The following reflection was written by library student assistant and first-year biology major Catalina Garcia.
Our first Faculty Pub Night of the 2022-23 academic year featured the work of Nadia Kim, a professor of Asian and Asian American studies at LMU. She is the author of two award-winning books published by Stanford University Press. Her most recent publication “Refusing Death: Immigrant Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in LA” was inspired by environmental racism and environmental classism in neighborhoods of people of color. In response to this injustice, a movement for environmental justice began, predominated by Asians and undocumented immigrant women fighting for a change. Kim tells their stories and discovers how each woman is influential because of their capability to change politics and face the system of class injustice, defined not only by the pollution surrounding their homes but also by the neglect of schools, deportation, and the harm they face.
One factor that inspired her research was how race, class, and gender intercept, and how emotions play in both the top-down elites (corporate and government regulatory officials and institutions), and the bottom-up, who are made up of activists themselves and the residents who are predominantly Asian, mostly Filipinox, as well as Latinx, mostly Mexicans. Her research took place for three and a half years and included around 300 hours of ethnographic participant observation in the social movements, spending time with them in their environment. In her study, she wanted to know what is causing environmental harm and pollution in Latinx and Asian communities. She saw the impact of trains, trucks, and cargo ships that are importing goods to L.A., and all across the country. These machines run on diesel that Latinx and Asian immigrant communities have to contend with, but also the presence of freeways that are built in and through their neighborhoods, obstructing and running amok in their community. Oil refineries are also located right next to these communities, and all of these factors spread toxic chemicals and environmental pollutants throughout the neighborhoods, such as Wilmington, West Long Beach, and Carson in Los Angeles.
When Kim interviewed activists and members, they wanted to talk about their feelings and the impact it was having on their emotional lives, their physical bodies, and senses. One particular moving story was about Lily, who is a youth environmental justice activist for Communities for a Better Environment, and an undocumented immigrant Filipino-American woman. When being interviewed, she shared how it felt to embody oil, and how in high school she realized all the people she hung out with “would live right next to a refinery,” and as a child, she “remembered when they would flare and […] believed that’s how you made clouds.” Lily was very frustrated, and as a young person, she felt like it was very emotionally taxing to live in these oil refinery cities and saw how omnipresent oil refineries have become, almost naturalized in her world.
Kim also interviewed people from the top-down class and discovered how these institutions and dominant groups use emotions to establish, maintain and extend their power. One particular example is when she interviewed a white male presenting representative, he responded how he had cancer and it was very difficult for his family as well, and how “you guys are not the only ones who get cancer; and cancer is not just caused by air pollution.” Kim conducted additional interviews, but overall, she was able to see a pattern of how the top-down groups guilt through condescension, mock others, and are in disbelief and annoyed by these activists fighting for their communities. In comparison to the bottom-up communities, Kim saw how immigrant activists harness their own emotional resistance in the politics of emotion in this environmental justice fight.
Another moving story was of a Japanese-American widow, who was participating in a perfunctory meeting where BPR Co. (oil refinery company) presents to the community to get their permit renewed to operate. Cindy went up and talked about how her husband died soon after working at a refinery, and told BPR Co. how it seems more than just a coincidence. The BPR co-officials replied with how they are still meeting regulations and guidelines, and are within the allowable limits of pollution and cancerous conditions. In response to the lack of empathy these officials were showing, Cindy, a 44-year-old Samoan-American teacher yells how “angry…tired of being sick, of seeing sick children in [her] elementary school where she works” and how “it’s very possible that her husband’s cancer was caused by all of this pollution.” Kim then interviewed Cindy who states how “even if it costs my health, I need to fight for these children” showing her citizenship as embodied/emotional support even if it kills, which is most common in the interviews of different activists that she conducted.
Overall, Kim saw the affirmations of systematic racism, sexism, and classism through how institutions categorized women of color. They are viewed as effeminate and motherly. At the same time, the angry Asian woman is seen as “hypermasculine” and “a dragon lady”, while the angry Latina women are the “fiery Latina,” “hypermasculine,” and “typical working class.” Kim understood through all of her research how environmental justice helps us understand how “intersectional-isms” are maintained and expanded. However, these activists themselves are pushing back on the controlling images and demand empathy, and respect, and do a lot of work in exposing corporate America and the regulatory agencies that are supposed to regulate them.
As a woman of color myself, I have first-hand experienced the consequences of corporate America, and I still have family members who are affected every day by the pollution of oil refineries and freeways that are near their homes. I believe that this topic needs to be brought to more awareness, and something has to change because millions of lives are affected by this issue every day, and children are harmed and believe these flares of clouds are normal when they shouldn’t be. Although American companies and elites heavily rely on oil companies, it’s unethical and inhumane to continue as we see how it has affected so many people.