Compassionate Talk About Whiteness in Veganism (Farm Sanctuary)
Update: July 25, 2012. I am reposting this content. This event happened over two years ago, but I thought it is timely to repost this in light of the significant number of ‘angry’ and ‘defensive’ white identified vegans who send me outright ‘hostile’ or ‘passive-aggressive’ messages about the content of my work and talks. There is a video and a more thorough transcript of the content of the talk that I gave two years ago. My talk is what can be referred to as performance ethnography. It is a way of taking academic scholarship and conveying the message through artistic forms such as music, story, art, etc..
Original Post May 3, 2010 22:43.
On May 1, 2010, I gave a talk at Farm Sanctuary in Orland, CA called “A Compassionate Talk About Whiteness in USA Veganism.” It is about 30 minutes long. I talk about the need for white middle class (to upper class) collectivity of vegans in the USA to reflect critically on how unacknowledgment of whiteness impacts their vegan and/or animal rights praxis.
Below is my doing the Sistah Vegan book signing after my talk. My son, Sun (13 months old) is in my lap, a little upset that I wouldn’t give him the sharp fountain pen to poke is eye out with.
Below is the talk that you can read if you’d like. Yes I am nervous as hell and it’s obvious as you listen to me. I kind of speak a little too fast. I recommend listening to this through earphones! I also pasted the content of what I read (it’s not exactly what I read because I ad-libbed a lot, but it may help to look it over AFTER you listen to the video). I AM SUGGESTING YOU LOOK AT THE VIDEO FIRST BECAUSE I THINK ONE COMMENTER ALREADY MAY HAVE MISINTERPRETED WHAT I WAS TRYING TO CONVEY BECAUSE SHE ONLY READ THE CONTENT AND DIDN’T SEE THE VIDEO (MY BAD, AS IT WASN’T UP YET). I CAN SEE HOW READING THE CONTENT OF WHAT I SPOKE ABOUT CAN BE HEAVILY MISINTERPRETED BY CERTAIN WHITE IDENTIFIED PEOPLE AS, “BREEZE IS AN ANGRY BLACK MILITANT WHO HATES WHITE PEOPLE.”
Note: Desiree is not real. But the conversations are real from the past 3 months. They are compiled from my journals and set up in a narrative dialogue fashion. I should have made that more clear. Desiree is myself and many others who have engaged in deep reflection of race and vegan praxis.
CONTENT OF THE TALK I PREPARED AT HOE DOWN.
“Wow, that’s pretty interesting. I mean, how do you feel about doing this?”
I pause, take a deep breathe and reply, “I am absolutely terrified. It makes no sense because it’s my PhD work; I am training how to understand how to compassionately talk about race and white privilege, I’ve studied for years, yet when I am finally asked to do it I start having panic attacks.” I am talking to my good friend Desiree. It is winter 2010 and I’ve told her that I have been invited to come to Farm Sanctuary to talk about why veganism/AR seems to be overwhelmingly white middle classed.
“Breeze, girl, why are you having panic attacks?”
“Well, I can’t stop thinking about the past, you know? I can’t stop thinking about how I was always punished for wanting to talk about racial healing, whiteness awareness, etc. I can’t stop thinking about how difficult it has been for me to try to talk about this subject because frequently, I am met with immediate defensiveness or outright anger. I mean, race simply is central to the USA. It’s a fact. Why do we have to walk on egg shells?” I ask.
“Breeze, you have to understand that if you want to approach most people about privileges they’ve had, due to race, or class, or gender, whatever, it’s going to be hard. This is not easy work. But you have to remember a few things: Let your audience know that you come from a place of love and compassion; that you see that there is are obvious problems of race and class privilege issues that are simply not being addressed in the USA, period; that you yourself, even though you have received years of anti black racism, sexism, and classist oppression, you have ALSO had very privileged experiences. You are not the black person who knows everything and is right, while a white person is wrong about everything. We all have privileges while simultaneously dealing with oppressions.”
“Huh?” I say.
She continues, “Girl, you went to Dartmouth College and Harvard. Ivy league privilege. You speak English in the USA as a first language. Anglophonic privilege. You are a healthy able-bodied human being, you have able bodied privilege. Not to mention that you a very slim, so in a vegan culture that is fatphobic and judgmental of anyone who doesn’t have a BMI of 18 or 20, you have had the luxury of never having to be attacked for being a fat black girl like me. You know how much static I get when I try and go talking about vegan food activism at largely white events!? Here I am, a dark black woman whose been vegan for 5 years now and I walk into a room with all of these curves and booty.” She stands up, and twirls her 5’9″ dress size 20 body around. She continues, “Breeze, you would not believe how many people approach me at these vegan and AR events, talking about how veganism is a great way to lose weight. They assume that because I must look like “Aunt Jemima”, I (a) am not vegan, and (b) I am totally unhealthy. Maybe you can start talking about that?”
“About what?” I ask.
“Well, so many white vegan folk be asking me why they don’t see more brown and black folk at ‘their’ events. I remember showing up to an event and they were really pushing Skinny Bitch, that book by those two skinny white women. I read Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven to help Lorenza prepare for a vegan pregnancy.” Lorenza is her wife and they just had a baby last year.
“I read that,” I said.
“Yea, and we both agreed that plugging this book to people outside of white middle class USA as a reason to go vegan is kind of offputting- especially to us sistahs! I don’t know if white folk know about how the collectivity of black people view skinny aesthetic. Maybe you can talk about Skinny Bitch as an example of how white middle class mentality unknowingly operates. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was helpful to read the book. But if one considers looking at Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven through a gender, racial, class, and sexual orientation 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. Maybe you can let folk know that this top selling title is an example of a “post-racial” approach to vegan living. 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 resolution to obesity problems.”
I nod at Desiree and say, “Yea, I mean, they can’t write about everything. But 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. Tracye McQuirter’s new book By Any Greens Necessary, a guide for black women who want to go vegan, is very clear about what it mean to be a black female in this country. That is what I likea bout Tracye’s book because she’s up front about race and talking about how whiteness affects are relationship to food and our bodies as black women.”
Desiree says, “I mean Breeze, texts such as the Skinny Bitch series engage in a “post-racial” approach to food politics that ignores the affects of race and class on an individual’s circumstances and the range of options available to her. Lorenza and I just couldn’t let that one go.”
I chime in, “Yea, 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, maybe I can explain to the audience, ‘if a white person were to tell their Chinese friend, “I don’t think of you as Chinese, I am post-racial,” I would argue that this Chinese friend would not be seen as race-neutral, but in fact seen by their post-racial friend as, “I don’t think of you as Chinese, I just think of you as if you were any other [white] person.”
“Exactly Breezie!” Desire says, stirring her chamomile tea. She continues, “And these concepts are 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—post-racialness rhetoric and “individual-group sleight of hand”—as well as Whites’ socialization to, and insistence upon, social preeminence. Collectively, 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, not just in Bun in the Oven, but in most mainstream spaces in the USA that engage in alternative food practices. (Flagg 2005, 5-6) Breeze, you also need to explain that there is a huge non-white group of people in the USA who are vegans, vegetarians, and raw foodist, but their politics around why they do it are are significantly different from white middle class AR/Veg.” I nod in agreement, then sip my kale smoothie and say,”Hey, I have another example Des!”
“Go for it!” she says.
“Remember when I went to talk at Pitt in 2007? I presented a case study at Pitt University in the fall of 2007. The lecture centered on a plant-based diet as a way to help adjudicated brown and black youth at a rehab facility for minors. Using a bell hooks analytical lens, I suggested that nutritional liberation was a way to help shift these youths away from the path of the prison industrial complex. A white lady who was in the audience, told me that she was basically irritated that I didn’t mention animal rights at all as a reason to practice plant based diets in my presentation.
She told me that I should have mentioned that. In my talk, I mentioned that 19 brown and black boys in Miami were put on a plant-based diet. They were living in a rehab center for adjudicated youths. A food project organization based in New York, decided to see if they could help these youths by putting them on a plant based diet, teaching them how to cook their own nutritious vegan foods, and go out to gardens with them and work with the earth. All of the boys loved it and their health and grades improved. However, in my talk, I said that the woman who was the founder of the food project organization couldn’t get funding from the government, even though she had data that proved that such a program made more sense than wasting money on standard “rehab” programs for adjudicated youths. During the talk, I suggested that the government won’t fund such a project because they rely on these non-white boys to enter the prison industrial complex; it’s profitable and it’s what is called the modern day slave plantation for the working poor and black and brown in this country. I cited Angela Davis, bell hooks, and several other scholars doing anti-prison work. You know what this woman felt entitled to tell me?”
Desire squinted as said, “I think I can already guess, but you tell me anyway.”
I sigh, then say, “This lady in the audience who was irritated with my talk, told me that it was a “stretch” and a little “paranoid” for me to suggest that the government of the USA benefits from putting brown and black boys in jail, and that it is strange that I’d suggest that this is why the Miami program couldn’t get funding. It was an obscene display of white and class privileged entitlement; a white middle class epistemological understanding of the role of law, criminality, and prisons. I could not believe that she felt so entitled to tell ME that my talk should have mentioned the necessity of animals rights. She also told me that if I wanted to be taken more seriously, I should wear more professional clothing. I later found out through my friend Ed, who put on the event, that this woman is one of his animal rights class students and lives in a white middle class section of Pittsburgh. I mean, Ed was irritated, a white class privileged guy doing both anti racism and animal rights activism, he’s heard it all!”
“I’m sure he has!” Des says.
“Ed and I thought it was strange that a lot of the mainstream animal rights folk get so irritated that one isn’t entering veganism for animal rights first. It’s almost as if I tainted veganism by having spoken at Pitt about how it was being used, first and foremost, as an anti-racist tool to prevent black and brown boys from being part of the PIC.”
Des says, “People like this woman need to understand that eventually, most folk who engage in veganism for reasons outside of AR, will eventually see the connections to animal rights… Maybe some won’t, but by default they’re helping to alleviate animal suffering because they are now vegetarian or vegan. Brown and black folk are not foolish. It’s not like we necessarily need others to come and BRING us the message of veganism. You and I are doing this work, but we’re just bringing in from a different entry point that acknowledges racism and classism and how legacies of racialized colonialism have manifested as disease on our black and brown bodies and how a well planned plant based diet can fight this…”
I interrupt Des and say, “Okay, for my talk at ‘Hoe Down I’ll be using the above as an example of how whiteness operates in Veg/AR, and that due to the material realities of racism and classism and whatnot, certain groups of people will approach plant-based dietary lifestyles, not from a point of entry of “animal rights is priority”, but perhaps, “making sure our brown and black boys don’t end up in the prison industrial complex” or making sure we combat nutritional and environmental racism.”
Des smiles, “Girl, you are on a roll. Maybe you can talk about the Sistah Vegan project as well and how it was received. I know a lot of folk liked the idea of looking at race and gender- you know, black women living vegan in the USA. But look at all the folk who didn’t like what you were doing. That was the basis of your Harvard masters,” Des says to me. I sip some more of my kale smoothie, thinking about how , when I first proposed sistah vegan book project, it made it to an online forum called Veganporn, which had nothing to do with porn but everything to do with veganism. I had presented the call for papers, explaining that I was looking for black identified females who practiced veganism more to combat health disparities in the black community. Immediately, the CFP was attacked. A white identified male vegan said he was disgusted by my use of ‘sistah’ and was annoyed by people like me who don’t speak proper English. Another vegan person attacked me for not making animal rights the priority. The forum thread ended up being 40 pages of predominantly white identified vegans attacking the very notion that veganism could be experienced differently due to one’s lived realities of race and gender. Quite a few engaged in minstrel performance of white folk pretending to speak Ebonics or black English. For me, it was an upsetting and clear example of why such a supposed ‘race-neutral’ forum could be hurtful and offputting to any black person interested in veganism comes across it, and sees how black English and Ebonics are being lambasted, along with the notion that these people on the forum strongly felt that racial politics should be left out of veganism and that, quote, ‘it’s only about the animals first.’
I smile at Desiree and ask, “Do you think the talk will be productive? I mean, I am not sure what to expect at Hoe Down. I’m not really trying to shame or guilt trip anyone, but I think it’s important that if white identified people in vegan movement really want to understand why they think black and brown folk are not interested in their perception and praxis of veganism, they need to not look at us as necessarily the problem, or that we aren’t interested. I think there needs to be some deep critical reflection on how being racialized and socialized into whiteness has created, collectively, a very different relationship to consumption as well as how one constructs their sense of morals, ethics, social justice, etc.”
“Well, you gotta start somewhere. Let’s see how it goes.”
Now, I have some critical reflective questions for the audience:
(1) Fear: I lovingly understand and acknowledge that we all have fear of confronting and talking about racism and white privilege. What fears arise in you in cross-racial interactions? (From Unraveling Whiteness, Hefland and Lippin 2001)
(2)How does white privilege and lack of information come together to impede interracial communication? (From Unraveling Whiteness, Hefland and Lippin 2001)
(3) Do you ever feel like retreating from conversations around race and whiteness?
(4) How did listening to my narrative make you feel?
(5)What do you fear in cross racial interactions? For example, you may fear saying something insensitive. For people of color, specifically what do you fear in interactions with white people? For example, you may feel being ignored. (From Unraveling Whiteness, Hefland and Lippin 2001).
(6) Does fear of making errors keep you defensive, hostile, and unable to open up to other people. Many of you are animal rights advocates. Maybe you can think of how frustrating it is that people are hostile and defensive when you confront them about their speciest behavior.
(7) Sometime feeling of shame can turn into anger with the person who caused you to feel ashamed. Feelings of shame, guilt, and anger are NORMAL and can be productive if you are kind and gentle to yourself, and to the people who wish to dialogue with you about how lack of acknowledgment around your privileges have actually been perpetuating the very types of suffering you had hoped to alleviate. But just don’t lose sight that transformation is challenging and hard, but it’s not impossible. I am here to share my personal observations and journey with you, but I do not have all the answers. NOT ONE PERSON CAN EVER HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS. If you want to engage more, I invite you to learn by reading about anti-racism and whiteness awareness, as well as how race experience intersect with vegan and animal rights activism. I recommend to start:
- Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society, by Breeze Harper
- Unraveling Whiteness: Tools for Journey, by J. Hefland and L. Lippin