[Racial Reality] Check Out At a Berkeley Organic Grocery Store…and the Challenge of 'Whit

Hemp

I created the image above after my racial reality check out at a Berkeley organic grocery store the other day. I had my 1, 3 and 6 year olds in tow. They were helping me pick out their organic vegan treats for the playground. The store is located in a predominantly white area of Berkeley. I rarely see Black patrons there. Oh, and for those of you who are reading my blog for the first time, I am a Black American cisgender woman with two daughters and a son.

Usually, after I am done paying for my groceries, my 3 and 6 year olds always ask the person working at the register for a sticker. There is a very kind Black woman who works there with a very big heart. She was stationed at the register that day. I see her there at the store all the time and she is always asking about the children if I don’t have them with me.

Upon the children’s request for a sticker, she reached into the sticker drawer and pulled out a bunch of stickers. The first one she selected was going to be for my 6 year old son. However, after looking at what it was, she said, “Oh, I don’t want to give this to a young Black man. It’s one with the police on it. No way.” She turned the sticker towards me and there was a cartoon drawing of a police car with a white police offer in it wearing sunglasses and looking ‘authoritative’. The police officer wasn’t even smiling. I said, “My kids often pretend one is a cop while the other one is a bank robber. I don’t know how to tell them that the criminal justice system isn’t as simple as the game they play.” She folded her hands together and I saw the look of both connection and desperation in her brown eyes. She has a son who is 4 years old. She responded, “But how do you explain that to them? They are just babies. How do you explain everything that’s happening between us and the police right now to someone so young?”

…and then somehow, we started talking about the killings; of “driving while Black,” “walking while Black”, and “breathing while Black”…and of course Sandra Bland.

I shop at this store all the time and have been a patron for about 6 years now. It is located in a predominantly white section of Berkeley. The consciousness around what me and the woman at the register were talking about is basically non-existent in that section of Berkeley; and by this, I mean a consciousness formed out of the visceral and embodied knowledge of “driving while Black”, “walking while Black”, “breathing while Black”, and even “looking at a police sticker for children while Black” ; particularly since the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland CA and within the context of the of Black Lives Matter movement. And I don’t mean to say Grant’s murder was the beginning; however, it is a newer type of racial violence marked by the distinct era of Mass Incarceration and a militarized police state targeting brown and black people. And it’s supposed to only happen in the ‘racist’ South? Surely not in the SF Bay area! (Sarcasm).

The Black mother of the 4 year old son who was working at the checkout didn’t say it directly to me, but I know we both experienced each other as acknowledging a different racial reality in comparison to a predominantly white area where the store is located.  I am 99% certain that handing that police sticker to a white father or mother’s white child simply could not have created such a space to un-silence the white [supremacist] elephant in the room (– and yes, I know there can be a white mom or dad with a non-white child. I am not talking about this). And as I write this, I can’t stop thinking about that desperation and worry in her eyes. I knew she was thinking about her own Black son and his future if the current state of systemic anti-Black violence didn’t change quickly. I can’t stop thinking about all the healing and healthful foods and products in that store along with the absence of Black Lives Matter signage in that neighborhood; after all, the signage and symbols seem to be in many places in Oakland CA providing food. Of course this makes sense because Oakland is not predominantly white and class privileged like North Berkeley for sure. (I do see a lot of “All Lives Matter” signage or “Everyone Matters” in Berkeley, and you know how I feel about that 😉

I think about all the symbols and suggestions of healing and health in this Berkeley store that I frequent that put ‘good health’ into a vacuum; a vacuum that is suggesting that all one needs to be healthy is to buy and eat the right organic/natural and local foods. I see so many white and smiling faces on these products or magazines that are void of any conversations around how unhealthy racism and normative whiteness are; that refuse to even try to explain that the food system, health system, and systems of racism are interlocking…and that all the Spirulina, kale, or beets in the world cannot create a healthy USA if the food system– even the local and organic food system– exists in a foodscape anchored on centuries of systemic racism, white supremacy, and the demonization of Black bodies as ‘worthy of being brutalized’. I use foodscape by Gisele Yasmee to “emphasize the spatialization of foodways and the interconnections between people, food, and places. ‘Foodscape,’ drawn from ‘landscape,’ is a term used to describe a process of viewing place in which food is used as a lens to bring into focus selected human relations.” (Source: The FOOD SECTION.)

These ‘human relations’ I speak are human relationship dictated and shaped by hundreds of years of racialized power dynamics in which normative whiteness/anti-blackness continue to be the dialectical center. Maybe you recall the frustrations I had with finding ‘big name’ natural food companies to support the Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matters conference this past year? It felt like many of their ‘neutral’ stances were not convincing to me. As a matter of fact, their lack of interest in even learning about how Black Lives Matter matters as health and nutrition issues was both heartbreaking and disappointing. “Okay, so you say you are ‘sorry’ you can’t support us but I don’t think sorry is solidarity.” is what I was thinking. Hence, the image I began this blog post with…And how I feel in spaces like the Berkeley store I often go to that are plastered with post-racial products and information about achieving healthy living that assumes everyone is a white middle class able-bodied person whose mental and physical health are not negatively influenced by systemic racism. Yea, I know you could argue that not every organic products company should be rushing to join Black Lives Matter…but isn’t it interesting that it’s not ‘too political’ when many of these companies have their profits going to saving a certain species of non-human animals or conservation sites outside of the USA? It’s interesting that it’s not ‘too political’ when a lot of these companies give some of their profits to help non-white villages outside of the USA become part of the green economy (i.e. non-white villages growing fair trade coffee, or cocoa, or shea butter to ‘get out of poverty’). What is so scary about publicly supporting human beings in the USA who have been affected by systems of racism and whiteness? Why does this particular focus get the answer of, “Well, we just want to be neutral” or “It’s too political?” (And If I’m not making sense, I do apologize. Today is one of those ‘stream of consciousness’ Breeze days…but see what the sticker with a police car and officer on it, between two Black moms, can illicit?)

If you have been following my posts over the last few weeks, you have also learned how difficult it has been for many of us– including myself– to emotionally survive and do my activist work within this continuum of anti-Black violence in the USA (and beyond). Since SC shootings, I wrote a blog post asking why most of my white friends have been silent about talking about such violence or even inquiring how these events are affecting me as a Black woman. Coincidently, the same day I spoke with the woman at the natural grocery story was the same day that my fantastic spiritual, anti-racism, and critical thinking mentor, Zenju published an article that has helped me better articulate how I feel about everything over the past month. Zenju is one of the key spirits in my life that helped me practice “engaged Buddhism” as a critical race feminist and ahimsa oriented vegan.

Zenju wrote an article called The Misuse of Apology for Black Genocide: A Clarification of Compassion. That beautifully articulates what I could not these past few weeks. She writes below:

I have received three apologies from white-skinned strangers in the last three weeks in public places. They each said, “I am sorry for what is happening to black people in this country.” Their comments refer to the recent murders of black men, women and children. Each time this occurred I sat there blinking very slowly and then I’d smiled. I was not smiling because of the apology. I was smiling because I thought for a moment that they might cry like I have been crying. I almost laughed in one instance in response to a deep tremor of anger inside me. Although an apology is an effort to acknowledge the suffering, using the presence of my blackness in a public space (this includes the internet) is far too convenient for a situation we used to call genocide and not police brutality. It is not a time for personal confession in which there is no punishment. It is not kind. It is not courteous. It is not Zen. When someone you care about is murdered an apology is as pale as the whiteness worn by some who utter such a thing at such a time. If they felt the way I felt an apology would never come to mind. They would be enraged, rendered speechless and hurt to a degree in which healing feels impossible. They would suffer not for being “bad people” but for the loss of particular kinds of people-those living in dark bodies. For what we regret can only remain regrettable. What we see as pitiful remains pitiful. Perhaps the apology is loaded with:
  1. I can only feel pity, shame and guilt

  2. I am not suffering as much as you are

  3. I can feel your rage but I’m not a rageful person

  4. I cannot look you in the eye

  5. I feel hopeless

  6. I can’t change the way things are

  7. You are my cause to fight for