Daily Archives: May 22, 2010

Greenness, racism, and class.

There is a fascinating article over at Racialicious; I highly recommend it:

Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)

The article is good; the comment string following is far more thoughtful than the average string of blog comments.  This one particularly hits a nail on the head:

“It reminds me of the “bike to work” movement. That is also portrayed as white, but in my city more than half of the people on bike are not white. I was once talking to a white activist who was photographing “bike commuters” and had only pictures of white people with the occasional “black professional” I asked her why she didn’t photograph the delivery people, construction workers etc. … ie. the black and Hispanic and Asian people… and she mumbled something about trying to “improve the image of biking” then admitted that she didn’t really see them as part of the “green movement” since they “probably have no choice” –

I was so mad I wanted to quit working on the project she and I were collaborating on.

So, in the same way when people in a poor neighborhood grow food in their yards … it’s just being poor– but when white people do it they are saving the earth or something.

And YES black people on bikes and with gardens DO have an awareness of the environment. Surprisingly so! These values are in our communities and they are good values. My Grandmother was an organic gardener before it was “cool” –My mother believed in composting all waste and recycling whatever could be reused– it was a religious thing. God hates waste.

Makes one think.  And it makes me, at least, really glad that these conversations are happening.

This is not to say that activists in the sustainable food movement are unconcerned with issues of identity, but that their rhetoric tends to disallow discussions on race, history, and food in a number of ways. First, Pollan and others situate the current state of American consumption in a patriarchal paradigm. These writers speak about a disappearance of food culture that for the most part accompanies male privilege. For example, Pollan, in an article for the New York Times on cooking and entertainment aptly titled “Out of the Kitchens, Onto the Couch,” explores the relationship between second-wave feminism and the gender politics of cooking. He argues that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique convinced women to regard their housework, specifically cooking, as drudgery. Friedan did not, in fact, construct this sentiment herself; she merely observed the existent trends in white women’s attitudes about food and housewifery. Pollan goes on to describe how Julia Child inspired his mother and other women like her, empowering them to channel their creativity into the kitchen. This is apt praise for the lively and engaging cook, but can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?

Second, the emphasis on the local food economy, though admirable, has certain anti-global and overly nationalist undertones. Let us take the example of Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms, featured in many of Pollan’s books, as well as the movies Food Inc. and Fresh!. Salatin is an ex-lawyer, of considerable means, who moves to the countryside, establishes a dynamic, organic, solar-powered farm, and sells top-quality animal products at top-quality dollar. If the nation is truly to scale up sustainable foods, we cannot fixate on the early image of the American farmer as white, male, and conservative. Instead, we must acknowledge (as USDA statistics tell us) that the face of farming is changing, and women and people of color will continue to grow in number as stewards of sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, we need to consider the real impact of foods we purchase, rather than mindlessly buying produce labeled “local” and “organic.” The United States supports a lot of global agriculture through its food purchases, and this is a relationship we should not break off entirely. True, we can do more to support efficient, environmentally friendly purchasing, but we should also not be too hasty to reject globalization.

Finally, the major voices in food are not talking about race and class as often as they should. Food justice is fundamentally a race and class issue. Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation elucidates labor practices that disproportionately affect people of color, but does not engage the issue of race specifically. Partly, this stagnancy is a matter of perception: after all, activists of color like Bryant Terry and Winona La Duke do brilliant work in their communities with regards to food justice. For some reason, however, their work goes largely underappreciated.

All social movements need a variety of voices, but I argue that food reform requires this diversity even more urgently because it is so universal in its reach. And if we can reach all those voices, then think of all the activists we will have as allies—feminists, anti-racists, interfaith leaders, and so on—interested and involved because food justice speaks to the needs of their communities and their call for action (activists: this is on you too—get on board!). As consumers of this kind of liberal rhetoric, we need to demand that the powers and big hitters in the food world diversify their representations. The food movement can only grow more powerful for it.

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Comments

  1. Amaryah wrote:

    The over-representation of white men is often my problem with the sustainable food movement. There are so many people of color doing brilliant work for food justice but all we keep hearing and seeing are the same folks.

    I lived with a white locavore and urban gardener the past nine months, and all he read were books by white dudes (with the occasional white women and vandana shiva)about food. And I was always thinking, how do you expect to bring true food justice if the people you’re reading are just as blind as you are?

  2. Blackandalive wrote:

    I do a lot of work in local food and green markets. We run a food co-op and buy food from local farmers. We operate in the inner-city. The majority of the people doing this are not white and women. I also know people who grow food in the city– again most are not white and most are women.

    I think you are letting the people who write the books that get reviewed in the big papers be the faces and voices of the local and organic movement even though a lot of the people doing the work are not just white men. I have not even read any of these books. I don’t know who these people are other than they are famous and “highly respected” by white people who always gush at me and tell me I’d love the book. I may yet look at it– but really? The whole thing just leaves me feeling invisible again. As does this article, to be honest.

    It is NOT a white movement. But as it is with many things when people show up to ask questions the assume the white men in the room must be the ones in charge.

    But, I love our green market, and I love cooking and the good things we have built.

  3. Du Liniang wrote:

    The United States supports a lot of global agriculture through its food purchases, and this is a relationship we should not break off entirely. True, we can do more to support efficient, environmentally friendly purchasing, but we should also not be too hasty to reject globalization.

    I’ve never considered all the “local food” rhetoric to be nationalistic, but it makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure that I can completely stand by the argument to buy global for the sake of maintaining food relationships with other countries, though. Especially in light of an environment crisis like the BP oil spill, the idea of non-local food as being covered in oil hits a lot harder. How is it ever really efficient or economically friendly to consume a product grown that’s flown in even from another coast (to speak in American terms), much less from another country?

  4. brett wrote:

    hell yes.

    with regard to “we cannot fixate on the early image of the American farmer as white, male, and conservative,” i have not seen any progress on the race side in the food movement in my area, but the other two at least seem to be on their way. i went to see salatin speak recently and he made some “kids these days!”-type comment about slackers with their facial piercings and tattoos and such…which was about half the audience, because that’s what all the non-corporate farmers here look like.

    of course, no one touched on race at all.

  5. n wrote:

    Let me give props to a sister- Majora Carter. She was at the Bronx Food Summit earlier this month

    “In her opening remarks, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx described her hope for high-yield urban agriculture, which she intends to support through her newly launched American City Farms program. Her vision is to make starting urban farm models as simple as opening a fast food franchise, but with wildly different health outcomes. She calls such efforts “monuments to hope and possibility” for this neighborhood.”

  6. Blackandalive wrote:

    It reminds me of the “bike to work” movement. That is also portrayed as white, but in my city more than half of the people on bike are not white. I was once talking to a white activist who was photographing “bike commuters” and had only pictures of white people with the occasional “black professional” I asked her why she didn’t photograph the delivery people, construction workers etc. … ie. the black and Hispanic and Asian people… and she mumbled something about trying to “improve the image of biking” then admitted that she didn’t really see them as part of the “green movement” since they “probably have no choice” –

    I was so mad I wanted to quit working on the project she and I were collaborating on.

    So, in the same way when people in a poor neighborhood grow food in their yards … it’s just being poor– but when white people do it they are saving the earth or something.

    And YES black people on bikes and with gardens DO have an awareness of the environment. Surprisingly so! These values are in our communities and they are good values. My Grandmother was an organic gardener before it was “cool” –My mother believed in composting all waste and recycling whatever could be reused– it was a religious thing. God hates waste.

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