Secret Buddhist Reveal – Breeze Harper (VIDEO)
Maybe you’ve had this experience: admiring someone’s work and efforts in the world, over many years, and then one day learning — Oh! They study the Buddhadharma!
It’s a joyful feeling. And soliciting contributions for the Dharma of Food Justice month granted me a number of these delightful surprises. I reached out to certain people because of their food justice contributions, hoping to find out whether they had any spiritual practice at all that informed their work. And when I found out that they practiced in Buddhist traditions, suddenly my understanding of them as a person, and my sense of connection to their work, expanded. The teachings of the Buddha continue to spread!
I’m very grateful, then, to introduce Breeze Harper, author and PhD candidate whose work examines structural racism, sexism, and intersections with animal cruelty. One of my favorite videos from Harper discusses the origins of Western gynecology in relationship to enslaved Black women and non-human animals. And right now on her Sistah Vegan blog she’s got a lively discussion going on cultural appropriation (including wisdom from bell hooks on racism in Buddhist communities), spurred by the question: does it irk you when white people wear dreadlocks?
In this video created for Turning Wheel, Breeze shares a meditation that she and her family practice before every meal together, and then breaks down the nutritional racism and unmindfulness of an advertisement for milk, illuminating the messages and miseducation that surround us on the daily.
Welcome, Breeze! Thanks for being with us! ~ Katie for Turning Wheel
[Transcript below the fold.]
Breeze Harper: Eating the Buddhadharma
[Harper sits and prepares to speak.]
Hello, this is Breeze Harper, I’m a UC Davis PhD candidate and i’m also the editor and creator of the sistah vegan project. And I wanted to talk about food justice today, and how it relates to aspects of the Buddhadharma.
Before I start every meal, my family and I recite a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. It goes like this:
“This food is the gift of the whole universe — the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we live in a way that makes us worthy to receive it. May we transform our own unskilled states of mind and learn to eat in moderation. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. We accept this food so that we may realize the path of understanding and love.”
Then we bow.
Food justice is very broad, and I wanted to talk to you about it from the perspective of someone who is deeply committed to understanding how racial formation, racism, racialization, have negatively affected us; how, for many communities, it affects how we do or do not have access to the foods that we need, to make us as healthy as possible.
The other day I was walking down University Avenue with my children when I saw a new advertisement that showed a person of African descent, who looked to be an adult male in his 50s, with a younger child of African descent, sipping milk. And the advertisement asked people to consider not drinking soda, but you should drink milk or water instead.
And I began thinking about how the food that we do or do not have access to, and particular commodities that are advertised to us, how it’s very rare that that food does not follow a chain of cruelty. And how there’s a lack of mindfulness in these commodities.
Food justice — what is food justice? It’s the ability for people or a community to have access to food that is culturally appropriate for themselves, but at the same time allows them to be as healthy as possible. I like to extend that concept of food justice to see how it intertwines with the Buddhadharma — that, though many communities don’t have the foods that are culturally appropriate for them and they want the foods that are culturally appropriate for them, sometimes particular cultures do propagate unmindfulness and suffering when they do get the foods that they need. So my focus on food justice is really on understanding how is it that underrepresented communities, communities that are at risk of not getting the foods that they need, how can they get what they need, which is culturally relevant and specific to their own needs, but at the same time does not perpetuate suffering?
So let me explain what I mean by suffering.
When I look back at this advertisement, this advertisement is promoting cow dairy milk. Most people may not realize this but to produce milk is to produce suffering — for many people, and for many nonhuman animals.
Now, number one, this nutritional advertisement is an example of what I call nutritional racism.
What is nutritional racism?
In this particular society of America, we base our understanding of nutrition and health (and I say “we” as in the common we, the universal we, Mainstream America) on the notion that most people have a Euro-Anglo-Saxon relationship to food, food commodities, how things are resourced, extrapolated, and turned into foodstuffs, drinks, herbs and medicine.
So what is nutritional racism?
When you look at this advertisement, you see that people of African descent are drinking milk.
Ninety percent of people who are Black or African-American in the United States are lactose-intolerant.
The creation of this particular advertisement is not mindful. And it perpetuates suffering — suffering produced by milk products, that cause human beings, such as people like myself, who are African Americans or very lactose intolerant, extreme illness, pain, discomfort, that deteriorates the body.
The advertisement comes from the perspective that every body comes from a Euro-Anglo-centric lineage, that they have ancestors that come from a part of the world where people lived for thousands of years where they were able to adapt to drinking cow milk. It’s very unmindful to create that particular advertisement, especially in 2012, in which there’s a plethora of literature in nutritional sciences that show that 90% of people of African descent are lactose-intolerant.
The second part of that unmindfulness is that for you to have access to milk means that cows have to suffer immensely. For any mammal to lactate, they have to be pregnant. [Edit: meaning recently pregnant, having recently given birth.] The cows in America are forced to be pregnant just so they can keep on lactating. And then their babies are taken away from them. Their babies end up being used in the food commodity chain for human beings, many of them end up as what is known as veal, many of them grow up and end up being a hamburger. It’s a life of suffering, and it’s very very unmindful.
So I think of this advertisement and I think of food justice, I don’t think that this advertisement, though the meaning is well intended, to get people to stop eating soda, high in sugar, that causes other types of suffering, it’s an example in which I see nutritional racism occurring, and this concept of speciesism, in which non-human animals are expected to be commodified and their byproducts of the actual meat itself, in this case the dairy, or milk, will be commodified, and it’s expected that it will be … it will be asked to — not the milk itself, but the people who put up the advertisement, it’s expected that this milk will be cure, or the better option to soda. And it’s very short-sighted to produce such an advertisement without understanding the implications of what cow dairy is, and putting people of African descent in this advertisement. It’s very unmindful.
So when I think about this from the broader context of food justice, I think about the concept of structural racism, and how it manifests in this advertisement as nutritional racism. When I think about Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying, about having food that will
nourish us, and that we want food that will teach us to be mindful, to teach us love… when I look at that advertisement, I think it’s a great learning piece, and it’s a great piece that shows: Yes, on one hand, the people who put the advertisement up were trying to prevent the suffering and pain that comes from sodas, but at the same time, I think there needs to be more critical thinking around food justice issues, and why, still in 2012, particular ways of understanding food and promoting particular food and food ways and food philosophies still comes from a very Euro-Anglo-centric epistemology.
And one must be careful to understand how corporate capitalists who are heavily interested and invested in the dairy industry contribute to these particular ads. They probably don’t care about the fact that most people of African descent are very lactose intolerant, and that’s probably the last thing we need in our diet is cow dairy.
So these are just kind of foods for thought. I wanted to end this by asking people to reflect on what it really means to engage in food justice, understanding how structural racism plays out in this country, even when it comes to people who are promoting what they think is a way for human beings to discontinue eating particular foods that make them sick. And not fully understand how particular products are still connected to creating pain and suffering in other forms. Other forms for human beings such as racialized minorities, like African-Americans, and for non-human animals such as cows.
So this is what I wanted to share with you today. Once again my name is Breeze Harper, and I’m a founder of the Sistah Vegan project and I’m also a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. And I do a lot of thinking about anti-racism, how it intersects with food justice, and ways that we can understand how structural racism operates in this country, and how one can incorporate mindfulness and also anti-racism into truly creating a just and more — I guess a world of less suffering. And the Sistah Vegan project looking at how we also treat non-human animals, and what does that look like in food justice and anti-racism activism.
Thank you for your time.