The Sistah Vegan Project

Revisiting racialized consciousness and black female vegan experiences: an interview

I responded to 3 questions asked of me from a journal interested in my work. I wrote 6 single space pages but they only had room for 1 or 2 paragraphs. So, I decided to publish the responses to the questions on my blog.

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Sistah Vegan will be published in March 2010. It is a collection of essays that reflect on intersections of race, class, gender, animal rights, food justice, womanism, sexuality, and eco-sustainability; however, it is through the racialized-gendered experiences of black female vegans in the USA.

Breeze Harper in Berkeley, CA Summer 2008

Question 1: How do legacies of colonialism manifest in current U.S. dialogue about nutrition, food studies, and the environment?

This is a broad and huge question. Major legacies of European colonialism are racialization, racism, and whiteness. It’s not an anomaly; it’s the norm and it manifests in every fabric of society, not just nutrition, food studies, and the environment. I can give several examples. First, the USA’s mainstream perception of life is based on the bodily experiences of straight able-bodied white middle-class people of European descent. Hence, bestselling books such as Omnivore’s Dilemma and Skinny Bitch actually come from that perspective. I’m not bashing these books, as I know they’ve been very helpful for many people. However, there is an absence of critical reflection of what it means to be white and class privileged and to easily adjust one’s diet to local and sustainable (Pollan) or whole food veganism (Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin). Not that this is Pollan or Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s  task (to reflect on race and class privilege), but there is a general lack of dialogue around such privilege (or lack there of) and how this impacts one’s access to “healthful” foods- or even how the discourse of “healthful” foods has been constructed. A legacy of colonialism is structural racism which created  racialized uneven development and placed the collectivity of white class privileged people in socio-economic and physical locations that enabled them to have more of an opportunity to access “healthful” foods; non-white racialized people such as working class black people were collectively placed in socio-economic and physical locations/situations that made it nearly impossible to have the same types of opportunities for optimal health care services and culturally appropriate healthful food. As a matter of fact, I have found that “race doesn’t matter anymore” white rhetoric is very typical within the mainstream vegan USA movement.

What I mean by this is that when I mention that I am interested in how whiteness, racism, and racialization manifest within vegan praxis, a significant number of white identified people express that these legacies of colonialism have nothing to do with vegan praxis. However, whether people like it or not, we live in a society that is not “post-racial,” just because we have a non-white president. Many white people who practice veganism talk about how “race doesn’t matter,” in regards to vegan praxis. However, one’s perception of veganism, within the USA, will be deeply connected to each individual’s geopolitical  status , racialized consciousness,  and racialized socio-spatial epistemic grid. My scholarship focuses on (1) non-white racialized minorities who are conscious of how race/racialization shapes their praxis of veganism and; (2) white identified vegans/vegetarians and animal rights activists who believe that their particular praxis, epistemologies, and philosophies are: (a) not color conscious; (b) untouched by hundreds of years of racism and racialization; and (3) geopolitically universal. My focus on white identified vegans/vegetarians and animal rights activists manifested from noticing the overwhelming racially homogenous demographic of the USA based movement. Thus, I have become concerned about the diversity of epistemologies and praxes. In Satya magazine from a few years ago, I remember reading the following quote:

[L]ike the peace and environmental movements, the AR movement is predominantly white and middle class. Andrew Rowan, a VP at the Humane Society of the U.S., said surveys indicate the AR movement is “less than three percent” people of color. In April, 316 people from over 20 states attended the first Grassroots AR Conference in NYC, but the people of color caucus numbered only eight. If no one is racist, why is the movement largely segregated? (Hamanaka 2005).

Interestingly, it can be argued that white identified people in the USA are collectively unaware of racism and white domination as an ongoing covert, institutional, and systemic process. Most are simply not given the tools to even understand how racism can manifest; “racism” for most is defined as having a membership with the KKK. Few are literate in the covert manner of which racism and whiteness continue to function int the USA. Furthermore, this ignorance commonly manifests as a “raceless” approach to dealing with the world.  It can manifest into believing that an event about animal rights and animal-free consumption advocacy, with 308 white people and 8 people of color, has nothing to do with USA’s history (and current state) of institutionalized and environmental racism, as well as whiteness as the norm.

The consequences of an individual’s “lack of color consciousness” approach, in vegansim and animal rights, is the ignoring of the socio-historical context of skin color and the accouterments of white privilege that affect access to, and production of, local and global resources; this includes the resources for vegan products purchased by vegan and animal rights activist in the USA, such as cotton (forced child labor in Uzbekistan), sugar (indentured cane harvesters in Dominican Republic and Haiti), and chocolate (child slavery in Ivory Coast); all which are vegan but are actually harvested by a non-white racialized global workforce who are working in cruel and exploitative ‘slave-like’ conditions.

I know that one cannot assume that one will encounter this “race doesn’t matter” and white privileged perspective with every white-identified person involved in a progressive movement (such as veganism/animal rights). However, the vegan movement seeks to dismantle the exploitation and domination of non-human animals particularly through changing one’s consumption patterns. Unfortunately, write-offs such as “race doesn’t matter,” all while vegan products are being produced, often by exploiting non-white racialized human beings, is frustrating, challenging, and difficult for many non-white racialized vegan activists who must deal with battling both racism, white privilege, and animal exploitation in their lives.  I hope my own research, on the intersections of veganism and race/racism/racialized consciousness, will add a broader dimension to understanding how white epistemologies of ignorance function and is performed- particularly amongst certain “race doesn’t mater” whites involved in alternative food movements.

Question 2. How do dietary and healing philosophies like whole foods veganism and raw foodism challenge and resist Western models of consumption and health care for Black females?

Good question. It is not necessarily that whole foods veganism and raw foodism always challenge these models, but there are those who identify as black or females of the African Diaspora in the USA who have chosen to use plant-based dietary philosophies to challenge nutritional related health disparities that have risen out of structural and institutional racism. For many females who have contributed to the Sistah Vegan anthology and/or are active members on the Sistah Vegan listserv, they have recognized that the Standard American Diet is a post-industrialized processed food system that has contributed greatly to epidemics such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, fibroid tumors, and heart disease within the black community. By choosing a whole foods plant based dietary philosophy, these women are choosing to actively take back their bodies and renew their spiritual health. A great number of black female vegans are followers of Queen Afua, a spiritual and whole foods healer of the African Diaspora, living in New York City. She wrote Sacred Woman, which teaches women how to reclaim and heal their womb in spite of over 400 years of psychic and physical damage that was caused by chattel slavery/institutionalized rape, Jim Crow, etc.

Afua’s philosophy is that we can’t begin to heal if we aren’t eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and heal our wombs. In relation to the average population statistic, a disproportionate number of black females have fibroid tumors as well as other painful reproductive disharmonies. Queen Afua offers whole foods plant based diet as a way to cure and reclaim one’s womb health. To me, this is quite telling. We live in a society in which the black female’s reproductive process is held in a negative light. Since slavery, we have been constantly told that our bodies and capacity to reproduce (if we choose to, as I acknowledge not all female identified people can or want to) are not ours or that we’re too irresponsible and “sexually deviant” to handle our sexuality. Writers such as Dorothy Roberts, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins use a black feminist theoretical lens to expose how black females in the USA have and continue to live in a place in which our wombs are simply not loved– by white society and often by our own selves. Queen Afua offers a vegan based dietary spiritual philosophy that creates a harmonious womb, spirt, mind and overall body. As a matter of fact, I transitioned into eating a plant-based diet because I was diagnosed with a fibroid tumor in my early twenties. A friend told me about Queen Afua, so I decided to by her book, follow her womb cleansing regiment, and ended up shrinking my tumors by 75% to which my gynecologist attested to through sonograms. But, it didn’t end there.

The transition awakened me to many things that I was ignorant about and was keeping me in a state of suffering. I began realizing that the Standard American Diet seemed to parallel a colonial and imperialistic mentality. I was consuming colonialistic ideologies and it was killing my health (physically and spiritually). For example, many of us black female vegans realize that much of how non-human animals are treated in the USA, frighteningly parallel the way black females were treated during chattel slavery. This is a controversial topic to bring up, but we notice that it’s really horrifying the black females were forcibly raped, their children were taken away from them, they were forced to breastfeed the white slave master’s babies before breastfeeeding their own children. The standard dairy cow is forced to do the same thing. She is forcibly inseminated, impregnated, then her calf is taken from her while human beings take her milk. In many of our eyes, this is colonizing way of treating living beings that many of us could no longer participate in. And even more scary was that most of these cows have been injected with hormones and antibiotics that negatively affected our own reproductive systems because we were eating them and it was creating disharmony on our hormonal system. When most of us stopped eating this hormone injected dairy (eggs and milk) we saw amazing results when it came to our womb health. Heavy menstruation, fibroids, lengthy periods vanished or become minimal for many of us. Such epiphanies have led most of us to seek how other things we consume are connected to this colonizing way of life that has been left as a legacy of European colonialism within the USA.

Question 3. You write about the “white racialized consciousness” within alternative food movements. How does the current framework of the food justice movement in the United States include or exclude people of color?

I have observed that alternative food movements are not necessarily inclusive of food justice activism. Things such as Farmer’s Markets, CSAs, and Slow Food are alternative but its constituency are largely white class privileged people who really aren’t reflecting on white privilege and how structural racism have made it a great challenge for non-white racialized people and the working poor to have access to nutritious foods. Scholars such as Julie Gutham, Alison Alkon, and Rachel Slocum write about the lack of critical reflection when it comes to race and class privilege within alternative food movements. Specifically, as a PhD student I’m interested in how does white racial privilege and white racialized consciousness manifest in the vegan and animal rights movement and how does it affect the experiences of vegans of color who live in white dominated societies?  Veganism for a significant number of practictioners is an alternative food praxis, but I would argue that many do not engage in food justice veganism that is critically reflective of white racial privilege as well as USAmerican privilege.

Practitioners of veganism abstain from animal consumption and a majority support animal rights. However, the culture of veganism itself is not a monolith and is in fact comprised of many different subcultures and philosophies throughout the world, ranging from punk strict vegans for animal rights, to people who are dietary vegans for personal health reasons, to people who practice veganism for religious and spiritual reasons. The Vegan Society, the organization that coined the term “vegan,” states that the heart of veganism calls for practice of Ahimsa or “compassion, kindness, and justice” for all living beings. Howver it must be understood that veganism, at least in the United States of America, has the connotation of being a lifestyle of white socio-economic class privileged people. Indeed on the popular satirical online site, Stuff White People Like, creator Christian Lander jokingly writes, “As with many white people activities, being vegan/vegetarian enables them to feel as though they are helping the environment AND it gives them a sweet way to feel superior to others” (Lander 2009). Lander’s humor plays on exposing the overwhelming whiteness of the vegan/animal rights movement.

Other vegan texts ignore isses of race and class completely. For example, considered part of the vegan mainstream, the New York Times bestselling vegan book series Skinny Bitch, promote veganism as a way for women to lose weight, be healthy, and alleviate suffering of non-human animals.  If one considers looking at the vegan pregnancy title, Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven through a critical race and black  feminist analytical lens, the tone of book reveals that the book’s assumed audience is white middle-class heterosexual females who live in locations where a whole foods vegan diet is easily accessible (geographically and financially).  At the beginning of each new chapter of the book, there is always a depiction of a white skinny pregnant woman. Throughout the text, the authors blame personal laziness as the reason why people are overweight.  This top selling title is an example of a “race doesn’t matter” (and class doesn’t either) approach to vegan living as well as food justice. There is never any reflection on how: (1) class and the racialized experience in the USA affect a pregnant woman’s access to healthful food and nutritional information; and (2) how the author’s white racialized and class privileged consciousness influence their perception of veganism as the easy “no brainer” answer to obesity problems. Though the author’s intent of the book was not to focus on racialized and classed experiences of veganism and pregnancy, the absence of this personal reflection and assumptions made about their audience, amongst these authors (who are white and class privileged), are intriguing and quite telling.

Texts such as the Skinny Bitch series engage in a “lack of color/race conscious” approach to food politics that ignores the effects of race and class on an individual’s circumstances and the range of options available to her. In a “post-racial” or “raceless” society, it is believed that racism no longer exists because skin color no longer has social significance. For example, if a white person were to tell their Chinese friend, “I don’t think of you as Chinese, I am colorblind,” I argue that this Chinese friend would not be seen as race-neutral, but in fact seen by their friend as, “I don’t think of you as Chinese, I just think of you as if you were any other [white] person.”  The phenomenon I’m analzying is actually part of a larger body of scholarly work around the issues of whiteness and white privilege. Whiteness is

the ability of Whites to control the cultural discourse of racial equality—colorblindness rhetoric and “individual-group sleight of hand”—as well as Whites’ socialization to, and insistence upon, social preeminence. Whites operate within a “comfort zone” that renders Whiteness “normal.” And when displaced, Whites often employ strategies that reinstate Whiteness at the center. Here the metaprivilege of Whiteness resides in the “absence of awareness of White privilege”… Whiteness does not acknowledge either its own privilege or the material and sociocultural mechanisms by which that privilege is protected. White privilege itself becomes invisible. (Flagg 2005, 5-6)

To be racialized as white, whether you wanted it or not, is to participate in and benefit from whiteness. It is to know and move throughout a white-dominated nation, such as the USA, in a manner in which objects, spaces, and  places are subjectively known by the collectivity of neo-liberal “non color conscious aware” white people in the USA as racially “neutral.” However, within nations that have have a history of racialized colonialism, objects, places, and spaces are in fact not racially neutral. Dwyer and Jones III explain whiteness to be a type of white socio-spatial epistemology. Such an epistemology is the ability for the white collectivity of the USA to speak from and to “survey and navigate social space from a position of authority” (Dwyer and Jones III 2002, 210), with the assumption that their epistemologies are applicable to all people.

My research activism focuses on the under-researched topic of intersections of vegan philsophy and race/racism/racialized consciousness. My creation of Sistah Vegan  came out of my desire to create a black female socio-spatial epistemological stance around veganism, simply because no one had ever done it before. When I would visit mainstream vegan forums, several years ago, veganism was only oriented toward animal rights as priority. However,a significant number of black female identified vegans that I had dialogued with had come to veganism from a completely different angle: reclaiming their womb health and fighting black health disparities. It was a clear indicator to me that the way one comes to, and engages in, veganism is heavily influenced by racialized and gendered experiences. As a matter of fact, it paralleled the problematics of the 1st and 2nd wave feminisms in which not everyone came to, or wanted to even engage in, mainstream feminism because it only spoke for and rose out of white middle class straight women’s lived experiences; black females collectively could not relate to or engage in mainstream feminism because their lived experiences, heavily influenced by structural and institutional racism-sexism-classim-capitalism, had little to do with mainstream white middle class feminism.

Works Cited

Dwyer, Owen J., and John Paul Jones III. “White Socio-Spatial Epistemology.” Social & Cultural Geography 1, no. 2 (2000): 209-22.

Flagg, Barbara J. “Whiteness as Metaprivilege.” Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 18, no. 1 (2005): 1-11.

Hamanaka, Sheila, and Tracy Basile. “Racism and the Animal Rights Movement.” Satya Magazine, no. June/July (2005).

Lander, Christian. “Stuff White People Like.”  http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/27/32-veganvegetarianism/.

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5 thoughts on “Revisiting racialized consciousness and black female vegan experiences: an interview

  1. cheyenne on said:

    Thanks for posting the full text. Your points are very well said. I do have one comment: It makes me uncomfortable to see the prevalence of the phrase “black females” instead of “black women”; the term ‘female’ is used in a very animalizing way toward black women, and I’ve learned to listen and realize that people, including but not limited to black people, almost never call us women – “I was talking to this female…” “I know a lot of females who…” and it’s really only used to describe black women, and what it means is really rooted in a slave and colonial history.

    • Cheyenne,

      Funny you should mention that. I felt the same way too. I bounce back and forth using “black ladies” versus “black females”. Several of my professors who have looked at my work throughout the few years, have asked why I am using “ladies” and NOT “females”. I am thinking they feel that “females” is more “social science” language, but I try to explain that “ladies” is what I prefer to use because of the history of black ladies and girls not being seen as positive and that up until recently, they could NEVER be seen as a “lady” by the racial status quo, because “lady” was relegated to the domain of the white class privileged “female”. I think I’ll try to revisit this and make it more clear in my dissertation work why I choose that term. I’m glad you wrote me this because I can kind of show my profs, “Look, it doesn’t matter what YOU think about it. If I’m trying to reach black ladies with my work, and they tell me they don’t like the term black females as much as ‘black ladies’ or ‘black women’, maybe they know something that YOU don’t.”

      Best
      Breeze

  2. what a sensitive issue.. buat nice posting :)

  3. Firstly, excellent and thorough responses to great questions. I completely agree with your assessment that the mainstream veggie literature appeals mainly to white people. Have you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals?” I actually just blogged about why I think this book is different than others in important ways and would love to hear your thoughts.

    Additionally tho,

    I really hate hearing black women referred to as ‘girls’ in the work place. I used to have a boss who always called his female co-workers, regardless of age (some were older than him) or race (I’m white, most co-workers were black), “you girls” when speaking to us. It was incredibly condescending so I eventually called him out on it. He was responsive to my complaint and apologized that he hadn’t been more aware. From then on though, I noticed that on he took to referring to me and other white female employees (when together) as “you” (neutral, plural) but called black female employees “you ladies.” It seemed to me that while interacting with his employees, he was still unable to put aside his awareness (perhaps discomfort) of our gendered and racial identities. He was a really nice guy and I suspect that he was uncomfortable being the male boss in an all female, mostly black office. Perhaps his language choices were, consciously or not, intended to show his awareness of his position and the unfortunate structuring of our department.

    There’s nothing inherently offensive about the use of the word “ladies”. Also, I do not want to suggest that it is unreasonable that he was aware of our differences– no one is color/sex blind. It just continued to make me uncomfortable that he was totally unable to speak to us using the more neutral term “you” in professional conversations where our gender or race had no relevance.

  4. Pingback: Any responses to Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” from vegans/vegetarians of color? « Sans Cilice

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