Sistah Vegan On Food Justice, Vegans of Color

By Julia John

er, peered out from behind the podium at Mead Chapel last Wednesday night, a small woman with a big afro and an even bigger passion animating her face and propelling her speech. Over 100 students, occupying the pews below, were there to discover what her intriguingly titled talk, “On Ferguson, Thug Kitchen, & Trayvon Martin: Intersections of [Post] Race Consciousness Food Justice, and Hip Hop Vegan Ethics,” would entail.

Harper shared her current book project, which applies critical race and black feminist perspectives to study black male vegans promoting veganism, gardening, societal stability, diet decolonization and race consciousness through hip hop. She explained how this social engagement breaks the stereotypes of vice that oppress black masculinity, as manifested in Thug Kitchen, a white vegan cookbook appropriating black profanity, and the murders of black teenagers, Travyon Martin and Michael Brown.

The lecture was part of the week’s events hosted by EatReal for this year’s MCAB fall symposium, “Food [In] Justice in the 21st Century.” Aiming to present as many sides of the food justice issue as they could, EatReal invited Harper because her extremely underrepresented lens, linked to multiple social justice movements, would widen the symposium’s discussion and audience.

“I believe this symposium has broadened our duties as a student activist organization to include as many voices as possible,” secretary of EatReal Andrew Pester ’17 said. “Breeze introduced us to the power of narrative, which I believe will be a big part of our future here at Middlebury.”

“I believe it was incredibly successful because I saw many new faces that I have not seen in the context of food activism,” he said.

Despite her moral opposition to causing creatures suffering, Harper’s focus on the intersection of race, gender, hip hop, social justice and ethical consumption was a refreshing, thought-provoking departure from the discussions of animal rights and environmentalism dominating veganism.

“It’s about a lot of post-racial white vegans not really understanding how thug is being used in Thug Kitchen and why that’s a problem, why there seems to be no solidarity in understanding that you can’t just be anti-speciesist and a vegan, and pretend to live in a post-racial age or pretend that things like Ferguson and Travyon Martin don’t affect black and brown communities who are trying to get food security, social justice, as well as racial justice,” Harper said. “They don’t realize [racism] has shifted to structural, systemic processes.”

“My biggest takeaway is how intrinsically linked the topic of racism and differences in socioeconomic classes are to food justice and problems with the food system,” co-president of EatReal Lucy Reading ’17 said. “We want to continue working with other student groups like Juntos to continue addressing these social issues when working on EatReal initiatives in the future.”

“Something that I found particularly interesting was the meaning of hip hop: higher inner peace, helping other people,” Priyanjali Sinha ’18 said. Sinha is a vegetarian and she attended the talk because her Food Geographies class has interested her in social issues surrounding food, and because she wanted to make sense of the colorful, multifaceted title. “It was interesting to see how a certain culture — in this case, hip hop — can be misunderstood, misrepresented and also changed with time.”

Sinha continued, “The most significant part of the talk was that there were people who were reclaiming hip hop, like DJ Cavem, where he took a popular hip hop song called “G’s Up Hoes Down” by Snoop Dogg and made his own version where a G is not a gangsta, but a grower of food; and a hoe is not a misogynistic term to refer to a woman, but an actual implement to farm with.”

Although her talk seamlessly interwove various social angles together with the thread of veganism, Harper did not address some positions that could be brought into the conversation.

“We hoped she might touch a bit more on other perspectives in the black community about perspectives on veganism from someone that isn’t a vegan or health conscious,” Reading said.

“I wouldn’t say she is a vegan activist, but rather someone who brings to light the consequences of our consumption behavior,” Pester said when asked about the significance of Harper’s exploration of vegan food justice. “As a Middlebury College student, it is incredibly important to be able to see the consequences of our consumption and try to minimize the impact, both internal and external, of the food system.”