Individuals and institutions worldwide are wisely examining their relationship to race, though often with predictably controversial results. In 2021, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew announced in a ten-year Manifesto for Change that it would “decolonize” its collections. This would take the form of signage acknowledging the roles of colonialism and slavery in the cultivation and acquisition of plants—like sugar cane, for instance. That announcement lit a fire in some camps.
After a backlash that included British think tank Policy Exchange accusing Kew of breaching its legal mandate and straying into “non-scientific, indeed politically charged, activities,” Kew’s Director Richard Deverell stepped back Kew’s position—and its language. In January, Deverell told express.co.uk the blowback “was causing a lot of distraction” and caused Kew administrators to swap “decolonize” for “re-examine.”
The wording in the Manifesto for Change now promises that by 2030: “Ensure the diverse countries and cultures that partner with RBG Kew and contribute to our collections are accurately and equitably represented. We will move quickly to re-examine our collections to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies and develop new narratives around them.” Kew will introduce new interpretation signs, to correct an attitude, which Deverall, said, “too often implied that white British men from Kew did it all on their own.” Collectors and scientists proclaimed the “discovery” of new plants, medicines, and commodities that, in many cases, indigenous peoples have cultivated for centuries.
New perspectives are still offered, just in gentler language. While the Guardian editors felt the backlash should be ignored, it’s easy to see feathers getting ruffled over these issues. Last March when Kew tweeted about indigo being enmeshed with colonialism and indentured labor in India, the Twitterverse response swung from gratitude to contempt. Of the 14 commenters, six were firmly in support, two mentioned US slavery with no explanation, and five countered the tweet. Some were deflecting, such as pointing out that India had such servitude before and after British rule, and some were direct, as in, “load of woke Bollocks.” My personal favorite was: “Are mushrooms racist now?” Is there a debate term like ad hominem for people pretending that innocent fungi are being attacked?
Many public institutions here in the US, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, have found ways to take a stand for a clearer, more inclusive history.
In Seattle, the Bellevue Botanical Garden and the Pacific Science Center both have acknowledgements on their home pages that they sit on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish People. PacSci Center goes further, pairing it with a commitment to anti-racism. Chicago Botanic Garden offers a “commitment to race and equity” on its web site, and the North Carolina Botanic Garden has a statement supporting Black Lives Matter and inclusion in programming. The New York Botanical Garden has created an online exhibit called “Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience” to “acknowledge the complex relationship between enslaved Black people, nature, and the colonial environment—and reconsider the conscious omission of Black knowledge of the natural world.”
At a time when a bill introduced in the state of Florida would prohibit teaching in school that might make people feel “discomfort” learning about actions of their forebears regarding “race, color, sex, or national origin,” this is not the time to stay silent. This is the time to show who we want to be as a planetful of humans. The bill in question doesn’t specify it is protecting white people’s self-image; the fact that it doesn’t have to is the reason behind Critical Race Theory in the first place. When people can be emotionally unraveled by some negative facts in documented history, it’s all one can do not to say, “who’s a snowflake now?”
Let’s look at the consequences of our two choices. Scenario 1: Institutions do their best to teach the truest history and science we know. Result: Some may be upset, but the knowledge will be available, not hidden or festering, allowing a chance for healing the wounds dividing us, and building community based on shared knowledge and experience.
Scenario 2: We keep oppressive acts by dominant classes and races under wraps. Result: Much important history is forgotten by those who might repeat it, and resentment keeps brewing among the ones who remember it. Society, built on omissions and lies, continues to be divided, repeatedly exploding in frustration. Scenario 2 is what has been going on for hundreds of years.
You can see I vote for Scenario 1. Yes, moves like these are late in coming. And yes, actions speak louder than words. But as evidenced by the flap over “decolonized,” words have power—and it’s time to voice the words that have been unspoken too long.
Great article! If you continue to hide and deny the truth, *that’s* anti – American. Making up your own history so you feel good about it is right out of the old USSR playbook.
Thanks for the feedback! Fake news is totalitarian indeed.
Thanks for this rant! I so often combine my various passions… which happen to include racial justice as well as gardening. I appreciate the review of public garden efforts.
Appreciate your taking the time to read and write!
Thank you. Great article.
Scenario 1, please. And, in answer to your debate term question, “ad mycelium”?
Some fun guys prefer staying in the dark.
The Policy Exchange document – https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Politicising-Plants.pdf
This is not the place for politics
Wonderful! Yes, Scenario 1, please.
This comment of mine first appeared on thinkinGardens comments
This excerpt from the report by Kew’s Professor Antonelli explains succinctly the importance refocusing science on the impact of colonization. Plants, like other resources, were studied not only out of scientific interest but for the economic benefit of the colonizers.
“In my own field of research, you can see an imperialist view prevail. Scientists
continue to report how new species are “discovered” every year, species that
are often already known and used by people in the region – and have been for
thousands of years.”
Plants, like other resources, were studied not only out of scientific curiosity but for the economic benefit of the colonizers.
Yes, it’s important to ensure that all British residents, many of whom are here because of our imperial past and are over represented in disadvantaged groups, have access to Kew Gardens. This is a funding issue for government and donors to widening access to the gardens and maintaining, and developing, Kew’s scientific work. Also for developing participation of all ethnic groups in botanic and horticultural related sciences within school, college and university education.
Racism, conscious or unconscious, stemming from a lack of knowledge about the impact Empire still affects access to employment within key British institutions, and I’m glad that our understanding has been further been awakened, however uncomfortable it is for the current generation.
Thanks for including Professor Antonelli’s post here for folks to read
I find it difficult to realize that we are still at this stage; where we are fighting for equality for all people. This was a wonderful and thought provoking article.
Let’s do it. And let’s also rethink gardens as a whole while we’re at it, because gardens are a powerful force of one species colonizing other species and creating great inequality in the form of mass extinction. So we can start with decolonizing in the way described in this post, and then keep going to foster even more justice to the wider planet as a whole. It’s a long time coming and has always stirred a lot of reactionary knee-jerking because, hey, it’s an uncomfortable and difficult thinking that forces us to self reflect in hard ways. It’s good. It’s time for horticulture to step up and walk the walk. Thank you for you piece.
Great points about plants colonizing each other as well. Thanks for writing, Ben!
I was discussing humans colonizing plant and animal cultures. 🙂
Yes I understand the human involvement. I oversimplified my answer.
If Scenario #1 causes people trouble, seems to me it is what the great John Lewis would call “good trouble,” and I am all for it.
Thanks for writing this!
Appreciate the kind words
Thank you. Truth will out.
I couldn’t agree more! It’s long troubled me that the word, “discovered,” has been applied to lands, plants, animals, etc. that indigenous peoples always knew about and used.
Thank you for the courage to bring Garden Rant to this topic. I am in full support of Scenario #1!
Another place that is working to clarify its history is Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston Salem, NC. They are working “to research and reveal the Hidden Town that was the free and enslaved people of African descent in Salem.”
Ms. Grivas provides a survey of woke initiatives as well as her own thoughts about our Western society. It’s all grist for the mill.
Here’s a couple more grains to grind. It’s not useful (to me) to brand plant collectors according to their stance regarding the indigenous populations or cultures of countries from which the plants were collected. I am interested in, and grateful for, the collectors’ efforts to place the plant taxonomically and, sometimes, assign a name which provides additional information about its origin, color, or other significant attributes.
IMHO, it is not a simple task to judge the ethics of the collectors. I offer this as an illustrative analogy:
Paul Simon created a wonderful album, “Graceland”. He masterfully incorporated African rhythms into his songs. Soon after, cultural and music purists complained that the appropriated music was corrupted and not really African tribal music. That was an accurate complaint.
On the other hand, other people pointed out that Paul’s album introduced African tribal music to millions and millions more people thereby increasing interest in, and further exposure to, authentic recordings of native African music. Also accurate (at least, in my case).
Which view is correct? Beats the crap outta me. It’s a fair point of discussion. Regardless, I am grateful to Mr. Simon for introducing me to that music. In the same way, I am grateful to the public gardens who bring so many wonderful plants to my attention. I am also very appreciative of the collectors of those plants who, likely, risked much to collect and identify those plants. We benefit from their work.
I feel about those collectors the same way I feel about Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others who provided service to us in times culturally different than now. They, and the society in which they lived, harbored beliefs different than ours now. It is fine with me if others feel differently about the collectors (or the presidents). But I resist the notion that I ought to adopt current woke sentiments condemning collectors whose personal views might be different than mine.
I recommend the public gardens display information about the plants which is useful and of interest to the publics they serve. I may be quite vocal about not liking the brassy yellows of Rudbeckia; but that does not mean that you have to dislike it, too; or that the garden should exclude Rudbeckia from its displays.
Until most like-minded patrons feel that the displays, or the information provided, would improve with change, I suggest we continue our Western tradition of respectfully listening to others’ opinions, but not be bullied by heartfelt urgings which might not reflect the most popular sentiments.
I thank Ms. Grivas for bringing these issues to our attention. And, please, let’s not turn this into a vehicle for counting opinions. “Garden Rant” deserves to be a place for discussion, not a polling place.
Thanks for your thoughts, John – there are many layers to consider when cultures meet.
thought provoking and well written article erica. i’m an old eisenhower republican who has morphed into a progressive. it’s good to remind old white men that there are other perspectives out there that need to be considered. we are all connected in the best way possible. i don’t believe in taking statues down however, hopefully they won’t start that nonsense . add statues of nelson mandella and others in the gardens leave albert shweizer alone . lol rob f
Erica, thanks for your post, and for bringing this debate to GardenRant.
I have many thoughts about it, but I find myself first settling on one of accuracy pertaining to the bill under consideration by the Florida State Senate Education Committee – a bill that you believe has direct and dark relevancy to the debate over amending signage and examining provenance & procurement of plants in public gardens. It’s a bill I have only just read myself, and therefore the mention of it got my attention.
In your piece you state “The bill in question doesn’t specify it is protecting white people’s self-image; the fact that it doesn’t have to is the reason behind Critical Race Theory in the first place.”
On the contrary, SB148 is explicitly, and almost repetitiously, colorblind. Unlike CRT.
It also specifically forbids the “suppress[ion] or distort[ion of] significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contributions of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country,” I quote from the Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement of January 14th, given to senators and prepared by The Professional Staff of the Committee on Education, which is available to the public at this link: https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/148/Analyses/2022s00148.pre.ed.PDF
The bill itself goes into much more detail, but is an easy read at 18 pages. I urge readers to eschew Twitter and the linked CNN analysis, clear their minds of political personalities, and read it in full. https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/148/BillText/Filed/PDF . In short, form their own opinions. Which, perhaps ironically, is the very right the bill seeks to uphold.
As for the real issue here. I agree, let’s amend signage in public gardens to reflect accurate provenance and procurement, and add caveats where applicable such as “by Western explorer, X” after the impossibly inadequate phrase “discovered by,” But in all, the overriding purpose of signage should be the engaging communication of botanical and scientific data.
Perhaps we can also prioritize actual, physical accessibility to, and inclusivity in, public gardens by doing precisely as Ursula Buchan suggests in the Policy Exchange document on politicizing plants that you reference (and Anne Wareham links to in her comment) and bring entry costs significantly down, putting entry back in the realm of many – particularly families below the poverty line.
However, in the implementation of all these efforts, and in evaluating their real fiscal impact, I very much hope that public gardens will also take into consideration that many people in all political, social, and economic strata are increasingly desperate to walk through a garden or curated natural space, and for just a tiny moment in time, forget about the politics and rancor that saturates our daily lives now.
This does not make them uncaring human beings, nor does it signify one of many grave and terrible epithets hurled at those who do not wish to view the world through the lens of skin color – as we were once, admirably but all too briefly, taught. Rigorously defending free discourse and association is key, so that we may robustly and publicly debate ideas such as this one. Thus we evolve as a species, and thus we are – ever so slowly – made better. Even our gardens. Again, thank you for your post, and the opportunity to engage.- MW
As a teacher in Virginia mired in the CRT debate, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this post.
Thanks for bringing more clarity on the bill language, Marianne. I had not read it closely. As always, there are many layers to consider.
Any time the question is about whether to provide more information, I am likely to say yes. Plants do not exist in a vacuum; there is often a political context, whether we’d like there to be or not. So, yes, add to the historical record. If people don’t want to read it, they don’t have to.
What a complete crock of manure! I just found this site today, given this BS I was just subjected to, I won’t ever be back. Get a life and learn to mind your own damned business.