Virginal Lands and Bodies: Colonial Domination of Nature and Purity

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

Dominating the World

The historical, and continued, intertwining of white supremacy, colonization, and Christianity has created an interconnected web of oppression and domination. Dominion ideology is the theological and political notion that the world exists to be controlled, and it is the modus operandi of this nexus. This theoretical lens of dominion as an overarching cultural ideal folds together Christian understanding of dominion ecotheology, the belief that nature exists to benefit man, and Eurocentric white supremacist practice and history. The ways in which dominant white patriarchy talks about nature and women, the feminization of nature, and naturalization of womanhood are used to put down and attack women and nature. These views of nature have also been mobilized by white people to oppress black and Indigenous people in the Americas since colonization began. By centering the religious aspects of these practices of domination, we can see how racist and sexist views, in the United States, are formed through colonial understandings of land and God.

American Progress by John Gast, 1872. White colonization as an angelic, white woman.

Colonizing Land and Bodies

The pristine myth is the false belief that prior to European colonization the land of the Americas was untouched, pristine, virgin soil that had never been managed or actively manipulated by humans. This myth was aided by germ warfare and then perpetuated for the benefit of white Euro-Americans. Diseases brought by European colonizers are a tool of death, and they worked particularly well as a tool of colonization because the white population could pretend that these deaths were not their fault. The myth of the Americas being virgin soil was used and reproduced by the US government as a means of justifying colonial conquest and control. By claiming that the land of the Americas was under-developed and misused, early colonial forces argued that it was their right to take control of the territory and work the land to its potential. From their dominionistic point of view, land existed for the sole purpose of economic gain.

A Redenção de Cam by Modesto Brocos (1895) depicts the increased whitening of the Brazilian population due to colonization.

Anti-Blackness and Nature

In order to make the landscape of the Americas appropriately “productive” white colonizers used the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants to manipulate the land. In European colonies and then in the US, many slaves were forced to work cotton, indigo, and sugar plantations, producing crops to meet white people’s desires. To maintain a slave population and white supremacy, even in states that had outlawed slavery, the hegemonic narrative of hypodescent was created. Also known as the “one-drop rule,” hypodescent is the idea that if a person has any ancestors who could be categorized as black then they too are black. This rule allowed white slave owners violent sexual access to black women without legal or social repercussion. Raping black women thus became a way of expanding one’s labor force, terrorizing people, and enforcing white supremacy. Sexual abuse and control became a means of dehumanizing and demonizing black people in the Americas during slavery and ever since. Hypodescent, created to maintain an underclass of people to work the land, gave white men access to the bodies of black women while also marking white women as “pure” and at the risk of being “contaminated” by black men. Controlling bodies is a key aspect of dominion ideology that is present in many aspects of modern life and death.

Shenandoah National Park, taken by Drew Chick on May 8, 1941, from YES! Magazine.
Sign reads: Lewis Mountain Negro Area/ Coffee Shop & Cottages/
Campground Picnicground/ Entrance.

Purity Culture and Nature

Modern Christian “purity culture” has coalesced into a colonial project of self-discipline, shame, and racialized control that is a product of this white supremacist reading of the landscape and bodies. In many Christian sects, youth are taught that they are not to have sex until marriage so that they may remain “pure.” This purity becomes a key feature of a person’s worth within the community and is the marker of purity culture. Commitments to purity are part of a larger system of patriarchal control and heteronormativity, the belief that people with particular bodies have particular identities and thus particular desires. While heteronormativity is bad for all people with bodies, we can see the control of bodies being selectively used to regulate some bodies more than others. Purity as a concept is at its roots a part of colonial notions of a racialized landscape. “Pure” lands are those that have been untouched by civilization, thus erasing the labor and value of Indigenous ways of knowing while valorizing colonial practices. These ideologies are internalized and change the ways people think about themselves and the world around them. Purity culture assumes that humans are naturally sinful and that we must try to work against these sinful desires in order to please God. All of the harms of purity culture are intensified for those people who already do not fit the white supremacist heteronormative model of who a good Christian is.

Photo from a Purity Ball performance; copyright ABC News (2014).

White Supremacy and Purity

Through histories of colonization and slavery, black women’s bodies have been coded as overly sexual, in need of outside (white) control, animalistic, and wild. White people have used and abused black women’s bodies and have then blamed black women for the harm that has been done to them. Because black girls’ bodies are already coded as “black” they are seen as innately more sexual and less pure than the bodies of white girls. White evangelicals, sometimes unknowingly but often with full consciousness, replicate and reinforce neo-colonial ideologies of domination through ministries that seek to “protect” black women from their own desires. The assumption is that the bodies of black women take more outside control because they are less able to practice self control compared to white women. Although many of the material markers of purity culture remain the same, the histories that make different bodies socially legible in different ways change the experience of these practices. Purity culture acts as a remaking, a re-membering, of these histories, coding black women as deviant and in need of white intervention and domination. Racism and sexism are parts of dominion ideology that seek to control, dehumanize, and exploit black women. Undoing the damage of this terrible legacy is part of our job as scholars of the environment. We must all work to critique and make better the world we live in and the academy that is entrenched in these white supremacist philosophies.


*Cover image: A wooden cross at a Christian camp, photo by author.

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