On Being the (Only) Black Feminist Environmental Ethnographer in Gulf Coast Louisiana
I started my period the same day I (almost) learned to harvest and tie palmetto leaves in St. Bernard Parish. What the fuck, I thought to myself as I hobbled to Los Islenos Museum’s public restrooms to stuff tissue in my panties and wipe sweat from my forehead. I was not prepared for the blood or cramps associated with my menstrual cycle. I was also not prepared for the anxiety I experienced as the only Black woman present at the community village build and palmetto harvest. Not that anyone made me feel unwelcome. All the Indigenous women present at the workday were very friendly, supportive, and encouraging, even after I consistently fumbled and incorrectly tied the palmetto leaves around the willow branches that served as the frame for the demonstration hut. I was also extremely nervous and agitated since I feared encountering snakes, poison ivy, burs, and stinging caterpillars in the swamp. Nevertheless, I silently prayed to my ancestors for protection and faked a serene calm as I carried harvested palmetto leaves from the interior of the swamp to the U-Haul truck parked on the side of the highway.
Even though I was an anxious mess and filled with paranoia about being labeled an interloper, I was personally invited to the workday by an Indigenous friend who was excited about my research. Despite this invitation, I still worried that the Indigenous women present at the workday would view me as pushy since I had emailed some of them previously about participating in interviews. I also felt like an outsider due to the intersections of the color of my skin, my inexperience with machetes and garden clippers, and my ignorance of the muddy, forested, and swampy landscape. Would my lifestyle as a vegan city dweller and my agenda as a researcher be perceived as a shortcoming? Probably not—or maybe so (lol). In short, my existential insecurities had me tripping and dripping.
Juggling my multiple identities and competing research agendas always makes me feel a bit scattered. This is at the heart of what Dominique C. Hill theorizes as the process of becoming “Black girl reliable.” According to Hill, Black feminist researchers must embrace the paradox of ever-evolving self-definitions and learn to be in collectives of other women of color, even if these practices ethically lend themselves to omission and ethnographic refusal to protect and care for research participants. Black girl reliability, moreover, centers women’s bodily knowledge for its potential to carry layered stories that can be reworked and remixed ad infinitum to create new insights for analysis and liberation. Finally, Black girl reliability situates the feminist researcher as a sacred griot who gifts stories, listens discriminately, and theorizes the shame, hurt, anger and second guessing marginalized researchers contend with when they try to be in good relation with unreliable folk (i.e. hatin’ ass academics) and colonized spaces of the university.
My multiple identities and (at times) precarious positioning within the academy impact the way I think about whose knowledge counts and why that knowledge matters during disaster and climate crisis. I frequently meditate on how to best leverage my educational privilege and social capital to benefit climate action. I likewise spend countless hours agonizing over how to build solid relationships with frontline communities fighting the siting of industrial facilities like Formosa Plastics in overburdened industrial corridors, and environmental organizations advocating for a fully funded relocation for the residents of Gordon Plaza, whose homes are located on top of a Superfund site. I want to represent the women I’ve come to admire and respect with dignity and care (#CiteBlackWomen and #CiteIndigenousWomen). Ecowomanism, as developed by Melanie Harris and others, similarly asks that I seriously celebrate women of color’s solutions and adaptive strategies for environmental and climate justice. I thus embrace and cultivate an unapologetically feminist and ecological praxis as I poke and pry with what Zora Neale Hurston terms the spyglass of anthropology.
So, what does this mean in practice? On my good days “in the field,” I pray that my scholarship and teaching increase the representation of women of color in environmental decision-making and climate policy. On my (frequent) bad days “in the field,” I question, with melodramatic flourish, why I chose to be on the margins of the margins as a Black feminist environmentalist and mixed methods researcher.
The day I (almost) learned to tie palmetto leaves in St. Bernard was hellish for me since I was unprepared emotionally and materially for my menstrual cycle. Yet, it was simultaneously deeply informative since I gained bodily knowledge of how it feels to work with the native plants of Louisiana and be in community with Native people(s). I also gained new knowledge of plant medicines used for menstrual cramps and contributed to the building of a rainproof dwelling using sustainable materials without (for the most part) the use of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, when I reflect on the corpus of my fieldwork experiences, I continue to ask myself: did I really choose this anxiety-ridden life? Pause. Or did this life (under divine intervention from the ancestors and the unborn) choose me? Most importantly, what the hell do I honestly expect to accomplish as a car-less Black girl ethnographer in southern Louisiana?
Interdisciplinarity and Intersectionality Still Matter
To my knowledge, I am the only Black woman conducting (auto)ethnographic research on environmental issues in southeast Louisiana from 2017–2020. This reality, coupled with my working-class background and feminist politics, creates the conditions for me to be (mis)read, presumed incompetent, and targeted with know-your-place aggression. For example, at a 2018 meeting to build solidarity around energy justice and hold the New Orleans city council and Entergy accountable for a paid actor’s scandal, a white environmental organizer snatched meeting notes out of my hands and declared that the compiled information was not meant for me. She additionally demanded that none of my personal meeting notes be used for my dissertation and commented frequently on security issues and the need to protect the group against spies. Her aggressive and controlling actions continued even after I was vetted by other group members and publicly explained my intentions and professional affiliations. She later removed me from a listserv without consulting the other group members after I missed a few meetings due to teaching conflicts. She felt entitled to police and question my dedication, authenticity, and sincerity due to the intersections of my educational status, race, and gender.
Due to these ongoing micro and macroaggressions, I also experience severe imposter syndrome, night terror, embarrassment, and anxiety. I, for example, rarely feel sufficiently well-read in the diverse canons I claim. This absurd insecurity impacts my confidence as a doctoral researcher. It also impacts my willingness to be vulnerable with environmental professionals and embrace my expertise. In fact, it took nearly a year for me to gather the courage to start my interviews and I worry incessantly about bothering my busy Black and Indigenous interlocutors.
I also worry that my “agenda to gather data” about women who navigate the violence of industrial pollution, criminalization of environmental activists, and rising seas will be perceived negatively by local activists. On more than one occasion, I have interviewed folk who interrogate my intentions and vent to me about researchers who extract knowledge from communities for personal financial gain and clout and put communities at risk through disclosure of sensitive information and damaging representations. Working independently without a local mentor of color, I worry I am seen an instrument of the university—or worse, as an unprofessional Black girl. Communities ultimately want to know who you know, what your stakes are in the research process, and if you can be trusted.
Unpacking Positionality: Belonging and Tokenization
Although I am a southern climate justice advocate, I am a transplant to Louisiana. Although I am a working-class woman of color from industrial urban landscapes in New Jersey and rural hog and chicken farms in North Carolina, I maintain ties to elite academic institutions including UC Berkeley and Tulane University. Although I grew up in a wealthy, gentrifying Virginia community, my teenage years were spent in Section 8 housing and homeless shelters for women and children. Although I am a Black woman with Indigenous roots, my Blackness is both distinct from and similar to Louisiana’s Creole, Cajun, and Indigenous Blackness.
I also care deeply about issues that impact Indigenous communities and communities of color in coastal Louisiana such as the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline, the 162-mile tail end of the Dakota Access Pipeline, brings crude oil through the Atchafalaya Basin from Texas to Louisiana. It also disrupts local ecosystems, allows Energy Transfer Partners to seize private property, and poses safety risks to communities on the frontlines of oil spills. Despite these injustices, I am not yet willing to engage in direct action and take the same risks that many Indigenous women take in order to protect people, water, and local livelihoods. I do not want to get arrested as a Black woman (#SayHerName). Belonging is thus contested and complicated for me.
I likewise spend countless hours advocating for my needs as an underrepresented graduate student in overwhelmingly white educational institutions that tokenize my contributions and expect me (for insufficient pay) to fill diversity quotas. With this in mind, I uneasily endure Louisiana women of color’s interrogations of my intentions as a doctoral researcher. I thank the Goddess when most of the women I recruit begrudgingly or enthusiastically agree to be interviewed. These women often confide in me that I am the only Black doctoral researcher they encounter. Some women also explain, in the hauntingly profound words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that they are “sick and tired” of being interviewed by scientific researchers like me. Despite my emancipatory aims and ideals, they remind me that I too contribute to their research fatigue.
They understand that my scholarship will not change the material conditions of their lives although they appreciate the opportunity for talk therapy and to excavate eco-memories. These memories range from the loss of custody of children after Hurricane Katrina and the normalcy of driving through plantation landscapes dotted with refineries, to the heartbreak of displacement from gentrification and the disappearance of family cemeteries and fruit trees as a result of rising seas, coastal erosion and petrochemical pollution.
Fieldwork: Beloved and Problematic
I fall into a long tradition of activist researchers and feminist anthropologists who bemoan dilemmas in fieldwork and the continued colonial fuckery of the ethnographic gaze. Traditional and applied ethnographers likewise wrestle with ethnographic ideals including belonging, authenticity and sincerity. They debate how our relationships to these concepts impact the way we collect, analyze and present our ethnographic findings. Feminist ethnographers also challenge anthropology’s and geography’s colonial yearning within the Global South and the hoods of America. Black feminists like Faye Harrison and Irma McClaurin make the case for decolonizing and “outsider within” ethnography within Black feminist anthropology. Feminist activist ethnographers like Dána-Ain Davis continue to stress the ethical and productive tension of cultivating intimacy with research participants from our own communities as anthropologists of color.
I, for better or worse, champion long-term immersion in the field for researchers and students as an environmental anthropologist, community geographer, and Black feminist. Long-term immersion in the field not only allows me to build deeper relationships with local communities, but encourages me to fact-check initial findings, witness change over time, and learn from mistakes. Long-term immersion allows me to also develop rich emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspectives and draw analytical connections between disparate events across space and time. Most importantly, the richness of data associated with ethnographic methods lend itself to intersubjectivity, or the construction of knowledge that develops through sustained interaction, perception and dialogue. However, my long-term immersion in the field was only made possible by my relentless pursuit of fieldwork grants, side gigs, and fellowships to pay my rent. Who can afford long-term immersion in the field without significant financial support?
Community folk, acquaintances and curious Lyft drivers often ask me “do you plan to stay in New Orleans?” I hesitate when answering this question because my heart has been broken by environmental racism and industrial pollution in Louisiana. I do not enjoy street flooding, boil water advisories, power outages, potholes, termites, mosquitoes, big ass roaches, infantilization, and family pressure to evacuate during hurricane season. I would be lying if I said I didn’t also worry about the reproductive and biological consequences of toxic exposure to carcinogens while conducting research in Death Alley (i.e Cancer Alley) and what it would mean to raise a family in a state with high rates of incarceration since I am a Black woman of child-bearing age.1 I do, however, love the history, culture, boldness, and raw vibrancy of this southern region that deserves to exist for current and future generations.
As an interdisciplinary researcher trying to build a presence in academic fields that are still hostile to the contributions of a working-class Black scholar, I often attend conferences in multiple disciplines throughout the year. This constant travel can conflict with my desire to build deep relationships with frontline communities of color. For example, I once missed a Fall Water Gathering and Green Infrastructure Festival organized by Black women in New Orleans because I decided to present my research at an anthropology conference in Vancouver. I agonized over my decision to leave the state and miss out on an opportunity for rich data collection. Yet, I decided to ultimately prioritize conference travel to raise awareness of Louisiana’s environmental struggles and share feminist ethnographic stories with local, national, and global audiences. Nevertheless, some days I wonder if I am involved enough in local struggles, if I am committed enough to radical social change, and if I give enough back to the people who share the joys and pains of their daily lives with me. Donating $25 to every individual who participates in an interview and showing up for select community meetings and protests seem insufficient.
Some local friends jokingly tease that I am now from Louisiana since I post photos on social media of me wading in floodwaters with jugs of water in my hands. But I know I am not from here and cannot stay in New Orleans forever. My life as an ecowomanist ethnographer for climate justice means that I regularly say hello and say goodbye to frontline communities of color. Although this reality chafes against my dedication to long-term ethnographic work and intimacy with the women I interview, it also provides opportunities for me to professionalize and bring outside resources to the communities I care for as an ethnographer. I know that the spaces I enter with my degrees and credentials, and the knowledge I gain as a result of my mobility, put me on a path to acquire political power that can shape minds and influence social change for years to come.
I do know, no matter where I live or teach, that my commitment to environmental and climate justice will never change. I am a founding member of the Feminist Agenda for a Green New Deal and have consulted for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice to engage youth around flooding and storm water management. I’ve also learned that fieldwork can and will kill you if you do not take special precaution to redefine success, align your values, and guard your sanity. Consequently, self-care for me looks like showing up for a protest and later skipping a community meeting in order to rest and recharge. Community care for me looks like shaping the minds of both POC and white youth as an environmental educator and challenging the privatization of public schools that promote a controversial charter school experiment. Self-love for me looks like living my best life. Since I know that the future is femme and queer, I feel confident that womxn, LGBTQ communities and youth of color hold the potential to conjure new possibilities and imagine alternative futures through pleasure activism.
I reckon that we underrepresented and tokenized ethnographers of color will continue to make space where we are not welcome and center voices that many prefer to go unheard. We will continue to advocate for meaningful inclusion in environmental politics and fight rejection within and outside our communities. We will also continue to nurture our autoethnographic voices, center oral traditions, and derive power from embodied knowledge. We will weather emotional trials by salsa dancing with petroleum engineers, carpooling with 350 activists, and creatively improvising solutions for climate resilience and adaptation. We will lean into paradox and we will lean into what it means to be Black girl reliable.
Featured image: Frances Roberts-Gregory in the field. Photo courtesy of the author.
Frances Roberts-Gregory is an environmental educator and feminist scholar-activist who currently battles palmetto bugs and street flooding in New Orleans. She is a co-founding member of the Feminist Agenda for a Green New Deal and a Ph.D. Candidate in Society & Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. Frances previously taught courses on climate change, digital activism, environmental racism and gender justice at Tulane University and Bard Early College New Orleans. Contact. Website. Twitter.
Black women die at a rate 2.5 higher than their white female counterparts from childbirth and pregnancy-related complications, regardless of income. Fortunately, there is a growing Black midwife, doula, and reproductive health movement in Louisiana that advocates for the rights of Black mothers. ↩