One sunny afternoon, I met Breeze Harper, author of Sistah Vegan (Lantern Press, 2010) and the popular website sistahvegan.wordpress.com, in the garden of a teahouse in north Berkeley near the home she shares with her son and husband. Harper glided to our appointment on her bicycle with the urgency of a person on a mission to get people asking questions about the status quo, and the inner stillness of a student of Zen. Harper, a novelist as well as a social geographer, connects social justice issues as wide-ranging as bigotry and backyard farming.
Alexa Mergen: You recently took a family trip to Yosemite National Park when your in-laws visited from Germany. Your blog post about the trip sounded sad. What’s it like for you, being you, knowing what you know, to go to a national park?
A. Breeze Harper: Well, on two levels, it’s usually very sad to go to a national park because I don’t see very many black people. It’s sad and disappointing because, at least for me, it’s such a beautiful experience. When I tell most of my black/African American friends that I’m going to go camping I get this negative response like camping is dangerous, you’re going to get eaten by a bear. There’s a history, a perception that the KKK is waiting in a rural area to lynch back people. It’s a weird, collective perception of nature as a dangerous place to be if you’re a black person. There’s a fear.
The other thing is I’m at this park and they’re like “preserve” and “conserve” and then my husband and I go to the small convenience store/grocery store and there’s tons and tons of packaged stuff from these major corporations that are not known for ethical food practices and, if anything, the way they source those materials to get those foods they’re causing environmental degradation and pollution in other places. I know no place is perfect, but when people talk about conservation, in general, it’s so aligned with white middle class capitalist values. This is why I am sad. I see so many contradictions. Maybe national parks are a turn-off to certain demographics.
AM: How can parks connect with African Americans?
ABH: It’s helpful if you see more people of color being represented in histories in parks. There is a history of people of color—whether they wanted to or not—helping to build parks. What I’m seeing in people of color connecting to nature is it’s a question more of environmental health. Urban farming is becoming popular. To me that is a kind of environmentalism. Apparently, Oprah is going to Yosemite to show, as a black person, how enjoyable nature can be. Then I started thinking about class privilege, that Oprah is a billionaire! [Laughs]
AM: Where can a well-intentioned white person—like my neighbor, for example—start in thinking about race and environment? I know you have a list of books on your website. I’m not sure there are a lot of people who want to read through an entire bibliography. On a daily basis what can they do?
ABH: It’s not just the environment, it’s a white middle class racialized perception of reality, so whether it’s the environment, veganism or animal rights, that’s the filter through which you understand the world. There’s a racialized consciousness. I always ask people not to shut down when they realize, “Oh my God! I have white middle class first world privilege.” For the most part, if you have access to the Internet, you can type up “white privilege, white consciousness.” Read Unraveling Whiteness. It’s a thin book and helps you go through these steps of how you understand your own identity, how you construct knowledge about anything. Take an introductory class to race or women and gender studies or race and ethnicity. My students don’t always understand that race is a social construct and dynamic and contingent upon space and time and economics. A lot of people still think race is biological. I ask people to start reading, when they can. If you have friends who also identify as white, start your own reading group, your own discussion. There might be people of color who will come in and mediate, help facilitate. I tell people it’s going to be emotionally hard. You’re going to get angry and upset but that’s what transformation is all about.
AM: What can that mean for the future if people were having conversations in their communities as an everyday thing about racialized consciousness and the effects on perceptions from what we eat to where we recreate?
ABH: I think it would make the world a more peaceful place. It’s not just race, it’s issues around gender, class, able-body privilege. If those conversations could happen I really think it would break down the binary thinking that people in the West are attracted to. It would also allow people who are actually doing social justice work to be more effective.
ABH: When I first told people I was interested in veganism and was working on the Sistah Vegan Project people were upset, They could not understand with animal rights/veganism how race and class privilege affects pedagogy. For them to not reflect on it, but to be instantly negative, I thought, “That’s why the animal rights movement continues to be white middle class.” They sincerely did not see how in some ways they were participating in racist ideologies. And it’s not just white people. When I talk with African descended people who engage in the holistic food movement there’s a faction that, in my opinion is anti-white, homophobic, and anti-feminist. I understand that they think that’s the way to be to do racial uplift but I am not comfortable with it.
AM: It’s the same kind of binary thinking.
ABH: Yes. And when people meet me they say I “speak white” I “act white” and say I’m a “chocolate white girl” and other hurtful things. I’m read as: “you’re not really black. You married a white man. You went to a predominately white institute. You’ve been colonized by the white man.” But I’ve been focusing on black women vegans and black women associated with social justice issues and these women have written and said they’ve found Sistah Vegan Project and can say and they won’t be attacked. I like that I’ve created that space.
AM: You’ve created a community. I was wondering about what you call cyber ethnography. And how do you think technology can facilitate conversations?
ABH: I did my B.A. in geography at Dartmouth. I thought about leaving behind the race and class activism because it was so frustrating. Then I did my educational technology master’s degree at Harvard. Then, halfway through the program I realized I didn’t want to do [computer] programming. And I realized, gosh, I can’t even talk about whiteness. I spent one class trying to explain the difference between “white” and “whiteness.” In one class they thought I was the “Annoying Angry Black Woman.” I was confused and thinking I’m not going to give it up. There’s something there. How can I use technology to get people to create a safer environment for women of color or anyone who is interested in talking about these issues? Five years later there’s so much more social media that wasn’t there. But I started with something as simple as creating the Yahoo! group for Sistah Vegan and now there are 200 of us.
AM: How did the internet contribute to your research?
ABH: I was thinking, How—in a safe way—can I understand how racialized consciousness manifests? In person I thought I might not feel safe. If you’re a lurker on a site where everyone assumes you’re vegan and white—you can see what people are saying what they are assuming. I just listened for a month. I thought, “That’s what cyber ethnography affords.” The downside is that you have to assume that people are who they say they are. I got this idea [for cyber ethnography] from people looking at how overt racism works on KKK and Nazi websites where people are talking with no inhibitions. I know what overt racism looks like. What does covert racism look like? Then I could see what the barriers are, why people of color collectively have the perception that animal rights and veganism is racist.
AM: How has the internet affected conversations about race, health and environment?
ABH: Until the internet, black people had few venues where they could publish and go global. [Now] you can connect communities of color. Oakland Connection [a non-profit food collective] is always tweeting, Facebooking. So then you can start your own [co-operative], see how they do it, how they organize, and have the history at their fingers. It makes people feel less alone. Despite what the popular media says, that people of color don’t know how to eat right and that they’re helpless and hopeless, no, that’s not true. Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, they’re not the only ones. I have a list of people of color, working class people, who have been doing this a lot longer. Ask yourself why we don’t know about this work that people, people who are considered racial minorities, are doing?
I grew up on a farm that’s not certified organic, but I grew up on two acres in Connecticut. My father called it “edible landscaping.” He said, “If I can’t eat it, I’m not going to grow it. What’s the point of a lawn?” This was 34 years ago. He got it. I grew up in the perfect condition for learning about food. But I also went to a 98% white school where people were racists. My dad taught me your food should be your medicine. But then someone called me the N-word the first day of seventh grade and I overdosed on Smarty candies. There’s been a lot of discussion about how black people overeating on junk food could be a result of racism. I think about my own situation. I dealt with a lot of racism I never told my parents about. I overdosed on stuff like Chicken McNuggets and milkshakes from McDonald’s—stuff I knew was not good for me—but I didn’t have a healthier outlet to deal with it.
AM: Because of abuse, basically.
ABH: Yeah. And I got to the point where I had fibroid tumors on my uterus, which I know were from my diet. I was 25. Then I found Queen Afua, and that, psychically, black women are still devastated from ravages of racism. Yes, it seems esoteric but for many women like me, women of color, that’s how we saw the connection of veganism with a certain kind of social justice. And I never saw that in the white middle class reasons to go vegan.
AM: It makes sense when you think about links between health issues such as obesity and women who have been exploited sexually and/or physically and emotionally abused. It seems like the research you’re doing could create some common ground among women. It’s all degrees of emotional abuse.
ABH: Becky Thompson interviews women with eating disorders from different backgrounds. The connecting theme is something traumatic, usually sexual abuse, in their backgrounds. Why is that any different from racial trauma or class trauma? How is African American women’s health impacted by racism—whether environmental racism or overt racism—everyday when you’re going to school? How are we handling or not handling that? In my dissertation I talk about Skinny Bitch. I’m sure they’ve helped a lot of people figure out why to go veg. But there’s no reflection that there are other issues. What does it mean for these authors to have a book turn into a New York Times bestseller? No reflection of class or race privilege. In black women’s vegan books—all four—everyone understands that race and class experience affect people’s relationship with food.
AM: Seems like you’re asking questions to get other people to ask the questions.
ABH: What I’m trying to do…what I write about is not to get people to be vegans. I’m using veganism as a tool to explore issues of race, class, gender, consumption; I want that to be the platform. I want people to start thinking critically about the contradictions when they engage in social justice, remembering that no one is perfect. During my pregnancy I could not practice veganism. There were a lot of emotional and physical things going on and I chose to eat eggs several times a month. You may have been doing what you thought was the best social justice for the last 12 years and then realize, “Shoot! I ever thought about heterosexualism.” Be gentle with yourself. I use the language of socially engaged Buddhism.
AM: What makes you such a questioning person? If you look back at little Breeze, at 8-years-old or so, would you imagine asking all these questions?
ABH: Yes. It was the way my parents raised me. From the beginning my parents raised me to be a critical thinker. My mother told us when we were very young, “I will personally kick your ass if you ever hate anyone for their race, gender, sexuality.” She made it clear. My father was always saying, “Don’t just trust someone because they’re an expert. Make your own decision once you have read everything you can about the subject. There’s something called a library,” he’d say. In terms of capitalism: If you don’t understand something it usually goes back to the dollar bill, someone trying to make a profit off something.
We only had two Christmases. They made us sit down and read the story of the Bible, so we would know what it was about. They wouldn’t let us go trick or treating [at Halloween]. I think it’s having that household and parents. The rest of my family, my mother’s five other sisters, live in urban areas. My grandparents live in Hartford, in the inner city. I would be so confused. I have to be careful how I say this because it was their home. It looked unhealthy. This was 30 years ago. I noticed, “Why are the liquor stores everywhere? Why are their cages, I mean bars, on the windows? I just passed by a school and kids are playing on cement.” My mother grew up in the inner city and it would make me sad to see the environment that looked like a dump. When she was little they would bus the kids out to the country for fresh air. I’d think critically about it but never had a language for it until I got to Dartmouth and took my intro to women and gender studies class.
AM: What role do geographers have to play in creating healthy environments?
ABH: I consider myself a critical race geographer and a geographer of critical consumption. Geographers are concerned with how our relations relate to spatial relations. We’re trying to understand how space creates power and lack thereof. I’m looking at how our social and spatial perception and what our body needs and how that produces your knowledge system. How is it that my white friends at Dartmouth know that police are there to help them? How is it that my twin brother, who also went to Dartmouth, is pulled over twice in one week for driving through a white neighborhood and that the police are not there to help him? To me everything is about geography.
AM: What has your highlight nature experience been?
ABH: In June 2008 we went to climb Mt. Shasta. My parents were amazed. I was raised in a rural area but I hated nature. We woke up at 2 am, and you see all these headlamps bouncing up. It’s beautiful. We saw the sun rising. We saw the shadow of the mountain. I wasn’t able to make the summit. It was so hard. But I did as much as I could. I told myself, “Just calm down. Don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.”
AM: How urgent is it that we address issues of health and the environment?
ABH: More urgent than ever. I feel like my role is to look at how issues of race and class have gradually been causing suffering. A lot of my Zen Buddhist practice comes in. I ask, “How does this cause suffering?”
ABH: Yeah. It’s not simply oppressor and oppressed. I have received racism in this country. But I have all these privileges, double degrees from Ivy League schools. I’ve never had the experience of someone who uses a wheelchair or is a religious minority. I can only do my best. When my husband met me he said, “You’re such an American. You waste things.” I shut down immediately and I was angry about it. He was born and raised in Germany where they are more aware of limited resources. We each had privileges coming into the relationship that the other person might not have seen. We have to remain open.
AM: So why is it worth it, all the work?
ABH: Overall, it allows you to be a more compassionate and understanding person when you’re able to let go of certain parts of your ego that you were holding onto as part of your identity. It’s a continuum. I’ll always continue growing. You have to have hard conversations to become someone who can contribute to alleviating suffering in the world.
Breeze Harper is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis focusing on Critical Food Geographies and Critical Geographies of Race. She is the editors of Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books 2010) and the author of the forthcoming book Scars (Black Coffee Press 2013). Learn more about her work at sistahveganproject.com and through her research group Critical Race and Food Studies Intersect.