Research

I am a critical race and feminist scholar trained in geography. My work is inspired by the collective analysis and vision put forth by the environmental justice movement. I am interested in theorizing how race and waste function as “shadow geographies” of capital; while these phenomena may appear superficial or incidental, in reality they undergird the central operations of capitalism. My work addresses how waste – whether understood economically as environmental externalities, spatially as sacrifice zones, or geopolitically as the necropolis – is fundamentally tied to racial and colonial violence.

My desire to focus on race and waste stems from the aspiration to create a more livable world. I believe that the possibility of creating a new human (Sylvia Wynter) depends on our capacity to engage in collective reckoning with the debris of global colonization. In the tradition of Black radical and feminist thought, I turn to those who were “never meant to survive” (Audre Lorde) to amplify political insights that may feed movements for alternate worlds. I approach my work as an interplay of politics and poetics, moving between attention to what is and what might be. My approach to engaged scholarship is rooted in Critical Performance Ethnography, utilizing arts-based methods to develop collaborations with affected communities.

My research is oriented towards three interdisciplinary clusters:

Racialized toxicity as racial & colonial violence

In Badin, North Carolina, a segregated aluminum company town, anti-Black racism and toxic wastes converge to shape the everyday lives and politics of Black residents. This project examines how residents experience, interpret and negotiate living with racialized toxicity, and what these experiences teach us about racial capitalism. I find that toxicity intimately binds race to waste through disconcertingly familial relations in the factory, everyday practices of caregiving, and distorted environmental relations. I argue that survival in the context of racialized violence is a form of “domestic geopolitics” that challenges the internal colonialism of the U.S. state through gendered social reproductive practices that attend to the everpresent threat of premature deaths, translate lived experiences of suffering into forms recognizable to the state, and enact radical forms of community care. I put forward an alternate approach to reflexive scholarship, that understands suffering as a material relationship that implicates us all, and calls for building solidarities across oppressive cleavages that unevenly produce racialized suffering.

The Concerned Citizens of West Badin share their experiences with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.
Photo credit: Pavithra Vasudevan

Geopolitical entanglements in state and science

Toxicity is a scientific phenomenon, an outcome of industrial capitalism’s experimentation in both lab and field. For communities living in hazardous industrial environments, the nature of toxicity engenders a dependence on the state and science, to ‘prove’ the presence and mitigate the danger of toxins. This entanglement is complicated by the racial dynamics of scientific knowledge production, including the failure of many scientific disciplines to recognize their (ongoing) racist foundations and the episetemological challenge of explaining material realities in ways that do not falsely reinscribe race as a biological reality.

I am particularly interested in translating the expansive knowledge production of the humanities into “applied” projects that shift our analysis of political problems and strategies of resistance. I am currently working on three transdisciplinary collaborations that bridge critical race studies and positivist disciplines.

Industrial Toxicity and the Occupational Epidemiology of Aluminum Smelting

In this epidemiological study, we are assessing associations between occupational exposures and disease outcomes associated with working at Alcoa’s Badin plant by matching available employee records to injury, cancer or death records. We are also interested in tracing the health impacts of discriminate exposure by race and gender, based on information from Badin residents, former employees of Alcoa’s Badin smelting facility and their families. Broadly, we are interested in studying the utility and limits of epidemiology and health claims in struggles for justice. This project is a collaboration with Libby McClure, Phd candidate in the Dept. of Epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and the Concerned Citizens of West Badin Community.

Urban planning for an uncertain future: Climate change, equity, infrastructure, and health

How cities address inequality in their planning efforts varies widely, raising concerns that adaptation interventions may continue patterns of disparate risk for low-income communities of color. This project, funded by a PlanetTexas 2050 grant from UT Austin, examines how Texas cities are planning for climate change through these four questions:

  1. How are cities assessing climate-related heat and flood risks with regards to spatial patterns of social inequality, infrastructure vulnerability, and public health concerns?
  2. How are cities prioritizing the spatial distribution of climate adaptation actions?
  3. How, and to what extent, are community groups engaged in adaptation decisions?
  4. What are the spatial relationships between climate risks; adaptation actions; and measures of income, race, and segregation?

This project is a collaboration with Dr. Robert Paterson, Dr. Miriam Solis and PhD Candidate Deidre Zoll in the School of Architecture.

Strengthening infrastructures of resistance to fossil fuel infrastructures in North America

This multi-disciplinary collaboration is an emergent effort to build a network of scholars conducting research alongside and/or in support of grassroots efforts against extractive energy and infrastructure development and seeks to to amplify the experiences and political knowledges of communities most deeply impacted by racial capitalism and settler colonialism. We are interested in producing collaborative research that clarifies and compiles the impacts of extractive industries through the integration of trans-disciplinary findings; translates existing knowledges into accessible forms such as graphic narratives and audiovisual testimonials for use in organizing campaigns; and magnifies the utility and political insights of geography towards creating a livable world.

I am co-leading this effort with geographer Dr. Martina A Caretta (West Virginia University).

Futures

Planetary crises signal the urgency of (geo)politics, and call forth contradictory visions of the future. On the one hand, we see the reinscription and repetition of “old” racial tropes in state responses to mass migrations as well as in the cinematic imaginaries of planetary apocalypses. On the other hand, a blossoming of poetic and fictive genres speculating upon the future of present dystopia, and radical imaginaries emerging from social movements prefigure alternate possibilities. These battles, waged in the name of the “future,” present markedly different understandings of the present moment and its relationship to racial/colonial history. The future is the terrain of a biopolitical battle. How do we decolonize the future? Where do we seek inspiration?

This research is an ongoing area of collaboration with feminist geographer Dr. Sara Smith (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).