Caña de Azucar
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How to engage with a change toward racial justice

21 Day Racial Equity Challenge: Week 1

Breaking the cycle of racism from socialization to action

Photo by Jack Prommel on Unsplash

The first week of the 21-day Racial equity habit-building challenge ended on Sunday. It has taken me a few days to process centuries worth of history of injustice and racism neatly packed in seven days. Starting Monday, April 5, Food Solutions New England began sending a daily email tackling a different aspect of racial inequity rooted in historical accounts and constructed social biases.

It has been a challenge, not so much to welcome the information with an open mind and heart, but to realize that at one point or another in my own life I had been part of both groups: the oppressor and the oppressed. This became evident on day one.

DAY ONE: Racial Socialization and Racial Identity Formation

On day one the assignment was to examine how the way we were socialized during our formative years could have shaped our understanding of race and injustice. The material addressed the way children in the United State see race and what it means to grow up as a child of color. I sympathized with them but couldn’t say I knew how it felt because I grew up in Colombia, where until recently, the idea of race or talking about race was considered racists. Yet, in Colombia [and all Latin America] racism is embedded in everyday conversations, from jokes made at the expense of afro-descendants or indigenous peoples, to stereotypes built to separate ‘them’ from ‘us’, like uneducated, uncivilized, lazy, and ordinary. Colorism reigns for the rest of us, which also includes hair type for women, making those of us with difficult hair bouncing boards for criticism and ridicule — hence all women want to straighten their hair. I never questioned any of it in the lens of racial inequity, rather I saw it as a ‘cultural thing’, mostly because [besides my thick curly hair, which I could just tie in a ponytail] I wasn’t racially targeted.

When I moved to the United States two things happened: One, I was no longer part of the untargeted, dominant group; and Two, I brought with me the ignorance of racism.

DAY TWO: Indigenous Food Ways: Suppression to Celebration and Sovereignty

I quickly assimilated into U.S. white culture. My husband is an educated, able, white male and unknowingly I benefited from his privilege. But I also benefited from his lack of education on the issues of race and injustice, courtesy of the U.S. education system. See I was him back in Colombia, and in my desperate attempt to be accepted I surrounded myself with Anglo-Saxon speakers only. Stereotypes about Natives [among other groups] surfaced and I simply accepted them without information or background on the history of violence, oppression, and segregation. The same way people saw a cocaine dealer in me, an incomplete stereotype of what it meant to be an average Colombian during the decades of war against drug trafficking, I saw the incomplete story of Native peoples in North America.

This lack of education about the history of violence against Native peoples continues to fuel wrongful ideas of inferiority, of primitive and uncivilized people without rights who need the white savior to fix them. Land grabbing in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and broken treaties in North America are just some of the ways colonialism and imperialism live on, and food production plays a major role, especially in the fertile lands of the global south.

I’m ashamed to have partaken in conversations and actions created to dehumanize Native communities in my own country and in the U.S. I could blame it on the system and the Eurocentric idealism and education I received during my formative years, but I chose to see it as a personal action for which I take responsibility and hold myself accountable for change.

DAY THREE: A Legacy of Slavery and Servitude: Injustice for Food and Farm Workers

Our food system was built through slavery and racism, a legacy we keep alive to this day through the marginalization of food and farmworkers in the U.S. and around the world.

When I moved to the U.S. I became a ‘person of color’ and entered the group of those perceived as uneducated labor, especially as I worked in the food industry. I never knew it, but I inherited the legacy of racism deeply engrained in the food system. Working in the kitchen as a Latina takes spine and scales thick enough to survive the microaggressions, the male hubris, the lower pay, the long hours, and the sexism. Getting out of it is even harder. Regardless of how much education I accomplish, I’m still seen as the kitchen rat, and even with a master’s degree and 20 years of experience in the food industry, I struggle to convince hiring employers that I can do the job just as well as the young, recently graduated undergrad who did a year abroad and a stint as an Americorp.

But these are minor hurdles compared to the difficulties of undocumented immigrants without the obvious privileges I hold. Here is where I use that privilege. For once I speak out and refuse this status quo, and I support a better more equitable food system that pays the real cost of food to farmers and producers, a system that doesn't exploit farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, and others trapped on the different levels of our food system for my benefit of purchasing a cheap meal. I reject the idea that we have no power or say on how food and farm workers are treated and paid — we do. It is a matter of choice.

DAY FOUR: A Legacy of Slavery and Servitude: Anti-Black Racism

By day four I was overwhelmed. The material had been building up, easing us into the road of racism to the heart of it — Anti-Black Racism. With yet another young man gun down by the policy ‘by mistake,’ it is hard not to get emotional about this subject. It is even harder to admit having experienced unfounded biases against black men for many years, even though I didn't see myself as a racist.

A few years ago during ethics in journalism class, the professor had us follow an activity where we answered questions by adding [yes answer] or subtracting [no answer] paper clips to an initial pile he had given us. The questions were basic on the surface, like do you feel comfortable when stopped by the police, or do you feel welcome walking alone into a convenience store. At the end of the exercise we had to make a necklace with our paper clips, some were shorter and others longer, but the biggest realization was the stark difference between the one and only black man in the classroom and the white men. His necklace was so small he couldn’t wrap it around his neck, and if he tried it would choke him. In comparison, the white men had long enough pieces to comfortably wrap the necklace twice around their necks.

On day one the challenge opened with a quote by James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” facing that reality in that classroom was the beginning for me, I had to face a reality I had not examined because it didn’t directly affect me. It was difficult and uncomfortable. But it is in that discomfort where the truth shines, where dehumanization crumbles, and where change toward racial justice and equity begins. Facing the sustained injustices against black people [around the world] and our involvement, whatever it might be, is the first step.

DAY FIVE: Confronting Whiteness, White Privilege & White Supremacy

Day five was pivotal as it clarified the terms and the history of white supremacy and white privilege in the United States. Terms like whiteness, “a dominant cultural space with enormous political significance, with the purpose to keep others on the margin,” began to make more sense, especially when broken down by how these terms were first created, to how their invention has benefited people of European descent.

Plenty of resources addressed the misconceptions between overt racism [KKK and the like] and covert white supremacy including the white savior complex, denial of racism and white privilege, and many systemic or socially acceptable behaviors and actions.

It would be impossible to deny our involvement [one way or another] in at least one of the many converted white supremacy actions. I admit to having, for decades, fostered a Eurocentric idealism of superiority, judging actions, cultural and religious beliefs [among others] through this lens, disregarding its damaging history and undermining the experiences, beliefs, and culture of other groups.

“Along with neo-colonialist politics and capitalist economic policies that maintain global poverty and inequality, white supremacy completes the trifecta of systemic injustice that establishes a power imbalance and lack of respect for so-called “developing” countries.”

The Reflection

Day six and seven were dedicated to reflection, returning to the material, and digging deeper. It isn’t easy work, and it takes an open heart and mind to go through the process. Personally, at the end of week one, I had major feelings of loss. I felt like we had lost so much in the pursuit of keeping whiteness and Eurocentric ways alive, and forgetting or ignoring the vital influence and contributions from Africans and Afro-descendants, Natives, Asians, and more. After a few days of reflection, I can see the work ahead with enthusiasm because I know there is a growing movement toward justice and I want to be part of it.

Some tips from experts on how to begin the journey:

1- Consider your risk tolerance — how fast or slow, how deep are you willing to go, how much discomfort are you able to bear.

2- Know it takes courage — allowing yourself to be vulnerable, which is the biggest way to be courageous.

3- Think about your spaces of influence and the actions you can take within those spaces [public or private]

4- Think how you could use your privilege to advance change toward justice and equity

It takes all of us to break the cycle of systemic racism and change the systems and the practice created to maintain inequity.

~ Paula




A journal of food stories inspired by ingredients, people, and the land

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Paula Thomas

Paula Thomas

Focused on the social, cultural, and environmental aspects of food in today’s context

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