Updated October 13, 2015
If you’ve been following me for awhile, you’ve figure out that I’ve begun to use ‘fake’ advertisements to inspire dialog about the [white] elephant in the [dining] room. Recently, I wrote about what it means to propose permaculture workshops or retreats in ‘sundown’ towns (i.e., assuming everyone is white and will feel comfortable and safe in a ‘sundown’ region of the USA to learn permaculture). The post was called, Grow Your Own Food, Be Sustainable…[Just Be Out By Sundown if You Don’t Look Like Taylor Swift]. I’ve also decided to organize an event for the San Francisco Bay area in 2016 called “THE ROLE OF FOODIE+TECH CULTURE IN AN ERA OF SYSTEMIC RACISM AND NEOLIBERAL CAPITALISM.”
After my thoughts about permaculture workshops and ‘sundown’ towns, I wrote the below piece after an experience with some more unacknowledged white elephants in the room on a community food list serv. It comes from a place of “engaged mindfulness” that I hope will inspire certain folk to unsilence themselves and engage in some heavy self-criticality about whiteness.
[Originally Written on September 4, 2015]
What I learned last night: Never question certain white man ‘gurus’ of the food sustainability movement. Never critique how a significant number of them uphold racist, sexist, white supremacist and colonialist framings of ‘food sustainability’ (some unconsciously, some consciously). After receiving a post about Joel Salatin having been chosen as a judge for a soil contest, I did just that on the COMFOOD listserv: I broke the golden rule. I have read a lot of critiques of Salatin that show his framing of food sustainability as white supremacist libertarian, sexist, and neoliberal capitalist. I ask the woman who posted about he being selected as a judge this:
Was wondering how the contest works given the documented history of Salatin’s publicly outspoken views that are racist, xenophobic, and sexist. How can contestants be assured that he will be ‘objective’ when judging if the contestant is not a white man?
Despite me providing about 4-5 citations from peer reviewed social science based articles that critique Salatin, it was not enough. It was implied that I was being divisive and that I was hurting people’s feelings. It was an intensely unique display of white fragility.
Someone from a food sustainability institute privately emailed me. A self identified white man, he was incredibly distraught by what I had publicly asked/stated about Salatin. He explained to me that he knows Salatin quite well and that they have had heated/spirited disagreements but that Salatin has never used ‘bigoted’ language before. I was disappointed because the comment came across as such: to uphold racist and sexist systems simply means one calls a Black person a “nigger” or calls a woman a “cunt”. Hence, since he doesn’t use that type of language, he is clearly not racist or sexist.
He then asked that I provide evidence. So, I provided him with 4 citations hyperlinked to full documents (and these included a dissertation and 3 peer reviewed social science based papers). He then explained to me that he didn’t have time to look through all those documents and that I should draw out several quotes to substantiate my claims. My logic is that it doesn’t make sense to pull a quote out of context, so reading the full document would allow people to draw their own conclusions. I kindly asked him to do it himself.
So, I wondered if he was distraught over the possibility that the company one keeps says a lot about him as a person. It’s difficult to find out that a friend you consider close could maybe be a racist…a sexist…etc. But, at the same time, I honestly do not understand how my initial question created a huge uproar. And in addition, I got a lot of private emails from people who totally agreed with my questions…but they were only privately emailed me. They did not write it publicly on COMFOOD. That I can tell, only one other person (a Black woman) supported my concerns. So, it would only seem that me and this other Black Identified anti-racist food sustainability woman were in agreement, publicly (And the way my messages cascade, perhaps I missed those who did publicly support it, so apologies if there were more and I just couldn’t see it). But, I wanted to know: What are people scared of? Why is it so problematic for most to publicly respond that they have the same concerns as I do about Salatin’s framing of food sustainability? Is the mainstream food & sustainability movement so powerful that you’re not supposed to mess with them publicly or they will destroy you?
Now is the time to be public about it. Yes, I appreciate you writing me privately, but please find the courage to show your solidarity publicly– especially white allies. Strength in numbers, please.
Here is a response I emailed to one of the people who wrote me privately, in support of my concern:
The conversation is intense, but I’m enjoying it. It’s fascinating to see that some folk have interpreted my actions as being divisive. I thought it was valid to point out concerns if someone has a viewpoint that could perpetuate systems of oppression (unconscious or conscious). As a mom of three very young Black children, I have been thinking a lot of my responsibility of pointing out when very influential figures (in food and beyond) have perspectives that uphold racist, sexist, etc ideologies that this USA was founded upon. I have been thinking a lot about how certain people will take negative ideas and ‘build’ on them. Maybe they were at an event and heard someone imply that women are inferior or that they aren’t really concerned about the the plight of working class Black moms in urban areas (that are struggling due to systems of white supremacist structuring of resources since colonialism). And then hearing this plants seeds in their minds. [The] Mainstream [good food movement] don’t want to hear this, but seriously, if these things are not nipped in the bud or called out, it could produce the next Dylann Roof. Even if that was not the intention, that could happen. [I] too was called out about my framing of ethical consumption rooted in cis-sexist and ableist language. It was not my intention, but instead of having a fit, I LISTENED to the non-conforming gender communities and people living with disabilities; I read the critical theories around it to understand how I was complicit and how even [though] it was not my intention, I was was cis-sexist and ableist [in my framing of veganism].
I also learned that most of COMFOOD are not really into vegetarianism or veganism. Seems like local and sustainable includes eating animals and animal byproducts… so, when I cited an article that critiqued Salatin’s framework that also critiqued locavorism, people also seemed quite irritated with that. I had provided the paper to point out the critique along the lines of race and gender and didn’t realize it would irritate some folk that it was also critiquing eating animals. One of the best articles I read that critiques Salatin is “The Celebrity of Salatin: Can a Famous Lunatic Farmer Change the Food System?” It can’t get any more concrete than that (i.e. the problems with his sexist and white conservative libertarian framework). And yes, it’s a white supremacist neoliberal framing of food and sustainability when you publicly admit that you aren’t really concerned about Black moms in the inner city struggling to feed their children (because hey, they don’t have buying power like white soccer moms). This is exactly what Salatin states.
With thousands of followers, such a framing of food and sustainability teaches this to those who already don’t have to think about the consequences of US racial caste system on food, consumption, and agriculture: that they should continue framing food and sustainability without the need to understand how systemic racism and white supremacy have organized power and resources in a way that creates the struggle for easier food access for a significant number of Black moms in the inner city. Once again, though not intentional, this is a framing of food and sustainability that has racist/racialized consequences. White soccer moms have value in this food and sustainability equation, framed within a neoliberal context.
And let’s not forget that up until recently, he did not allow women to intern on his farm because they are women. Clearly, he has a masculinist sexist framing of gender and roles, no? Yes, this is a sexist framing of food and sustainability. So yes, my concern is totally legitimate and not divisive at all. I’m pointing out the white elephant in the room.
The day after I sent out my question to COMFOOD, A white identified man privately emailed me and asked that I publicly apologize/refute what I had said about Salatin to COMFOOD (despite me providing documents that show why I asked the questions I did). It is unclear to me what purpose this would serve, other than to derail the much needed dialogue about race, food, whiteness, and power.
All I’m asking people to do is to rethink the implications of his framework, despite him never having used ‘bigoted’ language. Just like I was asked to do the same about my cis-sexist and ableist framing of veganism. It doesn’t mean he isn’t knowledgable about alternative farming methods. I’m not saying that he has contributed nothing to sustainable farming movement. This is not what this post is about. Within a USA system of racism, normative whiteness, sexism, and neoliberal capitalism, how does his framing of food and sustainability dismantle or uphold these systems? In the context of he judging soil, if he knows the identity of the person who cultivated the soil (i.e., if they are or are not a white cisgender identified man), how will this affect how he judges the ‘best’ soil? And I’m asking this question whether his intentions are rooted in conscious or unconscious bias.
I have been told that I am implying that Salatin is an ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ person; that I am paralleling his behavior to that of ‘Nazis.’ Listen, you don’t have to be a ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ person to sustain and support systems of oppression. It’s not about that. Ignorance is the problem. I was ignorant about my cis-sexist and ableist framing of veganism. I am absolutely sure that I created a lot of damage and harm due to my ignorance. I don’t have to suddenly become all fragile about the possibility that I’m not some ‘good person’. That’s not the point. The point is to admit that your ignorances are due to privilege, and that they have real consequences (whether or not you intended). The point is to acknowledge it, admit it, be compassionate to yourself that you screwed up, and find out what you can do (in solidarity) with the communities that your privilege, power, and ignorance negatively affected. Fragility is not an option.
Hear Dr. DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, explain why it’s so hard for most white people to talk about race in this video below:
Just some food for thought. And check out her book about developing white racial literacy skills here.
( As of October 13 , 2015, I decided to unsubscribe from COMFOOD. So, I don’t know if white identified members on there will ever engage further with the problems I pointed out in this article. )
Like what the Sistah Vegan Project Does? Find out about our 2016 upcoming conference “The Role of Foodie+Tech Culture in an Era of Systemic Racism and Neoliberal Capitalism”. If you missed our Spring 2015, “The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter” you can download the recordings with slides, here
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