About the Creator/Author of Sistah Vegan Project, Breeze Harper
I have a book coming out this fall called Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak (Lantern Books, 2009). I was also just awarded the University of California, Davis Graduate Research Mentor Fellowship for the academic year of 2009-2010. Below is what I’m all about, in terms of academic research and what I’ll be doing with my fellowship grant.
As a PhD student in cultural geography at UC Davis, I have been interested in the hypothesis that one’s perception of animal rights activism, veganism and/or plant-based dietary philosophies, within the USA, will a) be deeply connected to each individual person’s socio-spatial and racialized-gendered consciousness; and that these socio-spatial and racialized-gendered epistemologies and ontologies subjectively influence how and why one practices plant-based diets, veganism and/or and animal rights activism.
One of my current research interests is concerned with uniqueness of the racialized-gendered consciousness of USA black identified females (hence, the Sistah Vegan Project) and uniqueness of racialized-gendered consciousness of USA white class-privileged identified people in the USA. Some of my research questions focus on the experiences and differences between these two groups within the vegan/animal rights USA based movement, particularly since the latter group dominates the knowledge production within this “cruelty free consumption” movement.
When I read the introduction to Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber’s book, From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food, I saw an excellent example of how I may potentially formulate the introduction to my critical race food studies-oriented doctoral work. The editors of the volume explained several concepts to me that enabled me to better define my research, as well as understand how to approach a multi-disciplinary feminist analysis of the material culture of food. By doing a literature review of food studies texts, Avakian and Haber illustrate how my desire to pursue critical race food studies, centering on U.S. black female’s lives, is quite timely and fits perfectly within the realm of postcolonial and poststructural feminisms.
Incorporating some of the critiques made by women of color and the theoretical positions of postcolonial and cultural studies, many women’s studies scholars now focus on the specifities of women’s lives in all of the complexity of their intersecting and embedded social formations. Some women’s studies scholars have discovered that food practices and their representations, interwoven as they are into the dailiness of life, can reveal the particularities of time, place, and culture, providing an excellent vehicle to contextualize women’s lives (Avakian and Haver 2005, 7).
In addition, the movement is significantly populated by white and female identified people (Einwohner 1999; Hamanaka and Basile 2005). I have noticed, throughout my own discourse analyses of mainstream vegan cultural materials, that a significant number of USA white identified vegans/vegetarians and animal rights activists collectively believe that their particular praxis, epistemologies, and philosophies are: 1) colorblind; and 2) untouched by structural racism and processes of European and USA racialization. Thus, I have become concerned about the diversity of epistemologies and praxes as well as how these “colorblind” and “universal” beliefs affect USA black female vegan experiences. Avakian and Haber notes that Doris Witt
argues that the connection between Black women and food is the “central structuring dynamic of 20th century U.S. life”…Black women are represented both as nurturers and givers with no appetite themselves, and as women with huge appetites. (Witt in Avakian and Haber 2005, 17)
Their brief review of Doris Witt’s work helps me understand how my own research questions are most likely rooted within the larger socio-historical context of black females’ expected roles as consumers and providers in the history of USA’s institutionalized racist-sexist ideologies.
In “Early Millennial Feminist Qualitative Research: Challenges and Contours”, by Virginia Olesen, I was met with a diverse array of possibilities and challenges that scholars of feminisms have experienced and continue to experience. Olesen reminds me that, “if one accepts gender as a variable, then one must acknowledge that it is never fixed, but continually constituted and reconstituted” (Olesen 2005, 15). Hence, I must be mindful, when engaging in my research, for example, that the black female gendered experience of the 1984 Chicago vegan will be different from the black female gendered experience of the 2008 Atlanta vegan; black female vegans are not monolith. Olesen also notes that “failure to attend closely to how race, class, and gender are relationally constructed leaves feminists of color distanced from feminist agendas” (Olesen 2005, 16). Though I understand the necessity to not look solely at gender within feminist research, I do question if the trinity of race/class/gender needs to be re-evaluated as an analytical framework, particularly for my emphasis. For example, there are black identified females from the same class background that have strikingly different interpretations of how one should practice veganism or plant-based diets, as well as deal with the pervasiveness of whiteness in vegan and animal rights movement. What would happen if I added “nationalism” and “spiritual beliefs” as analytical categories? My research shows how Black nationalism and/or Afrikan centered nationalism and spirituality can significantly influence the gendered experiences of many black females who follow black or Afrikan “nationalism” versus those who choose not to. This is curious to me, particularly since the philosophies of Black nationalistic and Afrikan holistic health centered plant-based dietary communities view “feminism” (a “white” thing) as undermining the goals of their community philosophies. Female vegans who appear “feminist” in their approaches to black liberatory politics are frequently silenced.
Marjorie De Vault and Chrys Ingraham’s piece, “Metaphors of Silence and Voice in Feminist Thought” analyzed how “silence” and “silencing” are interpreted and practiced , in regards to each individual own identity politics. On http://www.soulvegfolk.com, March and April of 2008, there was a forum discussion about “Homosexuality as a dis-ease in the Afrikan Holistic Health community.” The female vegan and vegetarians who contested that homosexuality is a “dis-ease”, were forced to “be silent” by several male vegan and vegetarian members who felt that the females’ anti-homophobic philosophies were “dis-eases of white feminist propaganda” and destructive to the black heteropatriarchal family. My observation of this experience resonated with Chrys’ interview, when she says
I had been thinking about the kinds of punishment meted out to feminists who say things that those in power can’t hear or accept, and about how feminist writings have been censored and suppressed…I wanted to show how this mechanism of suppression was related to the ideological interests of a ruling group and how these specific episodes of suppression developed. (De Vault 1999, 176).
In this case, the ruling group within Afrikan holistic health and plant-based dietary communities, on this particular SoulVegFolk forum, were males who supported the notion that heteropatriarchal gender roles and heterosexuality are the only acceptable ways of being an African diasporic identified human being. My interests were piqued as I thought that this sounded very similar to white supremacist ideologies in which the epistemologies of Black people have been silenced or “scientifically” proven to be “diseased”. Hence, how can I use De Vault’s concept of silence and silencing to analyze how these particular black identified vegan and vegetarian males seek to “silence” black vegan females, engaged in feminisms that oppose the core heterosexist philosophies of the Afrikan holistic vegan movement?
Other concerns I have are:
- how does my own situatedness bias my approach to my interests in critical food and feminist theories? What does it mean for me to be a black identified female vegan, born and raised in the USA, whose politics do not align with the white class-privileged vegan and animal rights movement, nor with the Afrikan holistic and black nationalistic plant-based dietary community’s politics? Would I ever be allowed to enter these communities as a researcher who considers herself a black/postcolonial feminist and who is critical of white class-privileged consciousness?
- How do I navigate my own emotional struggles and biases about my “distaste” for the rhetoric of both of these movement’s philosophies? In the words of Olesen, “It is important to note some contexts that shape and are shaped by feminist qualitative research agendas” (Olesen 2005, 257).
- What exactly are my “agendas?” How can self-reflexivity help me flesh this out further, before embarking on my dissertation research?
Avakian, Arlene Voski, and Barbara Haber. From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies : Critical Perspectives on Women and Food. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
De Vault. Feminism and Social Research. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
Einwohner, Rachel L. “Gender, Class, and Social Movement Outcomes: Identity and Effectiveness in Two Animal Rights Campaigns.” Gender & Society 13.1 (1999): 56-76.
Hamanaka, Sheila, and Tracy Basile. “Racism and the Animal Rights Movement.” Satya Magazine.June/July (2005).
Olesen, Virginia. “Early millennial feminist qualitative research” in The Safe Handbook of Qualitative Research. Denzin and Lincoln (eds). Thousand Oaks: Sage Press, 2005.