Race and the Climate Movement: What Our Black Colleagues Want the Rest of Us to Know

Insights + Opinion

View from roof on Fulton street painted huge Black Lives Matter slogan during unveiling ceremony in Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The completed mural stretches from Marcy Avenue to New York Avenue for 375 feet. Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

Climate movement, we have a problem.

We’ve been marching and speaking out demanding justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless other victims of white supremacy.

But if we’re honest, a lot of us — white activists at least — still aren’t looking in the mirror. We don’t want to see our own privilege. We don’t want to acknowledge that we insult and anger our friends, colleagues, and partners of color every day without even realizing it. More than anything, we don’t want to admit that we inadvertently help keep racism and all its poisonous inequities alive and well. Yes, us.

Fixing that can’t be on people of color. They’ve been trying to get us to listen for decades. If we can spend the time researching the best schools in our area or the best car for our budget, we sure can spend the time educating ourselves about our privilege and unintentional racism (we’d suggest Robin DiAngelo’s excellent book White Fragility as a start).

But when people of color do speak with hard truths, we have to listen. It’s true for the movement and it’s true for us at Climate Reality.

So we wanted to share some perspectives from activists of color here at Climate Reality who were generous enough to talk about what many white activists still don’t get — and need to.

For white activists, we’d ask that you put your defenses down and really listen to what these voices are saying. The quotes are direct and come from Black staff all over the organization. They don’t try to speak for all Black activists, but the issues they speak to will ring true for many white activists and allies.

Chances are, a lot will be uncomfortable to hear (and if it’s not, we’d suggest some real reflection). But if we’re going to confront injustice in the world, we’ve got to start by confronting it in ourselves.

1. What Our Black Colleagues Want the Rest of Us to Know About Culture

Black People Are Not a Monolith

“Whether in terms of appearance, experience, personal interests or opinion, Black people are not a monolith. We come in many shades, shapes, and colors. Our hair comes in many textures and styles. We represent different opinions and interests. We represent a myriad of cultures and community experiences. These are not pop cultural trends, but are reflective of who we are as individuals. While there may be some common themes, just as with any culture, Black people are still individuals and should be recognized as such.”

We Have Experienced Racism

“Most of us have experienced racism in some shape or form. Whether it’s a derogatory name, gaslighting, second-guessing our success as the result of external charity rather than individual prowess, or a denial of history (statements like “slavery wasn’t that bad”), it’s there. It manifests in many different ways, and we learn to recognize it at an early age. Our reactions to this reality are as diverse as we are as individuals. Each of us are experts on our individual experience and, while there may be some overlap, our individual experience it is not necessarily fully representative of the Black experience. Also, we don’t all necessarily agree on everything nor do we all know each other.”

It’s Not Our Job to Educate You

“As a Black person, it is not our job to educate you on the Black experience or race. Having conversations on race are fine (and necessary), but recognize it is not something you are owed. If we choose to engage, understand that it is often through mixed emotion of frustration, anger, and microaggressions. Also recognize that if we do choose to engage with you, it is often a good sign not that you’ve gotten it all right, but that we think there is hope for you before you’re too far gone. Appreciate that.”

Black Comes in All Shades

“People who are of a lighter skin aren’t necessarily mixed. Black comes in all shades.”

Black Culture Is Not for Your Entertainment

“My culture is not for your entertainment. I have spent a lifetime fighting stereotypes so I don’t wear straight back cornrows or outfits that show my shape. I stay away from color and wear blue, black, and gray. We are taught that our natural way of being is ghetto. Then other races co-opt our style, music, and slang, and it is considered ‘pop culture’ and ‘fashion forward.'”

2. About Privilege 

White Privilege Is a Symptom of Racism

“Recognize your privilege. Just a short time ago, most Americans thought that police killings of Black Americans were isolated events. Now, most agree that there is a systemic problem. White privilege is a symptom of racism. It is critical for white people to have uncomfortable conversations about race so that they can recognize their privilege and understand how they benefit from a society that is profoundly separate and unequal. Just as people of color did nothing to deserve unequal treatment, white people did not ‘earn’ disproportionate access to compassion and fairness.”

White Privilege Means We Carry a Burden That You Do Not

“The fact that you just recently started thinking deeply about these issues is a sign of your white privilege. I’ve had to discuss racial injustice at my dinner table for my entire life, not just the last few weeks. When you grow tired of the news stories about racial injustice, you can unplug and go for a run or walk your dog in the park. Those same innocent activities can turn deadly for me, so I don’t have the ‘privilege’ to unplug.”

3. About Ally-ship 

You Need to Do the Work Yourself

“I am tired and trying to stay afloat, so I can’t always be a source for your political education. Being an ally requires extensively educating yourself on colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, racism, and anti-Blackness. Part of the work is finding these resources with your community.”

Ally-ship Means Asking Hard Questions

“Solidarity is advocating for material change in our fight to end all state sanctioned violence. Questions to ask yourself: Are you willing to relinquish your comfort and power? What are you willing to risk? Are you prepared to be on the frontline? Why now? Has your guilt brought you here? How will you keep the momentum? What does ally-ship mean? Are you ready to interrogate your own internalized anti-Blackness?”

We Are Not Here for Your Photo Op

You will not exploit or destroy my relationships in my community. I will NEVER let my people be a photo opportunity for your grant project, board of directors meetings, or anything else. I can make an introduction but you need to put in the work because we believe in transformational relationships, not transactional ones.”

Words Matter

“When listening to our liberal and progressive white allies speak and the mainstream media, they have a way of using verbiage and unwittingly pushing dog whistles that sound like bullhorns to the Black community. Words matter and how things are framed matter. If there is a group of Black people with guns, they are ‘thugs’ and ‘gangs.’ When they are white they are a ‘militia.’ When white people are suspected of committing a crime the word ‘allegedly’ is used 99.9 percent of the time. George Floyd was murdered by the police because someone called them because he passed a fake in a store. He has never been convicted of that. He ‘allegedly’ passed a fake in a store. And by not using this word, you are assigning guilt that is not appropriate and it criminalizes him to justify his death.”

4. About Racism and White Supremacy 

Racism Is Traumatic

“The shock that many of you experienced after watching George Floyd’s murder on camera is reflective of the shock that many in our communities live with every day. The fatigue some of you have expressed from a few weeks of racial upheaval — we’ve lived with that and then some for generations. We’ve lived with the frustration of communities for decades screaming that this was happening to us, only to have society turn a blind eye. We live with this trauma. And we still show up to work. We still achieve. We still smile, despite the pain. Recognize this — and not for sympathy, but for solidarity.”

Our Lives Always Matter

“Black lives don’t only matter when we are already dead. Our lives always matter. Solidarity is redistributing your wealth and resources. Organize for the liberation of all Black people globally. Believe Black people. Protect all Black lives.”

Use Your Privilege to Fix Racism

“We don’t directly blame you for racism; we know this has been around long before you were born. But please realize you have privilege due to racism and though you didn’t start it, you have the power to fix it.”

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