How Food Can Be a Platform for Activism

Food activist Shakirah Simley lays out her philosophy for a ‘good food movement’ that prioritizes racial equality.

Shakirah Simley | “How Food Can Be a Platform for Activism,” from Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved | October 2017 | 6 minutes (1,351 words)

Over the course of her career, chef and cookbook author Julia Turshen has made a habit of combining her passion for cooking with her desire to help. She’s volunteered at food pantries, with hunger relief initiatives, and with organizations like God’s Love We Deliver, which provides meal for people with HIV and AIDS. Still, she was a bit taken aback earlier this year when Callie McKenzie Jayne, a community organizer for the Kingston chapter of Citizen Action of New York, tapped Turshen to be “Food Team Leader” just upon meeting her. It didn’t take her long to get on board, though, and to then translate her new appointment into an opportunity to do what she does best: put together a book that’s about making the act of cooking healthy, delicious food easy and accessible to everyone. The result is Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, which is equal parts cookbook, handbook for political action, and essay anthology. Proceeds from the book will be donated to the ACLU. Below is an excerpt by Nourish|Resist co-founder Shakirah Simley. — Sari Botton

***

I am having “the talk” with my younger brother.

Sunday afternoons are sibling time. We chose Thai.

The gracious staff, glossy pictorial menus, and leftover friendly portions make for a welcome compromise. Dishes are unpronounceable because of a language barrier, not the obscure naming conventions of a tattoo clad chef. The price of rice does not induce sticker shock. I won’t side-eye his sweet tooth (“Yes, a Thai iced tea, please. And the fried banana with ice cream, thank you”) and he won’t tell mom about my daytime Singha.

We are far from the “Asian cuisine” of our childhood. Where fluorescent-lit, faded menus highlight specialties for a faraway banquet, not meant for us. Where greasy paper bags of deep-fried chicken wings were shoved through bulletproof-glass windows. Where the lone, sticky tabletop was never enticing enough to stay, unless you had no place to call home. Where we could feed six rumbling bellies for twelve dollars. Where the seething racial strife between poor folks erupted into arguments about miscounted change, missing duck sauce packets, or murmured epithets.

We, however, dined with a familiar unease.

“I know you know what to do, but can we review? Please?” My tone belied a bit more panic than I intended.

“Okay, Kirah.” The impatient tap of his chopsticks, grasping elusive chunks of barbecued pork, punctuate my sisterly lecture.

“Don’t make eye contact with the officer in the first place. Stay calm. Don’t raise my voice. Keep my hands where they can see them. Have my ID close by. Blah, blah, blah I get it, alright?”

I hated how well he wore his resignation. Three days prior, we watched on Facebook Live as Philando Castile bled to death in his car, shot five times by a police officer outside St. Paul, Minnesota. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, in a surreal state of distressed composure, captured the extrajudicial killing and even corrected the officer’s attempt to “reframe” the shooting. “Stay with me,” she trembles. “We got pulled over for a busted taillight in the back.” Thirty-six hours before Diamond lost Philando, Alton Sterling was gunned down in Baton Rouge by a white Louisiana police officer while selling CDs outside a convenience store. We watched over a grainy cell phone video, as he is shot at point blank range while lying on the ground. Alton was the one hundred eighty-fourth black person to be killed by police that year. Footage of his murder and similar incidents had been captured and shared increasingly online, making the daily slaughter of black people by police America’s new prurient pastime, for even the casual social media user.

Creating anti-racist food spaces to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy is a nourishing, worthwhile endeavor.

This year, I decided to add something new to the Conversation.

“If you see a bystander, call out to them. Ask them to film your interaction on their phone.”

With a quick bite of khao pad, he says, rather flatly, “Filming is not going to save my life, Kirah.”

I am still broken from his comment. My little brother, who always carries the heaviest bag for me as we walk home from the grocery store, who can identify car engines based on their whisper or roar, and who tucks his lanky arms into slim-fit denim jackets (his preference over basketball jerseys). My little brother who always looks over his shoulder on his way home at night, keeps an ear out for a curt police siren and warning lights, and thinks twice before donning a dark-colored hoodie. It’s as if his twenty-three years are just borrowed time.

 

 


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As a black woman, I cannot explain to non-People of Color the sort of painful, racial trauma that constantly makes you mourn for something that has already occurred (e.g., the deaths of Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd), and grieve for something that may, inevitably, happen (e.g., the future harm or murder of your brother or sister). This is the real terror in all of this. We’re limiting the physical freedom of black and brown people, but also their childhoods, their sense of self and security, and literal futures.

As a food activist, I can explain to fellow advocates that our accountability to human beings presupposes our commitment to local food chains, organic produce, and craft production. Our collective resistance cannot be disavowed from the brutal history and experience of oppressed people. To do so would be to plan for a harvest, ignoring what you’ve sown.

Prioritizing racial equity within the good food movement requires an intentional shift from the disheartening spectrum of white responses to the racial realities of People of Color (POC). From the insidious sting of passive indifference, to hefty white savior complexes, to culturally appropriative recipes and restaurants, to the straight-up exploitation of black and brown bodies, such responses do not engender trust of folks of color toward their white counterparts. It’s one thing to show up and protest. It’s another to ask “Why are you really here? And for whom?”

Our multiracial movement building needs to be fueled by reconciliation and atonement. Food spaces and food people are unique champions to create room for, and facilitate, this healing. Unpacking this racial trauma is best served over warming bowls of peppery oxtail stew or silky dhansak. These conversations should occur everywhere and all the time, particularly in school cafeterias, food pantries, church kitchens, public parks, and at dining room tables. And white people will have to examine themselves, and with each other first; unexamined privilege is a conditional dinner invite.

Creating anti-racist food spaces to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy is a nourishing, worthwhile endeavor, with a few ground rules to start:

Our Care Has Multitudes. We can care about multiple things at the same time. A conversation on race is not a distraction from, say, the fight to change federal school lunch policies. An intersectional approach requires that we acknowledge the different ways in which systemic oppression harms folks based on their multiple identities. Therefore, the experiences and everyday worry of women, immigrants, POCs, queer, and trans folk can and should inform our work and priorities in the good food movement.

Educate Yourself. External organizing takes internal work and personal accountability and education. This work will be painful. Take the time to learn and honor people of color, past and present, who have toiled for racial justice, without their emotional labor or heavy lifting.

Decolonize Decision-Making. Creating space for resistance and reconciliation requires POC leadership from the start, from menu planning to choosing spaces, designing meal service to conversation facilitation. Resist good white intentions for the sake of POC mutual consent, trust, and ownership to foster safe, welcoming experiences for everyone.

Shift or Step Back. Power paradigms exist within institutions and individual conversations. Simple tactics, including listening to listen, taking up less space with one’s feelings of guilt and shame, avoiding micro-aggressions, prioritizing “solutions” over process, are necessary for constructive dialogue. Prioritize non-hegemonic, non-white experiences.

Recognize the Debt. Acknowledge the ways that you have benefited from your social status, even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it. From the land one occupies or farms, to food culture co-opted for cool points, to the fresh produce on our plates, it’s likely that privilege sits on the backs of exploited folks of color. Any anti-racist conversation or space must start from this recognition.

Become an Accomplice, Not an Ally. Accomplices willingly accept the consequences and risk associated with collective liberation, whether emotional, financial, or physical. Allies center themselves and intentions in resistance work, comfortably and temporarily, behind battle lines. This work must be done side by side with unrelenting and fierce solidarity, weaponizing privilege and understanding that true justice comes with civil disobedience.

In my work, we seek to nourish so that we may resist. An intersectional approach to our good food work will require a new level of accountability and difficult conversations among our movement. I’m tired of having “the talk” with my little brother. But hopefully, with these meaningful, action-oriented conversations around the dinner table, I won’t have them with my son.

***

Shakirah Simley is a writer, educator, and community organizer in San Francisco. She has over a decade of experience working on food equity policy issues, as well with national youth organizing and labor unionization campaigns. She is a 2017 Fellow for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, former Community Director for Bi-Rite and its Family of Businesses in SF, and is the co-founder of Nourish|Resist, a multiracial organizing collaborative dedicated to using food spaces and people as tools for collective resistance. She received her M.A. from the University of Gastronomic Sciences via a Fulbright scholarship, and was honored as one of Zagat’s ’30 under 30′.