Concerning the Unbearable Whiteness of Urban Farming

By Antonio Roman-Alcala

First off, let me start by stating who I am. I am a native of San Francisco, born to two U.S. citizens. My ethnic background includes Mexican Mestizo, Eastern European Jew, and (like many younger people) smaller parts from all over the world. However, from an outsiders perspective, I could easily be considered “white”. This is the frame that I bring with me; growing up as latino in a latino neighborhood, but losing much of that background to the ease of being white. I have, in part, grown into being “Ant-oh-knee-oh” instead of “Ant-ohn-yo”.

That said, I identify strongly as an anti-racist activist. Not meaning that I am not racist, or still struggling with issues of race, but that I strive with my life to question, address, and confront the ongoing oppressions we all experience in a white supremacist world.

My entry into the world of Food Justice organizing, through my work at Alemany Farm, was unavoidably steeped in these sorts of issues. But how I go about my work, and my perspective on the complexities of race politics, have changed much since that period.  I now see a much more complicated picture, and not one that is simply rosy when it comes to being a white-identified person working for justice with or in communities of color. And it seems like an increasingly unfunny joke to note that most people working in the sustainable/fair/green/organic/local/urban food production world are white.

There’s no way I could posit a solution to this joke, or make it somehow funnier, but I hope to at least offer one perspective on it.

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What guides me still are the words of Aboriginal artist Lilla Watson:

 

“If you have come here to help me,

you are wasting our time.

If you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine,

then let us work together.”

 

Black, White, Latino, whomever: we are all subject to the whims and injustices of an exploitative, inhumane, and grossly unsustainable capitalist system. While in the present moment, we must acknowledge that having certain attributes (lighter skin color, upper class status, male gender) can lead to more resources and opportunities (and that the long-touted American Dream is but a mirage for many sectors of the U.S. population), we must also see that “No one is free when others are oppressed”. This goes for the “poor” folks in West Oakland as well as the “middle class” folks attending UC Berkeley. Besides a minute percentage of the population who don’t have to work for a living, we are all survivors of a broken system, and it’s incumbent on us to find ways to challenge this system together.

I don’t blame anyone for having a background that put them on a path towards Food Justice activism, just because they are white. The question is, how do they go about that activism? What are some methods and strategies for being an anti-racist food justice activist, working to change the norm of a white-dominated food sustainability scene? Here are some ideas to start with:

1) Go to where people are at, not where you want them to be. Stay far away from “knowing what is best for people”. If people in your neighborhood don’t care about growing food, don’t force it. Maybe people feel more excited about an after-school program teaching photography to youth? If so, try to integrate your food-based ideas into programs that the community actually wants. Unite your interests with those of whom you work with; don’t patronize.

2) At the same time, don’t accommodate people to the extent of ignoring your own needs, desires, strengths or personal mental health. While we must acknowledge the role of people’s internalized oppression and racism, and the “problem” behaviors that come from it, giving license to someone to act badly, because of their skin color, is just another form of racism. Likewise, don’t deny that you want to address food issues, if that’s your passion.

3) Don’t operate from assumptions. This is general life advice, of course, but goes especially for activism. For instance, the somewhat naive notion many new food justice activists have, that “if only they [read: poor, black/brown people] knew about where their food came from, they would make better choices”. Maybe this is true, for some people. But if your goal is to change and improve people’s lives, you start by asking folks what that change would look like, and what it might take to accomplish it. Maybe it’s not about getting organic food, maybe it’s just about having time to cook? Maybe having a better income would allow for more freedom in food spending habits? Consider the possibility that a local grocery store might be more helpful than 15 community gardens…

4) Always be focused on leadership development. One of the main problems for anti-racist whites is that they don’t like being treated as, well, white people. The sad reality in many marginalized communities of color is that there is a lot of resentment and distrust of outsiders (those seen as “others” or part of the dominant elite). We must work to break down these barriers, of course, but perhaps more importantly, we must use whatever privilege we have to increase the capacity of these communities to work for themselves. Youth especially love to be taught by someone who looks like them, and so, if you are interested in being of service to a community that doesn’t look like you, train the trainers.Work towards your own position being obsolete.

5) In group processes, always be aware of how privileges may be effecting group dynamics (but once again beware of over-accomodation to the point of being patronizing). Simple strategies like effective, shared facilitation, and checking in with each participant to make sure they feel heard, do wonders for the efficacy and longevity of any project. The operative words for white/male/rich activist: step back.

6) Don’t downplay, and even more, CELEBRATE non-white contributions to Food Justice. Many events that I go to centered around urban farming tend to be homogenously white. But I know that, around the country (and of course the world!), people of color are leading the charge for socially-relevant farming. Growing Power’s Will Allen is a beacon; as is Boston’s Food Project, LA’s South Central Farmers represent the agrarian vitality of Central American immigrants, while here in the bay People’s Grocery and the Richmond Eco-Village are both led by people of color. We can also learn something from the Asian immigrant community, some of whom (the Hmong) are among the best urban farmers in California. In many cases, Asian neighborhoods (with just as low incomes as other “food desert” areas) manage to have thriving food markets and healthy family diets. We all have something to learn from each other, and we must be careful to downplay or denigrate any particular ethnic/racial group’s ownership over the concept of universal access to food that is good, clean, fair, affordable, and delicious.

For more of Antonio’s writing and thoughts please visit: www.antonioromanalcala.com