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Addressing Race and Class Privilege at SFSU Holistic Health Conference

Yesterday I gave a talk at San Francisco State University’s Holistic Health Conference, “Eat Well Be Well.” I was asked to talk on a panel about the benefits and challenges of plant based diets. I spoke of the challenges of racism/race/privilege for 20 minutes. Also, at the end of the conference, I did a keynote talk about issues of race and class privilege. Below is the transcript of my panel talk. ——————-

I am a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. I have been focusing on how race and gender affect one’s conception and praxis of veganism for the past 5 years. I recently published a book called Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society, that came out in March 2010. Though it did come out last month, this book has been a long time coming. I started the Sistah Vegan Project  in 2005, because it has been increasingly clear that even though a properly planned plant-based diet can combat the nutritional related diseases we see within the black community, a challenge I have noted is that the mainstream vegan rhetoric’s intended audience is, by default, white and middle class; a demographic whose collective consciousness has been wholly influenced by understanding their relationship to consumption and their bodies, through race and class privilege. I come here today to reflect on what it means to consider what a plant-based diet looks like from the psychic space of a collective group of people who have been surviving through racism & sexism, in the USA: black female vegans. And I do want to note that I strategically use the words collective and collectivity to indicate that I know each individual is unique, but I see significant themes and patterns reoccurring that are certainly connected to one’s racialized group identity.

The Sistah Vegan project reexamines veganism as an alternative, food ways movement, as well as a personal health choice from a Black feminist, antiracist, and decolonizing perspective. The Sistah Vegan project started as an online community, to start formulating answers to the following questions we have seen within veganism:

  1. How are Black female vegans using whole foods veganism to decolonize their bodies and engage in health activism that resists institutionalized racism and neocolonialism?

  2. If a majority of Black people have had negative experiences with “whiteness as the norm” , and they have come to believe that veganism is a “white thing” that is disconnected from anti-racism based activism, how can sistah vegans and allies present a veg model as a tool that simultaneously resists (a) institutionalized racism, (b) environmental degradation, and (c) high rates of health dis-eases plaguing the Black community?

Now, there are no easy answers to these questions, but I thought I would share my own personal journey, through narrative, to share with you why it is important to consider how manifestations of race have affected my transition into a plant based diet.

bell hooks is a black feminist scholar that I employ throughout my work. Through her, I better understand the affects of racialization on the human psyche and my own consciousness around food justice activism. In  her book Breaking Bread, I read a paragraph that forever changed my way of understanding eating and racism in the US., begin quote:

We deal with racist assault by buying something to compensate for feelings of wounded pride and self-esteem…We also don’t talk enough about food addiction alone or as a prelude to drug and alcohol addiction. Yet, many of us are growing up daily in homes where food is another way in which we comfort ourselves. Think about the proliferation of junk food in Black communities. You can go to any Black community and see Black folks of all ages gobbling up junk food morning, noon, and night. I would like to suggest that the feeling those kids are getting when they’re stuffing Big Macs, Pepsi, and barbecue potato chips down their throats is similar to the ecstatic, blissful moment of the narcotics addict.  (hooks 1993)

This was published in 1993, 1 year before I matriculated into college with my twin brother. I think it is important for me to use my own personal experiences with racism, as well as coming from a working class background, to illustrate the conditions under which I eventually made the conscious decision to transition in to a plant based diet.

No, it’s not like I was born and raised in a certain environment in which my parent’s didn’t have access to what I needed to eat a healthier diet. And I say this because a lot of journal articles out there will tell you that all black people need to be healthier is access to healthier foods as well as community gardens to grow them and/or natural food coops.  Literature will also suggest that it is the urban environment that makes it more difficult for black folk to “eat better”, implying that rural blacks don’t necessarily have this challenge. I would say that for many folk this is definitely true.  But for me I was raised in an all white rural New England working class town. My parents took a mortgage out to afford a house on 2 acres of land that my father was obsessed with turning into “edible landscaping.” We had an impressively diverse garden and orchard. My father taught me how to grow my own food; our family also traveled to the town’s natural food store, once a week, so my father could teach my twin brother and I how to eat “healthier” foods. I strongly feel that I had everything that I needed, in theory, to pursue a healthier diet. But something was missing. Something kept on occurring, over and over again in my life that ended up often being more powerful than the roots of the peach, apple, and walnut trees in our family’s yard: racist ideologies, circumstances, and spaces that were nearly impossible for me to avoid consuming. Racism was so deeply traumatic to me, that I didn’t realize until over 15 year later, I dealt with this pain through comfort eating of what could be considered bad or junk foods with highly processed animal product ingredients.

On the first day of the 7th grade, someone said loudly, “Look at that skinny little nigger. Run nigger run”. I was absolutely terrified. You know what I did that day? I remember overdosing on Smarties candies as a way to deal with what had happened, and as I look back, I did this repeatedly to deal with the ongoing racisms thrown at me. When I went to Dartmouth College with my twin in the fall of 1994, I was no longer under my parent’s roof and could literally eat ANYTHING I wanted to deal with the dynastic class privileged ruling elite attitude that permeated the entire campus.

One day, during the winter of 1995  my twin brother came into my dorm room, my two other roommates there. He happily told me, “Amie, guess what? Dartmouth financial aid gave us more money so I can have a better meal plan and mom and dad don’t have to struggle so much” and then he left back to his dorm room. My roommate, Liz, a white class privileged woman from California confidently and uncompassionately said, “Dude, I bet they only gave your brother more financial aid because he’s black!”  I was shocked, stunned, angry, and too scared to say anything back to her. Instead, I remember feeling the hunger to speak up and yell at her being replaced with the hunger to go to the campus cafe and buy a cheeseburger and cheese fries- despite me knowing full well that I am severly lactose intolerant and that I would be awake all night, sick from ingesting these foods. 90% of African Americans are lactose intolerant! I know now that whenever the stresses of racism and sexism hit me during my earlier years, grabbing for Chicken McNuggets, Dr. Pepper and Hershey’s milk chocolate are a BandAid for my hurt emotions, but these products did not nurture my body in a way that can combat stress and resist physical ailments that manifest from ongoing racist tensions.

I was so engaged with surviving through the weekly assaults of racism, as well as sexism and classism, that I felt “green” living, “green” eating, etc were not applicable to my situation. I was supposed to embrace the white middle classed experience of “green” activism, all while racism that pervaded the campus NEVER entered the conversation of “greener” diets. But then I’m being told that I should become vegetarian or vegan because of animal rights, or that eating a burger is “unethical” because of the land wasted for grazing cattle. I was being told this by Dartmouth peers who seemed more interested in non-human animals than deeply considering what it meant for they themselves to never talk to me about their very own privilege and how such privileges meant that certain people’s human rights were constantly being violated.  In retrospect, I wish someone would have come up to me and asked, “Breeze, I notice that you deal with racism and classism at Dartmouth all the time and you’re eating crappy foods to deal with these stresses. Consider a plant-based diet as a way to decolonize your body, you know, from the ongoing stresses of racism and elite classist energies you’ve consumed here and in your hometown!”  But no, the message always came from a vantage point in which anti-racism/classism activism were simply not reasons for transitioning into veganism. This is not just a challenge I have encountered, but a challenge that a significant number of black females on the Sistah Vegan project encountered: Though the benefits of a well planned plant based diet are exceptional, time and time again, the language used by the mainstream to convey this message frequently ignored our lived realities of racism and its effects on our bodies, minds, and souls. Now, this is understandable, as we develop our sense of justice from our own embodied experiences. If you aren’t having panic attacks, like I had, every day, due to a intense climate of racism at Dartmouth, then I can understand why it would rarely, if ever, even enter your consciousness that it could potentially affect how you approach people about why they should have a ‘greener’ diet.

I graduated from Dartmouth College in 1998. I ended up moving to Boston in 2000. In 2001, I was diagnosed with a fibroid tumor, and it indeed was a gift in disguise. I remember calling my dad immediately after I left the gynecologists’ office to tell him, “I’m so upset! I have a fibroid tumor just like mom!” Yes, just like my mom, who, at the age of 33, had a hysterectomy. Hell no, I was not going to follow that path! A little later, my father suggested, “Well, why don’t you see what our people used as healing herbs for women’s issues back in the day? What did we use for women’s health?” Pursuing that question was intense, but it ultimately led me to a friend’s advice, a black woman in her 40s who also had had fibroid tumors. She told me, “You need to get a book called Sacred Woman by Queen Afua. She can help you with your womb health.”

I picked up Queen Afua’s Sacred Woman, and it all came together. Finally, a planted based dietary philosophy from a black female racialized consciousness that spoke assertively to my own lived realities of racism and sexism… and how it has unknowingly manifested on my womb health.  I quote from her book, Sacred Woman, quote:

I cry a river of tears that heal for the Negro slave woman, my great-great-grandmother, who was forced to part her thighs for the entrance of a pale pink penis to fulfill her owner’s demonic quest to force his way violently into her soft dark womb, leaving his…pardon me, I can’t breathe, I’m still enraged two hundred years later. I still hurt. I still bleed. I’m outraged, feeling fear and helplessness for all my great-great-grandmothers who passed their self-hate, lack of self-esteem, their acceptance of abuse, their internal war down through the bloodline to me…(Afua 2000, 57-58)

What I just read to you is integral to Queen Afua’s 20 plus years of health and food activism in the black female community, which is to teach woman how the physical and psychic pain of the legacies of slavery are embedded in the memory of our minds and cells;  that we must be conscious of not eating SAD comfort foods to deal with such racialized-sexualized pain, because these foods end up killing our womb health, breast health, spiritual health, total bodily health. Her message of veganism was rooted in de-colonial body politics and uplifting the black community to empower themselves against neo-colonialism and racism, FIRST and foremost.

Okay, so those kids at Dartmouth were on to something about a ‘greener’ diet, but the way the message was conveyed just didn’t connect with me in a way that Queen Afua’s work did, and continues to.  What truly moved me into practicing veganism was reading Queen Afua and  Dick Gregory. Dick Gregory, notes, quote: “I personally would say that the quickest way to wipe out a group of people is to put them on a soul food diet. One of the tragedies is that the very folks in the black community who are most sophisticated in terms of the political realities in this country are nonetheless advocates of “soul food.” They will lay down a heavy rap on genocide in America with regard to black folks, then walk into a soul food restaurant and help the genocide along.6″ end quote. Dick Gregory wrote this decades ago, and he is a black social justice activist  who became a whole foods vegan. It was with the help of these two critical thinkers that I finally saw the interconnectedness to my own womb issues as a symptom of systemic racism, sexism, nonhuman animal exploitation, and corporate capitalism that relied heavily on my purchase of comfort junk food. Immediately, I made the transition into a whole foods plant-based regiment. I specifically followed Queen Afua’s nutritional wisdom in Sacred Woman, and shrank my fibroid tumors by 75% . I also followed her advice to eliminate not just “junk” food from my diet, but junk energies that caused me great suffering; for her, consumption went beyond what we ate. I clearly needed a way to deal with the racist energies I had been consuming for years.

The Sistah Vegan project and book were born out of my desire to find out how and why black females enter whole foods veganism from OUR OWN LIVED experiences with what it has meant to be black and female in the USA. I’m not saying there aren’t black women who practice veganism for animal rights first, however, the Sistah Vegan project reveals that a significant number of black women ultimately chose a vegan lifestyle as a decolonial and anti-racist method to combat health disparities in the black community; veganism is not the only way, but it is ONE way that a group of black women have chosen to understand anti-racist health activism. From that entry point, many of us eventually saw why and how exploitation of non-human animal and their suffering and pain was OUR suffering and pain. Some of us realized that the environmental racism occurring in our communities, such as the fact that large meat production factories produce pollution that are disproportionately found in poor communities of color because, “Well, hey, they’re just BLACK POOR people. Who gives a damn about them.” So, if you follow this resource you will learn that, not only does eating an over abundance of animal products for comfort food cause us black women to have higher rates of fibroid tumors than the norm, or cause us to have rising rates of colon cancer and diabetes in the black communities, we are buying these products from corporations that support the dumping of animal byproduct toxins into our own communities; corporations who target us with hip hop oriented Burger King and KFC adds, DESPITE knowing full well that consumption of these products will never help resolve the black health disparities or the fact that many black folk like myself, overdosed on Chicken McNuggets to deal with racism. And many of us eventually realized that such corporations were exploiting pigs, chickens, and cows in a frighteningly similar way to African slave women in antebellum USA. There was a time when we were raped, our babies stolen and sold away, and we were forced to breastfeed the slavemaster’s children. Contributors in Sistah Vegan note that for them, this is one of the reasons that the animal rights message finally connected to their souls.

What the Sistah Vegan project has done for me, is to help me better articulate how post traumatic stress around unresolved issues, and lack of healing of racisms and other legacies of colonialism on the black female body, affect our psyche and why certain vegan outreach methods work better for certain groups over others.

Sistah Vegan project explores how racialized stress becomes both a challenge and an unexpected blessing for black female vegans. It is a challenge when many of us interact with mainstream vegan activists who have never viscerally experienced this. However, I also feel strongly that ladies of the Sistah Vegan project are able to meet these challenges because we are able to offer a culturally specific mode of veganism that reflects our own lived experiences of racism-sexism. Sistah Vegan clearly demonstrate that despite racisms, we are not helpless victims, we are survivors. Outside of veganism, but in the realm of food and health in general, black women have historically been powerful agents in fighting for the rights to a healthy life in spite of multiple layers of oppression they faced. We have collectively entered a plant-based diet through a history of anti-racist struggle and are proud to say, “We do not live in a post-racial society. It’s simply a fact: we live in a society based on racialized colonialism and I do not deny that this has wholly affected my praxis of veganism. Now, if only this conversations around racialized consciousness could be part of the mainstream vegan rhetoric as well!” We all at the Sistah Vegan project do hope that the book will enable those not used to the idea of race and food, to explore these ideas in a thought-provoking, non judgmental, and loving way.

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