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"Racism": An Essay by Romy Opperman (Keywords: Anthropocene; Ethics; Planet; Inequality; Feminism)


Do planetary ethics require us to reappraise the concept of racism? And what does philosophical attention to racism illuminate about the planetary?

Planet Earth is never fully transparent to itself. Space travel and imaging technologies are required for planetary self-recognition. Unearthing the secrets of Earth’s “deep time” and the clue to its future requires military and extractive technologies, the accumulation of vast capital, and the knowledge produced by climate and Earth Systems Science (ESS). Human technology opens onto an alterity – or Otherness – that vastly precedes and exceeds it, an alterity that many argue has been inconceivable for humans up until this point. Yet, without further scrutiny and qualification, the planet risks being conscripted into the service of planetary philosophies that retrench familiar channels despite their purported novelty. As Axelle Karera argues, many theories that take the discovery of the Anthropocene, and thus the imbrication of humans and the planet, as grounds for an unprecedented intra- and inter- species ethics and politics, in fact retain their fundamentally unethical foundation precisely through the disavowal of race and racism (specifically, anti-Blackness) within and beyond the human.

The apparent neutrality of the planet can be used to cloak, perpetuate, and even deepen racism. At its worst, those who are racialized as non-white are conceived as problems for planetary flourishing. Examples abound: from spectacular eco-fascism to prevalent eugenicist discourses around climate migration and overpopulation, to the common belief that the issues raised by environmental and climate justice effectively delay and distract from the real and urgent work of dealing with climate change.Yet, racism is best understood as an inter-species, inter-elemental affair, a mode of relationality, and a hierarchical organization of the living and the non-living, bound up with planetary processes and formations, and, indeed, with the concept and study of the planet itself. In short, it is no distraction.

The apparent neutrality of the planet can be used to cloak, perpetuate, and even deepen racism.

Consider the recent human spaceflights of New Shepard, a spacecraft made by Blue Origin, the private aeronautical manufacturing and space exploration company founded by the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, currently the richest person on Earth. With “the largest windows to have flown in space,” New Shepard permits unparalleled views of the Blue Planet. Here, the planetary and the design imperatives of space tourism for the capitalist elite coincide.

The global inequities of wealth, emissions, and climate vulnerability that the billionaire Space Race crystallizes, as well as the longer histories of colonialism and racism that underwrite many of these inequalities, have rightly been identified as climate and planetary justice concerns. For example, each 11-minute space flight emits “up to 1,100 tons of greenhouse gases per passenger” compared with the annual per person average of around 1.8 tons in Sub-Saharan Africa. From one perspective, then, at issue are the divisions and inequities between humans in the context of climate change. Seen from space, however, such differences appear unimportant, giving way to what some consider a properly planetary environmental agenda. If its media team is to be believed, this is an agenda that drives Blue Origin:

Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos with the vision to enable a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth. Blue believes we must protect Earth by moving heavy industries that stress our planet into space, and enable humanity to access space to expand, explore, and find new energy and material resources. Then we can see a dynamic and abundant future for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. There is no plan B for Earth.


How novel is this ambitious planetary vision? The proposal is effectively to terraform other planetary bodies and Earth, turning the former into a grand version of our already existing terrestrial sacrifice zones, and the latter into a carefully cultivated nature-reserve-cum-futurist-sustainable-sanctuary. This sacrificial logic is already at play in the recent suppression of information and emergency planning by Amazon that led to the death of six workers at its “fulfilment centre” in Illinois during the same weekend that New Shepard took another trip. It is evident in the massive emissions and ecological destruction by Amazon and other corporations driving the intensification of “natural disasters,” such as the tornado that hit Illinois – destruction apparently justified by an imagined future Earth decontaminated of its messy past. To ask an obvious question: Who will be the “millions of people (…) living and working in space to benefit Earth”? The answer is already suggested by our historical present.

The categorization of some spaces and ecologies as sacrifice zones arose in the Cold War era. First used by the USSR to refer to land irredeemably contaminated by nuclear radiation, and then in the USA by the Nixon administration, it principally referred to the effects of strip mining, particularly of uranium and plutonium that “removes the land forever from productive use,” not least through open vast piles of tailings that remain radioactive for at least 80, 000 years. It is no coincidence that sacrifice zones fall on Indigenous land (as in the Four Corners Region – lands of the Hopi and Diné (Navajo), and on places inhabited by majority Black populations, as in the transformation of former plantation country into “Cancer Alley”, the 85-mile area home to polluting and extractive industries along an industrial stretch of the Mississippi river). No coincidence, because sacrifice zones – that is, the categorization and treatment of some people, beings, and entities, as mere matter, and as outside of ethical and political salience – is a late bloom of the mode of world inhabitation of racial-colonial capital. The colonial doctrine of terra nullius is an ancestor of sacrifice zones in space. The cowboy hat and boots that completed Bezos’ space cowboy outfit, worn during his first orbit around the Earth, work sartorially on the register of frontier expansion: of the final frontier boldly crossed by Star Trek, but also of clearing, homesteading, and prospecting (for instance, in the American West) and therefore, genocide, ecocide, and extractivism.

Some people and places are sacrificed over and over again. As Brenna Bhandar argues in Colonial Lives of Property, the designation of some worlds as non-worlds, as wild and/or dead, and thus demanding appropriation, cultivation, and exploitation is fundamental to the colonial regime of possession and land use that distinguishes modern property law. Massive socio-ecological devastation and the subsequent use of such people and places as means of waste absorption or “sinks” tends to accompany the categorization of some worlds as non-worlds. This sacrificial logic is essential for the sustainability of the world of racial-colonial-capital and its planetary dominance. It works by placing some worlds outside legal and ethical standing, and thereby foreclosing serious consideration of the socio-ecological destruction entailed, making it appear as necessary and natural. Such destruction is experienced in radically uneven and profoundly racialized ways, and now (even in the so-called West) as climate change and ecological catastrophe. The retrenchment and repetition of sacrifice along racial-colonial lines is evident in the case of low-lying Pacific islands, already used as test sites and dumps for nuclear weapons, and now treated as inevitable losses due to rising sea-levels caused by anthropogenic climate change. Racism, seen in this light, is not simply the erroneous denial or misrecognition of the full humanity of some humans based on supposedly natural characteristics or traits. Rather, racism produces and polices the shifting but sharp divisions of living and dead, animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, that it constantly cuts across and redraws in practice.

There are two underappreciated aspects of racism here, which I have elsewhere theorized in terms of racist environments. The first crucial point is that racism not only targets human bodies and minds but ripples out to more-than-human persons, beings, and entities.This is not accidental but integral to racism. Racist environments are produced through terraforming and (attempted) world destruction, that is, through the production and hierarchical organization of difference – where difference is used as the basis for the denial of reciprocity. It is a complex multi-nodal system that operates on molecular, cellular, and planetary levels at once. The second point to remember is that racist environments are formed by denying racialized peoples’ relations with more-than-human beings, entities, and persons – that is, with the planetary as the relation of the living, dead, and cosmic. Modern racism works by constricting, exploiting, and erasing modes of relationality, or worlds not premised on the centrality of the human – or more precisely, what Sylvia Wynter calls “Man”: the biocentric, individualistic, capitalist racist-hetero-patriarchal-colonial genre of the human that overrepresents itself as universal. Thuli Gamadze’s account of water as a vehicle for white supremacy under South African apartheid provides an example of this second point. Gamadze explains:

A subset of that regime’s legislature segregated “recreational” spaces, including beaches, determining that the right to “leisure time” was a white thing. Not only this, but through additions like the Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957, the State created obstacles between Black people and the ocean as a place of prayer. For example, in some Southern African cultures, including a number of Nguni traditions, ocean water holds spiritual significance and meaning – beyond the reduced capitalist spatial logics of labour/leisure.

In this case, the transformation of water is central, not accidental, to racism. In the non-colonial Black Southern African cultures in question, water is that which facilitates ancestral connection, and acts as “vehicle(s) or medium(s) of spirit,” requiring “regular acknowledgement through ritual song, material sacrifice, and prayer in order to perform their role of keeping spiritual and physical life in balance.” By contrast, in the violent alchemy of apartheid, water is transformed into an object of leisure enclosed by race. Consequently, the effects of the Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 can be understood as “not only a grave violation to the flesh, but that of the metaphysical black body.”

In the violent alchemy of apartheid, water is transformed into an object of leisure enclosed by race.

The shifting status of water illuminates what is at stake in racism as racist environments, that is, as a reorganization of the relations human/nature, living/non-living, matter/form/spirit. This is a reorganization that operates by denying and foreclosing the value and existence of the modes of relation that precede and exceed it (i.e., in philosophies and modes of life that do not conform to those of Man).

Serious philosophical attention to what María Lugones terms non-modern philosophies and cosmologies offer a rejoinder to Dipesh Chakrabarty in his recent book The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. Chakrabarty echoes a popular view according to which knowledge of the deep time of the planet and the correlative decentring of human agency are seen as profound shocks since they have hitherto been inconceivable. What’s more, he suggests that this shock is most disruptive to those concerned with racism and colonialism, since they have been fixated on exclusively intra-human differences and struggles.

The planetary is only a shock, however, to those worlds founded on the myth that humans (more precisely, Man) are the centre and master of all things. It is only a shock to those worlds and ontologies that align most closely with the “Western” one, those that are fundamentally anthropocentric and predicated on the imagined autarchic freedom of Man and the mastery of “Nature”. To state the obvious, this is not a universally shared view but an imposed one. That imposition is a central dimension of the operation and violence of racism. Wynter illustrates this point in early essays by suggesting that the forcible imposition on the enslaved of the status of Earth as land – property for human domination and exploitation – was and continues to be a formidable aspect of the harm of plantation slavery and its afterlives (Wynter’s “Jonkonnu in Jamaica” (1970) is a good example of this). Against and alongside this view, the enslaved and their descendants nourished an alternative conception and practice of Earth as sacred universal plane of all life, as cosmic force, and as source of physical, spiritual, and political sustenance. Admittedly, this is not a view of the planet from the God’s eye view. But nor is it one that makes the planet totally subject to it.


Until recently, the imbrication of racism and the planet had not been explicitly theorized in philosophy of race or in environmental philosophy. In part this was due to the widespread focus on racism in terms of inequality and exclusion pertaining amongst humans only, alongside a narrow conception of ecology as divorced from social and political affairs. In my sketch of racist environments, I have argued that racism not only affects racialized people, but spreads across, beneath, above, and beyond the living and the Earth. If we look carefully, we see that in fact many thinkers and movements (albeit on the margins and under the radar) that insist on the continued need to understand and challenge racism already know this.

There is no instantaneous transporter to the level of planetary consciousness or a work-around for the heavy, complex issues of racism. The only way past is through, but through in ways that do not replicate the terms of the racist environments we seek to combat and dissipate. Hence the importance of afro-futurism, of “cosmologies,” “cosmovisions,” and what Kathryn Yussof calls “the reconstitution of cosmobeing,” for imagining, practicing, and sustaining alternatives to the planetary hegemony of racist environments.

To highlight only one example, the work of Black feminist thinkers such as Christina Sharpe and Alexis Pauline Gumbs shows how racism might be spoken of in the same breath as an affirmation of the planetary (the calcium in our bones, the nitrogen in the soil, the carbon in the air, the retentive memory of water). As is increasingly clear, yet by no means new, anti-colonial and liberatory struggles and thought developed in response to racism are already an opening onto a demand for something like the planetary.

The struggle against racism is inextricable from the defence of the Earth, and indeed of the planetary if it is to be something other than the old fantasy of possession and mastery.

Romy Opperman is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Romy’s research bridges Africana, continental, decolonial, environmental, and feminist philosophy. Specifically, her work is oriented by eco-philosophies that trouble theories of justice inherited from liberal political philosophy, and by ontological politics and practices of freedom operative in racial ecologies, place-based movements, and struggles over land and the environment. Romy is currently working on a monograph tentatively titled Africana Ecopolitics: Radical Philosophies of Ecological Freedom.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet"). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue, or become a subscriber.


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