The nexus between climate justice, racism, and a collective consciousness

By Kelly Gillespie

Universities have long wielded the allure of cross-cultural exchange to promote study abroad programs, nudging students to leave the country in pursuit of the unknown, whilst enticing international students to board 747s and join their global community. Quite rarely does this conversation concern itself with environmental repercussions exacerbated by this migratory body. What’s more, past multicultural initiatives have failed to connect students’ climate footprint with inequalities produced by structural racism; a link that must be integrated into modern day discourse in order to inspire sustainable results. The Climate Action Network for International Educators (CAN-IE) recently hosted a webinar with guests Andrew Gordon (founder and CEO of Diversity Abroad), Melissa Lee (founder and CEO of The Green Program), and Robin Shields (Professor of Education at the University of Bristol). Together, the panelists engaged in a critical reflection of their roles as educators and responsibilities of the international community in hopes of identifying the gaps between higher education, global movement and greenhouse gases.

It’s first crucial to demarcate the difference between climate change and climate justice, acknowledging these terms as two related, yet distinct concepts. As Professor Shields describes: climate change relates the physical change, whilst climate justice refers to the sociological implications that are embedded in and compounded by centuries of colonial, racist, and indigenous forms of oppressions. The irony remains that those who contribute least to climate change are affected the most. The Global South is scapegoated for their inability to transition to clean/renewable energy (most likely due to the economic constraints imposed by an ambivalent history with the Global North), yet the Global North contributes the most to climate change. Professor Shields has estimated the carbon footprint of international students to be around 30 million tons per year, the equivalent to that of a small country such as Croatia or Ireland. International and study abroad students are given a free pass in the name of active, global citizenship, yet it is those who are rendered unable to carve out a space to participate who are experiencing the effects first hand. Environmental justice always advocates for reducing carbon emissions as a panacea, yet tends to shy away from undertaking the monumental, yet necessary task of transforming society, using a social justice framework to initiate a reparative praxis.

The Green Program and Diversity Abroad have approached such a task perfervidly and without trepidation. The two organisations have dedicated themselves to imbuing students with the knowledge to confront the undeniable truth: racial justice is inextricable from climate justice. The Green Program offers study abroad opportunities which expose students to sustainable, alternative ways to travel. Supported by an endonormative curriculum that relies and draws upon local contexts, traditional, rote learning methods are supplanted by storytelling. This is a key element of the program, the importance of ‘passing the mic,’ as Lee says, to local women or indigenous communities who can bestow invaluable wisdom to participants. In conversation about the global, academic community, Lee wants all organizations and institutions to use environmentalism as a metric, whilst considering partnerships and travel. She has proudly noted that 75% of the students who returned from participation have now switched their majors to environmentalism.

Diversity Abroad gives marginalised communities the chance to be a part of global programs, equipping them with the necessary skills to thrive as competitive applicants within our interconnected world. Gordon, a self-proclaimed neophyte when it comes to climate justice (yet eager to do better), has begun to think of ways in which study abroad programs can reduce their carbon footprint. His cogitations have led to the awareness of a rather tricky conundrum; that extra costs are required to offset carbon emissions, yet charging more fees further silos students already on the periphery of accessing these programs. This is one of many instances in which knowledge of such predicaments is not sufficient: action must take precedence. Gordon emphasizes that, while literacy of these pertinent issues is indeed a crucial component to tackling them, this must be transferred into tangible, structural change which uplifts and supports the communities impacted. Our knowledge of the Flint water crisis, the oil refineries that constellate Richmond, California, and Hurricane Katrina will wane and waste away if this is not reconstructed into meaning, concrete action.

At the end of the webinar, the question was posed of whether or not climate justice can be achieved without addressing historical injustices of the past, yet the answer remains clear: why would we not seize such a transformative opportunity? Professor Shields stressed the importance of building an international coalition that is grounded in solidarity and recognition, one that will use the voices of the oppressed to create a new future. He argues that ‘we must end our naïve approach and transition to a socially progressive approach that challenges the power paradigm.’ Rather, we must transition to a collective consciousness, reimagining what it means to be a part of a global community that is migrating on the tailwinds of racial and environmental injustice.

“In a racist society, formal education will only ever reproduce racism.”

By Ethel Ng

Ethel Ng is a student on Bristol’s BSc Education Studies programme. This post was initially written as an assignment for the new unit Education, Climate Change and Social Justice.

In spite of 1965 legislation outlawing explicit racial discrimination within the United Kingdom, behind a thinly-veiled fallacy of meritocracy, reveals an economic, political and social legacy of structural racial injustice (Eddo-Lodge, 2018) – a present-day Britain, confronted by a history steeped in colonial distortion. The overwhelming complicity of formal education in reinforcing unequal privileges, and legitimising existing hierarchical positionality (hooks, 1994; Freire, 2018), is self-evident through vastly disparate educational outcomes between ethnic groups (Gillborn, Demack, Rollock & Warmington, 2017). Having said that, this essay ultimately disagrees with the finality of the thesis posed above, arguing that – on the condition of appropriate reformation – formal education is instrumental in fracturing the vicious cycle perpetuated by a racist society. For sake of brevity, I will predominantly be arguing from within UK-centric parameters, a demographic whereby BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) are minority ethnicities. Much of the academic research will primarily be in reference to the shared biographies of those racialized as Black (namely stemming from African and Caribbean diaspora). The effectiveness of varying degrees of educational reformation will be evaluated through the framework provided by Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew & Hunt’s (2015) social cartography of responses to modernity’s violence. Decolonisation will be articulated through the spaces of: (i) soft-reform, such as material reparations (Sriprakash, Nally, Myers & Pinto, 2020); (ii) radical-reform, including epistemic cooperation (Mohanty, 1997); (iii) and finally, entertaining the notion that modernity’s systematic violences are beyond-reform (also exploring pedagogies of buen vivir and critical hope – Dinerstein & Deneulin, 2012; Zembylas, 2007).

Drop the façade of living in a ‘post-racial’ world. Despite unfounded scientific grounding for racialization or Foucault’s biopower (Lazzarato, 2002) – in other words, race being a social construct (Zamudio, Russell, Rios & Bridgeman, 2011) – past racial injustices, as well as contemporary racial inequality, continues to reproduce unequal power dynamics. As Critical Race Theory evidences, race and history matter. Oppressive colonial histories, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Windrush scandal, ‘blue on black’ violence, school to prison pipelines, all contribute to the current disadvantaged positionality of Black individuals (actively preserved and subjugated by neo-liberalism and internal colonisation), structurally limiting their capabilities. As Chakelian & Calcea (2020) concluded, Black lives suffer lifetimes of systemic racism – educational institutions being no exception, with Black students more likely to be excluded, less likely to achieve strong GCSE passes, and far less probable to be admitted into a Russell Group university, or graduate in and of itself, in comparison to their white peers (Ciocca Eller & DiPrete, 2018; Richardson, 2008). This series of barriers feeds implicit biases, and fuels an already prevailing discourse around villainous, damaged and destructive ‘Blackness’ (Gonzalez, Steele & Baron, 2017). Media portrayals reflect these culturally hegemonic assertions, denying heterogeneity of Blackness, compounding in microagressions, anti-immigration sentiment, and further cementing institutional racism (Bates, 1975; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012; Macpherson, 1999).

However, Young (2020) cautions us to look beyond the Marxist analysis of the distributive paradigm, in order to prevent restricting the scope of justice; fixating on status and the material distribution of wealth, income and resources, can obscure the institutional context and social structures within which these interactions are upheld. To quote Walzer (1983), we must “shift our attention […] to conception and creation”. Similarly, Gillborn (2019) and hooks (1994) ask us to question the workings of power and interests that create and reproduce racial injustice – only then, can meaningful change occur. This brings us to the ‘shine’ and ‘shadow’ of modernity. Remaining fiercely relevant to this day, modernity describes an imperial project, resting on the back of coloniality (Quijano, 2000), romanticising seamless linear progress, democracy, humanism and scientific reasoning. Mignolo (2000) argues that the shadow of coloniality – the imposition of systematic violence – is simultaneously the ‘hidden face’ of modernity (for those seduced by its ‘shine’) and a vital condition of its very existence. Silva (2007) describes racism as an invention of colonialism; identifying this relationship, has unearthed a multitude of pedagogical narratives tackling the decolonisation of educational institutions, in an effort to stunt racism.

(i) The soft reform space (Andreotti et al., 2015):

Characterised by ‘inclusion’, soft reforms strongly emphasise consensus, dialogue and increased access. Generally, this boasts material reparations, for instance, scholarships. Soft reforms revolve around providing additional resources to BIPOC, low-income, first-generation students, to equip them with the skills, knowledge and cultural capital required to excel – or more accurately, excel within and according to existing institutional standards. As Andreotti et al. (2015) highlighted, there is an underlying assumption that previously excluded groups desire to be a part of, and will benefit from, mainstream institutions (Harper, 2010; Pidgeon, 2008; Yosso, 2005). Angela Davis remains critical towards “inclusion and diversity”, labelling it as a corporate strategy; without structural transformation, diversity merely includes the previously excluded, into still structurally racist institutions – a reactive, rather than proactive, symptomatic treatment. Through this lens, soft reforms are tokenistic ‘recognitions’ of cultural diversity and performative intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1990). The integrity of the status-quo is not questioned, and the framework itself is beyond critique or visibility (Bunda, Zipin, & Brennan, 2012; Urciuoli, 2003). Essentially, the shadow of modernity is not recognised as a derivative of modernity itself (a subsidy for modernity’s shine). The radical reform space attempts to address these shortcomings.

(ii) The radical reform space (Andreotti et al., 2015):

Going beyond a provisional acceptance of difference, radical reform acknowledges the debate is skewed from the outset – epistemological plurality and institutional re-structuring is sought. Affirmative action, redistribution, representation, recognition, reconciliation and epistemic cooperation (Mohanty, 1997) are the cornerstones of radical decolonisation. There is a commitment to mobilising strategies for empowerment, ‘fixing’ modernity to make it work for marginalised groups. Young (2006) draws attention to normalisation; the observation that the norms of speech and conduct, that dominant society associates with intelligence and respectability, aligns with white cultural styles is no coincidence. Black male students are often criticised for lack of ‘middle-class manners’, behavioural outliers in comparison to white norms – the standards to which attributes, language, knowledge systems and ethical codes are evaluated – lending to stigmatisation (Miklikowska, Thijs and Hjerm, 2019). In fact, since the end of the colonial period, epistemologies within our educational institutions have remained largely static, rooted in colonial, Western and Eurocentric worldviews. To combat this, Sriprakash et al. (2020) identifies, that an education for reparative futures must involve learning “concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others” (Said, 1985). This can be achieved via epistemic cooperation: the process whereby multiple knowledges and experiences are ‘braided’, seeking a reciprocal understanding of the entangled histories of people who have been ‘differently poisoned’ by colonial legacy (Kimmerer, 2013). Gillborn (2019) and Delgado et al. (2012) suggest shaping schools into anti-racist institutions by involving voices-of-colour to provide counterhegemonic narratives – declaring that ‘voice matters’ (Zamudio et al., 2011). Joseph-Salisbury (2020) similarly recommends: increasing the proportion of BIPOC teachers; arranging policy consultations and National Curriculum evaluations with anti-racist organisations; and for white teachers and students alike to engage with concepts of white privilege and white complicity, in order to reflect on their own racialised positions. Radical reforms have proved successful in the past with regards to formal desegregation; perhaps radical reforms can yet again deliver a paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and denial, to the making of space for other political philosophies – recognising that, as it stands, knowledge is irrefutably marked by power relations.

(iii) The beyond reform space (Andreotti et al., 2015):

Here, modernity and its interconnected oppressions (capitalism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, ableism) are perceived as inherently violent, exploitative and unsustainable. In stark contrast to the radical reform space, modernity is irrecoverable by even the most radical of transformations. As Audre Lorde articulated, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Instead, beyond reform spaces elaborate on unlearning implicit teachings of the hidden curriculum, replacing it with alternative, autonomous, subversive education that allows for transgressions (Tiostanova & Mignolo, 2012; Illich, 1971). Encouraging education to be a practice of freedom, building on the works of hooks (1994) and Freire (2018), hope can found relishing in the possibility of possibilities – the possibility for the possibility of an antiracist society initiated through reformed, decolonised education (Amsler, 2013). Through pedagogies of critical hope directed towards a future betterment, even one which transcends our current ability to understand what it is, we can learn to live imperfectly in the ‘not yet become’ of buen vivir (Bosch, 1986; Dinerstein & Deneulin, 2012; Zembylas, 2007).

In sum, to guarantee the best chance of success, all of Andreotti’s reformative spaces must work in tandem to address the incommensurable demands of a system in crisis. With full acceptance of our collective biography, recognising that we are all differently marked by historical processes, and by purposefully rejecting assimilative, colour-blind orientations to education, we mustn’t lose the shared conviction that reformed formal education, possesses the possibility to possibly deliver a reparative, anti-racist future. To conclude, I share the sentiments of Kundnani (2014), in that some of the proposals I put forward in this essay may seem radical, but radicalisation, in the true sense of the word, is the solution, not the problem.


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