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 al