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

Insights + Opinion
Race and the Climate Movement: What Our Black Colleagues Want the Rest of Us to Know
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 $20 in a store. He has never been convicted of that. He 'allegedly' passed a fake $20 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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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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