How Racial Discrimination and Oppression are Harming the Climate Justice Movement

Matt Edwards, Communication Studies Department
Arts & Humanities Division
Bellevue College

Author Profile


"Communication in a Diverse Workplace," an upper-level course, apply communication concepts and theory to the culturally diverse workplace. In this course, students explore their own cultural identity along with the different types of language that would be culturally appropriate for a given workplace. In this multi-step reflective exercise, students will gain deeper awareness, understanding and personal insight about racial discrimination within the climate justice movement.

This activity helps students begin to identify the ways in which stereotypes, conscious and unconscious biases, and our conditioning of racism impact our viewpoints, both in workplaces and civic life. Also, the activity addresses the importance of stories and sharing the worldviews of unrepresented people and the importance of centering multiple perspectives in the climate justice movement.

First, students will watch a short video that introduces them to the concept of climate justice. Next, students will meet in small discussion groups as they reflect on this video while reflecting on some group questions.

Following the small-group discussion, students will learn more about racial oppression, white fragility, social status, and power dynamics in relation to climate justice. Also, students will reflect individually on their experiences upon analysis of these issues. Next, students will discuss this material with family and friends to learn more about civic engagement and listening to the perspectives of others. As a result, students will connect this material with real-world problems along with building more awareness and cultural understanding that reflects the voices of those affected by climate justice.

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Learning Goals

This activity has several goals which develop students' knowledge and understanding of justice issues as they relate to workplaces and the larger society.

Learning Goals

- Gain knowledge about climate justice and explore the impact on marginalized groups in society.

- Recognize how white fragility and whitewashing reinforce the status quo and stall progress within the climate justice movement.

- Identify ways that people and communities experiencing climate injustice can proactively respond to the challenges they are facing.

- Build communication literacy and intercultural communication skills through a civic engagement assignment, where students discuss with others issues such as race, power, and privilege as related to climate injustice.

- Identify a possible climate justice/civic engagement goal focused on educating the public about climate justice.

Context for Use

This large, complex, and real-world problem exists beyond the material presented in the textbooks and classrooms of this particular course. (Communication in a Diverse Workplace) Communication in a Diverse Workplace is a 200-level interdisciplinary course focusing on interpersonal communication in a culturally diverse workplace, teamwork and meeting effectiveness, electronic communication, conflict management, managerial effectiveness, and organizational culture. Students engage in a variety of in-person and online assignments/discussions to understand the learning outcomes and key course concepts, and how these concepts affect our daily life experiences. Class sizes are between 25-35 students. I used this activity in the 7th week of class after class discussions of race, power, privilege and intercultural communication skills. Finally, the activity helps students understand how environmental and climate activist groups have suffered from racial discrimination.

As outlined in the above learning goals, the objective of this lesson is to build deeper awareness, understanding, and personal insight into the whitewashing of racial discrimination within the climate justice movement. First, we will focus on students' understanding of climate justice, the climate justice movement, and their understanding of what constitutes "progress" --or lack thereof -- in the climate justice movement. After they review this video, they will next review a reading explaining the concept of "white fragility." Next, there will be a discussion board prompt for students to collaborate, share ideas, and reflect upon the learning material. Ideally, students' examination of their own race, perspectives, and privileges might enable them to develop their civic engagement and take actionable steps going forward.

Description and Teaching Materials

Introduction to Climate Justice

To begin, students will receive a brief overview of Greta Thunberg. In 2019, the world was first introduced to Ms. Thunberg. The Swedish teenager gained international acclaim for inspiring 4 million people to join a global climate strike. As a result, this was the largest climate demonstration in human history. She has been recognized as helping spark a worldwide movement calling for urgent change for climate justice. Additionally, "Thunbergis the most recognizable face in the climate movement. She started the School Strike for Climate and was named Time's Person of the Year for 2019."(See References – Is the Climate Movement Too White?).  However, the media has misportrayed and stalled movement within the climate justice movement by disregarding voices from continents other than Europe. For example, there is 8-year-old Licypriya Kangujam, "who wants the media to stop calling her the Greta of India."  (See References – Is the Climate Movement Too White?)

After briefly talking about Ms. Thunberg, I present a brief introductory video about climate justice. The title of this video is "This is just how unfair climate justice is," and is produced by DW Planet.   After viewing this brief 10-minute video, students will break into small discussion groups to respond to these prompting questions. We estimate the entire length of this activity will take 30 minutes.

Prompting questions

1) Are you familiar with the concept of climate justice?

2) What exactly does climate change have to do with social injustice?

3) What were the main ideas in the video?

4) Do you agree that the climate justice movement suffers from racial discrimination?

5) What are some possible ways that people could positively respond to this issue?

As the video highlights, progress in the climate justice movement is stalled by existing inequalities in society that are often shaped by racism. The root causes of the climate change crisis are magnified by issues of racism and the whitewashing of the climate justice movement. In terms of demographics, black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) are disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change. As a result, climate action requires an intersectional approach that highlights the most impacted communities.

White Fragility

Following the small-group discussion, I ask students to read an article by Robin DiAngelo, which presents the concept of "white fragility."   This article introduces key concepts that later appeared DiAngelo's book, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, published in 2018.  The 17-page article takes approximately 30-40 minutes for the students to read.

Engaging these Issues with Family and Friends

Next, I ask students to have a conversation about the climate justice movement and its challenges with family and friends before the next course meeting. Through in-class discussion and a discussion-board activity, students share and learn from each other's experiences by conversing with others about climate justice and discrimination generally.  The follow-up discussion board activity used for students' climate justice and conversations were created in the Canvas learning management system (LMS).

Synthesis and Reflection

1. What learning experiences required you to critically engage with the topic of race or racism? What was the impact? If you do not have any learning experiences to share, what do you believe would have been the impact?
2. What is most uncomfortable to you when discussing race? Why? When did you first notice that talking about racism is uncomfortable?
3. What stood out for you in your conversations about these matters with friends or family?  Reflect on whether this was a positive or challenging experience for you or for the individuals you spoke with. 
4. When have you seen white fragility in action? How did you respond? What role did you play?
5. What was the most significant learning that you experienced working with this material? How can you make use of what you have learned? What are the action items are you considering, which would have an impact on yourself and your school?  How will you ensure that you enact them?

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students in my communication courses will find many applications of the activity in relation to these topics. Students appreciate gaining awareness, knowledge and new insights about racial discrimination within the climate justice movement. Next, they cultivate empathy for those experiencing the negative consequences of climate change through writing, reading, and reflecting on the material with an online discussion board.

First, students' viewing of the introductory video introduces them to the concept of climate justice and helps them gain background knowledge about climate justice. I hope that students will relate their general knowledge of racial and socioeconomic inequalities in our society to the issues of climate justice. Along with validating their beliefs/opinions, I also create enough time in the small-group discussions for people to process their feelings, emotions and reactions to the introductory video and to raise questions. I have found that it's important to acknowledge and validate students' feelings and beliefs while making the activity feels relaxed and comfortable. I have also found it important to encourage students to explore possible solutions to these complex problems.

In the past, students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds tend to be very interested in learning more about these issues. Many students comment about their experiences with 'white fragility' and the material covered in the DiAngelo reading.  Again, I create enough time for follow-up questions, guidance and support for any students struggling to understand this material.


I review the discussion posts to assess students' understanding of the material in relation to the activity's learning goals. I also will provide an opportunity to discuss civic engagement strategies identified by students as they complete this activity.

In this section, I describe the assessment process in relation to each learning goal.

1. Gain knowledge about climate justice and explore the impact on marginalized groups in society.

I use student responses to the material provided, along with our in-class group discussion. Next, I have a specific question about this as part of the discussion prompt.

2. Identify ways that people and communities experiencing climate injustice can proactively respond to the challenges they are facing.

I use the prompting questions that students are asked about the climate justice documentary for formative assessment and feedback. I use the first and second questions that students are asked about the documentary for formative assessment and feedback.

3. Build communication literacy and intercultural communication skills through a civic engagement assignment, where students discuss with others issues such as race, power, and privilege as related to climate injustice.

I identify the climate justice issue and the communication content/topics relevant to this part of students' Discussion posts. Next, I provide detailed feedback and examples when responding to all parts of students' Discussion posts.  Additionally, I help students identify at least one proactive idea for civic engagement about racial discrimination within the climate justice movement. Students need to provide clear action steps and strategies in being successful in reaching their civic engagement goals.

References and Resources

References and Resources

Direct links to some web resources are included in the descriptions above and in the materials provided. Other web resources referenced above or that support this lesson as listed below.

Climate Justice and the need for a more inclusive Climate Justice Movement

Introduction to climate justice: This 10-minute video by DW Planet provides an overview of climate justice. We're all living through the climate crisis. But we're not all in it together. So what exactly does climate change have to do with social injustice? And how can we fix it? This is climate justice explained.

National Youth Council of Ireland, An Introduction to Climate Justice - YouTube The concept of climate justice can sometimes be hard to fully understand. This video explores the history and core values behind the movement, highlighting the need for a climate justice approach to the climate crisis.

The Guardian, "Outrage at a whites-only image as Ugandan climate cropped from photo"  
This article discusses how a Ugandan climate activist was cropped out of a picture in favor of including white activists.

History of, and the current day, racism in the environmental movement:   This video by Our Changing Climate discusses the climate movement's white supremacy problem.

"Five Ways to Make the Climate Movement Less White,"   This article in the Guardian includes interviews with activists on how to build a more inclusive environmental movement.

Racial Identity, White Fragility, and their Implications

How Can I Have a Positive Racial Identity? I'm White! | Ali Michael | TEDxCheltenham
Ali Michael digs deep into the white psyche as she confronts the traditional narrative of what it means to be a white American. Ali discusses the racial politics of being white.

Something ugly is happening in America's schools. And, it's not going away.  This article from the Southern Poverty Law Center discusses the increase in racially-motivated events and violence in our educational system.

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo,  This article describes some key concepts of white fragility and the impact of white supremacy on the climate justice movement.

White Fragility in Students  This is a helpful overview/guide for instructors to learn more about the concept of 'white fragility.'