Psyche A. Williams-Forson: Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race In America

[UNC Press; August 2022]

Psyche A. Williams-Forson’s new book, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America, begins with an incident that took place a little over three years ago when one morning in Washington, DC, a Metro passenger snapped a photo of a Black woman in a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority uniform eating on the train.

The passenger, Natasha Tynes, then posted the photo on Twitter with a shaming caption, adding that when confronted about eating while on the job, the employee’s response was “Worry about yourself.”

“Worry about yourself indeed,” Williams-Forson writes in her provocative volume set to be published this month by the University of North Carolina Press. This clap-back, she notes, includes an embedded, unasked question: “Who are you to regulate me?”

Eating While Black, Williams-Forson writes, is an attempt to dig down deep in an attempt to understand why so often Black Americans’ “food encounters—whether trying to get, prepare, consume, or enjoy food—are under fire.”

Whether it is “BBQ Becky” calling the police on Black families grilling in an Oakland, CA, park or “Starbucks Susie or Sam” calling police officers on two Black men who were waiting for friends in a coffee shop, Williams-Forson writes, “somebody is always watching, waiting to tell Black people what they should or should not do and can and cannot eat.”

“And why?” asks Williams-Forson, who is one of the nation’s leading thinkers about food in America and a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland. “Why do African American food cultures and eating habits elicit so much attention, criticism, and censure?”

The practices of shaming and policing Black bodies with and around food, she notes, “arise from a broader history of trying to control our very states of being, and this assumed stance is rooted in privilege and power.”

Since the 2007 publication of her first book, the wonderfully titled Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, Williams-Forson has traveled nationally and internationally to write and talk about the intersections of food, gender, and power. Eating While Black looks at Black food culture along the broader tablecloth of structural and systemic racism, violence, degradation, socioeconomics, and exploitation. (As a disclosure, this reviewer is referenced in the book.)

Still, stories are at the heart of Williams-Forson’s latest volume, and in particular those about “How Black people see themselves and how we are characterized with regard to food.”

Williams-Forson further explains that while Eating While Black is written for a variety of audiences, “it is very intentionally geared toward African American communities.”

The stories, anecdotes, and analyses are illuminating.

Williams-Forson recalls that when she first began her academic career in the 1980s at a university in New England, vegetarianism, though widely practiced, was not as popular a way of eating as it is today. At the time, she was one of three women of color who participated in the university’s major diversity initiative, and the trio often left meetings feeling “marginalized, silenced, and of course, extremely frustrated.”

Shortly after the committee’s final report was submitted, the participants were invited to a cookout at the home of “one of the higher-ups who led the group.”

Following “the etiquette of her home training,” Williams-Forson asked what she should bring but was assured she did not have to bring anything.

“On the day of the event, my sister and I traveled to the hinterlands of the region to attend the cookout,” Williams-Forson explains. “We arrived at the sprawling home and were ushered into the backyard where we were greeted by our colleagues. We were encouraged to enjoy the main dish—tofu kabobs! One of the other women of color took me aside and asked, ‘What is this?’

“My response was, in a word, ‘Power.’”

Williams-Forson later shares a story about her 14-year-old daughter recalling that when she was in elementary school a health education teacher asked her and her fellow classmates to publicly step on a scale, and he read their weights out loud.

After everyone had been weighed, the teacher, with less sensitivity than a small farm animal, told Williams-Forson’s daughter and the other African American boys and girls that many of them would not live to see adolescence because they were obese.

The author recounts how her child concluded years later that “this kind of public shaming was nothing short of a microaggression against Black and Brown children.”   

In an American cultural landscape dotted with “incendiary images” of Black folks eating watermelon and chicken—along with reports that suggest Black people have the worst health outcomes and arguments that what we eat is causing our early deaths—Williams-Forson maintains that the ultimate purpose behind these racist ideas is to maintain white supremacy and convince African Americans and society at large of Black inferiority.

While Black Americans are affected by unhealthy food options, myriad other aspects of being Black—the stress of living in America, disproportionate poverty, and food deserts, among others—are also crucial factors. And Williams-Forson’s goal, she writes, is to “intervene in these ongoing discussions by providing another point of view.” Amen.

Eating While Black notes that Black folk have always been creative and varied when it comes to food practices. The history of African American food culture is varied, Williams-Forson asserts, and the prevailing narrative of fried chicken, fried fish, cornbread, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese, along with antebellum foodways rooted in eating scraps, is only partially true.

“We eat from fast-foods, and we eat from Whole Foods,” Williams-Forson writes. “There are days that we eat from our own gardens, and there are days we eat from the dollar store. We eat fresh, frozen, and canned. We are carnivores, vegans, pescatarians, vegetarians, and maybe even breatharians.” 

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