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The Future of Food Studies—Intersectionality

Psyche Williams-Forson argues for an intersectional approach. If racism and inequality have persisted across different time periods, why are we forcing food to do the heavy lifting that social inequality contributes to?

Published onJun 16, 2019
The Future of Food Studies—Intersectionality

Keynote at the Graduate Association for Food Studies biennial conference
October 4, 2018

It is my pleasure to join you all today as the keynote speaker for this important gathering. A time to think through what has been done and what still needs to be navigated. Many thanks to Travis Weisse, Anastasia Day, Claire Bunschoten, and the many other hosts here at UNC. To my dear friend, Elizabeth Engelhardt, I appreciate your beautiful introduction. It is indeed an honor to be asked to address such an assembly.

I remember awaking in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 to learn the outcome of the American presidential election. I went back to sleep. When I awoke again a couple of hours later, the election results were the same, and I sat thinking, of what use is the work that I do? Put more succinctly, of what use is the work on food studies in this, and other cultural moments?

To be sure, there are times, for example, under the last presidency when the first lady’s platform was one of health and wellness, that we, in food studies, perhaps could more clearly see where our research, our teaching, and our activism fit within the larger social, cultural, political, and economic discourses. But, in the immediacy of the moment of the 2016 presidential election, I was daunted. Larger issues seemed to be at stake than who procures, grows, ships, picks, distributes, eats, expels, weighs, stocks, regulates, polices, shames, and so on, the foods that we eat. But, as the days went on and the numbness began to turn to agitation and then anger and disbelief, I was forced to reckon with the reality—food studies always matters.

Over and over, I have been reminded, for example, of Deborah Barndt’s Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail (2002), and the ways in which the subject of her study of mostly poor women of color are front and center in many of today’s conversations. Though we are led to focus on the “violence” of immigrants (reduced primarily to Latino men and those of darker skin tones), the reality often is much less sinister.

In the context of crime, victimization, and immigration in the United States, research shows that people are afraid of immigrants because they think migrating people—certain migrating people because the term immigrant has become shorthand for Latinx—are a threat to their safety and that they only exist to engage in many violent and property crimes. However, this mentality belies the vast amounts of quantitative research, which has consistently shown that being foreign born is negatively associated with crime overall and is not significantly associated with committing either violent or property crime. Criminologist, Frances Bernat, among others, argues, “if an undocumented immigrant is arrested for a criminal offense, it tends to be for a misdemeanor.”[1] For one, “undocumented immigrants may be less likely to engage in serious criminal offending behavior because they seek to earn money and not to draw attention to themselves.”[2]

So, we tend to overlook the amounts of work people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico (and other Southern countries) do in the agricultural arena. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 57 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce is undocumented. And, as Phil Lempert writes in Forbes, “… This workforce is employed mostly with low wages that help keep farms in business and domestic food prices down. Labor shortages have been reported by farm owners as a major concern, and while this affects large farms, less availability for labor also becomes an issue for small, family-owned farms, school food programs, restaurants, manufacturers, and the communities and families where workers have for a long-time built their financial sustainability on these jobs.”[3]

And then, of course, there are tariffs No doubt about it, U.S. farmers are in trouble as they are in the crossfire. Kellie Ell, writing for CNBC online says, “Rural communities are dependent on agriculture. It’s their life blood.” Ell goes on to quote Casey Guernsey, a seventh-generation beef farmer in the Missouri-Kansas-Iowa area, who told CNBC, “China’s new tariffs will impact a number of American agricultural products, including soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton and pork, as well as U.S. autos.”[4]

And looking behind the kitchen door, Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, long ago brought our attention to the plight of most workers in the restaurant industry. This low wage work disproportionately affects women and people of color in areas of healthcare, wages and tips, sexual harassment, and more.

I chronicle these realities not to depress anyone but to impress upon us all that we have so much work to do and so many areas in which to do it. All of this brings me to what is inarguably a major direction in which we, as food scholars, need to be looking toward—intersectionality. More than just a buzzword—I want us to be intentional this evening about understanding the merits of this way of thinking, even as many of us are grappling with interdisciplinarity.

Intersectionality is an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society. As many of you know, lawyer and scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term right around the time when black feminist thought was experiencing a major watershed. Crenshaw’s term found purchase as she advocated for and pointed to the need for a term to describe how the interlocking systems of gender, race, and class serve to oppress, depress, and repress. But, the larger issues undergirding this term are many. It’s not just gender, race, and class, though these often have primacy. It is also region, mental wellness, sexuality, ability/disability, indigeneity, and more. As Audre Lorde rightly states: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”[5] Twenty-seven years ago, Crenshaw’s coined term pointed us to a pivotal moment when Anita Hill’s voice was traumatically eclipsed in favor of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Writing in the context of the Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about her experiences at the hands of current supreme court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, Professor Crenshaw says: “Clarence Thomas was so successful in galvanizing so many African Americans, members of the civil rights community, with his denunciation of [Anita Hill’s testimony] as a “high-tech lynching,” because people didn’t understand that the history of sexual harassment actually came from African American women. It was part of the civil rights freedom struggle. So, not knowing that history put feminists and anti-racists at odds. And that created this huge intersectional failure that led to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas.”[6] I am seizing on Crenshaw’s statement “because people didn’t understand that the history of sexual harassment actually came from African American women.” Similarly, my/our work is never done in food studies because people don’t understand histories…

With this parallel, I turn now to my current work as a challenge to us all to always remembers histories, even as we do our work, lest we confuse intent and impact. Recently, I had the good fortune speaking with some colleagues and graduate students at the U of Minnesota. I shared my current (soon to be submitted book project) under the heading, “Your Intent, My Resentment: When Impact and Intent result in Black People’s Food Shaming.” I shared with the group, an early fall essay written for HuffPost by Kristen Aiken titled, “‘White People Food’ Is Creating An Unattainable Picture Of Health.” Several of the nutritionists interviewed for the article similarly expressed the frustration that their clients felt that in being told, encouraged, and in some cases almost pushed, to incorporate foods into their diets that were culturally uncommon, they were being asked to eat “white people’s food.”

The remainder of my discussion, drawn from my forthcoming manuscript, (tentatively titled) Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Food Policing in Black Communities explores why food matters in this cultural moment, why it matters futuristically, why history matters in these conversations, and why intersectionality is essential for getting these conversations to reach the widest possible audiences.

There are differences between “impact” and “intent” and the ways in which well-meaning narratives often result in food moralizing and people/culture shaming. In Aiken’s article the interviewed residents, nutritionists, and food culture advocates (myself included) are revealed to have come away with the rightful understanding that “There’s nothing wrong with being nutritionally ambitious, but we’ve cultivated a health food culture that’s unattainable for the multitudes who can neither afford nor identify with it.” Aiken goes on to write, “Healthy food has historically been less accessible to black Americans in a number of ways.” At this, I push back and say, not so and this is where not only my book enters to offer a corrective, more clarification, and definitely more historical context but also to help us think more broadly and differently about what is at stake when instructives intended to be helpful, often have the exact opposite effect.

In a study conducted by Ellen W. Harris and Allen Nowverl, “What happened to soul food: Regional and Income differences in the African American diet,” the authors argue that when African American diets are described in the literature on food and nutrition, they usually reflect traditional Southern diets. These findings, they maintain, “indicate that dietary guidance must consider evolving economic, social, cultural, environmental, and even ethnic changes within the African American community.” Here, “evolving” is the key issue.

It is always believed that increases in the socioeconomic status improve one’s overall life choices. Yet, Harris and Nowverl found that despites rises in income and class status among African Americans, many of the leading causes of death among this population remained. They write, “many of the leading causes of death for African Americans are chronic diseases which, in turn, are linked to quality of life, diet and nutrition. In 1995, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes were leading causes of death for African American men and women (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997).”[7] They did not find any direct correlations between the two phenomena—socioeconomics and diet—any more than others have found a direct connection. In a 2011 study, J. Paul Leigh and DaeHwan Kim explain that as incomes increase for Americans, they are more likely, actually, to eat out. In an interview for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Leigh explains: “There is a correlation between obesity and lower income, but it cannot be solely attributed to restaurant choice… Fast-food dining is most popular among the middle class, who are less likely to be obese.”[8]

So then, what accounts for such disparities among African Americans? Several factors—immigration, systemic inequality, misinformation. Harris and Nowverl suggest, “Adding to the socioeconomic and health complexities of this population group, a growing number of new immigrants are members of the African Diaspora whose food habits differ from typical or traditional African Americans born in the United States. To provide appropriate nutrition education, prevent disease, and promote health among this population group, it is important to incorporate the changing and diverse food habits of African Americans.” So then, it is important to take into account cultural sustainability and to help immigrants understand the equivalent calories in foods that are being used and substituted for those that are familiar (i.e., cream of wheat instead of fufu). They further maintain, “The African American diet is not a monolithic cuisine.” Not only is it varied but has been so since enslavement, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and now the Black Lives Matter movement. What has remained constant and is present in each of these time periods is racism and inequality. So then, why are we forcing food to do the heavy lifting that social inequality contributes to?

Harris and Nowverl conclude: “While soul food may have historical colloquial connotations, it may not be an appropriate way to describe contemporary African American diets. What is typical for one segment of the population, may not be typical for another. The most revealing implication of the findings in the study is that food consumption among African Americans must be viewed in the context of their diverse sociocultural and economic environments.”

Eating While Black seeks to work as a redress. It taps into this last point as a central point of conflict and as one that is often used to inform, reform, shame, and police. The issue of impact vs. intent taps into the bigger conversation that weaves throughout my book about the presumption of speaking for or to a cultural community about their food practices. In the book, I seek to raise several points: one, these food conversations are very complex and diverse. When we begin by assuming all African American communities are alike, we have lost the focus before the start.

Two, there is cultural sustainability. When we think about sustainability it is usually in the context of the three pillars or triple bottom line—people (social), planet (environmental), and profit (financial). In focusing only on the three pillars we miss the importance of the transmigrant cultural and ritual practices. This limited focus leads us to assume that what is good for some is good for all (i.e., “eat local” campaigns).

Soul food, the popular term coined in the 1960s for traditional southern black cuisine, does not look and taste as it did back then. True. But when did it become assumed that the diet was ever monolithic? African American food patterns then, as now, reflect regional variations, income, and health histories. Harris and Nowverl write, “Clearly, there is a need for better characterizing the role of social and economic factors which impact the health and food behavior of population groups. If 28 percent of African Americans have a poor diet with fewer than 50 percent meeting dietary recommendations as reported by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (1998), our capacity to address this finding should include those factors which cause the remaining population group to have a “good” diet or one that “needs improvement.”

Culture, as the fourth pillar of sustainability, is a key premise of this discussion as is the argument that cultural vitality is a marker of continuity and is “as essential to a healthy and sustainable society as social equity, environmental responsibility and economic viability” (Hawkes 2001).

In the article by Aiken, “‘White People Food’ Is Creating An Unattainable Picture Of Health,” she quotes Natalie Webb, a registered dietician and nutritionist in the D.C. area who is also black, who said, “My clients absolutely associate healthy eating with eating like white folk.” Webb goes on to say, “I think it stems from what people see in marketing and what they associate healthful eating with, and it often doesn’t include foods they’re familiar with… When you change folks’ food―especially people of color―it’s like you’re asking them to change who they are… That’s why it’s so important as a dietician to start where folks are and introduce foods that are going to be familiar but maybe in a little different way.

Fourth, the book pushes back against the notion that to be healthy we need to eat—“white people food.” Charmaine Jones, a Washington, D.C.-based dietician who is also black, and who was quoted in the Aiken article, wrote a short paper titled, “Do I Have to Eat Like White People?” In it, Jones describes “white people food” as salads, fruits, yogurts, cottage cheeses and lean meats―the standard low-fat, heart-healthy foods promoted by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. But, what few people realize is these guidelines are put out by a 14-member advisory board. This board, which dictates what the average American should eat to maintain a healthy lifestyle, sometimes has no diverse representation to represent different racial and ethnic groups. At the time of this essay, the board had only two black members.

One contributor to the Aiken article, Erica Bright, a 45-year-old management analyst who sought Charmaine Jones’ help to make some dietary changes, asserts, “The thing that bothers me about eating healthy is that in the media, people appropriate different ways of eating to different people… And so I don’t necessarily feel like black people eat as unhealthily as people would assume that we do. If you think about Italian food, which I love, it’s just as fatty [as soul food], but it doesn’t have that same reputation.” Bright goes on to point out that the origins of Southern food took root at a time when it was necessary to cook with less-than-ideal ingredients. She explains, “Some people think all black people eat is chicken and collard greens, and that’s not necessarily true. However, out of utility and necessity, we ate a lot of that down South back in the day because that’s all that was available. It’s not like we didn’t know what carrots or Brussels sprouts were… Stereotyping is extremely frustrating. We all have to find an approach to food that still respects and honors our culture. We can still respect our ancestors for how they had to eat out of utility. Now, I have a lot more choices than they did. I shop at Whole Foods, I can go to Trader Joe’s.”

Baruch Ben-Yehuda, the owner and CEO of Everlasting Life Restaurant—an African American vegan restaurant in the Washington, DC metropolitan area—contributes “African-Americans might say, ‘I don’t want to eat like white people,’… however, at the end of the day, it’s not eating like white people, it’s actually eating the way we used to eat before we were brought to this country.”

My own comments to the discussion were “I don’t think there’s such a thing as white people food… But I think there are foods that have been assigned to black people, and there are foods that have been more in line with white communities. And I think soul food is largely what gets short-handed as black people food, and things like veganism and vegetarianism get short-handed as white people food. Quite frankly, African-American people have been eating white people’s food since we arrived on this continent. But a lot of folks don’t know that because the food we tend to get associated with is almost always soul food.”

To conclude, our work matters and there is plenty of it to do. Many of you are just getting started. I guarantee you in 20 years, there will be still more to discuss. There is a tremendous dearth on research coming out of New England, the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, the world globally, issues of cultural sustainability, shaming, taste, smell, you name it. We need interdisciplinary thinkers, intersectional nuance… because around dinner tables, at lunch counters, coffee shops, in fields, on the back of trucks on the way to fields, around water coolers, in cafeterias, while kicking back… we need to remind and be reminded to believe women; everyone is an immigrant at some point; disability often has little to do with ability; and while all lives matter, we need to be reminded that Black lives matter.

Now is not the time to be silent. Your work is needed. There is much to be done and said, despite who sits in the executive office and maybe too because of it.


Psyche Williams-Forson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland College Park. She is an affiliate faculty member of the Anthropology, African American Studies, Women’s Studies and African American Studies Departments and the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity. Her research and teaching interests include cultural studies, material culture, food, women’s studies, social and cultural history of the U.S. in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

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