The academic field of Ethnic Studies is an activist discipline. It was founded through student and community activism, with the purpose of intentionally and explicitly supporting empowerment for marginalized communities and peoples. While it originates most directly from US-based activism of the 1960s and 1970s, it also has a lineage that stretches back to the earliest acts of resistance against and liberation from racism and colonialism. The academic-community interfaces formalized by the field sought to empower members of groups that had long been dispossessed and displaced, segregated and oppressed, and faced murder and enslavement, all based on the differentiations of race and Indigeneity.
At its most basic, differentiation means “drawing lines” between things. Our minds actually require categories to help us learn and survive. Differentiation is the way humans define our cultures and even our senses of selfhood. In these ways, lines are simple but useful things.
However, lines can also create profoundly dreadful consequences. Lines help us to create and “naturalize” ways of thought that are mostly constructions. They restrict our vision and shape our actions. While lines are necessary for us to process and engage with the world, even to understand ourselves, they are also tools of power and platforms for hubris. Drawn too firmly, lines delineate and defend hierarchies, enforce separations, and hand out edicts of targeted violence and death.
From the earliest moments of intensive Western engagement with the globe, the practice of “drawing lines” of differentiation proved impactful. European explorers and thinkers alike created species, maps, pathways, borders, nations, peoples, and races. Those lines helped Europeans make sense of everything they encountered; all the things they felt they recognized and those they did not. As they drew lines to direct and to explain their encounters, they created taxonomies of space and humanity. They created race. They eyed new lands as resources, as sites of maneuver, as wealth. Out of what might have been another parochial set of delineations, Western models of race and colonialism implicated the globe. Natural history was part of this world-transforming project.
If the science of natural history emerged precisely as a tool for understanding difference, and ultimately for deploying that understanding for control, it is the task of Ethnic Studies to make this powerful project of differentiation visible. As such, Ethnic Studies may be positioned as a critical branch of any proposed “red natural history.” As a branch of red natural history, Ethnic Studies not only commits to understanding difference; it vows to always and everywhere disrupt natural history’s colonial frameworks and material harms.
From Taxonomy to Taxidermy
In the colonial and racist logic of natural history, taxonomy leads to taxidermy. The preservation of skins, both the technique and its epistemological impetus, create categories of life via death. In place of living beings, we are offered simulations of life; forever frozen stand-ins “stuffed” and re-staged for observation. Of course, the technology and practice of freezing also produces a sense of distance, movement away from, and power over the staged and dead figure.
The preservation of skins thus wraps easily, perhaps even too eagerly around the metonym of skin as race. Taxidermy suggests that skin is instructive; that skin captures and preserves an essence. But only the living can stage the dead.
In the parallel case of human exhibits in nineteenth-century “world’s fairs” (the hubris in the naming itself often overlooked) we likewise saw displays of cultural and racial “Others,” with explicit emphasis on a natural hierarchy of humankind and the “self-apparent” evolutionary deficiencies of people of color and Indigenous peoples. Like taxidermic figures, the world’s fair display of “arrested development” was meant as evidence of an evolutionary death worth observation. These displays were staged by and for citizens of “civilization” lest they revert or fail to understand the imperial mandate perhaps most famously and succinctly captured by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden.”
Human exhibitions reiterated a long-developed set of categorizations arranged into a racial and cultural hierarchy. The seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes posited that human civilization was best represented by the monarchical European societies that could unilaterally enforce order and cooperation to the greater benefit of “all” citizens. This beneficial social arrangement, he argued, overcame a human history that had been dominated by a “state of nature” which was also a “state of war” that he and other European philosophers indicated was best illustrated by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas that they saw as existing without a beneficial political governance. While he attempted an explanation of how to achieve a more just society, which (theoretically) depended on logic and consent, Hobbes’s original articulation of social contract theory also essentially handed over justification for the use of force by any ruler or political order that could claim that its power would ultimately provide improved life for its subjects. If the state of nature offered only a path toward death —what Hobbes characterized as an existence that was by necessity “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”–then civilization offered life.
This philosophical stance nicely framed validations of colonization, conquest, and slavery. Kipling repeats this argument two centuries later with regard to Filipinos and his call for providing paternalistic tutelage for all those he saw as (and who were racially defined as) frozen in the state of nature. Conquest presented as life.
Imperial powers framed both places and peoples as frozen by culture, history, and race. The supposed state of stagnation “required” the ethical “burden” of conquest and colonization in order to wipe away chaos and to extend the benefits of civilization to everyone. To give new life to supposedly dead and stuffed skins frozen by a failure or lack of proper “evolution.”
Red natural history rejects the continuation of this Hobbesian model of order, where non-white bodies and the very spaces harboring the non-white and the Indigenous are each in need of order and civilization, of containment, cleansing, and uplift.
The Ethnic Studies branch of red natural history fiercely defends those already presumed dead, those who have been carefully contained within the predetermined equations of social and economic ordering that emerged from natural history. So, we must continue to look to those already “killed,” already made dead. We must learn the tools of resistance and thrivance from those who have long been subjected to premature death, slow death, and excess death. From those who have been vanishing for centuries and yet today are somehow also being constantly murdered and disappeared.
Reckoning with Environmental Racism
From the first settler occupations, wetlands proved troublesome ecological and ontological spaces for colonists. The rich abundance and fluidity of wetland and marsh systems were consistently targeted for environmental re-engineering; systematically filled in, cut off, and made stagnant. Ecological processes were displaced by cultural or political “lines” and economic logics.
Within the discourse of environmental justice, the term “sacrifice zone” describes those regions of our world that people turn over to waste; regions of ecological desecration for social and economic trade-offs. The zones create privileged spaces that are spared the immediate consequence of waste, and other (sacrificed) spaces that receive all things unwanted and harmful.
The segregation logic of a sacrifice zone essentially demarcates an invisibly subsidized safe place and a place burdened by harm. Red natural history responds specifically to the fact that not everyone is allowed to see and to live on the side of that segregation that is made safe(r).
The principles of environmental justice say that we cannot seek to just adjust or distribute harm, to equalize exposure to trash, waste, pollution and toxicity. It says no one should be exposed to environmental harms and violences. No more sacrifices. No more subsidies. Anywhere.
We should all be haunted by Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke’s question about trash. She has continually asked, “When we throw our refuse away, where is away?” “Away” is an implicit acknowledgement of sacrifice, a demonstration of intent to subsidize devastation via “elsewhere”.
Further, the “things” we throw away and where we throw them, are often the equivalent. The philosopher Charles Mills helpfully points out that “Black trash” is pleonastic, and thus a non-existent idiom. Because the terms “Black” and “trash” are perceived as “redundant” in contemporary US society, the term “Black trash” does not exist. The supposed redundancy can be illustrated in two ways; by explicitly tracing the Eurocentric productions of Blackness as a category of denigration, or by examining its implicit counterpoint of whiteness.
The idiom “white trash” circulates because whiteness and trash are not “naturally” coupled in the Western settler colonial and white-supremacist world. This merger requires special notation. The normative model of whiteness is freed from negative associations and collective ascription. “Failings” are individualized. Whiteness is not burdened by the “mark of the plural.”
Failures of “natural order” thus require explicit notification. The term “white trash” can only exist because the idea of trash is already enfolded into and fused within dominant constructions of Blackness. Thus, spaces of Blackness can be assessed and treated as “natural” sites for trash and waste. After all, contamination cannot be befouled. Best to follow the natural order of things, to feed that order.
Activating as Futurities
What does red natural history look like? There is no novelty here. I have no need to offer up some clever or previously overlooked or unthought solution to be implemented in ten easy (or bloody) steps. The processes are not about me (or you). They are not based on my sense of satisfaction or fulfillment (nor yours). The practices are grounded and dirty, full of soil and plants and swirling with water. Restore our mutual relationships.
We have many models. Looking is certainly discouraged. Ancient stories tell us humans cannot be trusted to consistently care for the non-human world (nor each other). Humans are fragile beings. We must be constantly reminded, prodded. So, we need ceremonies to remind us, to remake us.
Natural history fell hard on those ceremonies, marking them as primitive and irrational. Too much body and sweat, fire and breath, soil and water. Better to fabricate distance from the supposed corruptions of our bodies.
But some bodies are too deeply rooted, it seems. Gender, sexuality, and race mark some as differential to the “universal” Other. The moon imposes on more than half the population. Immoralities supposedly afflict others. Still more cannot grasp the wondrous abstractions of “thinkers” who alone can reveal the true and right order of the universe.
The lessons and stories from Ethnic Studies tell us we must tend our wild erotics and refuse to be compelled to complicity by capital materialities, infinite-loop arousals, and trajectories of entitlement.
The models are not new, although the outcomes will by necessity be original. Half-buried beneath strata of colonial, racial, and capitalist obscura, the path forward exists. The Zapatistas tell us to organize locally, to collectively transform our immediate sphere by renewing relations to each other and the world. Reject exploitation. New and shiny solutions, clean and clear answers are the purview of capitalistic rhetorics of scarcity and novelty.
Instead, look around and see abundance. Feel our responsibilities. Remember that humans are fragile beings.
Consider wildfires, which promise to continue ravaging the western US and beyond for generations to come and which are stoked by global warming and climate change. The Intertribal Timber Council, representing Indigenous Nations with timber “holdings” and interests, has suggested they should provide the leadership to forest management practices that impact all forest lands, whether “owned” by the tribes, states, the federal government, corporations, or individuals. Centuries of mismanagement and settler colonial land taxonomies have produced our current dilemma of dangerous and unhealthy fuel loads and legal roadblocks, which respect individual rights over collective and ecological necessities. Accepting the “anchor forest” means moving toward decolonization by making way for Indigenous agency and authority, both in terms of “returns” of Indigenous land and conceptual shifts in relations to the non-human world (forest with human as ecosystem).
Reclaiming the production of food, our most basic of sustenance (beyond water), offers another grounded mode of relationality. While we see it most readily in Indigenous communities that sustain and reassert these responsibilities, other communities have parallel models, and increasingly in urban spaces. In Detroit, urban farming in the D-Town Farms enact urban Black self-determination and sustainability through acts of food justice for physical and mental health, for cultural recovery and empowerment. Likewise at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, and Mudbone Grown just outside Portland, Oregon. The erotics of soil and eating what you cultivate, care for, and harvest offer a structure of possibilities supporting reciprocal responsibilities with the source of our survival and capacity for thriving.
The pending Klamath River dam removals represent the outcome of a long-needed coalitional activism, rejecting the harms of ecological disruption, channelization, and inundation. As with wetlands, river restoration offers a global touchstone for transforming ethics of ecological recovery. As with wildfire management, Indigenous leadership must be centered, as waterway reclamation efforts will open new/old possibilities for relational engagement.
And although an ethic of “the commons” can be a powerful place of connection and sharing, the Ethnic Studies branch of red natural history reminds us to be careful not to sacrifice but to expand Indigenous spaces and other hard-retained zones of liberation and nourishment.
We Have Precedent
While the answers are not new, everything after empire and colonization must be new. Even as it guides, the old will be remade. The oldest of our ways have always been adjusted and nudged and transformed when the times required. We have precedent.
The future is uncertain, by definition. We are certainly in a moment of concern and may indeed be facing a catastrophic future. For many, catastrophes have already struck. The survivors are still rendered as dead. Starting with the colonization of the Americas, Indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere survived disease, violence, assimilation, and oppression. At around the same time, tens of millions of African peoples persisted under the whip after being chained to boats and flattened by inhumanity.
The future will not look as we might wish. Then again, that is an old truth, too. Those who emerged from those catastrophes and horrors, who often face new ones, still seek resolution. New lines. Surely the lesson we must take is that the vision of a better future will never be a place-of-arrival, but a process and a way of being that renders horror unfathomable, not more palatable.
Sometimes we need acts of refusal. Sometimes we need ceremonial recognitions of abundance.
Cover image: Peter Kramer, Ethnographic tableau: Specimens of various races of mankind, P.S. Duval & Co., 1857. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.