Spoken Word Project: Natatsh Bowens – Transcript

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.

Natasha Bowens on Whitewashing and Greenwashing

Natasha is a writer, food justice activist and a young farmer. She is the founder of The Color of Food, a new initiative that focuses on the intersection of race and food by raising the voices of farms and food work led by people of color.  This is done partly through the Color of Food Network Directory & Map, which highlights Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian…farmers, urban gardeners, chefs, activists, food workers, health educators and more worldwide, and partly through multi-media documentary projects telling farmers’ stories and repainting the picture of food and agriculture for people of color. Natasha also writes the blog Brown.Girl.Farming and is currently farming outside of NYC, growing food for communities in the South Bronx and Dutchess County and serving as the farm’s food justice and education coordinator.

General Questions:

1. What does it mean to you and your community to dismantle racism through the food system?

I’ve actually been involved in a lot of conversations over the past couple of years about dismantling racism in the food system. As a woman of color and as someone who is coming from more of a farmer’s, food activist perspective, and I’m a writer as well, so even collecting the stories of many other farmers and food activists in my community, to dismantle racism through the food system stems back quite far through history. In order to dismantle racism in our food system, we have to look at the inception of our food system. So really the first step is to acknowledging, and starting to talk about, and starting to raise awareness about what exactly racism in the food system means. Many times when I bring that up, people are confused and asking, “Racism in the food system? How is that possible?” Yet if you talk to them about farm worker’s rights, food access, this term that’s being thrown around, “food deserts,” lack of grocery stores in certain neighborhoods, then it starts to click for them, and all of these things stem back to racism in our food system and just the imbalance of power, and communities of color being left out of everything, from both farm subsidies and loans and access in the agriculture system, to workers’ rights and affordability at the farmers market. So to dismantle all of these issues, we first have to point to racism and I feel like our society doesn’t want to talk about racism, no one wants to point to where there’s an issue for anything, but that has to be the very first step, is acknowledging racism as the impetus for so many issues that we have in our food system today. And in order to do that, we all have to start coming together, having conversations, which is the purpose of a lot of the groups I’ve been involved in recently. Having that healing time, and having that growing and learning time, within all of us to recognize our own racist actions and to really come together and put effort into healing in order to dismantle it in our system.

And I feel after those first steps are taken, then we can start really breaking down the policies and breaking down what’s wrong in the system to change it: breaking down the Food and Farm Bill, breaking down our distribution systems with food in our local communities, breaking down different laws and regulations for farmers and community gardens and all of that. Once we’ve acknowledged racism as the elephant in the room, then we can get to the groundwork, if you will, in our policies and the way our system is structured.

2. What would the world look like without an imbalance of power and privilege?

I was looking at this question and thinking this is really going to show my pure, idealistic side, and what I lay around and daydream about, envisioning this happy utopia. But seriously, if we did not have an imbalance of power and privilege, the potential we would have as a people, and the potential we would have as a healthy planet is just mind-blowing. The imbalance of power and privilege stems back, again. so far in our history and still has such a grip over us, that if that was erased, we would just have a completely different world, in my mind. We would have fair access to and respect for our natural resources, our food, our water, maybe we wouldn’t have such a toxic, capitalist-driven market, this global race for power, because that’s really all that we’re dealing with, with every issue that we have, with even just the recent, and right now very popular news of this war on terror and feeling like maybe it’s finally over, with the death of Osama Bin Laden, and everything that we’re going through right now, it all comes down to gaining power over another. If that didn’t exist, we would just have a different world. I’m going to leave it vague because I could be on the phone for hours talking about all of the things I wish to see in this world if there wasn’t such an imbalance of power and privilege. To me, that’s definitely the core of many of our issues. So without that there, maybe the divisions wouldn’t exist.


Theme Questions: Whitewashing and Greenwashing

Description: Whitewashing is one way of describing the complex, multifaceted process in which white culture co-opts other cultures. One example is when white culture popularizes a culturally significant item/idea from a different culture by stripping it of its meaning and reducing it to aesthetics, such as Native American war bonnets that are now mass-produced by costume stores. Greenwashing is the process in which companies market their products as “eco-friendly,” when they do not actually address environmental sustainability. For example, companies say they are “reducing environmental impact,” when they are actually just cutting costs by printing two-sided.

1. How are whitewashing and greenwashing related?

First, whitewashing, to me, is not only co-opting cultural traditions or items and reducing them, completely changing their meaning and significance, but many times, even using them in a manner that is completely offensive to the culture from which it was stolen, and erasing the people of that culture from the picture. The majority of American history, for example, is whitewashed, especially our agricultural history and the history of our food. The agricultural system in the U.S. was built on the backs of African slaves, yet the history books tell you about white men starting the rice and cotton industries. Still today, the picture of an American farmer is a white face. It’s not mentioned that the land and agricultural techniques, and the introduction to some crops were stolen from the native peoples here. All of that history has been whitewashed. Much of the food in America, too, especially in the South, where I’m from, is painted as typical, white-American food, when many of the crops – okra – were brought over from Africa by her people when they were brought here. Ironically, now that food is consumed on whitewashed holidays, to celebrate the time in which White folks stole land, murdered natives, started enslaving people to do that, to cook up all of that good-old Southern food.

The cycle just continues today with this ‘Good Food’ and sustainable farming movement. Before it could even get out the door, it’s been whitewashed. Growing in harmony with the land, the way that indigenous and African and many other communities of color have been growing food forever, is now all of a sudden a new thing called “permaculture,” being popularized in White-green movements with “new techniques” being taught by white folks, the same folks that began using pesticides and toxic fertilizers in the first place. Ruining the land, forcing people of color working for them to breathe in all of the deadly chemicals when they work in the fields. And still today this goes on. I’m talking about farmworkers’ rights and migrant workers. All the solutions to that, people are becoming aware and want to change that, but all of the solutions now are being whitewashed, with no attention being given to the local traditions of growing food that POCs [people of color] have, and no word from farmers of color, or food activists trying to pick up all those pieces today.

Greenwashing is so similar to whitewashing, in that they’re almost one in the same, in my opinion. Greenwashing, in our capitalist-driven consumer market led mainly by white CEO’s, is a way to co-opt efforts at living in harmony with the environment or being eco-friendly. They take these efforts as their own in order to profit and benefit themselves, completely eliminating the actual purpose of benefiting the earth and all her people. So, it’s really no different than whitewashing: taking cultural traditions, items, or history as its own, and sometimes make profit for white folks, again, completely eliminating the actual significance of the tradition, item or truth in the people’s history. And as I was mentioning before, there’s almost this tragic/comic relationship unfolding now between whitewashing and greenwashing, with the actual whitewashing of the green movement. Popularizing everything green, marketing it to mainly white folks and leaving people of color out of the green solutions or even greenwashed solutions, so that we’re the ones doing the brunt of the work, environmental impacts, being left out of the healthy food options, and not invited to the decision making table in the movement. I think they’re disgustingly related.

2. Why do whitewashing and greenwashing occur?

Why this occurs is like answering why racism exists. It all comes down to being in power. The United States of America wouldn’t be as powerful as it is today, if it hadn’t stuck its flag in every corner of indigenous sacred land, renaming it New York City, and carved its White-faced Presidents’ heads into sacred native mountains, painting White-American pride all over the place, boasting itself and its history in the whitewashed manner that it does. If the significance of African culture and history were acknowledged, and not erased or infantilized, then America would have to face its demons and step out of the global power for a moment and heal itself. So whitewashing is a coping method, a way to cover up the blemishes in order to move on and continue gaining power, which is what racism is about, holding power over another group based on the racial differences perceived and designed by that group in power.

Greenwashing occurs for the same reasons, but it’s more founded on what is the impetus for power, on money. Greenwashing occurs so that those in power, in this world of consumerism, can continue gaining profit, but using our own desires to go green to dupe us into paying them. So desire is the key word here because there’s such a strong desire to go green, coupled with a lack of consumer research, that consumers allow this greenwashing to go unnoticed. And there’s also such a desire in many communities to ignore the blemishes in the past of this country, and instead focus on what is popular and what is glamorized, without really asking any questions or digging through history to find out where these popularized pieces of society come from, and that’s how whitewashing is allowed to occur, unnoticed. But why they occur: it all comes down to power.

3. How do you bring visibility to the history of whitewashing and greenwashing?

Well, I am fortunate enough to meet some really amazing leaders in my community and in communities I’ve lived in and been to in past years. Leaders that are really co-opting the whitewashing and greenwashing of our food system and the movement to change our food system, co-opting and bringing them back to square one. Bringing them back to shed light on the history of our food and agricultural systems and the people that were behind our agricultural systems here in this country to start with, the people that are running our agricultural system around the world and not gaining the credit for that, and the people who are really just trying to bring a lot of things back to the true color, not whitewashed or greenwashed. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of these communities and leaders and work with them, and be inspired by them, inspired enough to start something that I’m starting now. The Color of Food is an initiative to raise the voices of farmers and food leaders of color. We’re raising the voices of people of color in the food system, from chefs, to activists, to farmers across the board, and really creating a space to call people out on their whitewashing of the food movement and to shed light on the cultural tradition and true histories of our food and agricultural systems. These people have been doing this work for years and years and I just happen to be someone that came along and saw that there should be more presence to this work and to bringing visibility to many things, but including whitewashing and greenwashing, particularly in our food system.

We’re creating a world-wide network and hopefully this can not only bring visibility to the history of these things, but also help start that discussion and shed light on what I talked about at the beginning of this conversation of racism being that elephant in the room when we’re looking at so many issues now with our food system and with the imbalance of privilege and power and access. I’m really hoping that the Color of Food Network really creates that space and helps start those discussions. Another part of the initiative is we’re doing some documentary projects, so hearing directly from generations and generations of farmers of color who, many of these farmers are on the brink of extinction. Young farmers of color, there aren’t as many picking up the pitchfork to stand in the place of those that came before them. Hopefully, shedding visibility on that huge issue and inspiring folks to come back to the land. Also just preserving the knowledge and the true history of agriculture in this country directly from these farmers of color who’ve been tossed to the side with the whitewashing of our history. And really revealing that and tying it to the white and greenwashing that’s going on today. Also, personally, I farm here in New York and we do a lot of food justice work where we’re working with communities from the city coming up to the farm. I always try to keep that message with me when speaking with particularly youth of color coming in to the farm that I work with and I’ve worked in different gardens in the city as well. Just making sure that true history of certain crops that we may be dealing with that day, and history of working the land in general isn’t whitewashed for them. I think there’s a lot of ways we can bring visibility to this.

Anything else you want to add?

I just want to comment, that I found a lot of the questions very interesting, and I’m really happy to see a lot of issues that I didn’t expect to be on there, brought up and tied in. And this issue of race and food is so complex and has so many branches to it, so I was really happy to see issues like whitewashing and greenwashing being brought up, and other issues that you all had on there, such as gender. So I’m looking forward to seeing this whole project come together.