by Kacey Hansen, MPH, Program Manager, UT Dell Medical School, Dept. of Population Health, Division of Community Engagement and Health Equity
This is part of a series of posts from participants in the Texas Local Food Anti-Racism training by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ). Together we are creating an anti-racist food system in Texas.
It was the start of day two of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) Anti-racism Training. After a brief review of the previous day, zoom breakout rooms launched. I can still picture it…9 squares with nine smiles on nine BIPOC (black/indigenous/people of color) faces in one zoom room.
The Texas Center for Local Food took scholarship applications during the summer (2020) to provide a small cohort of Central Texans the opportunity to attend an anti-racism training. The Center’s leadership understood that where food is grown, who grows it, stores, distributes, and prepares it is part of a larger and older story, which includes structural racism. I come to my work as a public health researcher who has implemented several projects over my 20-year career, primarily centered on food – “go, slow and whoa” foods; fast and slow food; how food effects blood sugar; cancer prevention foods; food pantries, “food deserts”; and now drive-thru food pick-ups and produce delivery. I am also a trained pastry chef and sit on the Austin/Travis County Food Policy Board. Significantly, I self-identify as Black/African American.
Like most of us, our office transitioned to virtual meeting spaces like Zoom and Teams in March due to the pandemic. Every weekday from 8am – 5pm, for the past 6 months prior to the training, I had been in at least three meetings a day using this platform. I am sure you are familiar with the drill: click a link; a room opens to people in squares; scroll to see who all attended; notice no one is smiling; aware that I may be the only black person attending (…that last part may not be part of your drill). The training day started with the normal drill. I knew who all would be there, as it was day two, but this day was different. I was in zoom exclusively with people of color. Immediately, I felt like I belonged. I felt safe. I did not want to leave the zoom room and the people in the other eight squares may have felt similarly, as the eight smiles emerged.
Maybe you do not “see” color and you believe all people are the same. We talked about this and how nice it sounds, but how dismissive that phrase is. Why dismissive? …Others see my color and you probably do too. By ignoring it, one dismisses the real experiences of people of color, experiences that are unique to those who do not benefit from the social construct, called race. I am not treated the same as a person who is lighter skinned and/or identifies themselves as white.
One other training topic was culture. Attire, hair, speech, tone, volume, cleanliness, time, and food were included on the short list of things determined by one’s culture. I, as an African-American woman, must think about this short list daily in order to traverse the “right” or later declared “white” culture. As a person of color in a “white” culture, I experience micro-aggressions, like being told: 1) what foods cannot be heated in the microwave at work that are part of my culture, due to the smell, or 2) “I thought you were white”, when meeting in person after an initial phone conversation. The intent with sharing my experiences during the training were not to shame people but to increase awareness or reveal blind spots. If we say slavery is a “thing of the past”, but some still benefit from it, talking about those benefits and deficits, as well as the bias and privilege can change hearts and minds. Those individual changes can improve the way we work, play, live and pray together.
Attending the Anti-Racism training was difficult for me. It is hard talking about personal prejudice and racism. Equally, I felt vulnerable talking about how I navigate everyday life with people who do not share my experiences. Though I contributed as a person of color, I witnessed newfound awareness and the start of changed minds. These courageous conversations, whether one-on-one or group discussions are necessary. If we narrow in on food, think about the type/quality, origin, quantity, and preparation methods you prefer. Everyone needs food. Few grow it, but most buy it and many do not have enough of it. Further, when we look at who is growing, packaging, distributing or selling food, a familiar story is revealed. It is not an accident that white people in the US own more land, businesses, and capital when compared to people of color. And I know those making the decisions around food do not look like those nine faces in those nine squares, sharing the same race or lived experiences around race as BIPOC in the United States. We must do more than have conversations to achieve equity, but little will change if we do not start with the conversations. One question I asked during the training, which I will continue to ask moving forward is, “Are those who are at the table, thinking about those who aren’t at the table and how their decisions as non-BIPOC will impact those who are BIPOC?” Being anti-racist is not just not being racist; it is about dismantling racism in boardrooms, research labs, on farms and at your dinner table.