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The realities of being a South Asian Australian climate activist

Behind glamorised photos lie tokenism and stereotypes


As a South Asian Australian, I've been part of the environment movement in various positions and organisations. I've had the chance to organise mass strikes and speak at conferences about climate justice. However, I recently realised the severe lack of representation of people of colour, especially South Asians, in the Australian climate justice movement. Yet, much of the blame is shifted onto 'third-world' countries.

  

Following the release of the IPCC Report and the conversations at COP26, Morrison stated pledges from other countries would "not make a lick of difference" if China and India did not reduce emissions, saying its greenhouse gas output was greater than other advanced economies combined. Morrison does not want "people in the regions of [Australia] to carry the burden for the country alone." 

 

This need to help others and cast the other countries as "less" than are identifying them with the damsel in distress trope stems from the White Saviour Complex.


However, it is not exclusive to the privileged White men alone but rather perpetuated throughout the climate justice movement.


My experience in the climate justice movement has been attending too many meetings, panels and actions where I have been the only person of colour.


We listen to people talking about how we need to support countries like India and China because they are developing and do not "understand environmentalism". However, environmentalism in these countries was driven back decades ago, in their land practices, diet, and those such as the Chipko movement in India, which saw non-violent protests for forest conservation.

 

I had the opportunity to talk to four South Asian-Australian climate activists about the barriers their ethnicity played in the climate movement.


Anjali Sharma

 

 

Indian-Australian climate activist Anjali Sharma has captured the climate movement by storm, not only as an organiser for School Strike 4 Climate Australia but also as the lead applicant of a world-first lawsuit against the Australian Federal Environment Minister, Sharma and Others v Federal Environment Minister.


She speaks to the tokenism she has faced, “historically, the climate activist space has been very exclusionary of people of colour”. She sees a loss of authenticity in the climate movement with an increase in the glorification of activism due to a lack of education of those on the frontlines. Rather than focusing on notions of justice, Anjali sees climate activism as an aesthetic perpetuated by a rise in social media accounts.


Being an Indian-Australian, Anjali also states the importance of “breaking the glass ceiling” by taking up more and more opportunities. She expresses her gratitude for being the lead applicant of the legal case and how much that means to not only her but also to her family back in India. 


Ashjayeen Sharif

 


In joining the local Brisbane School Strike for Climate group, Ashjayeen, a Bangladeshi climate activist, was the only person of colour. He recognised a large part of the environment movement, such as reusing clothes or veganism, had been part of South Asian culture for centuries prior but were now being co-opted by white environmentalism. 

 

As an organiser, Ashjayeen felt his capacity-constrained due to his race and culture as a Bangladeshi. Asjayeen acknowledges his parents' sacrifices to move to Australia from Bangladesh and, being an only child, feels more significant pressure on him to make them proud. The time required to organise and the potential risk of being “on the wrong side of the police'' made dedicating time to protesting difficult. As a precaution, there are still roles such as police liaison that Ashjayeen avoids due to racial biases in policing.


Jag

 

Indian-Australian climate activist Jag joined the Stop Adani movement four years ago. It was when Jag attended his first protest that he realised he and Adani were both from India. Jag rallied against the Adani mine for its blatant injustice to First Nations people in Australia and the Adivasi people in India. However, growing up in India, Jag has had first-hand experience with India’s energy crisis. He recognises that telling Adani to  "go back to where he came from" and blaming India for not having renewable energy is not a step towards achieving justice. Instead, Jag says, it creates an "Australia versus India" narrative that ignores the nuances of climate justice.


Jag says he felt tokenised in the climate movement, which saw him take a step back. "It was difficult trying to represent your community, but you are not your community; you are an individual". 

 

Having lived in the western suburbs and attending a public school, he notes the lack of understanding from privileged Australians. For many, they are awarded a badge for attending a protest and speaking up about climate justice. However, many others are punished.

 

To Jag, climate justice means recognising the intersection between “race and economic justice”. 

 

Joining the climate movement received some hesitancy from his parents as there were "fears of being deported", making Jag "initially feel like he had to watch what he was saying". 


Tiara De Silva

 


Coming from a conservative, predominantly white Catholic school, Sri Lankan-Australian climate activist Tiara De Silva joined the climate movement to find like-minded people and speak up for climate justice. Tiara recounts her mum’s “initial hesitance” in joining the movement due to its rebelliousness in striking from school. Fortunately, growing up with a vocal family about issues of injustice saw her mum come around, creating a “very supportive environment”.


In joining the movement, Tiara felt she did not fit the grand narrative of the climate movement primarily geared towards “privileged white children”.


This exclusivity and lack of understanding in conjunction with the “internal politics” of the environment movement made any activism seem “performative”.

 

In recounting her experiences of tokenism, Tiara said she was “given opportunities presented to her as a privilege”. She recognises many opportunities are provided to her with the idea of it being a privilege in a space not intentionally created for people like her.  It is simply to fill a diversity quota. 


However, Tiara also acknowledges the privilege she has as a light-skinned Sri Lankan that fits an aesthetic. "Authenticity," Tiara says, "should be fundamental to journalism".


For far too long, South Asians in the climate justice movement have been sidelined. With the rise of more of us, I hope for a greater representation and the dismantling of the white saviour complex pillar by pillar. International students from South Asia must be given equal opportunity in student politics. There need to be more migrant and refugee voices as part of environmental campaigns around the country.


Living and working on unceded Indigenous land, South Asians also inherit settler privileges. While we  demand visibility, it can not be done in good faith without listening to and learning from Blak peoples of so-called Australia. 


As Lidia Thorpe says, “We can’t separate climate justice from First Nations justice”.

About the author

Varsha is a 19-year-old university student, podcaster and advocate for climate justice and mental health awareness. Varsha is a coordinator at Sapna South Asian Climate Solidarity and the host of the podcast Not to be Controversial. She is also a paralegal at Equity Generation Lawyers, which conducts climate change litigation, and has been an organiser for School Strike for Climate and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.



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