De-Commodifying Waste | waste beyond the object: time, experience, race, gender, body

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

The powerful and emotional injustices of ingrained systemic racism which have had to be drawn (once again) to our attention following the brutal murder of George Floyd have coincided with a re-reading and discussion of what has been a highly pivotal writing for me: Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender by Françoise Vergès. She writes a densely full and multifaceted piece which explores the notion of waste in its intersection with capitalism, gender and race; highlighting the impacts weighing on women of colour in particular. I first read it as part of the ICA Reading Group in London and it made a huge impact on me, rich with so many thoughts that I continue to return to. One thing that altered in my mind through reading it was the question of what we define as waste?

As I now delve into resources and information about criminalisation, violence and systemic racism in the British and American “justice” systems, these two lines of thought are intersecting, highlighting the immense and destructive nature of waste in its relation to race, gender, capitalism and lives.

I’m feeling so very grateful for all the energy, time and education put into raising these issues by so many people of colour. I note here that I am writing from a position of privilege as a white, middle-class person with little direct experience of many of the issues I am discussing. I’m acutely aware of my own anti-racism being a constant work in progress – I expect to make mistakes and am grateful to anyone who feels able to point them out to me.

I can’t emphasise enough how amazing the resources referenced here and at the end are. Do read deeply and widely and take in the amazing work put out there by so many fantastic people of colour!

Black Lives Matter protest in London following George Floyd's murder. Black woman holds sign stating 'We are Tired'

Waste: rubbish, trash, superfluous packaging. Vergès speaks of waste within its more common conception of the physical, unwanted outputs of production, yet she also goes much further than this. ‘It is important also to consider the phrase “laying waste”. Slavery, colonialism and capitalism have laid waste to lands and people’ (Vergès, 2019). These other forms of waste are perhaps less physical or tangible, but are no less pervasive or harmful. Perhaps even more so through their very invisibility.

Today, I want to process the ideas she has sown for me of waste beyond its material conception as plastic straws, ocean garbage patches and overflowing landfills. Expanding beyond the physical we can see that the capitalocene also brings wasted time, wasted bodies, wasted emotions, wasted opportunities, wasted lives.

The focus of Vergès text is on the cleaning and caring required to cope with the waste we create. She highlights the particular impact this has on women of colour. The impacts of criminalisation, police brutality and the prison industrial complex, however, are having a disproportionate impact on the lives of men of colour. Considering these two modes of systemic racism in parallel feels a useful way to attempt to understand and unpick these injustices, to explore the notion of waste beyond the physical commodity as it intersects with race, gender and experience to commodify lives.

The Value of Waste | (in)visibility, (un)desirability

"Instead of answering human needs; slavery, colonialism, and capitalism have constructed desires for things that we do not need, while obstructing access to what we do need (clean water, clean air, clean food, clean cities)" - Françoise Vergès, 2019

This quote hit me hard. Under the stark title of ‘Capitalism Is Waste’, it speaks clearly and simply, not only of the surplus and waste created by our capitalist system, but of the drastic cost paid to create it. Butting up both ends of the spectrum makes very stark the imbalance and inequality between the accessing of ‘things’ and who and how those ‘things’ are being enabled. It conjures images of harsh factory lines of plastic toys with chimneys pumping pollutants into smoggy skies. Fresh lakes, swamped by a layer of scum, tin cans and pizza boxes. But beyond the visible and physical waste, these oppressive structures have taken much needed time, emotions, opportunities, bodies and lives; obstructed access and wasted them.

Vergès applies this to the commodification of the non-white human body through the slave trade, as enslaved Africans were dehumanised and regarded as expendable. Bodies, time, labour and entire landscapes were commodified and laid to waste. ‘The flesh and bones of their dead bodies mixed with the earth on plantations and in silver and gold mines. They were the humus of capitalism’ (Vergès, 2019). De-valued, the time and lives of enslaved peoples were enabled to disappear from the consciousness of White people.

This pattern of commodification and subsequent invisibility plays a crucial role in facilitating and perpetuating our wasteful practices today. The unwanted, undesirable parts of production are hidden both physically (as we export waste and production to other parts of the city and world) and economically (with environmental costs excluded from business models, artificially low production costs and waste removal facilitated by the state instead). Beyond this, they are even hidden socially: those who are involved with these aspects of production are also required to be invisible. Waste disposal, cleaning and caring jobs are undervalued and undesired, falling upon those who are most disadvantaged and already the least seen in our society to carry out, preferably silently.

Black and Brown bodies are exhausted through servitude to White bodies, exemplified by Vergès through the space of the fitness centre or gym. Women of colour are required to start their day at extremely early hours to invisibly prepare the space to be clean, white for its peak hours of desirability (enter the White males). Women performing these roles become exhausted, their bodies, time and emotion eaten up by long commutes, antisocial hours and hard physical work through the ‘economy of exhaustion’.

This example feels all the more painful in its highlighting of the cultural value we imbed within the body – the White (male) body exhausted through efforts to achieve personal physical fitness (and along with this a societally given attractiveness) whilst the female body of colour is exhausted and rendered undesirable from supplying and servicing these spaces of showcase for the white male torso.

Spending Their Time | criminalisation as waste

Expanding to consider the dimension of time brings an experiential quality to what we define as waste. The 3am alarm clock to ensure the gym is cleaned before opening hours, the long factory hours with no time for toilet breaks, the time taken to care and clean, the amount of time required to repair our histories (Verges, 2019). They all exemplify the very human cost of overproducing waste. It causes a loss of opportunity: opportunity to be with family, to repair oneself and each other, to reach those potentials that white bodies are enabled to reach.

This waste is played out again and again in the statistics we see highlighting those caught up in criminalisation systems. Statistics revealing the inequalities between the 1 in 17 White American males and the 1 in 3 Black American males facing prison time during their life (13th, 2016). The Black British males who are 7 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of psychosis, yet half as likely to receive treatment (Mental Health Foundation, 2020).

The individual narratives that comprise these statistics reveal the incredibly complex web of causes and effects that form systemic racism and intersectional oppression. Stories such as that of Malcolm X, an incredibly articulate, intelligent and capable leader and speaker. Yet rather than being facilitated and mentored through education in the way his White classmates are, he is consistently knocked back, told seek the ‘job of a nigger’. The expectations he faces consistently pave a path towards criminalisation and incarceration rather than that of higher education or enjoying a powerful platform (Who Killed Malcolm X, Netflix, 2020).

Perhaps even starker are the wasted years, emotional distress and decades of family life due to arrest and incarceration at the hands of systemic racism. Muhammad Aziz, sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Malcolm X in 1966, despite no physical evidence and a strong alibi, is still fighting to clear his name to this day. Now 81, he spent 20 years imprisoned until released on parole in 1985 (Who Killed Malcolm X, Netflix, 2020). 20 years of absence from his children’s lives, his prime years. What a waste.

The process of criminalisation; denying people their present’s, their future’s and their fundamental human rights becomes another way to leave whole communities laying waste. Incarcerated, "serving their time" and their basic needs obstructed whilst capital is amassed elsewhere. From the so-called "war on drugs", justifying the creation of "criminals", "animals", "rapists" out of people of colour; to today’s "war on terrorism" justifying "anyone who looks like an immigrant" to be stopped and searched; the private prison industrial complex receives the ‘steady influx of bodies needed to generate the profit to go to shareholders’ (13th, 2016). At the hands of the prison industrial complex and disguised under the proliferation of fear of societal "uncleanliness" and "danger", the bodies, time and lives of men of colour are too easily hidden away into the invisible prison system and left to lie waste.

Emotional Exhaustion | a labour of love

The ideas ignited by Vergès feel pertinent to the current discussions playing out through social media, as Black and Brown people are asked to exhaust themselves through the emotional labour of constant re-explaining, re-justifying and re-educating. Feeds are full of posts by people of colour, exhausted from the time and effort they are asked to spend re-living their experience, explaining why it should be heard, followed by constant silencing. Whilst some are exhausted by facilitating the education of others, caring for their white guilt; others stand to profit from this energy and be elevated once again (cough cough L’Óreal). Here I must acknowledge that I too am one of those benefiting from this emotional labour and time invested by people of colour. Perhaps it is now the task of White people like me to recognise and challenge the factors that have caused Black energy to go to waste on White ears.

Whilst the majority of exhaustion from educating online seems to be shouldered by women of colour, men are exhausted from the suppression of emotion, or its expression through anger and violence. Jenkins’ Moonlight is a beautiful exploration of the performance of Black masculinity and how violence and criminality become part of this. In reaction to his vulnerability due to his sexuality, Chiron instead starts to 'embrace the stereotypical black male performance, becoming a muscular, grill-wearing drug dealer’ (Watts, 2017). There is so much nuance behind performative racial and gender roles, and therefore the behaviours we associate with them and punish. Crime and violence do not occur in isolation from a total human experience and ‘when we honour hyper masculinity beyond wanting to be loved or caressed, that is when we create these binaries that don’t really exist’ (McCraney, 2017).

Yet with legal systems continuing to ignore this and treat crime as an excuse for dehumanisation, the expectation and projection of crime and violence onto men of colour goes on to cause arrests, detainment and gross mistreatment. Prisons are hyper-masculine environments which in turn bring a huge emotional challenge to face. It creates a vicious cycle and exhausts the emotions of those caught in the system. Take the case of Kalief Browder, wrongfully arrested for stealing a backpack at just 16 and held for over 1000 days on Rikers Island, an infamous jail in New York ‘designed break you in 30 days’ (13th, 2016). He endured over 700 days of solitary confinement, brutality, neglect and torture that understandably sent him spiralling into severe mental illness and ultimately suicide (Time: The Kalief Browder Story, 2017). The legacies of slavery, colonialism and capitalism are still creating landscapes of wasted lives.

Coming full circle, it is left to women of colour to perform the emotional labour, care and clean up. Mental health support is overwhelmingly given by women, both formally and informally. The NHS relies on women of colour to mop up these wasted emotions, time and lives at the cost of their own; working long and harsh shift patterns and, as we see now so starkly with Covid-19, putting their bodies and health on the line.

Conclusion | building solidarity

Vergès ends her text with an example from an exhibition in Chennai, India entitled ‘Labour: Workers of the World… Relax’ (Curated by C. P. Krishnapriya, 2018). It is a powerful call for building solidarity, illustrated through the work of Indian women in caring and cleaning. It considers two avenues:

1/ Women should stop cleaning faeces and everyone should clean their own themselves, tidy their own desk

2/ We should all join with the women and collectively clean human faeces together

This idea of the individual vs. the collective is a thought that comes up in so many areas of life for me and is something I am continually exploring. I do believe that we ultimately have the strongest sphere of influence over our own self. Therefore, we can all start by taking a look at our own lives and ask what we can take responsibility for and clean up for ourself. However, we also exist in an interconnected world. Our sphere of influence extends to those around us, those we have interactions and transactions with, everything we touch. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity - we have the power to engage, clean and care for the community and environment we are part of. Together.

My next steps..

As I try to tidy my own desk as best I can, I am seeking and taking opportunities to continue to learn and unlearn, fill the gaps in my knowledge and experience. At the same time, I am exploring how to work on my allyship, build my solidarity and diversify my network. At the moment that means following new instagram feeds, listening to more diverse media, attending protests and writing to policy changers. I hope will expand to diversify my activities and social network in the ‘real world’ as I continue to learn.

I learn well from intellectual engagement – which I feel has formed the basis of this meandering thought today. However, I am not naive enough to think that the issues raised can be solved without engaging in as many ways as possible. I commit to increase my active engagement, campaigning and solidarity with individuals and groups to make sure that voices of colour and others who are silenced are not wasted any further.

"Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We cannot afford to stay silent" - Reni Eddo-Lodge

Black voices to follow: 13th film Netflix, About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge, Francis Verges on race, gender, waste and capitalism


Things White people can do:

Listen to:

- About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge – short episodes jam-packed with UK-based information and thought provoking interviews - highly reccommend

- Reciepts Podcast – lively and fun space led by three women of colour

- 1916 - very accessibly presented history and legacies of the slave trade in the US

- No White Saviours Podcast – exploring the notion and learning curve of white saviourism through the experiences of three women based in Uganda

- Stance – fantastic and full independent arts and culture podcast led by the voices of people of colour

- Have You Heard George's Podcast – really unique and powerful spoken word podcast by George the Poet, exploring inner city London as a Black man through poetry. Highly reccommend episode 3 - the Grenfell Story


- 13th (Netflix) – illuminating and in depth exploration of the history and development of the criminalisation and incarceration of people of colour in the US – a must watch

- Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap (Netflix) – a short and impactful explanation of processes that contribute to wealth disparities between races

- Who Killed Malcolm X? (Netflix) – series on the life and assassination of Malcolm X, exposing the failures of the legal process, the FBI and prosecution team

- Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Netflix) – powerful and moving story of Kalief Browder and the injustices he and so many others faced at the hands of the American criminalisation system

- Moonlight – fantastic and emotional film exploring the lives of two black, gay men and how their race, sexuality and gender impacted their experience

- BlackkKlansman

- If Beale Street Could Talk

- Noughts and Crosses – powerful and clever reversal of race relations, highlighting the obvious and less obvious racisms built into our colonial systems

Read (these are on my list too – I’m shamefully behind on my reading):

- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

- Me and White Supremacy – Layla F. Saad

- White Fragility – Robin Diangelo

- How to be Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

- Its Not About the Burqa - Mariam Khan

- Noughts and Crosses trilogy - Malorie Blackman

- Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender - Françoise Vergès – a great proportion of this writing stemmed from this text – I can’t recommend it enough

- some starting points to diversify general reading... Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi, Kassem Eid

Wordery, hive or your local independent/radical bookshop are great alternatives to amazon to support

A couple of Black-run bookshop recommendations I came across:

- New Beacon Books -

- Round Table Books -

- African Books Collective -

Follow (and so many more):

- Layla Saad (@laylafsaad)

- Reni Eddo-Lodge (@renieddolodge)

- Rachel Cargle (@rachel.cargle)

- Lizzo (@lizzobeeating)

- Munroe (@munroebergdorf)

- Stephanie Yeboah (@stephanieyeboah)

- Cassie Lovelock (@soapsub)

- Candice Brathwaite (@candicebrathwaite)

- Rachel Ricketts (@iamrachelricketts)

- CAPE (@no_more_prisons)

- Jameela Jamil (@jameelajamilofficial)

Attend if you are able to (quite London-centric, please do add events local to you!):

- get active: join marches, protests

- events by Gal-dem, SOAS - they have put on truly fantastic workshops, panels and talks around London which really helped me think

- sign petitions

- lobby politicians, businesses

- reach out - email relatives, friends, share resources with everyone you think could benefit

75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice -

Rachel Cargle's resources, including templates for writing to institutions and workplaces -

And please add your recommendations! I am actively trying to expand my information and knowledge sourcing so would love to keep the momentum and keep expanding this list

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