Yesterday, yet another white identified woman responded, on Facebook, to my Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter spring 2015 conference. Having never attended the event, she wrote how “ridiculous” the event idea was, that “All Lives Matter”, and then whitesplained that “Black men do not get shot if they beat up their girlfriends” (a random ‘connection’ she was making after reading that a Black man who abused his girlfriend didn’t end up getting shot by the police).
She makes this comment the same day my twin brother contacts me about Fay Wells in Santa Monica, CA, whose neighbor thought she was breaking into her own home (19 cops showed up to take down this ‘scary’ Black Dartmouth College graduate who was VP of a firm…[I guess she shouldn’t have been wearing a ‘hoodie’, should have gone to college, and made something of herself because , duh, only Black people can prove their humanity by working hard and looking professional to earn the approval of White people that their lives matter Black.] )
My brother said he had to take a triple take on Fay Wells’ image in the newspaper because, “Wow Amie, I thought she was you.” (Because nothing says ‘good morning’ like waking up to the possibility that your twin sister was racially profiled and could have been shot and killed by the police while chillin’ out in her own house…. I don’t think she looks like me, but for those of us who are sight -abled, remember we don’t just ‘see’ with our eyes but our worries, fears, conscious or unconscious, help us ‘see’ and interpret– we often see what we expect to see based on those fears, worries, assumptions….)
Raise your hand if you’re like me and my twin and check in with your Black or brown dad, mom, your best friends and siblings every other f*cking day to make sure they aren’t dead because apparently, not everyone realizes that Black Lives Matter.
Raise your hand if you send out those emails, make those phone calls, etc. to make sure your parents, best friend sibling, child is not the next Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, etc
A few days before my brother contacted me, one of my dearest friends who is a Black Muslim, informed me that several Muslim women have been beaten up by anti-Muslim people in her neighborhood and one woman was pushed onto train tracks of a commute rail. My dear friend told me that she must be careful now when she leaves and must adjust her head wear (wearing hijab) to be safe. A few weeks before that, I had been worried that I had not heard from her because we always chat and 2 or 3 weeks had gone by and no response. But, she was okay, just busy…But I didn’t know of course. I just thought… “What if….?”
My concerns are real and not ‘ridiculous’. We witness Donald Trump (and his followers who hold onto his every word) that plants seeds of violence and normalize it as legal and acceptable forms of terrorism (except when you are white, it’s not terrorism). He is a cultivator of terrorism. How do we know that the people who shot 5 Black Lives Matter protesters didn’t have seeds of hate that were planted because they may listen to Trump and similar cultivators of terrorism? (See: Trump’s statement the other week that “Black Lives Matter activists need to be roughed and similar)
And if it is all ‘ridiculous’ and ‘All Lives Matter’….were you ever that [white] person who called the cops on that ‘suspicious’ Black or brown person?
If you have done that, just wondering if you ever gave a f*ck about the repercussions?
Do you ever wonder what happened to the ‘suspicious’ person you called the cops on?
Did you follow up to make sure they are okay?
That they were treated as if ‘All Lives Matter’? …
Or, did it just simply never occur to you to do anything, beyond calling the cops? (Because that is what privileged bubbles tend to do.)
Here is a little suggestion. A White man wrote it (Because maybe this Black feminist scholar with a PhD, who doesn’t wear a hoodie, went to Dartmouth College, Harvard, ‘talks like an oreo’, and graduated summa cum laude from UC with her doctorate in Social science isn’t enough to convince you). Maybe he can explain why “Black Lives Matter” isn’t ‘ridiculous’.
And maybe my conference I organized that is downloadable for $25 (16 hours all with Powerpoints and Audio) can help. Discounts are offered if you can’t afford the $25, just email me at breezeharper at gmail dot com).
As some of you know, I started a new position at UC Berkeley in the Equity and Inclusion unit. I manage the Multicultural Education Program under Staff Diversity Initiatives. Today we are raising money to support the integration of equity, inclusion, and diversity into the the UC Berkeley community, via workshops, training, programming, etc. Integration is the operative term, as we cannot engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion as an ‘add-on’.
We also have training and workshop events such as learning about unconscious bias (i.e. that you may not consider yourself racist, but living in the USA in which systemic racism is the norm, one’s will be unconsciously affected by this and therefore, affect how we interact with one another.) as well as using intersectional approaches to understanding the Big 8 factors that affect why some do not feel safer or included within the UC Berkeley community (Big 8 are the most significant identity factors, here in the USA, in which discrimination is rooted in; i.e., race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, body type, religion).
Watch the 90 second video below and if you feel inspired to help my department bolster its impact, donate. I need the financial support from like minded people to help me do the critical race feminist based scholarship and activism I have been known for– but now I’ve expanded from ethical consumption to higher education. Thanks for listening! (Took me a week to make this ‘short’ video). If you donate, Select the option Increase Diversity and Opportunity at Cal. Be sure to use the hashtag#berkeleystaffdiversityin the notes field so that the funds can go directly to our sub-unit, Staff Diversity Initiatives. You are investing in eliminating discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, on the UC Berkeley campus (see report about Campus Climate that has really encouraged my sub-unit to do the ‘good’ work needed).
Facebook, thank you for allowing Ben Carson to advertise on Facebook. He is an Islamaphobe and plants seeds of hate which give people the idea that violence against anyone who is Muslim is ‘acceptable’. Don’t you understand that violent actions are planted by seeds of hate? How do we know he won’t make the next domestic terrorist in the USA who decides to kill or hurt Muslims because of what he has said and keeps on saying?
I thought hate speech and hate groups were not allowed on Facebook, no? I guess hate is subjective!!! (sigh). Just wondering if Facebook can try harder to not support those who plant seeds of hate and create terrorists through racism, Islamaphobia, etc. There is plenty of social science evidence out there that shows that supporting hate creates an inequitable society filled with those who accept violence as the norm to those they have been mis-taught to believe ‘don’t belong’ or deserve no ‘human rights’… or even deserve to be seen as not human.
Thanks so much for taking his money (because at the end, it’s all about profit) and upholding his ‘free [hate] speech’. (Sarcasm and frustration)
I am not dismissing the pain and suffering of France’s people right now. This post does not seek to do that at all. Regardless of nationality or ethnicity, I know the pain and suffering are real and I have deep empathy and sympathy and…
I am wondering why the USA mainstream media outlets have reported so much about the horrible tragedy in Paris and not so much about Beirut? I’m actually wondering if we can have a fruitful conversation about selective grief and outrage when it comes to the USA mainstream population’s response to certain tragedies…and the perceptions we have about ‘white-dominated’ nations versus ‘those darker nations’?
When the Kenya massacre happened at their Garissa University, I have to admit: none of my white friends heard of it or if they did, it didn’t seem to draw up a lot of grief and anxiety that it did with the brown and black friends in my circle. This is my personal experience.
If it had only been Beirut, would we be so deeply moved (and by ‘we’, I meant mainstream USA) by the tweets coming out of Lebanon?
My heart and positive energy go out to all those in Paris and Beirut, as well as all of those who have been victims of terrorism through the world…and even more to those whose stories will never make it to the USA’s mainstream news media outlets because often, When You’re Brown, Your Screams Make No Sound….Your Face Cannot Be Found…
No, France is not an all white country, but the narrative in the USA is that France is occupied by mostly white bodies and is basically a ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ nation. Not all the victims were ‘white’, but I wonder how the narrative of France as a ‘white’ nation plays into how tragedy is reported to the USA mainstream and how they envision the bodies/identities of those who were killed.
My apologies for not having the direct source…but I remember several years ago there were protests in France by an African immigrant community, because of the horrible ways they were being treated in terms of housing rights. I will never forget the image of a white French police officer attacking an African mom with her baby wrapped to her back who was simply protesting with a sign. He threw her down on the ground and she fell on top of the baby. That baby was crying after their head hit the ground. I was terrified that he could do this. I was terrified that he didn’t give a damn about the newborn baby attached to that woman’s back. As I type this I want to vomit, thinking about that rolling image that won’t leave my mind. I am remembering that that white police officer did not show any remorse about how he treated that woman and her baby. A newborn baby!!!!! This may seem like a random sharing, but it is not. I began thinking about how and why that was not considered ‘terrorizing’ her and why there was no outrage about that video footage in the USA or how the African immigrants were being treated/terrorized by the white French mainstream population. When she fell down to the ground and her newborn baby’s head smashed down onto the pavement, I couldn’t help but to think, “If I were there, protesting because my human rights were being taken away because I am Black or African, he would do the same thing to me. He would have seen me as deserving to be terrorized and no one in the [white] world would do anything about it…But I don’t have to be there for that to happen, as this could easily happen in the USA as well because it has already happened and continues to; it’s just not called terrorism and the brown bodied victims are not seen as ‘innocent.'” Black people are, by default, deserving of preemptive strike and do not deserve to have tears shed over them in the way that white ‘terrorized’ bodies do is what is usually depicted by mainstream USA media.
Last night I was outraged. I cried about Beirut. I cried about Paris. I cried about a whole lot more as I thought about all the forms of terrorism that happen every second…and how the mainstream in the USA are simply trained to mis-know terrorism in a very biased way (i.e. ISIS is terrorism only; i.e. all Muslims = ISIS; terrorism is only done by brown and black people white people or white dominated nations could never enact terrorism).
[And yes, I expect quite a few people to express anger over my blog post. My intention is to point out what I see “as the obvious”… and I hope that these questions I have put out there can help some of us realize how unconscious bias influences us to ‘feel’ more for certain groups of people over others…and what actions we can actively engage in to not plant the seeds of terrorist actions (which include more than just ISIS, and can be found here in the USA. SPLC tracks groups with terrorist patterns/behaviors within the USA)]
Earlier this year, I received a newsletter about the announcement of a new cookbook, Teff Love. After reading the marketing language for this new book, I decided that I would send the publishing company some of my thoughts ( which come after the snapshot I took of the newsletter below). First of all, I absolutely am not bashing the work and love that was put into Berns’ book and successful blog. As someone who has written and published manuscripts, I know that it takes a lot of work, time, etc for achieving such an end product. Instead, my focus for this post is looking at the communication style employed when marketing a book about Ethiopian cuisine and the assumptions made about the audience; I am curious about the ease in which terms like ‘demystify’ are used for non-White cultural foods.
I emailed the letter below to the publisher on April 1, 2015, after emailing them in March. I never heard from them and assume that they are incredibly busy with work and life, so I’m not upset or anything.
And let me give you another reminder that I am approaching analysis of the announcement of the book as a critical food studies scholar influenced by critical race feminist methodologies. I am using the advertisement as an exercise to explore unconscious bias within the mainstream ‘post-racial’ ethical consumption movement. Ultimately, I hope that it will be a useful tool for anyone who thinks about marketing cookbooks written by white people with culinary interest in non-White Eurocentric food ways.
My letter explores how exotifying certain non-white people’s cultural foods may be received as cool to the mainstream [white] vegan audience but triggering and traumatizing to those in the USA who are non-white and may even be non-white immigrants who are constantly reminded how they are exotic and don’t belong in a USA obsessed with giving full human-ship and citizen ship to white people.
After the advertisement for Teff Love was released, there were quite a few conversations happening among vegans of color on Facebook. Many explained that they found the marketing language of Teff Love to be problematic and frustrating; some folk talked about how a rather well know Afro-Caribbean vegan chef, known for only writing books and giving lessons about Caribbean cuisine, was unable to secure a cookbook deal for writing about French cuisine… because the publishers didn’t think an image of a Black woman could sell books about [white] French cuisine (yet, for some reason, white people are normally not told they can’t publish a cookbook about recipes that are non-white Eurocentric). This spurred a conversation about who is allowed to be an ‘expert’ on culinary practices and who isn’t…and what racial bias (implicit or overt) has to do with all of this.
I also want to make it clear that Berns has an excellent cooking blog and hold valuable culinary knowledge, so this is not bashing her work and love for vegan cooking. While I was trying to learn how to make injera, her video was quite helpful for me, so thanks Kittee. I also know that authors often do not have much control over the end product (i.e. their book, how it’s marketed, how it is edited, etc)
Below is the letter I sent to Book Publishing Co.
April 1, 2015
Congratulations on the new book release.
I was wondering why the news release is worded the way it is. Is the audience assumed to be non-Ethiopian? Just wondering if the language used could be more mindful when talking about non-White cuisines. Words such as ‘demystified’ position Ethiopian cuisine as something that needs to be made ‘accessible’ for a supposedly and assumed non-Ethiopian (most likely white) audience of vegan cooking folk. When this new release came out, quite a few of us in the vegans of color community noted that though well-intended, the advertisement is worded in a problematic and culturally appropriating way. We were wondering why the cultural authority to ‘demystify’ a non-White cuisine ( that isn’t mystical to many of us who may have Ethiopian ancestry/are Ethiopian) is given to a seemingly white author; it’s not that white people cannot write books about Ethiopian or other non-white/non-European cuisine. Our concern is that too many times, white chefs and cookbook authors are uncritically allowed to write about any cuisine in the world while non-white cookbook authors and chefs are usually limited to only writing and publishing a book about cuisine from their racial/ethnic group (i.e. Black people write about ’soul food’ but it would be hard for them to find a publishing deal if they wrote about French or German cuisine).
I speak from a scholarly and racial justice activist training, as someone with a doctorate in social science with focus on critical food studies and race, and as someone who has published academic work on the subject of food and exotic cooking. My research has been on the phenomenon of mainstream publishers making non-white/non-European cuisine/food products appear to be ‘exotic’ and ‘mystical’ that usually only a white chef has the ‘objective’ expertise to ’translate’ for a largely white audience who are assumed to not trust themselves when trying out ’new’ ‘exotic’ cuisines unless a white chef takes the lead. Lise Heldke, a white anti-racist critical food studies scholar writes about this in her acclaimed book Exotic Appetites. I also wrote about what it means to turn non-white vegans, their culture, their cuisine, into ‘exotic’ objects by mainstream foodie culture which is white, middle-class and ‘post-racial’. It has been used in many classes that look at studies of food as well as racial experience in the USA. Here is the citation:
Harper, A. (2011). “Knowing, Feeling, and Experiencing the ‘Exotic'” in Alkon, Alison and Julian Agyeman. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. MIT Press. Cambridge: MA.
Just some food for thought for you to consider as you advertise for this new book. You may gain a wider audience/fans if your marketing staff can be more mindful of the nuances of ‘assumed whiteness’ and covert racism when using certain words and phrasing when promoting new books. It’s also often helpful to enlist the help of people trained in critical race, critical feminist, critical gender, etc studies to look over marketing campaigns to ensure that the language used causes the least amount of harm to marginalized populations. I do this almost all the time to make sure, for example, as a person with able-bodied and cis-gender privilege, that my writing does not uphold systems of ableism and transphobia. Of course no writing can ever be 100% free from discursive violence, but it’s helpful to alleviate it as much as possible.
Thanks for your time and consideration of my thoughts.
(Looking back at the letter, I don’t think it was probably the best idea to use the term ‘discursive violence’ as I assume most people would find it off-putting.)
4 years ago, I gave a talk about the vegan exotic and whiteness that may shed some more light for those who are new to this subject:
Now that you have spent time reading this blog post and maybe watching the video, here are some questions I have for anyone who has or is writing a cookbook and/or marketing one. My assumed audience for these questions are primarily those who have spent a fare amount of time in the USA, maybe even raised here. I acknowledge that people who have not lived here long enough or didn’t spend their childhood in the USA may not understand the complex nature of race, ethnicity, and whiteness:
How do implicit biases, created by systems of oppression (racism, ableism, cis-sexism, classism), impact your cookbook writing and/or marketing?
Even better, are you aware that most of us are untouched by implicit biases created by systems of oppression (racism, ableism, cis-sexism, classism) and that they impact your cookbook writing and/or marketing?
How did your feel about this blog post and the letter I wrote? What were your initial responses and why?
If you are a non-White person, have you ever experienced being exotified within the ethical consumption arena in the USA?
If you are a white identified person, do you consider non-white cultures ‘exotic’ and ‘mysterious’ and why?
Regardless of racial identification, have you ever thought about your response when learning, for example, and African American chef or cookbook author does not write about African American food, but something else?
What has been your response when learning that a white chef or cookbook author has been labeled as an ‘expert’ for non-white ethnic cuisine in the USA?
When asked to think about race and/or whiteness, as applied to food, what are your initial reactions and why? Is it new or something that you have already been thinking about?
If you are a publishing company, perhaps you completely understand your market and maybe you know that the majority of your customers would respond more positively to phrases like “demystify” or “exotic” because you know the value and history those labels carry with that buying demographic.
If that is the case, what are your thoughts on this letter? Do you find yourself having to make ethical sacrifices to make enough profits to keep afloat?
Do you worry that integrating critical approaches to how systemic racism and other ‘isms’ impacts the culinary world (or whatever publishing world you are in that has nothing to do with critical approaches to systemic social injustices) may end up being “off-putting” to a majority that is thinking one-dimensionally about the topic being marketed?
I have spent the last 10 years writing and giving lectures about how whiteness impacts ethical consumption and beyond in the USA. The number 1 theme of confusion I have encountered, about this topic of race and whiteness, is from mostly white people who literally do not understand how race and racialization are historically, socially, physically, geographically, and legally constituted. Most white identified people who have spent their formative years in the USA or other white dominated societies, seem to believe that race is simply a “skin color” with certain phenotypes like ‘blonde hair’ or ‘thin lips’ as race markers; even more so, most think racism is not a significant impediment to equity and inclusion, despite the rigorous post-2000 data showing otherwise. For this demographic, race is simply ‘skin color’ and basically a ‘thing of the past’….
…But nothing could be further from the truth.
Several major questions I have asked in response to [white] constructions of race being about ‘skin color’ have been:
If race is just about ‘skin color’, then why have I constantly been told that I sound ‘white’? How can one possibly ‘hear’ one’s skin color?
If race is just about skin color, why was my newborn baby in 2009, who was born with very fair skin and bright blue eyes and straight brown hair considered to be ‘Black’ by some yet “White” by others?
In SPLC’s latestTeaching Tolerance newsletter, H. Richard Milner IV’s work is cited. I took a screenshot of how SPLC is teaching people about how the concept of race operates beyond the skin color myth. (See below)
Toolkit for “Excerpt: Getting Real About Race” in the Ethical Consumption World
Notice: This is a draft work in progress and will grow over time…..
Mainstream USA has a difficult time getting real about the complexities of race and power, its history, politics, etc; especially those who are racially privileged and never had to think about race.
This toolkit was tailored from the original one, “Excerpt: Getting Real About Race“, which focused more on K-12 schooling experience. I will use this toolkit to provide questions to guide reflection and discussion on how the physical, social, legal and historical constructions of race impact those involved in the ethical consumption sectors, ranging from veganism, to animal rights, to ‘good food’.
In Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, H. Richard Milner IV writes, “Educators tend to struggle to address race and how it informs their work with students, parents, communities, and colleagues.” He proposes a nuanced way to conceptualize race as physical, social, legal and historical constructions. What follows are short excerpts from Rac(e)ing to Class and guiding questions that I adapted for ethical consumption. Please use these as tools for yourself as well as your community or place of work.
How do the physical, social, legal and historical constructions of race affect the ethical consumption community that I am involved with?
You can use the four questions as prompts for journal writing and silent reflection. Or, have the questions available to help facilitate a group discussion about race among colleagues. Or, you can do both.
Race is physically constructed.
In Rac(e)ing to Class, Milner writes:
Based on skin pigmentation, people in society construct ideas, characteristics, images, and belief systems about themselves and others. These physical constructions are sometimes inaccurate, but they remain nevertheless. It is important to note that physical constructions of race vary from one society to the next. For instance, constructions of race in Africa and Asia are different from constructions of race based on phenotype in North America.
1. Give an example of how race is physically constructed in ethical consumption.
2. How does the physical construction of race affect you personally or how your engage in ethical consumption?
3. How does the physical construction of race affect the demographics you are servicing and/or educating about ethical consumption?
For example, why are darker skin people who are ‘fat’, targeted as needing to be ‘educated’ more about ethical consumption than white and skinny people? How and why does racialization play a role in intersections of skin color, body size, and ethics?
4. How does the physical construction of race impact the ethical consumption sector you are involved in?
Race is socially constructed.
In Rac(e)ing to Class, Milner writes:
“Based on a range of societal information and messages, people categorize themselves and others. These social constructions are linked to preferences, worldviews, and how groups of people perform. They are based on a range of perspectives drawn from people’s interpretation of history and law, and they shape how we think about individuals and groups of people.”
I would add that most people are completely unconscious about how their interpretations and perceptions are racially biased.
1. Give an example of how race is socially constructed in ethical consumption.
2. How does the social construction of race affect you as well as how you engage in ethical consumption or even receive its teachings?
3. How does the social construction of race affect the people you work with or service within your sector of ethical consumption?
4. How does the social construction of race impact your organization or business?
Race is legally constructed.
In Rac(e)ing to Class, Milner writes:
“U.S. laws have helped us construct what race is. Landmark cases and legal policies such as the Naturalization Law (1790), Plessy v. Ferguson(1896), Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and Milliken v. Bradley (1974) have all influenced our constructions and definitions of race in U.S. society.”
1. Give an example of how race is legally constructed in your life/culture/society.
2. How does the legal construction of race affect your engagement with ethical consumption?
3. How does the legal construction of race affect the demographics you primarily service or work with (i.e., clients, customers, students, patients, etc)?
4. How does the legal construction of race impact your organization or business’s construction of ethical consumption?
If you are involved in the animal rights and/or vegan movement, do you employ images such as the above without understanding that legally, Black people were never considered human but actually animals (in the Eurocentric speciesist and colonialist racist way), while the collectivity of white people were legally constituted as fully human?
Are you aware that even though lynching Black people in the USA by using ropes and trees is illegal now, there are still legal ways to “lynch” Black people– most notably, racial profiling and deadly assaults by police officers who are still deeply impacted by the historical and legal common practices of traditionally lynching Black people?
The image also implies that race and racism are no longer significant impediments to health, happiness, and safety in Black people’s lives. It also implies that those using this image have not read the comprehensive canon of post-2000 social science and legal studies that show that white USA mainstream still conceptualize Black people as animals and deserving of being “lynched”– albeit not from ropes and trees, but for being things like too ‘uppity’ towards the police like Sandra Bland supposedly was; or being shot when you are a 12 year old boy (Tamir Rice) because systemic negrophobia has created [un]conscious racialized bias in the minds of the mainstream population who believe a little Black boy can look like a threatening “big scary” Black man.
Race is historically and geographically* constructed.
(Note: in the Original toolkit, geography is not part of racialization, but as a cultural food geographer, I cannot help but to add geography into the mix)
In Rac(e)ing to Class, Milner writes:
Historical realties of how people have been treated and have fared in a society steeped in racism and oppression also shape the ways in which people understand, talk about, and conceptualize race. For instance, Jim Crow laws, slavery, and racial discrimination influence how people conceptualize and understand race.
4. How does the historical construction of race impact your organization or business model’s sense of ethical consumption, educational outreach, and how they communicate?
For example, the history of the US Farm Bill and its impact into the present were deeply impacted by systemic racialization. How racialized minorities have been treated within the agricultural sectors of the USA influence how the mainstream food system operates today…as well as maintain the racial and socio-economic inequities within it. To obtain ethical food commodities such as ‘kale’ or ‘strawberries’, one must understand the history of racialization and its impact on the farm bill…which impacts how these foods are farmed and how they get to the plate…which impacts how each individual involved in ethical consumption, conceptualizes what a ‘just’ food system should look like.
If white people in the USA have historically to the present had safer, healthier, and easier access to food and medical resources, due to legal institutions of racism, how does this history affect your construction of how people can or should consume food in an ‘ethical’ way? Does this impact your communication model?
If you feel comfortable doing so, please respond to some of these questions in the comments field below. I am hoping to turn this into an ongoing dialog and not a monologue 😉
Also, the System of Racial Inequity in which ethical consumption exists in can be better understood through many resources including the highly acclaimed video Cracking the Codes which is accessible here: http://crackingthecodes.org . No one person in this anti-racism work I am involved in has all the answers; this is a continuum and no one is a 100% expert on these difficult subjects. I have been ‘educating’ myself about systems of racial inequity for 20 years now (in terms of formal education) and I’m still am always learning and re-learning.
Lastly, I will be writing more deeply about the above questions in my new book due out in 2016 or beginning of 2017 (see below).
I am happy to report that the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley just released the report below. Click on the image for full access. A great answer for those who have asked me over the years, “What does race have to do with ‘good food’ or sustainable farming Breeze? Why are you always talking about race? All people need to do to eat healthy is [type in recommendation that is framed as if everyone has equal access to land, food, money, etc because of what the systemic privileges of being white, middle to upper class, afford….]. It’s easy. Stop playing the race card!”
What does race have to do with ‘good food’ and farming some of you ask?
“Screw it, I’m just going to shave it all off and go bald!”
This is the first thing I think of after my first few days of work at my new position within the University of California system in October of 2015.
Upon accepting a position within the Equity and Inclusion division at UC Berkeley, I decided that I would commute to work by bicycle on the Ohlone Greenway bike and pedestrian path. I was super psyched!
And then I started thinking, “So, how does this look in terms of making myself presentable for work? How do I shove 4 years worth of afro growth into a bike helmet without needing to straighten it? Do I want to spend 15 minutes, once I get to work, trying to make my hair look like I am a professional Black woman?” (Yes, that last italicized section is a loaded term with an entire history and scholarly canon dedicated to it! Check this book out.)
The first day I arrive at work, after peddling up the hill for 20 minutes, I am sweaty. My hair is sweaty, naturally, because I exercised intensely. It kind of sucks. So, the story kind of goes like this….
I lock my bike, grab my bike bags and dash into my new building to find the closest bathroom. I remove my Deuter travel cosmetics bag, unzip, and remove my arsenal of vegan hair care products and tools:
Hard bristle brush
Soft bristle brush
Alaffia Leave in Conditioner
Wide tooth comb
Homemade spray bottle of glycerin, water, and essential oil of Lemon Balm (to spritz on my hair to mask the ‘sweaty’ smell).
I look at the arsenal, think for several seconds about my game plan, and then grab the leave-in conditioner and wide tooth comb. I lather the leave-in condition into my hair, wait 3 minutes for it to ‘set in’, and then start combing through it with the wide tooth comb. 2 minutes later I’m brushing everything back and wondering if I should put it in an afro puff or put it into two neatly tied back braids.
My mind scrambles: “Can’t I just go ‘natural’ or is it too ‘unprofessional’ my first day of work?Well, it is the division of Equity and Inclusion, so would they care if I busted out a big afro?”
I ask myself if I should I scope around the building later today to see what the other Black women are doing about their ‘professional appearance’…or, have I internalized the trauma of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ so much that I am driving myself nuts over something that is no longer a big issue? (Of course I’ve internalized it! Have you not noticed that decades long images in the USA mainstream showing ‘professional’ and ‘beautiful’ hair appearances that are straightened hair? )
I decide on putting a part down the middle of my scalp and then making two braids and then tie them back-
–shoot, I forget that I should have added the castor oil which help with ‘fly away’ hair (what’s so bad about ‘fly away’ anyway?). I roll my eyes, huff with annoyance, and then un-braid the whole thing, smother castor oil on my palms, and then massage it throughout my entire afro. A drop falls onto my shirt. Shit, this stuff does not come out! I think.
I grab a paper towel and dab it as quickly as possible– too late. I now have a quarter size spot of castor oil on my shirt.
Someone enters the bathroom and I quickly wonder to myself, “I have all these products and tools laid out and my hair is half done as castor oil drops down my forehead. Great, freaking first impression, Dr. Amie Breeze Harper. Do they wonder what they hell I’m even doing here?”
I remind myself to comb and braid my hair quickly, before the leave in conditioner starts drying.
After 5 minutes, my hair is done and I have wiped away all the castor oil that was near my forehead and hairline. I worry that perhaps my hair looks too greasy and the the castor oil will leak down my neck.
I look at the size L helmet I have on the shelf near the mirror. The inside is glistening with the olive oil I had already put on my hair from last night, before going to bed. It’s a ‘large’ helmet and I can’t even fit my hair in there.
“Amazing, right!? Like, it’s made for people with short hair, fine straight hair, or no hair!” Screams my internal monologue.
Throughout my entire work week, I do this regimen every morning, promising myself that at the end of this first week of work, I will ask my husband to shave the entire thing off…. but the end of the first week comes and I do not shave it off.
Plus, the oils in my hair seem to be degrading the inside structure of the helmet (once again, these helmets are designed with the assumption that people aren’t putting 5lbs of shea butter and other oils in their hair, each year! LOL)
I started wondering if I should start a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for helmets that fit big afros, lots of dread locs, etc and don’t fall apart from the inside out if a little yummy shea butter or black castor oil touches it.
[…this kind of reminds me of what I was trying to do when I was younger and wanted to go swimming! Come on, you know I’m not the only one who used to, or still does, plan their public swimming appearance around their hair appearance! LOL]
Despite figuring out that maybe I should wash my hair every day, to make the stinky smell go away from sweating to death while biking up the hill (I’m probably exaggerating about the ‘stinky’ smell of my hair in my own mind), I realize that after week 2 I don’t enjoy trying to wash and condition my hair every day, comb it out, braid it to fit into my helmet, only to get to work and see that the helmet made the hair look ‘funny’ with helmet pad dents imprinted on my hairdo. I end up undoing the braids once I get to work and then combing, brushing, and re-braiding it after to make sure there are no funny ‘dents’ or pieces of hair that have come out of place…then spritz with lemon balm.
(And yea, with 3 kids 6 and under, it’s kind of hard to spend a long time washing and combing through my hair in the shower, braiding it, etc without them bugging me about something they need… because goddess forbid I am given 12 minutes for my own personal hair-care regimen without a 4 year old asking me and then crying if she can have a lollipop for breakfast!)
It’s week 5 of my new job and I have finally decided to stop being angry about this (strange I’d be angry, right? I mean, it’s just long strand keratin , so why get up in a fuss about it and make it central to my bike commute!?) and just accept that it will take me 15 minutes to do my hair, once I get to work…Or maybe I’ll just shave the whole thing off like I did back in 2009 when I was a grad student and not working as a ‘professional’ (what does that mean anyway. Aren’t we all ‘professionals’ if we’re getting paid to work, period?)