bell hooks, comfort food, dealing with racism (internalized,overt, and institutional)

There is a quote that I ran across , while reading the book Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life by bell hooks and Cornel West:breaking_bread

“We deal with White supremacist assault by buying something to compensate for feelings of wounded pride and self-esteem…We also don’t talk enough about food addiction alone or as a prelude to drug and alcohol addiction. Yet, many of us are growing up daily in homes where food is another way in which we comfort ourselves.
Think about the proliferation of junk food in Black communities. You can go to any Black community and see Black folks of all ages gobbling up junk food morning, noon, and night. I would like to suggest that the feeling those kids are getting when they’re stuffing Big Macs, Pepsi, and barbecue potato chips down their throats is similar to the ecstatic, blissful moment of the narcotics addict.” (hooks 1993)

This quote made me think about MANY things. One of them is that rarely do I encounter mainstream literature about “eating problems” that investigate how these problems can be rooted in one’s way of coping with internalized racism, pressures of racialization, and whiteness as a system in the USA. As a matter of fact, most of the vegan mainstream stuff that gets published that is doing well in terms of sales, tend to assume that the expected audience is white middle class folk. Now, I’m not hating on these authors, just pointing out the “gaps” I see simply because of my experience as a black female and because I tend to look at food and health issues through a critical race, critical whiteness, and black feminist analytical lens.
I do understand that one’s book can’t cover ALL issues when trying to write a bestselling book about veganism and diet… so, these authors write something that will appeal to the mainstream which, by default in the USA, is the collective white middle class experience. Yea, it’s marketing and trying to reach out to the largest audience. I’m just wondering about books like Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven, which I read last year. I got the feeling that the expected audience are married straight white pregnant females who can “easily” transition into a whole food vegan diet during pregnancy, if they just “cared enough”. In addition, the authors are very direct about their feelings about “eating right” while pregnant and if you don’t, then you’re being an “asshole” to your body and your baby. Seriously, that is how they talk. I am thinking of how many women of color are trying to eat “right” while pregnant, and many may not necessarily find the transition easy if a) they don’t have access to salaries and stores that allow them organic foods (as it’s been shown the black and brown populations in the USA, at least, have the worse access to ‘healthy’ food), and b) they deal with racism and classism so frequently, reaching for junk food is their comforting way for dealing with surviving through a society that is still in denial about the stresses and pain caused by continuing racisms, classisms, and sexisms.

I CLEARLY remember feeling that I had to be “silent” about the racist-sexist experiences I encountered on a weekly basis, K-12, in my 98% white working class rural New England town. And I clearly remember using junk food (mostly animal based) as a way to deal with what I was not ALLOWED to bring up to my white peers and teacher: racism and expectations of Whiteness on my black female body and mind. When I was stressed about this, I reached for Chicken McNuggets; not broccli or whole grains.

Does anyone think about these things when they’re reading mainstream vegan rhetoric that “yells” at people for not “easily” transitioning into an “ethical” animal-free diet ? Has anyone read literature or other types of rhetoric that ignore how trauma from racism and expected Whiteness influence one’s relationship to comfort “junk” food products? (I put “junk” in quotes because I’m assuming “junk” is subjective).
For this post, I am not looking to bash or be hateful toward “white” folk who may not “get” what I’m talking about. Nor am I looking to be judgmental against people of color who eat “junk” food. I’m seeking compassionate and understanding dialogue around these issues, simply because I don’t READ about this stuff in the mainstream vegan and AR literature or see it in vegan outreach campaigns… but know it needs to be talked about.

Source: hooks, bell., and West, Cornel. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life Boston: South End Press, 1991.

0 thoughts on “bell hooks, comfort food, dealing with racism (internalized,overt, and institutional)

  1. This was a fascinating post for a few reasons. Because it is past my bedtime, I will number them instead of trying to construct reasonable paragraphs.

    1. If you look at eating as a coping strategy Venn diagram, I think the middle section has to be women of all races. Institutionalized stress certainly plays a role. But books like the Skinny Bitch series (aside from some of their more ridiculous claims) tell women in general that they’re doing everything wrong. The last thing women need to hear is that they’re messing up their bodies. Again. And the absolute last thing a socially pressured woman needs is to be told that one of her ways to manage the stress that society hands her daily is wrong. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “You’re all doing it wrong, but there’s a hierarchy of how wrong you are.” Like you wrote, that hierarchy reinforces the idea that those with limited access to whole, healthy foods, occupy the bottom rung.

    2. On the other hand, I think this is only one sort of vegan rhetoric. It’s a rhetoric put forth by hip female vegans. Seriously. (Not all hip female vegans use this approach by any means, but those that do use the approach fit the phrase.) There’s also the vegan rhetoric put forth in books like the Tassajara Cookbooks (Zen vegetarians, but very vegan-friendly), or by British vegans (they just consider it a choice, and not a big deal), and in the huge variety of blogs of every kind. This rhetoric acknowledges that how one eats is personal choice, and one that is not to be forced upon others. The choice of what to feed one’s body is possibly the most fundamental of all choices. I guess I should contextualize this. My sister, looking at the same data I did, understanding the world similarly to how I do, and having most of my same nutritional needs (we’re both runners), is not set up to follow a vegan diet. It’s simply not a choice that her body and mind are willing to make in concert. And it’s not like I feel differently towards her. I don’t feel better than her; I feel better for me. That’s all I can really ask of a diet. I mean, it’s not a cure for HIV. It’s just vegetables.

    3. The bigger discussion is obviously that of racism, classism, and the other -isms that infect the country. But if we’re going to address that on a food-based level, I feel like making good, healthy, whole food available and financially accessible is a first step. I live in a hippie college town in the middle of an agricultural state, so it’s super-easy for me to get ahold of cheap, fresh produce. There are systems here that could work other places, though. Farmers’ markets. CSAs. Nearly-free community gardens. Tons of support for families learning how to grow, cook, and preserve food. Positive reinforcement of healthy eating patterns instead of guilt and shame about “bad” ones. I’m not sure how that would work in a very large city (like, say, L.A.), but it worked all right in Washington DC and it works very well here.

    Thanks for posting this! Really made me think.

  2. Thank you for posting this. It’s a really important topic that isn’t really addressed, ever. What this ends up looking in underprivileged neighborhoods of color is an overrepresentation of diabetes, heart disease, and related complications, for example. These issues impact people of color at all levels, regarding health and food choices, regarding body image and self-worth (in comparison to groups we identify with and to groups we view as the dominant [usually white] culture). The dynamics that result as gender, race, and class intersect are endless, and I think people(including me) are just starting to slowly catch on about how food plays into that. Food is not a separate issue, as many people treat it. It’s part of the issue, especially as it is part of our everyday living, part of what we need to survive, much like shelter and clothing, also part of our basic human rights. I have never seen so many fast food chain restaurants as I have when I’m in Harlem or the South Bronx. And my homeless clients simply can’t afford much on their meager allotment of food stamps, definitely not unprocessed, non-GMO, organic food! They are so ill, even when they are “well.” They are on so many pills, and doctors tell them they are fine simply because the pills are sustaining them and keeping whatever levels down. Half the time I want just want to feed them vegetables.

    This issue intersects with social welfare policy (including welfare, affordable housing, etc); it intersects with the food subsidies that the meat and dairy industries get; it intersects with healthcare; it intersects with the education system (have you seen what kids eat for breakfast and what is served in school cafeterias!?)– all on the concrete level, and then there all all the things that happen within each of us, as you wrote and as I mentioned already. The list goes on.

    It’s important to think about what we are buying into, socially, when we experience veganism. Vegan rhetoric as a white rhetoric- it’s true, even when it’s compassionate and non-judgemental. It’s about who sets the standards, the choices, and what’s included. Health in general comes from the same source. The class, race, and gender distinctions of health are similar– who can afford what and why, and who looks down and whom when ideal choices can’t be made. I feel it when I eat my fancy lunch while my clients are in our office looking on. They can’t afford it. It’s not part of their food experience. To them, I’m eating “white people food,” meaning that that’s a standard and an experience that they will never reach. And if they could one day, would they? Would it mean that they are buying into the “white people” way? And is that implying that poor people of color don’t have the ability to make healthy choices even if they could? No, it’s deeper than that. It’s about the ways in which oppression scar you, deeply.

    And what kind of vegan recipes are out there, readily available? My mother cooks amazing Puerto Rican food, and since we both became vegan, she effortlessly changed the recipes from omnivore to vegan. Thank goodness! I love North American, Asian, Indian, and Greek food, but I wanted my own soul food as well. Another friend made me some vegan-friendly Afro-Caribbean food for a potluck. I have been blessed to find some vegan Persian dishes (my other culture). I mention these things because while I am privileged enough to be as vegan as I want to be and move in and out of the privileged world and the underprivileged world, to varying degrees, even within my middle class world, vegan food choices are dominated by certain cultures. And this has to do with a complex web of reasons, and I’m not pointing any fingers. It’s just interesting and important to recognize and discuss. And I would like to see it become more accessible to all, and the choices more international, particularly to and from cultures where veganism can’t be imagined. And who are the people in those cultures? How does color and income and tradition define their choices? And to be clear, that’s not to say that I think all cultures should convert to veganism as if vegans should become imperialistic. It’s to say that the choices should be broader. In certain cultures, veganism is even less normal than it is in the U.S.. And why? It’s not usual in my cultures, but it’s possible if you look hard.

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