For Whom Should Ethiopian Cuisine Be ‘Demystified?’: Vegan ‘Ethnic’ Cookbook Marketing and Assumed Whiteness

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.

TeffLove Email Image

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.

My best,


(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:

  1. How do implicit biases, created by systems of oppression (racism, ableism, cis-sexism, classism), impact your cookbook writing and/or marketing?
  2. 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?
  3. How did your feel about this blog post and the letter I wrote? What were your initial responses and why?
  4. If you are a non-White person, have you ever experienced being exotified within the ethical consumption arena in the USA?
  5. If you are a white identified person, do you consider non-white cultures ‘exotic’ and ‘mysterious’ and why?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
    1. 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?
    2. 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?

Dr. A. Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper

About the Author and The Sistah Vegan Project

Dr. Harper currently manages the Staff Diversity Initiative’s Multicultural Education Program at UC Berkeley and is the founder of the Critical Diversity Solutions. Check her profile out on LinkedIn. Inquire about Dr. A. Breeze Harper lecturing or giving a workshop at your organization, school, or business.

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

Also, learn about our other projects and how you can donate to keep the Sistah Vegan Project alive and vibrant.

The Vegan Praxis of "Black Lives Matter". 2nd Biannual Sistah Vegan Conference

The Sistah Vegan Project Presents Our 2nd Bi-Annual Conference:

“The Vegan Praxis of ‘Black Lives Matter’ : Challenging Neoliberal Whiteness While Building Anti-Racist Solidarity Amongst Vegans of Color and Allies (Before, After, and Beyond Ferguson )

Conference Date: April 24-25, 2015

Location: Online Web Conference

Please go here to official website for schedule, registration, and more: URL

Conference Organizer: Dr. A. Breeze Harper

[Video] Scars of Suffering and Healing: A Black Feminist Perspective on Intersections of Oppression

This is the talk I gave at the Activist’s Table Conference, which took place at UC Berkeley on March 15, 2014. It was sponsored by the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. I talk about Sistah Vegan and also read from and analyze my newest book, Scars, a social fiction that intersects issues of racism, internalized homophobia, and speciesism to name a few. This is my first public presentation of my new book and reading excerpts from the much anticipated novel.

In addition, check out the graffiti on the wall of the bathroom stall that was right down the hall from where I gave my talk. Perfect timing!


Breeze Harper's new novel. Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England


Sense Publishers will be publishing my latest book in 2014. I am very excited. The painting above will be used in the design of the cover. It was created by Sarah Dorsey after she read the novel.

Scars is a novel about whiteness, racism, and breaking past the boundaries of normative heterosexuality, as experienced through eighteen year old Savannah Penelope Sales. Savannah is a Black girl, born and raised in a white, working class, and rural New England town. She is in denial of her lesbian sexuality, harbors internalized racism about her body, and is ashamed of being poor. She lives with her ailing mother whose Emphysema is a symptom of a mysterious past of suffering and sacrifice that Savannah is not privy to. When Savannah takes her first trip to a major metropolitan city for two days, she never imagines how it would affect her return back home to her mother…or her capacity to not only love herself, but also those who she thought were her enemies.  Scars is about the journey of friends and family who love Savannah and try to help her heal, all while they too battle their own wounds and scars of being part of multiple systems of oppression and power. Ultimately, Scars makes visible the psychological trauma and scarring that legacies of colonialism have caused to both the descendants of the colonized and the colonizer…and the potential for healing and reconciliation for everyone willing to embark on the journey.

As a work of social fiction born out of years of critical race, Black feminist, and critical whiteness studies scholarship, Scars engages the reader to think about USA culture through the lens of race, whiteness, working-class sensibilities, sexual orientation, and how rural geography influences identity development. What makes this novel unique its emphasis on Black and lesbian teen experience of whiteness and racism within rural geographies. Often, interrogations of whiteness and socio-economic class are left out of fictional literature within popular lesbian and gay themed novels. My intention with Scars is to fill this gap by creating emotionally intense dialogues among four primary characters. Once I have a completed ‘back cover synopsis’ and received approval from the publisher, I’ll post more about the book.

Revisioning Food Sovereignty: "Trayvon Martin, PETA, and the Packaging of Neoliberal Whiteness" [Scripps College, Sept 25 2013]

On September 25, 2013 I gave a lecture at Scripps College in Ontario, California: “Trayvon Martin, PETA&The Packaging of Neoliberal Whiteness”. Below is the video recording for those who could not attend. It’s part of their Humanities Institute Fall 2013 symposium on Food.

Part I

Part II

I want to thanks Scripps College for inviting me to speak. I had an amazing time and they were very mindful of my needs and making sure I got what I needed (i.e. transportation from the airport and food, food, food, as at this point being 34 weeks pregnant, I’m an ravenous! LOL) .

If you would like to invite me to come speak at your organization, institution, or similar, please contact me at sistahvegan(at) gmail(dot) com. Also, if you enjoyed the content of what I spoke about during this Scripps College talk, feel free to check out the Sistah Vegan Web Conference that took place on September 14, 2013. The entire 8 hours was recorded. You can click here to see what speaker line-up and the talks that were given.

ScrippsFlyer Breeze Harper

Here is the poster of the advertised talk above and also a blog piece you can read that I wrote. Toward the end of the blog posting, I share my mother’s ‘fears’ of me talking about whiteness and jeopardizing my safety; this occurred after I shared the news that I was going to give my talk at Scripps and told her the title and content of it.

On PETA, Trayvon Martin, and Being a Black Critical Race Researcher in White Spaces


The full title of this talk is actually “‘Never Be Silent’ and the Packaging of Neoliberal Whiteness: On Trayvon Martin, PETA, and Being a Black Critical Race Researcher in White Spaces”. I just could’t fit the entire title in the WordPress title setup box.

I gave this talk on June 4, 2013 at University of California, Davis for the GGG Speaker Series. I critique the ‘cruelty-free’ products that PETA promotes in their Vegan Shopping Guide which is accessible online. I use critical race materialism and decolonial world-systems analysis to question how any commodity sold to us vegans as ‘cruelty-free’, can truly be ethical if it relies on human exploitation. For example, I speak about racialized-sexualized exploitation of indigenous Mexican females to harvest ‘cheap’ tomatoes for the Global North. I also question how PETA can support a plethora of cocoa products that are ‘free’ from animal-products, yet the cocoa from companies such as Nestle and Hershey source their cocoa using African Child slavery.

I examine PETA’s superficial use of Trayvon Martin’s murder as a way to ‘boost’ their animal liberation campaign, and argue that PETA falsely constructs Trayvon Martin’s tragedy as ‘true racism’ they are against. The problem is that PETA never engages a dialogue about the structural racism and coloniality that make the ‘cruelty-free’ vegan commodities they advocate, possible. It is contradictory to their ‘intersectional’ animal liberation campaign that asks people to “Never Be Silent” about injustices in the world.

At the end of this talk, I explain why I am ‘nervous’ and ‘out of breath”: because it is emotionally difficult for me, many times, to show up in a predominantly white space, as a black critical race feminist in a supposed ‘post-racial’ era, and talk about ‘whiteness’ and ‘white supremacy’ to a predominantly white audience.

I have to admit that the most notable memory from this experience was the first question I received during the Q&A. This question was from a white male who said he was completely unfamiliar with the Trayvon Martin incident. He asked that I provide him information about it. I do not expect everyone to know everything that is going on in the USA, but there is something to be said about the question about Trayvon Martin being asked. As a ‘survival’ rule, I personally need to be cognizant of racial profiling of us brown and black folk, here in the USA, so I stay up to date on these tragedies.

If you enjoy the work I have done, if it has helped you, your organization, your students, your family, etc, and you want to see it go to the next level of a non-profit social justice organization, please contribute what you can by clicking on the GOFUNDME Link below. If you do not want to use this method, but prefer paypal, click on the link on the right upper corner of this blog page to donate via PAYPAL.


'Racist cunt' and Cyberbullying: Ruminations on the Troll Life



Over the past few years, I have blogged about whiteness, racism, and veganism in a way that is mindful, holistic, and critical. Despite my attempts to present such ‘sensitive’ issues in scholarly and mindful ways, I have experienced comments that are downright violent and full of hateful rage from white-identified people. Most recently, someone posted a response to my 2012 blog article about the racial politics of dread lock wearing and cultural appropriation. The exploration of the topic earned me the label of ‘racist cunt’ from commenter “geoff” on April 8, 2013 at 844am. Thank goodness for cyberspace; what normally would not be said directly to my face, in a real physical space (like in my former university or  my professional place of employment), can be now be spewed towards my avatar in the comfort of one’s home, library, or even a smartphone/tablet from the commuter train.

The other summer, I spoke of my experience at a Buddhism retreat for women of African descent. The retreat mindfully acknowledged how the repetitive trauma of structural, institutional, and individual acts of racism-sexism have uniquely shaped our Black female collective consciousnesses. My open-hearted blog post about my spiritually healing experience at this retreat was met with easy dismissal and calling me ‘racist’, by white male Buddhist practitioners. It would seem that they sincerely did not fully understand what ‘racism’ actually means; or how they as beneficiaries of whiteness in the USA (or in other white settler nations), have probably never had to find a healing retreat that mind fully acknowledges their experiences of surviving through a society that simply covets whiteness (phenotypes as well as ‘whiteness’ as performance and ‘ways of thinking’); a society that is usually repulsed by those bodies and systems of thought that deviate from “whiteness.”

Instead of engaging with the lived realities of ‘the other’ in a mindfully engaging way, it would seem that a significant number of these folk who don’t agree with me resort to what I would consider ‘the troll life’: cyber-bullying, the usage of discursive violence, etc., versus more open-hearted ways of explaining how or why they disagree with my interpretations/analyses of my own experiences with race, whiteness, and power in the USA. I have actually never responded to those engaging in the “troll life” in the same violent ways that they have done to me. Sure, go ahead agree with or disagree with someone…. But why not do it in a way that is not violent? What purpose does it serve to resort to the “troll life?” I don’t believe that anyone deserves to receive hate filled rage and discursive violence; after all, when has anger and hate created love and understanding amongst people? If I were to go that ‘hate-rage’ route,  once I jump into their world of trolling logic, it is a lost battle. Instead, I have chosen to use my energy in other ways. However, recently, I have began to revisit the overall meaning of such hateful and violent language that is so easily used against me by these folk who end up on my blog-space.

Over the past 8 months, I applied to a lot of full-time academic, non-profit, and industry positions. I have easily applied to over 100 full time positions at this point. Even though I know that the job market is intensely fierce right now, I have been quite perplexed that I have not even been called for one initial ‘phone screening’ interview. I have begun to wonder what the likelihood is that these ‘honest’ but hateful feelings towards my online articles about race, whiteness, and power may potentially represent how I am actually viewed by those that look over my resume and cover letter. Do they eventually conduct an Internet search of my name, only to find my Sistah Vegan blog and its ‘confrontational’ topics are not ‘suited’ for a ‘post-racial’ USA?

However, I also want to give most people the benefit of the doubt and suggest that ‘discomfort’ and ‘defensiveness’ around my work may not even be a ‘conscious’ act; it could very well be dysconscious. Negative and uncomfortable reactions to my ‘online presence’ could be at the deeply somatic level. Perhaps most of the mainstream do not even know how to begin to interpret or come to terms with their reactions to what my work means or represents within their lives and the overall scheme of power, race, gender, and [‘white’] nation-building. Even though it was back in 2005, I will never forget the plethora of hateful comments made about my initial call for papers for the Sistah Vegan anthology. White vegans and vegetarians were angered by the idea that racialization and gender in the USA could influence one’s practice and rationale of veganism. I even ended up analyzing a vegan site’s 40+ pages of ‘annoyed’ white vegans’ responses to my CFP. I turned it into a Masters Thesis and published an article from it the other year in a peer-reviewed volume.

For my own highly degreed self, what does it mean that despite getting a PhD with critical race studies oriented emphasis in a social science (critical food geographies), it wasn’t/isn’t enough to earn the ‘respect’ of not being a recipient of such hateful rage? After all, I’m using ‘social science’ training from a PWI to ‘show’ that racism, whiteness, and power are very ‘real’ in a ‘post-racial’ USA. Graduating summa cum-laude from Harvard Master’s program, as well as from my University of California-Davis PhD program, having received the Dean’s Award at Harvard for my “critical race feminist” thesis, or having received the two-year GSRM UCDavis Fellowship to academically theorize about race and food does not ‘yield’  a pass to exempt me from such trolling hate.

Whether it is direct, unconscious, or dysconscious, if this how I am seen (i.e. ‘racist cunt’) by a significant number of [white] people , then what does it mean, or should it mean, for my future scholarship, activism, and my search for post-PhD full time employment? What does it mean for so many of us non-white women in white-settler nations who are doing similar work with love mindfulness, only to experience similar hateful reactions? And even the job market is really ‘tough’ right now, is it ‘equally’ as tough across the board, or does it become significantly tougher and more fierce when one does the type of work that I do while doing it in a body that is not ‘markedly white’?

If you enjoy these types of dialogues and want to keep on supporting the Sistah Vegan Project, feel free to donate what you can by clicking below on gofundme. You can find out all about our goal to turn the Sistah Vegan Project into an official 501 c 3 non-profit organization!


[Fountain] penning whiteness as the civilized norm


In January of 2013, I was in Munich, Germany walking around downtown. I adore the art of pre-digital writing tools such as parchment paper and fountain pens, so naturally I became excited when I saw a store that sold fountain pens. I went in and had a terrific time looking at the hundreds of styles of fountain pens, ranging  in price from 5 Euros to over 5,000 Euros.

But I did notice something that I have always noticed when looking at the ‘special’ editions of fountain pens that have been sold by the most ‘elite’ fountain pen companies: the special edition commemorates and perpetuates the narrative that the greatest artists, writers, philosophers and scientists are always white/lighter skinned people from the Occident (i.e. Europe).


W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Nella Larsen fall into my personal category of “greatest thinkers” that I would love to see represented in a line of commemorative fine fountain pens. Thus yet, I have never seen such commemoration of these ‘types’ of great thinkers while I have been living in the global West. While perusing fountain pens on on-line stores, I have failed to see anything like this as well. Of course there are many reasons for this, but the most obvious to me is that my “great thinker’s” ideas do not promote a ‘civilized norm’ for the producers and collective clientele of fine writing pens such as Mont Blanc. If anything, their ideas, political stance, activism, etc., greatly contest the normativity of Eurocentricism as the benchmark of “superior” art, math, science, and philosophy. And yes, I do know that companies like Mont Blanc are trying to appeal to a demographic of people that can afford $3000+ pens, and that this demographic is most likely white and of European descent…. But, I just wanted to share my thoughts of what was going on through my head while looking at the ‘special edition’ of fountain pens.


What are your thoughts about this?

On Buddhist Sanghas, Divesting in Post-racial Whiteness, and Nina Simone

This blog is a continuation of my initial observations about normative whiteness at the San Francisco Zen Center’s 50th Anniversary celebration as well as my second posting about those observations/feelings.

A. Breeze Harper

This past weekend I attended the Spirit Rock retreat, “A Day of Healing for Women of African Descent”. It’s a Buddhist meditation center out in Woodacre, California. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and Konda Mason led the retreat. It was 8 hours long. I have never participated in anything like this before. I felt completely at home. And the funny thing is that about 7 or 8 people commented on my earrings and knew who it was (LOL). I was wearing Angela Davis… but I also wanted to share with you that Nina Simone was played on the sound system in the space we were together in. Amazing feeling that we collectively knew who Nina Simone was, the depth of her words, what she represented etc. “We are listening to Nina Simone… Angela Davis is on Breeze’s earrings.”  The song Four Women, by Nina Simone, echoed through the air:

My skin is black, my arms are long
My hair is woolly, my back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again
What do they call me? My name is aunt Sarah
My name is aunt Sarah, aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow, my hair is long
Between two worlds I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia, my name is Saffronia

My skin is tan, my hair fine
My hips invite you, my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me? My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown, my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see, my life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days, because my parents were slaves
What do they call me? My name is Peaches

And in that space, with these women who were in attendance (and that includes the ones who not only registered , but those in the room in spirit such as Nina Simone and India.Arie) I could be myself. With these women, there seemed to already be an understanding of how racism, colorism, class struggle, sexism/sexual violence, whiteness are unfortunate realities in our collective lives; that we need to heal from it. For me, there was no frustration of trying to ‘prove’ that it is real. For me, there was no high blood pressure being raised to provide a list of ‘published materials’ to educate anyone about the realities of racialized-sexualized violence. And I loved the love and openness gifted to all women of African descent there. We were all of different hues, ages, sexual orientations, able-bodied status, age, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. I know that in many cases, just because it’s a ‘black’ space doesn’t mean that all women of African descent will feel at home. I acknowledge the severe issues of colorism, transphobia, homophobia, and ‘you must only be in romantic relationship with a black person’, that exists in the collective USA community of African descent. This space was truly one of healing, because I didn’t hear any of that nonsense being perpetuated. It was great that I didn’t have to ‘defend’ why my husband is a white man (you wouldn’t believe how many times I have been questioned about how my soul-mate is not a man of African descent by black people!)

This past weekend was such a different space to be in, in comparison to my experience with San Francisco Zen Center and Zen Center at Green Gulch. And I have to admit that the Dharma teachings really “click” with me when it came from the teachings through Zenju and Konda. With their personal experiences with the traumas and anger of racism, sexual violence, the desire to want to be an activist and change it, etc, the buddhadharma truly resonates with me. I believe that their method of teaching the buddhadharma is significantly shaped by the lived experience of being racialized and sexualized as “black” and “female” in the USA. It’s called what Katherine McKittrick refers to as a black female socio-spatial epistemology. See her book Demonic Grounds and she will break down how we develop our knowledge-base (epistemology) through our embodied experiences in racialized-sexualized spaces in the USA. What does the collective knowledge system of women of African descent look like, particularly since it has been produced through geographies of violence (lynching, rape, Jim Crow, racial neobliberalism, racialized uneven development)…and geographies of resistance (the space that Nina Simone’s words creates for women of African descent; the space we were participating in at Spirit Rock that helped us ‘defy’ the ridiculous notion that America is ‘post-racial’ and that having such a ‘racially exclusive’ event ‘keeps racism alive’)?

Yes, there are a lot of challenges that non-white racialized people face, even in spaces of Buddhism, when we want to have such events, or write solely about the fusion of being a practitioner of Buddhism and being a non-white racialized subject.  I remember Angel Kyodo Williams had difficulty finding largely white Buddhist bookstores who would sell her book (which is about being black and practicing Zen). They saw that as a way of ‘creating divisions amongst human beings.’ In my opinion, her book is a literary space of resistance against the devastating consequences of perpetuating the myth that the only real Buddhism is one entrenched in ‘post-raciality’ : Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (Compass)

And I don’t mean to knock the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness that I have really only experienced Buddhism in. I do appreciate what I have received from them and the relationships that I have developed… but I simply don’t get the same “Click! I get it!”, that I did at the retreat. I think with the exception of a few times I have spent talking to Abbott Sojun Mel Weistman in which I “get it”, no one else in the other Buddhist spaces of whiteness has really made the Buddhadharma click with me the way Zenju Earthlyn has. As a matter of fact, it was Zenju Earthlyn’s book Seeking Enchantment that really helped me “see” what the “purpose” could be in bringing the dharma into my rage and anger from racial trauma and normative whiteness. The other people I give due credit to are Thich Nhat Hanh and Jan Willis..

A lot of women were in attendance at the retreat, which tells me that this was REALLY needed, and that women of African descent are interested in what the Buddhadarma offers (and I say this in response to a plethora of Buddhist practitioners- usually white- who make the claim that black people have no interest in what the Buddhadharma offers.) Us women of African descent craved this fellowship and healing space. I am so grateful for Zenju and Konda for bringing the Buddhadharma to us and truly understanding where so many of us were coming from (in terms of needing to heal from the anger and trauma of racial and sexual violence). And what was even more beautiful was that the event was “accessible”. They had a sliding door registration fee of $25-$55, but also, they said that no one would be turned away due to lack of funds. And if you didn’t have a car to get out there, then there were car pools. Accessibility is key, and I think about the various times I have wanted to do certain retreats and go to certain Buddhist retreats, or just stay there for a few days but it was clearly only available to wealthier people.

I know there are many “forms” to engage in Buddhism. It would seem that the forms/styles that Zenju and Konda offered seemed to “click” with many of us there, who couldn’t quite “get” how we were perpetuating the cycles of our own suffering. After spending the whole day there, I realized how ridiculous it is that I have spent so much time in largely ‘post-racial’ white dominated spaces in which I physically and emotionally exhaust myself trying to explain what “racism is”, how “whiteness operates”, and that, “No, I’m not making this sh*t up in the head.” I have been depriving myself from these types of healing space my nearly entire life. At the end of the day of that retreat, I really asked myself, “What would happen if I stopped participating in certain spaces in which I can never just be ‘me’? What would happened if I shifted and just focused on spaces like the ones today?” Maybe I should not stop participating all together, but rather really limit my time in spaces in which ‘post-racial’ whiteness is not really acknowledged as ‘problematic’ (and by this, I don’t mean all white spaces or white bodied spaces. I am speaking specifically of spaces of whiteness in which the subjects of structural racism and implications of whiteness are ignored as significant problems). Maybe I should consider stoping my engagement with all the same questions, ‘Well, I don’t understand white privilege or my whiteness. Can you please tell me? Can you please educate me?’ Because it’s obviously really just strained me; and coupled with the facts that I NEVER get paid to spend HOURS of my life each month, educating people for ‘free’, yet I’m unable to pay for my tuition to finish my doctoral program, adds more to such stress.

I invest my time into critical whiteness/race awareness education for the racial status quo, but I’m not being ‘invested in’ in terms of getting help or assistance for me to finish the very education that makes it possible for me to teach the collectivity of white folk who ask me to teach them for free. I know I should not be expecting to get rich off of what I do, but it would be nice to be able to pay basic bills, complete my education, etc. I was reminded of the concept of Dāna, yesterday, as a form of appreciation and investing into a belief system of harmlessness and the people who uphold it that I truly believe in. I believe in Zenju and Konda. And I also believe deeply that though they taught us with love and open hearts, they should not be doing this for ‘free.’ We live in an economy in which cash-money is a very necessary energy for survival.  The women accepted any Dāna we could offer. This made me think about how so many of us black females are simply not ‘invested’ in, in the USA. We are usually ‘divested in’; this is how I understand how structural and institutional racisms, as well as the machinery of whiteness, operate. Too often, black women are simply expected to be [white] society’s emotional and physical mammies. Too often we give A LOT of our selves but when it is time for us to be invested in, it is usually not reciprocated in terms of monetary investment.

Zenju and Konda should not have to bare the burden of such expectations and I was glad that the women at the retreat contributed Dāna to these two wonderful spirits. Investing in them, their work, is investing in women of African descent who are committed to resisting the violence of what Roland Barthes calls post-empire whiteness (see the chapter  Theorizing White Consciousness in a Post-Empire World: Barthes, Fanon, and the Rhetoric of Love)  and I call neoliberal whiteness (another way to refer to this is post-colonial whiteness); it is a divestment in structural racism, a divestment in spaces of post-racial normative whiteness, and a divestment in other legacies of racialized colonialism. I invested in Zenju’s newest book, Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner

. And as I think about these concepts of investment vs. divestment, I have started thinking about if my participation in sanghas of ‘post-racial whiteness ‘(well, more like ‘post-racial’ middle to upper class whiteness), whether my dana over the past 5 years to these spaces, has been a ‘divestment’ or an ‘investment’ for myself (as well as women of African descent that I rarely, if ever, find in these spiritual spaces.) Tough questions I am still trying to grapple with….

I also realized that I don’t think I responded to the San Francisco Zen Center the way I deeply and truly wanted to. I have to think about this and figure out how to articulate what I mean in the near future, but I realized that when I met with Abbott Stucky to discuss the ‘meaning’ of my blog post about the whiteness of the 50th year SFZC celebration, I didn’t really fully engage in the way I wanted to because I think to some extent, I continue to be incredibly overwhelmed and exhausted from explaining “whiteness” to white institutions (despite me ‘thinking’ it is my calling to do so… and that’s another story for another time I guess). And not only am I exhausted, but I still wrestle deeply with the fears and the repercussions of being “honest” to white organizations or institutions about “whiteness” (even if they ask me to be ‘honest’). I will have to sit on this a little more, but I do struggle through my fears, trying to be more transparent and honest. I think that such fears are something that is hard to explain to the collectivity of white males that I have interacted with throughout my life (I say ‘collectivity’ to indicate that it’s a theme I see from the majority, but it’s not necessarily all). I don’t hear the same fears from them of being punished or reprimanded for speaking the ‘truth’ about the realities of sexual and/or racial violence and injustice that is produced by the machinery of whiteness; their conscious or unconscious possessive investment in whiteness (see George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness) simply protects them from it or/and makes them oblivious to it. And it makes sense, because they collectively aren’t usually ‘victims’ of racialized-sexualized violence within the machinery whiteness (check out Steve Martinot’s book Machinery of Whiteness), so why WOULD they have such fears? My apologies if this is not coming across as articulately as I’d like it to. I ‘fail’ so often at trying to be “me”, which means being fully honest and transparent in talking to “white” collectivity (even in ‘mindful’ compassionate oriented Buddhist Sanghas) about whiteness.

Yes, let’s talk about ‘fear.’ I do have fear. I’m not going to lie. I have tremendous fear. Fear holds so many of us back, regardless of our racial or ethnic experience.

I have collective cultural memories/images of “punishment” of black racialized people being retaliated against for trying to be transparent, honest, or changing the way things are. I have images of lynching. I have images of police brutality. I have images of chain gang workers. I have the memories of friends and family telling me how they have been retaliated against for trying to reveal, expose, talk about and teach about whiteness and racism. I have images of so much… more than images… it’s deeper than that. It is somatic. I can tell myself intellectually that I should not focus on that past or on that collective history of racialized violence that occurred to ‘us’ to make sure the status quo’s possessive investment in whiteness is not ‘taken down’… but the somatic takes over and I am shut down at being FULLY ME because I feel like I need to survive….

I remember a type of fear the impeded my response at Green Gulch 3-4 years ago, after the Sunday public lecture. It was during lunch, outside. A white woman told me and a Chinese woman that she didn’t understand labels like “African American” or “Black American.” The conversation was a long time ago, but I remember I was briefly explaining that I was a new graduate student interested in African American females and vegan food studies. The white woman said with confidence, “What’s the point of referring to people that way? I mean, racism would just disappear if we’d stop referring to each other like that.” I remember I  and a Chinese woman were sitting at that table and being blown away by such ignorance of how racism and whiteness operate; how it could simply be ‘erased’ if you (and by ‘you’, the white woman meant us non-white people) didn’t engage in identity politics. And this white woman wasn’t trying to be mean, she was ‘sincere’ with her ‘understanding’ of how to eradicate racism. I remember being too scared to reply to this white woman with complete honesty. The Chinese woman simply shook her head at the white woman and said, “You don’t understand.” It was all she could really say. I could feel the frustration in her response as she was shaking her head. I could feel how she wanted to say more, but simply couldn’t. I know we both wanted to, but I felt emotionally paralyzed…But now I realized what I could have said to this white woman: “My friend, there are two things you should know: ‘Forget that I am Black….and never forget that I am Black.'” That would have been a perfect answer for that situation.

Because that it much of what I learned during the retreat. Yes, I am a woman of African Descent; a black female racialized-sexualized subject…. But, how can we be mindful of what that means? How do we understand its impact on our lives but at the same time, not let it be the defining factor of our life?  How do we forget that we are Black and never forget that we are Black and how do zazen and the precepts allow us to find liberation?

On SF Zen Center, Addressing Whiteness in Buddhism, and Moving Forward


This is the second part of the ongoing dialogue started from my August 2012 blogged observations. This blog was about my participation in San Francisco Zen Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. Below is a video of me sharing information about a book (see picture below) to help interested parties move forward in engaging with the implications of normative whiteness within predominantly white Buddhist sanghas. I recommended this book to Abbott Stucky of the San Francisco Zen Center at the end of August 2012 and they have ordered it for the sangha. Thanks SF Zen Center for meeting with me and hearing my take on mindful engagement about the implications of whiteness in predominantly white communities/institutions.

Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Aar Academy Ser)
by Joseph Cheah