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Returning the sacred to bodies of color

By Victoria Goff

This is the first in a series of columns on the 13th Environmental Justice principle: Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.

In the 1970s, the sterilization of Native and indigenous women throughout the Global South and the United States was U.S. policy. Native and indigenous women were permanently sterilized (most times without consent) by public health officials that were getting money from the government and corporations for those sterilizations.

The sterilization efforts were devastating: Puerto Rico, for example, saw upwards of 35 percent of the women in the country sterilized. Andrea Smith, a noted Native feminist scholar, reports that some Native tribes in the United States saw 100 percent of the women in the tribe sterilized.

But as devastating as these numbers are, what does sterilization (or medical experimentation) have to do with environmental justice?  And how does that intersect with digital justice or food justice? My fellow colleagues and I will be exploring the answers to these question for the next three weeks in this column. My focus will center on what medical violence against people of color has to do with digital justice.

To begin this discussion, I want to point briefly to the 13th Environmental Justice principle that states: Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color. What this principle implies is that there is more to the definition of “environment” than simply trees and lakes, and that there’s more to “pollution” than simply bad air quality or people not recycling. This principle links the deliberate poisoning of a community’s air quality by heavy industry, for example, to the deliberate poisoning of human bodies by the medical industry (through experimental testing and uniformed medical procedures). In other words, the 13th principle argues that our bodies are an “environment” too, and the bodies that are most tested on and controlled through medical experiments (bodies of color) deserve the same protection that our air and land does.

So, if we take this understanding that our individual bodies exist as environments unto themselves and deserve the protection that any other part of the environment does, the question must be asked, why aren’t our bodies (and more specifically, the bodies of people of color) already being protected?

What makes the rampant sterilization and medical abuse of the bodies of people of color okay, and even in many cases, official U.S. policy?

There are multitudes of reasons, but the one I want to focus on is media. Traditionally, there are very few diverse or complicated representations of people of color in media. On the news, people of color are represented as faceless violent murderers or welfare-sucking baby machines (think: the welfare queen stereotype). In movies and television, things aren’t much better, there’s the crack-addicted prostitute, the pimp, or terrorists.

On the more positive side, there’s the best friend of the central white character (Morgan Freeman is famous for this role) or the sassy Black woman (the movie “The Maid” comes to mind). It is only very rarely that you can find movies that centralize characters of color who are wizards or scientists who struggle against a world that doesn’t believe in them. Usually the movies or televisions shows that do dare to show complicated, interesting people of color are directed and produced by other people of color.

This lack of complexity has consequences. For example, a recent study released by Communications Research demonstrated that watching excessive television caused the self-esteem to plummet in all youth, except white boys. Conversely, a different study out of the University of Toronto demonstrated that white people as a whole feel significantly less empathy when watching visible men of color (i.e., men of color who are dark skinned) performing manual labor than they do when watching white men.

These studies should not be surprising. They mimic on the most base level the famous doll study that was used by Thurgood Marshall to argue against “separate but equal” segregation. In the study, children were allowed to choose between dolls with dark and light coloring. All of the children consistently preferred and gave positive attributes to the dolls with light coloring. The message has long been clear in the United States: white is good and has positive qualities and Black (or being of color) is bad and has negative qualities.

Is it any surprise then, that there is such little outrage when it comes out that entire communities across North and South America were sterilized or that there was a longstanding practice of “Mississippi Appendectomies” (Black women going into the hospital for appendectomies, and leaving having been sterilized) in the segregated South?

Media representations all by themselves are not enough to push through horrific population control measures, but they definitely have a place in setting the stage for casual acceptance or outright approval of those measures.

What the 13th principle does is return the sacred to the bodies of people of color. We are as sacred as the trees and the water and the air that sustains and nurtures us all. It argues that we deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that we are demanding that the trees and land is treated with — but even more importantly, it allows us to begin imagining what a world built on respect for the dignity and scared in people of color rather than our degradation would even look like.

Can you imagine that world?

Victoria Goff is a communications coordinator for East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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