Raya Salter recently made headlines when a Republican lawmaker who allies himself with the fossil fuel industry launched an offensive tirade at Salter as a Black woman while she testified before Congress about the climate crisis.
Salter, an energy justice lawyer and climate expert, stood her ground as Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) launched an attack on her that was laced with racism and misogyny during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Sept. 15 on the oil industry’s lack of accountability in the climate crisis. As Salter implored the committee that the real solution is to transition away from fossil fuels, Higgins yelled questions that supported petrochemicals and used disrespectful language against the expert.
“My good lady, I’m trying to give you the floor, boo,” Higgins yelled over her as she tried to answer his open-ended questions. While “boo” is a casual term of endearment in the Black community, it can be offensive, racist and misogynistic when used sarcastically, especially in this instance by a white man in a position of power.
Higgins continued disrespecting Salter, calling her a “young lady” who has a “lot of noise.” The congressman later tweeted about the exchange, calling the expert an “unhinged climate activist.”
Just over a week after the incident, Salter spoke with HuffPost about the exchange and what she wants the public to take away from it. The climate expert said that while she expects pointed questions from lawmakers who don’t share the same views and are looking for a soundbite, she was not expecting the type of disrespect she received from Higgins.
“We deal with these little microaggressions all the time, so my first instinct was to be like, ‘You know what, whatever. I am good. Keep it stepping, I do not care,’” she said. “So I am good ― and it wasn’t right. And this is not what women, femmes, anyone should expect when they go to do something, like testify before our elected officials.”
Women ― particularly women of color ― have an added pressure to “act strong” and be compliant in the face of harassment and abuse, in order to try and avoid being stereotyped as angry or emotional. While they often get applauded from those outside the community for being strong, Black and brown women wish that didn’t always have to be the case.
“I think we do a lot of that, where we push down when we might actually be hurt. We push aside disrespect and just act like it’s not bothering us,” Salter said. “But it really is part of that broader pattern of folks for who it’s in their playbook to chip away at our confidence and call us incompetent, because they don’t want us to stand in our power and say what we want to say in opposition to them.”
According to Salter, the House hearing was not the first time she’s experienced patronizing behavior while talking about climate and environmental racism as a Black expert. Out of nearly two dozen people, Salter is the only woman of color on the New York State Climate Action Council, and was the only Black person until recently.
“We’re just not at the table as experts very often, you know, and so we’re almost always in this position of being the only one or one of very few,” she said. “We’re in these spaces where … there’s very little representation and we may be the only one, and you’re just not seen traditionally as being a leader and an expert in this field ― but people have never seen leaders and experts look like you.”
Despite the incident going viral, Salter said she didn’t feel like the exchange overshadowed the important climate issues she was invited to come speak about in the first place, like environmental racism. The expert acknowledged experiencing some safety threats in the immediate aftermath ― particularly after Fox News host Tucker Carlson blasted her on his show ― but that the majority of the response to her testimony has been very positive.
During Salter’s exchange with Higgins, the climate expert slammed the lawmaker for allying himself with toxic petrochemical facilities that are killing Black and brown people throughout Louisiana. The state is home to the famous “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River that has over 150 petrochemical plants.
“The fact that Higgins is from Louisiana is very, very important and this [exchange] never would have happened this way if he hadn’t been,” Salter told HuffPost. “This clown … he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And I told him about himself, which is that the fossil fuel industry that owns his state is destroying the earth. He is not an environmentalist. He is bought and paid for, and that’s just what that is.”
Salter said that issues plaguing Higgins’ home state are also impacting Black and brown communities across the region, the latest examples being the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, and Hurricane Fiona destroying already crumbling infrastructure in Puerto Rico, where the fossil fuel industry has managed to successfully push for a gas pipeline.
“At every point along the chain are women and children,” she said. “Women and children of color, who are most impacted and most vulnerable every time.”