Cameron Diaz Talks Going Green; Skirts Around Environmental Racism

by Latoya Peterson

In this month’s Marie Claire, Cameron Diaz is gracing the cover and bringing a message. The popular starlet has embraced the environment as her new motivation, and is doing a low budget movie/documentary about the state of our fair planet.

The reporter follows Diaz to her old neighborhood in Long Beach, California, noting that her town is “dominated by a behemoth polluter.” Cameron’s childhood memories are tinged with flames from the nearby refinery, the dust that was ever present, and the childhood asthma she experienced.

However, she seems singularly focused on how individuals impact their environment:

Once she has eased people past the shock of encountering her (“Hi, I’m Cameron!”), she drops into a low, wide-leg stance so she’s eye-to-eye with her less willowy interviewees – high school girls, the Latino father of a young boy, a science teacher – then launches into a series of questions while the cameras roll: Do you know where your food, your water come from? Do you worry about the environment? What would it take for you to become more involved? And while people do seem to care, they also indicate a feeling of powerlessness. What, after all, can one person do? Then there is the problem of illegal immigrants – and there are many in this area – being decidedly disinclined to draw attention to themselves by registering complaints about air quality.

But the showstopper is a woman we meet a bit later who lives in a little house in full view of the refinery, who tells Diaz about the morning a sulfur-holding tank at the plant exploded, the still mysterious condition that led to her young son’s open heart surgery, the spike in depression and suicides in the neighborhood, the six-figure payoff one family received when their son was diagnosed with leukemia…

And yet, with unmistakable pride, the woman turns around and lifts her shirt to show us the name of the neighborhood tattooed in large black Gothic letters across the small of her back. Because this, despite everything, is home.

Diaz’s next statement was frustratingly familiar to me as an anti-racist who also has a deep eco-streak. After listing through dozens of environmental slights coming from a corporation and understanding why many residents would not want to call attention to themselves, she still goes on to say:

“I want to leave you with this thought,” Diaz says to the woman. After all you’ve told me…what would it take for you to do something to change your environment?” The woman, speechless, looks like she’s going to cry.

One of my longstanding issues with the green movement is how it does not really engage with communities of color. The issues described are often perpetuated and controlled by corporate interests, and yet the onus is put squarely on the individual. Sometimes, the state contributes to the sorry state of affairs. This is what we mean with the term environmental racism.

Racewire recently put up a blog post titled “To Breathe Free,” detailing the struggles with asthma in New York City that are related to race and class:

One New York advocacy group is putting a spotlight on kids today who struggle to overcome the odds just to breathe. In a report on housing conditions and asthma, Make the Road New York says families of color are made more vulnerable to asthma by suffocatingly substandard housing conditions—apartments marred with crumbling walls, roaches, and moldy air. City health authorities have reported epidemic asthma rates in adults and children, with clear links to race. As the leading cause of school absence and hospitalization for children 14 years and younger, the illness aggravates a multitude of other economic and educational hardships in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The report reflects the findings of an in-depth 2008 study linking asthma not only to race and ethnicity, but also to poor housing conditions and living environments. The community’s “cohesion” makes a difference as well: fears about being out on the street may force parents to keep their children in the house, exposing them to internal threats instead.

The other problem with dropping the onus on the individual is that many people in the contemporary green movement have adopted the environment as their flagship issue. What they do not realizing that many of us do care about the Earth – but it isn’t the most pressing issue on our own personal lists.

In contrast, take Kerry Washington’s video about the importance of environmental awareness and personal responsibility:

While Washington also goes for the personal responsibility angle, she places it on the shoulders of those who are already agitating for change. She encourages viewers not to forget that just because your neighborhood is free of pollution, an area two miles away may still be struggling with the same issue. As she says in the video “we need to be thinking about other neighborhoods too [...] people need to remember that local can be the other side of the tracks, or the other side of the freeway. That’s still your community.”

Word. I can understand Diaz’s message and her passion, but the method feels like more of the same. Yes, we can all do better in a pursuit of a greener world – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the mega-polluters who find shelter for their crimes in communities that are ill equipped to fight back.

In order to move forward the conversation about the environment, we will need to start looking at the whole issue, not just mainstream friendly pieces. And then, we can truly start down the path to eco-justice.