“Alternative” White Supremacy

Building an inclusive food movement

Below are notes summarizing and discussing food geographer Julie Guthman’s presentation, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food” at the Havens Center for Social Justice.  This is a continuation of my looking into how white supremacy manifests within — and thrives from the support of — the liberal left through structural and micro-aggressive means as well as individual prejudicial attitudes among so-called “progressives,” and what to do about it.

This analysis focuses on the “left coast” alternative food movement spearheaded by the likes of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan from its epicenter in wealthy / white Berkeley, CA (Pollan apparently gets to eat for free at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse all the time) which they export and promote nation-wide.

  • All language and spaces are racially-coded, but white people in the alternative food movement tend to assume that the spaces they create are somehow “color-blind” or “neutral”
    • This has led, for example, to contradictions in marketing.  On one hand, white people assume they are “universal” in outreach, but on the other hand explicitly state that they will not reach out to black people or other minorities because it will “scare away” or exclude them from their current wealthy, white customer demographic!
    • CSA’s and farmer’s markets deliberately target white areas and high income areas for their customer base
    • This exemplifies how the alternative food movement prefers and reproduces race and class privilege
    • Even the type of food promoted can be racially and class-coded, e.g., “They’re trying to get me to eat birdseed
  • The alternative food movement situates itself within the existing classist and white supremacist market context
    • Activists often focus on “trickle-down” strategies for social change, shaping their spaces and language to accommodate racial and class privilege first and foremost over minorities and working class people, who get consideration as an afterthought if at all
  • White food activists tend to focus on “education” and “lifestyle” and other individual factors such as “values” and “priorities” — even racial stereotypes — and actively exclude structural and political factors
    • An oft-repeated phrase, “if they only knew…” representing white-upper class efforts to prosyletize, “educate” and convert minorities and working class people into the “alternative food movement”
    • “Experiential (e.g,. garden-based) education” (for minority adults and children) has intense racial and class baggage attached to it, e.g., “You want me to work for free for a white farmer/landowner?”  as a form of labor exploitation or conditioning
  • The alternative food movement comes out of white romantic notions of an “agrarian past” (e.g,. Wendell Berry) where white people want to “reconnect to the land” and “get their hands dirty”
    • White alternative food activists tend to impose that romanticism on working class and racial minorities as a defining narrative of the local/small farms and farm-direct movements
    • This ignores the legacy of racist and classist agrarian history, e.g., slaves and modern-day farm workers, racist land redistribution (land given away to whites and barred or even taken from indigenous and minorities)
    • the romantic “back to the kitchen” “food from scratch” narrative has implications in relation to feminism and women’s empowerment (ie, do women have free choice in this?)
    • Champions the white land-owning farmer as the hero, a focus that renders farmworkers and other exploited laborers in the food system invisible (e.g,. more like Walmart vs Winco models:
What form of ownership do we want our food economy to take to embody economic and social justice along the entire supply chain?

What form of ownership do we want our food economy to take to embody economic and social justice along the entire supply chain?

  • Interesting indicator that “organic” has stopped being “alternative”
    • now standard in most grocery stores, e.g., Walmart, Safeway, etc
    • More black people and other minorities buy “organic” than white people in proportion to their population size
    • when comparing apples to apples (e.g,. correcting for differences in income, education level, etc) minorities and working class seek out and try to participate in alternatives in greater rates than do whites and wealthy people (whom the “status quo” serves), but feel alienated by white-dominated spaces and narratives
  • Depoliticization of Food and White Liberal Moral Superiority (from http://www.utne.com/politics/the-food-police.aspx; emphasis mine):

is Pollan’s way the way out? At the end of a book whose biggest strength is a section that lays out the environmental history and political economy of corn, his answer, albeit oblique, is to eat like he does. The meal that he helped forage and hunt and cooked all by himself, as he puts it, “gave me the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding myself: For once, I was able to pay the full karmic price of a meal.” To what kind of politics does this lead? Despite his early focus on corn subsidies, Pollan does not urge his readers to write to their congressional representatives about the folly of such subsidies, to comment to the Food and Drug Administration about food additives, or, for that matter, to sabotage fields where genetically engineered corn is grown…

this antiregulatory approach to food politics has taken hold…

I worry that Michael Pollan reinforces this privileged and apolitical idea and reinforces the belief that some people—thin people—clearly must have seen the light that the rest are blind to.

Moving forward

  • Can “alternative food businesses” embody class, racial and social justice work and principles along the entirety of the supply chain (farm to fork)?  How?  Under what conditions?
  • Challenge white-dominated spaces:  Move beyond “trying to bring black people to the table” to questioning, “Who is setting the table, where is the table being set, and how are they setting it?”
    • solicit, explore and pursue different priorities than de-politicized white romantic notions of “alternative food”
  • Re-politicize alternative food:  shift focus away from the “food police” education model to focus on structural issues:
    • Public health and environmental justice (i.e., the ecology of risk)
    • Land ownership reform and redistribution
    • Labor reform, living wages, safe workplaces
    • Shift subsidies from big corn and corporate farming to support both supply (small, women- and minority-owned farms) and demand (give working class and minorities greater purchasing power)
    • Challenge and sabotage corporate ownership and exploitation of land and labor on every front
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