I get requests all the time to support a wellness, animal rights, vegan site, organization, book, campaign or new health/food product that is framed through post-racial and neoliberal capitalist logics. What is intriguing to me is that the emails I receive state that after reviewing my Sistah Vegan site, they believe my site would be perfect to support their cause.
19/20 times what they want me to support has NOTHING to do with intersectional anti-racism, critical engagement with systemic racism– or even critical engagement with what human beings (and non-human beings) were potentially exploited to bring that commodity’s ingredients to the market. If anything, the way they frame their campaigns, products, books, etc., reinforce unequal racial and class power dynamics already operating within a white supremacist capitalist and heteropatriarchal system.
When I’m contacted, rarely, if ever, does someone write something like, “…we’d also like to see what WE CAN DO to support the work that you are doing. What can we do to eradicate systemic racism, not perpetuate anti-Blackness rooted in the fabric of the USA, etc.?” I actually DO expect this to be asked if they in fact have read through my site and claim, “We love the work that you’re doing.”
I was asked to support a book by writing a preface to a book by a white identified vegan who wrote that people making fun of her for being vegan was the ‘same’ as racism. But it was clear she didn’t know what systemic racism was or how to be an ally but wanted me to support her experience of being treated the same as a ‘racist’ would treat her. I patiently and politely sent her a long email explaining this was inaccurate and something I can’t support.
I was asked to support a nutrition publication that was clearly a cis-sexist framing of food and health for women and men. This is despite my website always pointing out the transphobia and cissexism embedded in mainstream health, food, and nutrition publications focused on producing a ‘moral’ and ‘healthy’ white body.
I frequently have organizations contacting me about how I can support them to get non-white people ‘on board with veganism’ when it’s clear it’s a missionary approach and they don’t care about first asking how they can be allies to both Sistah Vegan and those communities they want to ‘enlighten’.
I am genuinely curious about these requests because it’s almost always white identified people/organizations (19/20 times) that are contacting me. They probably don’t consider themselves to be consciously in collusion with systemic racism and white supremacy…yet, their framing of whatever they want me to support is in collusion with these systems.
Maybe those contacting me don’t realize that this is the negative impact they are having on me (and other intersectional activist vegans of color they may be contacting). I don’t mind being contacted if the message clearly states some type of awareness or concern around being allies to eradicating systemic racism, anti-Blackness, white supremacist based racial caste system, etc. Just some food for thought.
About Dr. A. Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a senior diversity and inclusion strategist forCritical Diversity Solutions, a seasoned speaker, and author of books and articles related to critical race feminism, intersectional anti-racism, and ethical consumption. As a writer, she is best known as the creator and editor of the groundbreaking anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society(Lantern Books 2010). Dr. Harper has been invited to deliver many keynote addresses and lectures at universities and conferences throughout North America. In 2015, her lecture circuit focused on the analysis of food and whiteness in her book Scarsand on “Gs Up Hoes Down:” Black Masculinity, Veganism, and Ethical Consumption (The Remix)which explored how key Black vegan men use hip-hop methods to create “race-conscious” and decolonizing approaches to vegan philosophies. In 2016, she collaborated with Oakland’s FoodFirst’s Executive Director Dr. Eric Holt-Gimenez to write the backgrounder Dismantling Racism in the Food System, which kicked offFoodFirst’s series on systemic racism within the food system.
Dr. Harper is the founder of the Sistah Vegan Project which has put on several ground-breaking conferences with emphasis on intersection of racialized consciousness, anti-racism, and ethical consumption (i.e., veganism, animal rights, Fair Trade). Last year she organized the highly successful conference The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matterwhich can be downloaded.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.