What's Happening

On Racial Ecologies

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Jun 26, 2020 at 03:43 PM in Cymbeline and the World

It has been over three weeks since Black Lives Matter protests began after the killing of American George Floyd, and resistance to police violence and racism is growing across the globe, with demonstrations still going strong in all fifty American states, as well as in dozens of countries across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Though social movements such as Black Lives Matter are not usually seen to address climate crisis, there is a growing urgency to consider racism an ecological issue—including in the theatre, and in Shakespeare ecocriticism studies.

Environmental Racism

The term environmental racism was coined by Dr. Benjamin Chavis in the 1980s to refer to “the ways that waste, pollution, and the climate crisis disproportionately impact Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of colour.” As recent viral infographics on Instagram have summarized, these impacts have been studied, documented, and resisted since the work of Robert Bullard and Linda McKeever Bullard in the 1970s, as well as for centuries by Indigenous peoples across the Americas and Australia.

More recent cases of this issue abound, even just in North America: the still-unresolved water crisis in the predominantly Black community of Flint, Michigan ; the incarceration of Wet’suwet’en and Elsipogtog Mi’k maq peoples opposing plans for pipelines and fracking on their unceded lands; the plight of migrant agricultural workers denied healthcare or resources to combat the onset of Covid-19 during the ongoing pandemic. As journalist Jie Jenny Zou tweeted in April, “coronavirus is the ‘great equalizer’ the same way climage change is the ‘great equalizer,’ which is to say: not at all. Communities of colour, lower income households and vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt of covid 19.”

In a recent video posted to Instagram, marine biologist and policy writer Ayana Elizabeth Johnson cites statistics from a joint study by climate change communication programs at Yale and George Mason universities: despite racialized Americans being among the most concerned about climate change, they are often unable to act, precisely “because of this burden of racism and state violence and white supremacy and mass incarceration […] We are distracted, we are spread too thin.”

Whiteness in the “Green” Movement

As well as being disproportionately more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Black, Indigenous, and/or people of colour are also excluded from mainstream environmental discourse. In his paper, “An Africana Studies Critique of Environmental Ethics,” Stephen Nathan Haymes examines how the field of environmental ethics “implicitly expects that questions about the environment, nature, and ecology be framed in the moral, ethical, and epistemological traditions of Europeans and Euro-Americans.” This form of “green imperialism,” as Haymes suggests, establishes Euro-centric ideals about the environment as a supposedly objective standard, thus explicitly excluding “the ecological experiences and cares of colonized non-Europeans, particularly Black communities of African descent.”

At its most extreme, the white supremacy subtending mainstream ecological discourse admits its intentions as supposed solutions. A movement known as ecofascism “proselytis[es] for genocidal solutions to environmental problems,” writes Jason Wilson for The Guardian. Shades of ecofascist thinking appear in the common argument that climate change is caused by overpopulation in the global south—namely, among poor and racialized populations. This argument scapegoats the racialized poor for the causes of ecological destruction, and usually proposes various forms of eugenics and genocide as “cures” for the planet—when, in actuality, these populations have a negligible environmental impact compared to a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations.

Beyond Green Imperialism

Far from needing to be “discovered” (let alone colonized and appropriated) by white environmentalists, Black, Indigenous, and other peoples of colour have practised environmental ethics for centuries, and continue to lead the charge with or without mainstream recognition.

In the first few pages of their 2018 anthology, Racial Ecologies, editors Leilani Nishime and Kim D. Hester Williams prioritize the fact “that Indigenous nations have a history and ethos of environmental stewardship, reciprocity, and responsibility that long predates the mainstream concept of environmentalism.” Many Indigenous nations across what is currently known as North America practice relational ethics in which social and ecological relations are inextricable from one another. Citing activists, elders, and academics from various Indigenous nations, Tanana Athabascan scholar Dian Million’s paper “We are the land, and the land is us” discusses how even the foundational concept of land is understood as a network of relations: “Indigenous place is infinitely more than geographical location. It is in every sense holistic, where all entities are bound in relations that interactively form societies, human and nonhuman.”

In his contribution to the same collection, Haymes describes what he calls “slave ecologies,” or the ecological ethics practised by Black peoples long before the violence inflicted by enslavement. Informed by a number of Sub-Saharan religions, Haymes defines slave ecologies as “analogous to kin relationships, in which each individual part—humans, soil, plants, land, waters—is cared for and nurtured by the community or family.” Despite the arrival of this epistemology to North America through centuries of displacement and racist violence, Haymes sees a vibrant continuance of its ethical practices in contemporary Black environmental activism.

The ongoing gains of the Black Lives Matter movement and worldwide Indigenous resistance against oppressive social systems have only shown the urgency of centering Black and Indigenous leaders in ecological action and discourse. This is necessary if the mainstream environmental discourse is to expand its ability to imagine solutions to existing ecological problems, rather than simply perpetuating the racist, colonial, and capitalist ideologies that cause many of the problems it is trying to solve.

Imagining Otherwise

As American studies scholar Julie Sze writes in Keywords for Environmental Studies, “imagination is a key resource in responding to environmental problems.” To paraphrase from Million’s argument, Black and Indigenous peoples have already imagined ethical ecological relations for centuries. For everyone else, it is necessary to listen to this wisdom, in order to radically change our imagined narratives about ecology.

This includes eco-Shakespeares. As author Elysabeth Grace writes in a recent tweet, “Shakespeare isn't the cure for the systemic problems white supremacy & capitalism created ,” but changing how we tell these foundational stories can provide a starting point for that transformation.
It is important to acknowledge the limitations of the Early Modern British worldview that produced Shakespeare’s plays, and the long history of European and Western cultures using Shakespeare’s plays as a tool to further colonial assimilation. It is equally important to acknowledge the global theatre traditions that have re-appropriated Shakespeare’s plays as base texts capable of reimagining some of the same destructive narratives about gender, sexuality, nationalism, race, nature, and power the plays were previously used to communicate.

On the surface, Cymbeline does not lend itself to discussing racial justice as easily as Titus Andronicus, Othello, The Tempest, or The Merchant of Venice, plays in which racialized characters explicitly resist the racism they endure. This does not mean that racism and its history are absent from Cymbeline, however. Beyond the xenophobic attitudes between the play’s ancient British, Welsh, and Italian characters, the specter of the transatlantic slave trade haunts the play. Though the term and concept of slavery pre-existed Shakespeare’s era, the author imbues various characters with knowledge that, while anachronistic to the play’s setting, reflect Early Modern awareness of enslavement: from Cloten’s repeated uses of the term “slave” as a derogatory term, to Innogen’s sarcastic reference to “Afric” as a supposedly lawless, exotic location.

In their original performances, these terms were loaded with the political climate of Early Modern Britain; in contemporary performance, they carry an additional 400 years of history, up to and including today’s Black Lives Matter movement. These are considerations that this project and our collaborators will keep in mind while producing eight Cymbelines across the globe, in a variety of cultural and environmental contexts.

Racial Justice and Ecodramaturgy

Enacting racial and ecological justice can take place in theatre spaces, both onstage and off. Ecodramaturgical adaptations such as Gretchen Minton’s Timon of Anaconda have used Shakespeare’s text to interrogate the impact of exploitative industries on local bioregions. Renaltta Arluk’s Pawakan Macbeth, produced by the Akpik Theatre company, reimagines “Shakespeare’s darkest play into Cree history, legend, and cosmology .” Both plays use the familiar texts of Shakespeare to advocate for intersectional justice.

In terms of professional practice, this kind of advocacy begins with hiring Black and Indigenous scholars and theatre artists and compensating them adequately. Committing to intersectional ecodramaturgy can mean moving beyond simple territorial acknowledgments and working with local Indigenous groups to ensure performance conditions follow appropriate land protocols. In the academy, it can mean implementing the recommendations of the BlacKKKShakespearean Call to Action by professors Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson, which seeks to counteract the overwhelming whiteness of Medieval and Early Modern studies.

Above all, it means adapting this advocacy means decentering whiteness from our institutions and personal beliefs about race and ecology, and adapting one’s interactions with the human and more-than-human world to foster respect, reciprocity, and relational justice.

Learning forward

As marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson entreats in the video mentioned above, “our [racial] inequality crisis is intertwined with the climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.” What follows is a short list of resources on racial ecologies and environmentalism featuring the work of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.

Due to my own regional, disciplinary, and personal biases (as well as space constraints!), this sample leans to North American and UK sources. Readers are invited to share more resources on Cymbeline in the Anthropocene’s social media pages, using the hashtag #cymbelineanthropocene, or tagging us directly at @ecocymbeline.

• "BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies" (essay and recommendations for Shakespeare scholars by Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson)

• Indigenous Climate Action (organization of Indigenous-led climate action initiatives)

• Read Up on the Links Between Racism and the Environment (resource guide compiled by Somini Sengupta)

• Short Wave: "The Inseparable Link Between Climate Change and Racial Justice" (podcast episode featuring Ayana Elizabeth Johnson)

• SuchStuff season 5, episode 6: "Shakespeare and Race" (podcast episode by Shakespeare’s Globe, featuring Professor Farah Karim-Cooper, Ayanna Thompson, and Dr. Noemie Ndiaye)

• There’s Something In the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities (book by Ingrid R.G. Waldron) (documentary directed by Ellen Page and Ian Daniel)