Vegans of Color

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

bell hooks, comfort food, dealing with racism (internalized,overt, and institutional) September 4, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Amie "Breeze" Harper @ 3:00 pm

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

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

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

I CLEARLY remember feeling that I had to be “silent” about the racist-sexist experiences I encountered on a weekly basis, K-12, in my 98% white working class rural New England town. And I clearly remember using junk food (mostly animal based) as a way to deal with what I was not ALLOWED to bring up to my white peers and teacher: racism and expectations of Whiteness on my black female body and mind. When I was stressed about this, I reached for Chicken McNuggets; not broccli or whole grains.
Does anyone think about these things when they’re reading mainstream vegan rhetoric that “yells” at people for not “easily” transitioning into an “ethical” animal-free diet ? Has anyone read literature or other types of rhetoric that ignore how trauma from racism and expected Whiteness influence one’s relationship to comfort “junk” food products? (I put “junk” in quotes because I’m assuming “junk” is subjective).
For this discussion, I am not looking to bash or be hateful toward “white” folk who may not “get” what I’m talking about. Nor am I looking to be judgmental against people of color who eat “junk” food. I’m seeking compassionate and understanding dialogue around these issues, simply because I don’t READ about this stuff in the mainstream vegan and AR literature or see it in vegan outreach campaigns… but know it needs to be talked about.

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

-Breeze Harper


9 Responses to “bell hooks, comfort food, dealing with racism (internalized,overt, and institutional)”

  1. johanna Says:

    Breeze — excellent post as always! I am a huge anti-fanof the Skinny Bitch stuff, ugh. I can’t imagine their pregnancy book being any different from their regular modus operandi.

    I also think the issue of comfort food is a really important thing to think about — you’re right, this isn’t addressed generally & I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone but you talk about this in-depth wrt veganism. I’ve seen POCs talk about feeling alienated from their cultures of origin on becoming veg*n, but not specifically making the tie to dealing w/racism, I don’t think.

    Lots to think about… thank you!

  2. sorsofilia Says:

    I can honestly say I am always thinking and talking about how veg*nsim and access to healthy whole foods is a privelege not extended to low-income families/people (esp. in black and brown communities). It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. But the concept of eating junk food as a way to cope with racism has never really developed in my brain. Thanks for opening that brain door. It gives me a lot to think about. I’m a brown girl living in a predominately brown place (the same place Noemi lives) and fast/junk food eating is the norm and I remember it clearly from childhood. However, I was never exposed to overt racism (against me/brown people) as a child. To me, fast food eating was a time to have fun with my sisters and cousins and I have very happy memories associated with it.
    I think as I have gotten older, I have seen that white people still basically run the area I live in, and maybe if I had never become vegan and subsequently a “health nut,” I would use junk food in the way that hooks, west and you described.

  3. Kristina Says:

    I have also put a great deal of thought into the privilege associated with veg*nism… Although I have definitely been aware of the lack of availability of any sort of healthy food to POCs in American, I never made the connection with junk food as a means of dealing with racism. People have made all sorts of connections with junk food and stress, but none have really furthered it. Thank you for that!

    The whole attitude of the “Skinny Bitch” books really, really frustrate me and only seem to reinforce the array of stereotypes associated with vegans — probably turning away a lot of people the might other wise be interested. Especially when they pull out the “you don’t care enough” card. I have been trying to be vegan for the past three years and have managed nothing more than a complete weeks worth avoiding animal products. If I wasn’t disenchanted with them already, that attitude would probably make me feel weak and awful for not finding it an easy transition — and probably set me back on the course to eating cheap, easy to find anywhere food.

  4. supernovadiva Says:

    Well to add i’ve seen neighborhoods that didn’t have grocery stores close by. If they do, the produce section is very very small, but the convience foods were all over. What is very accessable to these neighborhoods are convience/ liquor stores. In walking distance and at every corner. This is also a class issue. How many hours do the parents work, how far away and how long on the public transportation do they travel? Then there’s picking up the kids and helping with homework. I can see where it’s alluring to pop that frozen lasagna in the oven. But still in the same neighborhoods, you can sometimes find a healthfood store- and maybe it’s our cultures’ mistrust of the medical system.

  5. Awesome post, Breeze. I’m really interested in the work People’s Grocery ( does to try to make nutritious, whole foods available to all people. It seems like such a great program and one I’d love to be a part of in the communities I’m in.

    I never really gave thought to how racism shaped the way I ate growing up. But I’ve definitely given a lot of thought to how sexism and being abused affected me. Growing up, a lot of animal-based foods were an absolute narcotic for me, a way to comfort myself. Before I could even entertain the thought of being vegetarian or vegan, I had to deal with those issues.

    And when many vegans advocate that we talk about our veganism in social settings, bring our diets up for discussion, all of that sets me reeling. Because having an eating disordered past, the last thing I want to do is have someone talk about what’s on my plate. I don’t want to conflate veganism with eating disorders but if you have issues with food, it’s not easy to just say, “Don’t eat this.” It’s not that simple and it could be a slippery slope for someone with disordered eating patterns.

    AND, that’s also why I can’t get behind Skinny Bitch, which just looked like another diet book to me. I didn’t even know it was about veganism until it was out for quite some time. I hate the cover. I hate how they call people assholes. Like the RNC, they co-opt the language and theories of feminism and self-acceptance by saying, “By the way, we don’t really care if you’re skinny…just don’t eat like a pig,” (which is speciesist, duh!). And their cookbook blows. I don’t really need instructions on how to cook a damn Boca burger. 🙂

  6. supernovadiva Says:

    yeah i hate how veganism is associated with the ‘anas’ out there. when people find out i’m vegan they always say ‘i know fat vegans too so that proves it’s not healthy.’ though weight loss wasn’t the point of me abstaining from animal products. the skinny bitch author thinks its ok to strip for peta- because it’s for the cause. way to go!
    blacks as far as i know growing up really don’t talk about eating/ mental disorders. all that is a ‘white thing’. no one addressed my eating disorder when i was a kid. oddly because i was losing weight it was supported, but no one would say it was anything mental.

  7. Noemi Says:

    this is some food for thought (pun intended)
    I have to think about this.

  8. Demetrius Says:

    Thanks for this post Breeze, and referencing bell!

    supernovadiva, I like how you connect the dots between physical/dietary and mental health narratives black folk may’ve curtailed in the past.

  9. Crys T Says:

    I’m a white feminist & recent vegetarian who’s been lurking here for a while, catching up on all the fascinating posts, and I had to say that this one is absolutely brilliant. Thanks so much, Breeze, your words will give me a lot to work on for some time to come.

    And thanks to all the commenters: your observations and experiences have opened my eyes to a lot of important things. I can feel little light bulbs popping on all over my brain.

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