Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Black Vegan Mammy-ism: Sacrificing My Emotional Health for the Vegan Status Quo July 14, 2011

Filed under: vegan — Dr. A. Breeze Harper @ 3:51 pm

In this video I talk about how I struggle with not being a “mammy” when it comes to accommodating the emotional needs of particular white vegans who do not extend mindfulness to me when they talk to me about ‘their’ post-racial view of veganism.

Here is a useful article to read to understand more about what I mean by “mammyism” . I don’t agree with a lot in this article, but it does give a basic premise of mammyism:

Abdullah, Afi Samelia. “Mammy-Ism: A Diagnosis of Psychological Misorientation for Women of African Descent.” JOURNAL OF BLACK PSYCHOLOGY 24, no. 2 (1998): 196-210.

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16 Responses to “Black Vegan Mammy-ism: Sacrificing My Emotional Health for the Vegan Status Quo”

  1. aspergum Says:

    Thank you Breeze. As a white middle class aspiring vegan, I found this very, very helpful. Which may be ironic, I suppose. But I don’t want to suppose that I’m necessarily your intended audience here–that once again, I’m thanking you for being a mammy figure. At any rate, I did learn a lot, and was reminded of a lot, that will improve my future interactions with non-white people. (PS–I dearly wish I could afford to contribute to your fund–the work you’re doing sounds fantastic.)

    • Anonymous Says:

      Are you joking? Being a mammy figure isn’t a good thing so thanking someone for being a mammy figure is incredibly patronizing and shows that you either did not pay attention to anything that was said or you just couldn’t understand it. I am not speaking for Breeze but to me everything you said came off at incredibly patronizing and I fail to see that you learned anything at all.

  2. vegina Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I learned a lot. I wish I could think of something useful to add on any issue for which you asked for a reply. I want to thank you in addition for posting this as a video. I have made critiques about the academy’s inaccessibility and how it makes it nearly impossible for activists to access useful theory and research. The language you use, the video and blog format, and not charging for access are all amazing. I am actually using your video format as an exemplar model of producing academic thought that is accessible in a talk I am giving at AR2011 and a CAS book chapter I am coauthoring. (I will keep you posted when it comes out so you can see it.) Everything you have said in this talk is very important and I learned a lot. I am grateful you are making sure so many people can learn from your thoughts and work.

  3. Joselle Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Breeze. My comment will be brief and maybe not entirely coherent as I’m trying to finish up a paper. But I didn’t want to watch this and say nothing. I can definitely relate to wanting to accommodate patronizing, offensive people while at the same time seething. I am actually more likely to simply walk away from these encounters–especially online–because the psychic energy it takes to either fight or play nice is too much. I’m very sensitive and will ruminate on these interactions for far too long. I can’t afford it. I think it’s okay for me to protect myself by walking away. I don’t think it’s weak. I also think it’s fine to continue to participate in a thoughtful manner or to go off on people. I don’t think there’s one right way. It’s really, really hard and taxing, though.

  4. Kat Says:

    I think you’re wonderful. I’ve been vegan for ten years and vegetarian for five years before that, and in all this time I’ve struggled with vegan activists and specisism because of the white male privilege issue. I’m a white woman from a different culture and I feel like I’m from outerspace when I encounter some of these people. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in your shoes as a vegan woman of color. Please keep up the good work in a way that doesn’t endanger your mental and emotional health. Congrats on the new baby and I hope that all our children grow up in a better world.

  5. syl Says:

    I can definitely relate to the situation you have described. I’m a black female currently in a philosophy graduate program and have encountered similar hostility whenever I refer to anything racial. This is not surprising considering philosophy is about as white as the mainstream vegan sphere. Unfortunately, it is also about 99% male. Therefore, I constantly have to deal with dudes suffering from major privilege issues who exhibit as much mental inertia as massive rocks when asked to consider anything from a perspective outside of their own (or asked to accept that any such perspectives even exist). This is especially pervasive in my field since philosophers obsessively like to maintain that they do not “stink of subjectivity” and can escape situatedness to postulate universal, objective principles. However, having said that, I highly suspect these people are in the dark about how offensive and hostile their remarks might seem to different listeners. When I started the program two years ago, I responded to such attitudes by either refusing to engage in further discussion because it didn’t seem worthwhile or by meekly recasting my points so as to remove some of the sting. But, then, after feeling like everyone was overlooking my contributions (and me), I decided to emulate the seeming confidence of the dudes. If they have no problem openly voicing concerns about my work, then why should I find it problematic to voice my concerns about their dismissal or discomfort with my work? Non-whites and women are just expected to accept whatever white people say and to be perceived as submissive. To deviate from that expectation makes them annoying, “ghetto”, argumentative, “bitchy”, etc so it’s a bit unnerving to just be as confident and assertive as white men are allowed to be.

    I think the dudes in my program just think they’re pointing out the facts to me when they’re being paternalistic. “The facts” are supposedly outside the constraints of race, sex or class so they believe they are simply “enlightening” me in terms of where my projects might be going wrong. I openly ask them, “Can you see why your points might be construed as offensive? I am feeling like your response is hostile. . . condescending, in the least. I really want to have this dialogue with you- do you think we could temporarily bracket the topic at hand to address why I might be feeling like this? Do you think you can disagree with me on a professional level without dismissing components that I find to be essential to my project?” That sounds lame, right? But, it worked! On a number of occasions, the dudes will have a moment of clarity and the tone of the discussion will completely change. I’ve even had a dude say, “Wow, I don’t think anyone has ever called me a sexist before. I can see why you’re saying that, though, which is even more shocking. Sorry.” When I do this, it’s pretty firm. As of today, I feel completely comfortable and at home having philosophical discussions with the dudes and haven’t really experienced my earlier problems. It’s been pretty cathartic, actually. I’ve done this over webcam as well with a particularly hostile colleague who moved but still communicated with me via e-mail. There’s something about them seeing the seriousness in your face that helps, I think.

    So, maybe try the direct approach and 1) tell them how it’s affecting you personally, 2) ask if they might understand why you feel that way, and 3) suggest putting off further conversation on veganism until this issue of perceived paternalism can be settled. As most vegans believe they are taking the moral high road, I highly doubt a vegan will feel comfortable if someone tells her/him that she/he is being perceived as a racist, sexist, pompous ignoramus and that discussion will be suspended on those grounds as opposed to on the grounds of topical dissent. Topical dissent can lead to fruitful argumentation, but dissent based on self-proclaimed superiority leads only to frustration and needs to be checked.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    How do you feel your self-censoring is different than anyone else whose life is in the public space? Ex: If Im pissed at a boss/editor/producer, can I tell them exactly how Im feeling without the risk of getting fired? Since you are in the public space, you can say anything or respond anyway you want, but you risk losing fans, business, etc. Is this any different ( in point ) from any other person making a controversial comment and losing fans ( IE Morrissey in regards to the Chinese statements )?

  7. Ed Says:

    I stumbled across your blog as an artifact of a Google search I was doing on Community Supported Agriculture. I am neither white nor vegan: I am an African/American male who is an omnivore that is largely vegetarian. Having earned my doctorate in 2000 in the sciences and experiencing my own set of social, emotional, physical, and financial challenges as a graduate student of color in the process, I can relate to some of your frustrations at this point in your academic sojourn.

    In regard to your attempts to deal with the effects of white male privilege on your psyche and emotional well being, I know precious little about Critical Race Theory, its epistemology, the paradigm, or its constructs nor can I offer anything in the way of successful methods of incorporating its findings into the solution of the problem of Mammy-ism as you have described it in your video. All I can suggest to you is that you try to ignore your reaction to these attempts to demean your person/hood and move forward with the knowledge that who you are and what you are are both valid and meaningful.

    As a freshman in college, I once had a Sociology professor (male and African-American) who suggested to our Sociology 101 class that, as people of color, we needed to actively and seriously consider the idea of creating an alternative social space and lifestyle if we were going to successfully navigate the dominate social and power structure that has been imposed on us. He went on to suggest that we would need to arm ourselves with the knowledge of who we are, where we have come from, and, most importantly, where we intend to move with our lives. Our individual and collective success as people of color in this endeavor would require motivation, ideation, information, persistence, faith, and confidence. As I understand you and the n…arrative you have alluded to in your video and this blog, in your choice to eat consciously and think critically, you are already claiming and clearly living this idea and ideal. All you have to do now is claim the space that is rightfully yours internally and in the core of your being: a space that is both unique and worthy. You owe this to your daughter, who will soon be among us, and to all of your descendants that will follow in her footsteps.

    In regard to your funding issues, have you considered applying to foundations such as the Spencer Foundation? This foundation and some its peers, will fund the writing of the dissertation thesis as a separate entity. While I was in graduate school, I had a number of friends working on their doctorates in the Liberal Arts win Spencer funding that enabled them to finish their theses and defend their dissertations. (I did my thesis research in the area of Medical Informatics and was funded by the NIH.) Given that you appear to be at the point of writing your thesis, you might be able to secure the funding you need.

    If you have not already done so, you should check the Foundation Index; a database of funding opportunities that is hosted and maintained by the Foundation Center. (http://foundationcenter.org/) If you are unable to access the database directly online, most large public and university libraries have access to the Foundation Index online and may house the printed copies of the Foundation Index as well.

    Best of luck to you with your upcoming delivery, generating the funding you need to complete your research, and with both the crafting and successful defense of your thesis and dissertation.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    It could be that some (not all) of your emotional struggle has to do with “age” (for lack of a better word). You will probably get to a point in your life where you will be comfortable speaking your mind both professionally and socially. This is absolutely not worth stressing yourself over. However, I completely understand the struggle. All of the thoughts and emotions you are having is necessary for you to overcome your issue. Peace sister.

  9. Esperanza Says:

    Admittedly, I have no idea how to subscribe to your blog. I just discovered it and would love to receive updates. I’m not sure how to do so or how to email you to ask. Would you please help me out? Gracias ;)

  10. e Says:

    Looks like I figured out how to subscribe. After I commented, an email was sent giving me the option. A big thank you for this blog. As a woman of color who’s vegan, I crave for this type of community and support.

  11. Trisha Says:

    I have been following this blog for quite a while, and each time I see the titles of your videos -I am sorry to say- they make me laugh a little. “Black Veg*n Reiki Community”, are you kidding me? It sounds like a joke to me; a mixture of concepts and theories that for the most part are quite out of touch with reality.
    You assume things, you create a theory around it, and you are offended by anything that does not fit into your concepts and definitions (you just call it “white privilege”, “paternalistic” or “male dominated” etc).
    A good example is the way you talk about your quest for funding. You just assume that for a woman of color it is more difficult to get funding. I don’t think that to be true. Regardless of color or gender, getting funding for a Phd is always difficult. And from my experience of working at a university, I actually think that the opposite of your claims is true: women , especially those of a non-white background, get funding actually much easier. There are actually many more organizations that cater for the needs, the advancement and emancipation of women and non-whites than there are for white males.

    Simiarly, you seem to feel sad that you are showing signs of “mammy-ism”. Again, it’s a concept that seems to be totally out of touch with reality. Everyone will sooner or later be faced with adversity, and (I think I agree with Anonymous comment nr.6) regardless of race or gender, there is always some self-censoring at hand. That’s just the way the world works. Why then call it “mammy-ism”?

    I think you are making your life unnecessarily difficult by constantly conceptualizing and theorizing reality, and perceiving any setback or any triviality as a discriminatory offense resulting from some largely fictious “white privilege”. Don’t get lost in a maze of theories! Stop making up unpronounceable word creations like “white middles class vegan community” and live your life for you, make the best out of it, fight with all your heart for the things that are important to you, and don’t always seek refuge in the comfortable cocoon of being a victim. Everyone’s got problems and challenges to overcome, some (some who even have that “white privilege”) have bigger ones than you and me. Neither of us can eradicate the basic fact that there is always going to be some degree unfairness in this world. Carpe diem

    Good luck to you.

  12. syl Says:

    I am having a difficult time understanding those comments that assume this is simply about getting used to self-censoring and facing adversity. I don’t think one has to necessarily agree with the position taken by Breeze Harper (regarding “white privilege” in the vegan community) to see the validity in her remarks about the flippant attitude some people take regarding her project because it focuses on race within an issue generally not associated with race. Race is a seemingly frightening topic for most people; whenever someone brings it up suddenly everyone else tries to explain it away as being irrelevant. This is the distinction between a pop star who has said something obviously racist and should have taken a moment to “think before you speak”, a person facing general disagreement or antagonism to his/her work, and Harper’s case, which is beyond the issue of merely facing disagreement or antagonism: she is facing a feature in our society which prevents honest analysis or dialogue about issues that may or may not intersect with race. It is possible that this feature has also been incorporated into the vegan community, which may (or may not) explain the lack of pluralism. I believe it must be additionally upsetting for Harper to face this attitude *within* the vegan community; as vegans, we are expected to critically examine the species privilege we possess by being human animals and, so, it is surprising to encounter vegans who refuse to critically examine the *possibility* that we may carry other privileges that affect interactions with our fellow human animals.

  13. Alison Says:

    Trisha- I find your comments really problematic. To assume that Breeze’s take on things is out of touch with reality is to assume that there is one reality (yours) and that anyone who has a different set of experiences, that, I assure you, are real to them, is wrong.

    Moreover, you say that from your experience working at a university it is easier to get funding as a woman of color. You might want to check your anecdotes against more systematic studies, such as this one, that found that blacks of similar qualifications were LESS likely to receive NIH funding than other races. Like you, I have noticed a fair number of funding opportunities aimed at women or women of color. But these pale when compared to the amount of work funded by huge institutions like the NIH, as well as opportunities that fund students from a particular geographic area (which tend to be rural and predominantly white).

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/blacks-less-likely-than-whites-to-get-nih-grants-study-finds/2011/08/15/gIQAJqoyNJ_story.html?fb_ref=NetworkNews&fb_source=home_multiline

    and ps. is “white middles class vegan community” really unpronounceable, or were you just being mean?

  14. Momma J Says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m bothered that people contact you and think it’s a topic that isn’t worth exploring. I don’t have much to donate, but I will donate what I can and spread the word to my friends and family.

  15. rumpydog Says:

    Hi! I am doing some research on race, animal rights issues and how Michael Vick is perceived by different groups. That’s how I found you. I found your video fascinating. I can say as a white female that I’ve experienced similar situations with white men. So some of these issues are racism, but some are sexism as well.


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