"White People Shit": A Review of Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney


Black faces, white spaces by Carolyn Finney is unlike any environmental science book that I have ever read. The book, while an emotionally hard read, really captures the American mindset as it relates to Black people in nature and how they are represented in media, movies, and various forms of advertisement. Her book also forces the Black reader to look inwards to assess how we have generally understood our place, relationship, and understanding of nature. Often some members of Black communities [often from areas of low socioeconomic status] will refer to outdoor activities in natural spaces as "white people shit" [excuse the French]. I know this because friends, families, and acquaintances [that I have in many instances attempted to invite to natural spaces] have questioned my motives and my Blackness. The fact that nature, even amongst Black people, does not have a social connection to what is defined as inherent Blackness is a problem deeply rooted in the racist history of the United States.

In her book, Carolyn Finney reminds us that Black folks have not always been able to hike trails, play in parks or even sit on beaches. Doing so, in areas designated as "whites only", could result in an arrest, harassment, threats, and [as it did in many instances] death. 57 years later, after the signing of the Civil Rights Act that legally ended segregation, Black folks are still trying to adjust to the aftermath and embedded fear of the Jim Crow laws and the racist ideologies they institutionalized. What does a tree symbolize to you? For many Black people, it symbolizes a terrifying threat that has plagued Black Americans since our ancestors stepped foot on American soil. Even today, it is not uncommon to find lynched Black bodies hanging from trees [a constant reminder that white supremacy is alive and well]. This coupled with the gruesomely popular killings of Black children like Emmett Till and Tamir Rice has created justifiable fear within the Black community when it comes to occupying natural spaces or parks. My cousin once said to me "I can't let my boy go to that park. I don't want him to become the next Tamir." I believe that as a result of this implanted fear due to slavery, racism, and the attempt of Black folks to create a sense of culture in a country where they were stripped of identity, the concept of nature being "white people shit" became a part of our Blackness. It was an attempt to separate ourselves from them; an attempt to feel safe and okay with our choice to no longer frequent places that may result in us being killed or harassed.

Carolyn Finney also mentioned sundown towns, another of America's dark truths that have been swept from history books. Sundown towns are towns with strict regulations in place that prevented Black people from being within the town's limits past a certain time. If a Black person was found within the town's limits after curfew in a sundown town, they were often harassed, threatened, and/or killed with little to no justice ever being served. While sundown towns can no longer legally advertise themselves as so, the ideology that these towns initiated still resonates in many areas [especially more rural areas]. Recently my partner, Dr. Hinton, wrote a piece [Writing Through White Terror] related to our writing retreat get away to a small town known as Whitney Texas. There were a lot of signs and behaviors of residents that made us feel unwelcomed and unsafe. Due to this experience, the likelihood of us returning to Whitney Texas are slim and this provoked fear is the cultural foundation of sundown towns. We also found that when driving to most Texas state parks, we were required to pass through several small, confederate flag waving rural towns and [in many instances] forced to take back roads through small communities that proudly advertised articles often associated with white supremacy.

Being Black in nature is currently a trend because it is unusual and often life-threatening for Black people to exist in natural spaces. According to Dr. Finney there are several faucets of America’s dark history that need to be addressed when discussing nature and African Americans. "You could not talk about African Americans without addressing slavery, racial prejudice and personal safety". Dr. Aby Sène worded it perfectly on twitter, "Environmentalism that doesn’t involve anti-racist work or deals with white supremacy as an environmental problem only maintains the social order that created the ecological crisis we’re in." I often think of the hashtag #BirdingWhileBlack, that delineates Christopher Cooper’s [a Black man] inability to enjoy nature because a white woman did not want him occupying the same space as her. She belligerently called him names, threatened him and called the police on him while screaming “he’s hurting me, please send help!” The truth is if Christopher Cooper had not been recording the whole ordeal with his cellphone, he probably would’ve ended up in jail or dead. Which leads me to the heartbreaking story of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed simply for #JoggingWhileBlack. While these situations brought the Black community together in a fight for justice, it also reinforced the notion that nature is dangerous and unwelcoming. This, in turn, widened the gap that exists between nature and Blackness.

I highly recommend Black Faces, White Spaces especially if the reader is looking to build a solid foundation related to nature, the existing gap, Blackness and systematic racism in America. This book really set the stage for my research proposal and outlook on issues related to being Black in nature. It takes these concepts and weaves them together intricately and removes the shade to reveal pure, unadulterated truth.


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