The Spoken Word Project is a partnership of WhyHunger, GFJI and local food justice advocates to explore the impact of power, privilege and racism in the food system. Listen to stories and inspirations directly from grassroots leaders creating change.
Analena Hope – Medicalization and Pathologization of Bodies of Color
Analena Hope is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Her research focuses on food access, food justice and food sovereignty movements, and situates food as central to the transformation of communities of color. She examines sustainable systems like permaculture, and other radical agriculture practices like guerilla gardening to illuminate their emancipatory potential to free us from industrial food systems, and the medical industrial complex which profits from food-related illnesses.
1. What does it mean to you and your community to dismantle racism through the food system?
To my mind, the food system is one of the most important avenues through which to address racism and inequality. This is partly because organizing around food is an excellent way to build community and coalitions. Food is a great unifier. Everyone needs to eat, regardless of race, region, or socioeconomic status, but differential access to food is largely based upon these things. So to say that the food system is racialized is a severe understatement. On a global level, the most impoverished, starving nations in the world are black and brown, and the richest and most principle nations are white. And if you zoom in, you’ll see that even within these wealthy nations, like the United States and the UK, for instance, poor communities of color are saturated with fast food and liquor stores, but they have limited access to healthy and nutritious food. So food is something that all living, breathing beings need, but people of color are particularly exploited by the food system from production to consumption.
Black and brown bodies are responsible for the back-breaking labor that produces the food, and they’re grossly under-compensated for this labor. Our bodies are also the ones that are disproportionately affected by malnutrition, or rendered disabled and debilitated by food-related illnesses, like diabetes, hypertension, behavioral disorders, like ADD, ADHD, OCD, and the list goes on. These illnesses are normalized in our communities, and as a result, black and brown bodies are medicalized at a heavy social and economic cost. So not only have disease and premature death become specifically situated within our very cultures, but our medical bills are through the roof.
So I would argue that most, if not all, people of color have at least one relative or friend who’s suffering from some illness, whether it’s food-related, stress-related, or otherwise. And that relative probably has an expensive medication regimen that they take to treat their ailments. Now, I don’t mean to say that this is not the case for white people, because all people are suffering the consequences of our increasingly toxic environment. What I mean is that people of color are especially affected and this is made clear through our frequent doctor visits, massive amount of prescriptions that we take, our lower life expectancy than other groups. So I think addressing racism and inequality within the food system allows us to begin addressing these issues elsewhere, like in our schools and workplaces, for example, and in our justice system, and our medical industry. And I situate food and food justice as foundational to other social movements, because healthy people make healthy movements.
2. What would the world look like without an imbalance of power and privilege?
A world without an imbalance of power and privilege would look like healthy, happy people working to reach our highest human potential. We’d be drawing from historical systems of knowledge about food and agriculture that are centuries old, instead of exterminating them to meet the market demands. So, governments would invest in the survival and well-being of the people, instead of subsidizing just a handful of big agriculture companies, and allowing them to flood the world market with their surplus products.
The current food system represents the cumulative effects of an illogical and unsustainable free market system, in which profits matter far more than people, and some people matter more than others. So, although all living, breathing beings need food to to survive, the current food system is only beneficial to corporations who, I might add, have the same constitutional rights as human beings, but don’t need the food for their survival. So there’s a handful of people at the head of these corporations who benefit financially, but the majority of other actors, like the farmers and the consumers are suffering under the current system. And even the corporate actors are suffering in a way, because we’re all in this together. Individualism can only exempt you for so long. We only have this one planet and industrial food production is literally destroying it. The food crisis is intensifying and since you can’t eat your money, an equitable and trustworthy food system is actually in the best interest of all human beings.
Theme: Medicalization and Pathologization of Bodies of Color
Description: White culture often treats people who do not conform to its expectations (people of color, women, LGBTQ people, differently-abled people, etc.) like Others who need to be studied. This has the effect of pathologizing them – which means turning human conditions into medical conditions and problems. It takes away authority from individuals and communities and gives it to “health professionals,” who are often white and do not belong to the communities with the “problem.” These professionals then have the power to impose the biases of white society and suppress traditional healing.
1. What are some examples of white institutions studying, dissecting, and analyzing bodies of color?
The examples of unethical medical treatment and testing on bodies of color are too many to recount fully in this interview, but they range from forced sterilization, to testing new vaccinations on infants and small children, and there isn’t even reprieve for the dead, because grave-robbing and the shipment of black corpses to medical schools was a common practice throughout U.S. medical history. There’s a really good book by Harriet Washington and it’s called, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans, from Colonial Times, to the Present. And this book does an excellent job of documenting the historical exploitation of black and brown bodies for medical purposes.
Perhaps the most famous example is the Tuskegee Experiment, which was conducted over a 40-year period, from, I think, 1932-72, in which the United States government allowed about 400 black men to suffer and die from syphilis, so that they could observe the course of the disease, and it’s effects on the human body. The men were never told that they had syphilis, nor were they given any medicine to treat it. Similar experimentation actually took place in Guatemala during the same period, in which, about 700 men and women were deliberately exposed to syphilis, so that American doctors could test the effectiveness of penicillin, and other antibiotics. Birth control pills, IUD’s, and a host of other contraceptives were regularly tested on third world women of color, in places like Africa , Brazil, India, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, before these substances were approved for use here in the United States. And I’ll point out that these contraceptives are still disproportionately given to women of color in this country, and elsewhere. There are numerous accounts of black women who were forced or coerced into sterilization in exchange for more health-care benefits throughout the twentieth century, and it was a common training practice for new doctors to perform unnecessary hysterectomies on women of color in New York City. There’s also the case of Henrietta Lacks, a black women whose tumors cells were obtained without her consent; she had cervical cancer, actually mid-twentieth century, and the cells from her tumor were obtained without her consent and they continue to be mass-produced to this day, because they were deemed immortal. These were cells that could just keep reproducing themselves, and so what scientists did, was they froze them and continue to mass-produce them. And these cells are actually used for medical research to determine the effects of certain diseases and medicines, and for other research on everything from, vaccinations and cloning, to AIDS and cancer treatment. So there’s a way in which the black body has been used as a test subject for every kind of medical research purpose imaginable.
2. How do these examples often show the white body as “healthy, natural, etc.” and the body of color as “obese, abnormal, etc”?
Well, the examples that I named suggest that the body of color is not only disposable but that it is valuable only so far as it can teach us new ways to protect the well-being of white bodies. And this kind of racist science is hardly a thing of the past. As recently as early this week, there was an article on Psychology Today which argued that black women are scientifically less physically attractive than other women, and this is a “fact,” which can be attributed to higher levels of testosterone in women of African descent. So these are the type of discourses that are heralded as truth, which validate abusive and racist practices, and this is what we’re up against in our communities. Images of black and brown bodies as obese and abnormal, are solidified by a food system that peddles junk food in these communities, while reserving ideologies of health and green sustainability movements for white communities, who are presumed to better value their health and wellness, in ways that people of color do not. And this is just not true. People of color not only value their health, but they’re actively reclaiming their right to the healthy food spaces and activities that they need to sustain themselves. They’re doing this by educating themselves nutritionally, implementing policies to bring healthier foods into communities, I mean the list goes on and on.
3. How do you build empowering images of bodies of color within your community, popular culture, etc.?
I think the best way to build empowering images of bodies of color within our communities is to encourage healthy bodies, which is not the same as skinny bodies or white bodies. I think healthy bodies of color should not be measured by size, so much as they should be measured by a holistic wellness that encompasses our mental health, as well as our physical health. I think using the food system to transform our ideological relationship to our health, is an important place to start. So I think it’s important for us to understand what we’re putting into our bodies, understand it’s effects, whether it’s certain fruits and vegetables and minerals that have a healthy and sustaining effect on our bodies, or if it’s to understand what trans-fats do, what high-fructose corn syrup does; what the consumption of these substances really does to our bodies, and then to just understand what it means to be really represented and representative of communities of color. So the images that we’re seeing of black and brown bodies in mainstream media are, either there’s the flagrant stereotypes, like “the Precious”, who’s a heavy set black woman stealing a bucket of chicken, or we get to see the Star Jones and the Jennifer Hudson and the people who have lost half their body weight doing “Weight Watchers”. So there’s a way that there needs to be a balance in between loving the black and brown body for all that it brings, all that it is, without kind of valorizing this pathological kind of representation. So really promoting, I think, adequately representative bodies, who are healthy and active and educated. I think that even just the preliminary education around health and wellness would go a long way to start getting especially the young people to feel like they are more connected to themselves, and hence, their communities, and the greater society around them.
Anything else you want to add?
I would just add that, reiterating what i said from the beginning, I think food is a great avenue through which to build community, build up strong individuals, build up strong coalitions across race and region, and I think once we start to kind of have the difficult conversations around the racialization of the food system, the inequalities of the food system, we can all start taking the appropriate steps to equalizing things. And I think understating all of the nuances and the assemblage of issues that go into thinking through an unjust food system and moving towards a more equitable system, entail that we think about all of the different aspects. So it goes beyond planting a community garden. It goes beyond Wal-Mart saving the day in a food desert. It goes beyond all of the kind of individual aspects and it’s about thinking about it in a comprehensive way and in a big picture kind of way.
I think we need to plant community gardens and get young people reacquainted with the dirt and the soil. We need to educate ourselves and each other about the dangers of certain processed foods and the benefits of a more natural and healthy lifestyle. We need to be bringing in more farmer’s markets and supermarkets into our communities. We need to be holding industrial food producers accountable for their standards and their products. So it’s all of these things; its not just one thing in isolation. It’s a system. You know, the food system is comprised of a lot of different things and I think it’s really important to kind of reclaim control of the food system from the corporate entities who, you know, will just kind of position themselves to deliver whatever it is people are asking for. So people want healthier food, McDonald’s will sell you a salad. You live in a food desert, enter Wal-Mart. And that, to me is not a sustainable solution. I think there needs to be more conversations around how to create autonomous communities who have more control over the means of production, of their food, and are able to sustain themselves in a long term kind of way without being locked into wage labor and systems of consumerism to do so.