becomes part of who they are. And when that relationship is damaged... identity is going to be impacted.
— Carolyn Finney
“For people like my parents, who worked somebody else’s land, that becomes part of who they are. And when that relationship is damaged because of legislation, racism, privilege structures that don’t serve us all equally, identity is going to be impacted,” she says. “Identity is a significant part of the conversation whether we choose to focus on it or not.”
During her research, African Americans repeatedly told Finney that the history of race in America influenced how they think about the environment. And issues of access and ownership — as in the case of her parents — are deeply entangled with that history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of our national parks.
Finney, who serves on the National Parks Advisory Board, says that the vision that Roosevelt and Muir originally had for our national parks as sacred places that should be set aside and preserved forever, while beautiful, was rooted in their own subjectivity and privilege. Revisiting the idea of our national parks is an opportunity to think about how these places can represent where we want to go collectively as a people and how do we want to do that, she says.
“The America they were talking about, that American identity, wasn’t the whole America,” she says. “They weren’t talking about native people; they weren’t talking about black or brown people. I don’t even know that they were talking about women so much.
“For those of us who do environmental work, we have to rethink what we mean by ‘engagement,’” she says.
Academia plays an important role in shaping our thinking about environmental engagement, Finney says. “These institutions play a role in constructing knowledge about who we are in the world and how we might move forward and meet the challenges before us.”
Finney, who received national attention when she was denied tenure at the University of California, Berkeley before being hired at Kentucky, says that academic institutions can be especially challenging places for African Americans to do environmental work. When she was hired in Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, she was the only African American out of 75 faculty members in the entire College of Natural Resources.
For those of us who do environmental work, we have to rethink what we mean by ‘engagement.’
— Carolyn Finney
“Coming in there, I knew it was going to be hard because I’m black, because my work focuses on these issues, because I’m challenging even the way we do the work,” she says. “I’ve been the first or the only black person so many times in so many settings I’ve developed a particular skill set. Doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting, or difficult, but I can do that.”
That experience, she says, revealed to her the flaws in the ways in which academic institutions talk about diversity and inclusion.
“Measuring one’s impact by the number of citations a particular article gets doesn’t tell you if it’s doing something in the world,” she says.
Finney says that if environmental institutions hope to recruit more students of color, they need to hire more faculty of color. “There’s something about building up your intellectual skill set — any of us can learn that,” she says. “But that’s not the only kind of knowledge. There’s also the embodied experiences; the lived day-to-day.”
She says the academy must become more inclusive in how we think about the environment. It’s a conversation that Finney says is happening on campuses across the country.
“I think there’s room in academia for those who are interested in talking with other academics in order to expand their disciplines,” she says. “I think it’s important, I get it. And I think there are others of us who are interested in building a relationship with those outside the institution, with our communities, and making our work legible and creating a relationship of reciprocity where we’re recognizing that we’re not the only ones with knowledge.”