On May 11, 2013, at 12:15 pm, I gave a short talk at University of California-Davis for the Annual Women of Color Conference, which was from 9am-5pm. The video is below. I also included the transcript. I didn’t read exactly from it, but you will get the basic idea. This blog post and video are the continuation of my April 2013 blog reflection ‘Racist Cunt’ and Cyberbullying: Ruminations on the Troll Life.
Thank you to those of you who helped to cover my travel costs! I’m truly appreciative!
Title: On [cyber]bullying and racist [micro] aggressions: turning your experiences of discursive violence into opportunities for research and activism
Abstract: I will be discussing the research and activism I did as a PhD student, which investigated whiteness and neoliberalism within vegan spaces. I will draw special attention to how I had to navigate the tremendous amount of direct hate as well as covert racist micro-aggressions that I experienced largely from white identified people. Most importantly, I will speak of how I turned these situations into research and activist opportunities. I will try to answer what I think it means to do this type of work as a critical race feminist and Black woman in a ‘post-racial’ USA.
In March 2013, I finally completed my dissertation and all my PhD requirements. Finally, I was PhD certified as a social scientist to investigate the phenomenon of structural racism and normative whiteness within ethical food movements such as veganism and vegetarianism in the USA.
I know that doctoral studies, and especially the dissertation portion of a doctoral program, can be very difficult for so many graduate students of color. However, I wanted to share with you my personal experiences of specifically doing the work of critical race feminism and critical whiteness studies in spaces that are quite hostile towards those of us- particularly women of color- who debunk the myth that we in a post-racial USA. I also wanted to share with you how repetitive experiences with what I’d call racist micro-aggressions, can be often times inspiring as well a physically, emotionally, and mentally debilitating. The most important question that I have had, since beginning my graduate work until now is: What does it mean for me, as a Black woman, to not play the expected “mammy” role, but to actually investigate the meaning behind this hostility and turn it into a scholarship?
Back in 2007, when I matriculated into Davis’s Geography Graduate Group program, I was dead set on researching 4 or 5 key black female vegans in the USA. I had posted on cyberspace, on as many blogs and other social media apps as possible, that I was releasing my Sistah Vegan Anthology and that I was searching for influential Black women vegans for my doctoral studies. However, I kept on running into what I would consider, hostile responses from white self-identified vegans who seemed rather angry that I was interested in how race and gender influenced not just Black women, but any vergan person’s consciousness in the USA. I tried not to be distracted by these responses, however, I have to admit that it nagged at my consciousness for a very long time. In the fall of 2007, I was invited to give a talk at Pitt, to discuss the concept of using veganism to decolonize the diet. I presented a case study about adjudicated black and brown youths who were introduced to a vegan diet [at an alternative rehabilitation program in Florida]. I solely concentrated on a bell hooks critical race feminist inspired analysis of this case study to my audience. Not once did I mention anything about animal rights, which is the mainstream reason why vegans in the USA feel strongly that people should become vegan. Within a week of giving that talk, an audience member emailed me. She was under the impression that I was quite “rude” to only talk about how at risk youths were utilizing a ‘decolonizing’ vegan diet to fight against white supremacist structures that make it so ‘easy’ for black and brown boys to enter the Prison Industrial Complex. She had let me know that it was “misleading” to give a talk about veganim and never talk about the TRUE purpose of veganism: which is really only about saving the lives of non-human animals. At the end of her email she also let me know that I needed to dress more professionally to be take seriously.
I forwarded her email to the person who had invited me to give the paid talk. Coincidentally, he actually knew who she was; she was a student of his and he had let me know that unfortunately, she reflected the ‘post-racial’ white entitled attitude that so many from her white Pittsburgh suburban neighborhood represented. Even though this happened 6 years ago, it highlights many of the similar emails, posts, and real world interactions I have had with white vegans who have heard about my Sistah Vegan Anthology, have viewed my recorded lectures, or attended my keynote addresses.
In 2010, I passed my qualifying exams and presented to my committee, that I still would be looking at the history of Black female vegans in the USA. They approved my proposal. However, about a month later, I found myself going through my collected emails and posts of ‘post-racial’ racist microagressions from white people, mostly vegan or vegetarian. Something was definitely there, but I didn’t know what I should do about it. I couldn’t lie to myself and say that it didn’t “hurt” to be constantly blasted with such vitriol, despite me always being ‘professional’, backing up my analysis with the strong canon of critical race, black feminism, and critical whiteness literature, and being ‘mindful’ towards mostly white audience participants. So, I was at a serious crossroads. I knew my dilemma was not an isolated event within the alternative food and food justice movement. I had privately shared my hurt and pain with a plethora of other food activists of color who were trying to understand how to deal with such hostility towards them, when they would try to explain to white foodies how white supremacy, as a structure, is embedded in the food system.
About a month after having my proposal passed, I told my advisor that I just couldn’t become as excited about researching solely Black female vegans, and that if possible, I would like to understand the hate, anger, and denial from the collectivity of white, mostly vegan people that had contacted me. I felt like a needed to create a type of critical race literacy model for a post-racial era of whites in the USA who sincerely though they were ‘good’ people for eating ‘ethically’, ‘vegan’, and or ‘vegetarian’, but were simply unable to grasp how race, whiteness, and globalized capitalism organized the food system, organized their consciousness around ethical consumption, and influenced them to be unaware of racial power dynamics.
Yes, I finished my dissertation, but I won’t lie to you: it was very very difficult. I spent days wondering if I had chosen the right path. Despite trying to create this much needed critical race literacy model for the hip and rising vegan movement, my soul and mental health seemed to suffer greatly. I began to have trouble with balancing the comments, emails, and even real world audience’s covertly angry questions about the scholarly-activist work I had chosen to do. I also began to wonder if it was worth it. The anxiety attacks I would get every time I would be asked to lecture at a university was difficult. I’d often show up and see how often, most of the audience was white, and then I would think to myself, How would they respond to what I had to say and was I putting my safety in jeopardy?
In November of 2011, I was asked to give a talk about veganism and critical studies of race at UC Berkeley. I decided to talk about how Queen Afua’s veganiusm is an Afrocentric response to colonial whiteness and response to the legacies of slavery that have manifested as black health disparities and inequities in food and health access. I was never allowed to complete my lecture, as I was constantly interrupted by white audience members who were irritated that Afua asked black women to practice veganism for decolonizing their food practices and did not mention anything about animal rights. Despite me trying to explain that the kitchen is not oppressive for all women, and that historically, second wave white middle-class feminists have a collectively different relationship to the kitchen space than black women, I was also interrupted by white women who were irritated that Afua’s sense of Black female empowerment meant Black women should reclaim the kitchen space as the central site of resistance and Black nation building. Yes, one can agree with me; it’s okay. But the lack of respect and sense of entitlement to not even let me finish my talk and not wait to bring these these issues up during q and a was quite telling. I was the ‘formal’, ‘articulate’, and professional ‘accommodating’ negro, while they were allowed to be the opposite…. and without repercussions. If this was indicative of my ‘professional future’, then I wasn’t sure if I should just get the hell out now.
But no, I didn’t. After calming down my enraged and broken heart, my dissertation chapter on Afua continued, and I was inspired to provide more evidence the next few months, why Afrocentric veganism came about. But I also beat myself up privately for having bitten my tongue and being ‘nice’ to the audience members who had disrespected me. Did they not know or care? Was I being an ‘emotional mammy’ by trying to be nice and to not hurt their feelings? What exactly was my role as a black feminist scholar and activist? When do you just stop being ‘nice’ because it is at the expense of your own health?