Worry about Yourself

‘Eating While Black: Shaming and Race in America’ by Psyche A. Williams-Forson


EVERYBODY EATS, SO what’s political about eating? After reading Eating While Black, the answer is clear: everything.

As a sociologist who studies Black beauty and hair, another topic that at first glance is often misjudged as banal, I was immediately drawn to anthropologist Psyche Williams-Forson’s analysis of Black food as creative material that simultaneously symbolizes social hierarchies and individual taste. Our bodies—what we put on them, what we put in them, and what other people say about them—show just how political the personal can be.

Food shaming takes up all the stereotypes society has been told to believe about Black communities: that they’re unhealthy, cultureless, uninformed, homogenous, and underresourced. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” Williams-Forson explains, quoting Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Eating While Black shows how African Americans’ inventive food traditions are just as much, if not more so, expressions of identity as they are examples of making do with scraps (something I’ve always been told about the history of yams and collard greens I grew up eating). While constraints like lack of access, dislocation, deprivation, surveillance, and yes, shame, have created obstacles for many Black people in America, they’ve also been and continue to be catalysts for Black creativity. In other words, Black agency has always been part of Black eating.

Using personal anecdotes, historical accounts, and media portrayals as evidence, Williams-Forson explains how cycles of forced and voluntary migration have meant that enslaved African people and their descendants are continuously encountering new ingredients and inventing new cuisines. During slavery, Black Americans combined recipes and techniques from their African homelands, Caribbean stopovers, Indigenous encounters, and white settlers’ tastes, resulting in the varied, skillful, and treasured Black food traditions many of us know and love. Williams-Forson maintains that “if we start with the story of what Africans were given to eat once they arrived on the shores of America instead of what they ate before they were captured or how they survived once they got to the Americas,” as most popular narratives do, “then we will have a very different story.” Amid subsequent mass movements like the Great Migration and after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Black people have continued to lose, find, and remix treasured dishes. Food has served as a source of comfort and a vehicle for community through all these transitions.

And yet journalists, social workers, chefs, nutrition gurus, scholars, critics, and neighborhood “cookout Karens” tend to focus on what’s wrong with Black people eating. These actors form a web of surveillance, shame, and control over Black bodies. Eating While Black opens with the story of a Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority worker who was filmed eating her lunch by a white stranger in a failed attempt to discipline her for breaking a defunct transit rule against eating on the train. The worker proceeded to go on about her business and replied succinctly with, “Worry about yourself.” This utterance encapsulates the heart of Eating While Black’s argument: Black people have their own reasons for doing what they do, and they don’t owe you an explanation.

Still, everyone seems to keep on worrying about Black people eating. In chapter 3, Williams-Forson takes an article by The Washington Post about a young girl’s struggles with childhood obesity to unpack the dominant and problematic discourses surrounding Black people and food. The Post’s article foregrounds the unhealthiness of soul food, the lack of green spaces for exercise, and a failure of personal discipline as an explanation for this twelve-year-old’s weight. In the following chapter, Eating While Black turns to broader critiques of where and how some Black people buy food—you know, the perennial disgust that comes with admitting you feed your family at McDonald’s or the dollar store. What’s missing in all this conversation, Williams-Forson argues, is “the whole person: the cultural, biomedical, economic, and social being.” Public health interventions are bound to fail if we don’t acknowledge the reality that comfort, convenience, community, and culture are part of how, where, what, and why people eat.

Williams-Forson points out that interracial food shaming of Blacks by whites is just one part of the problem. As part of endeavors toward racial uplift, Black clubs, periodicals, and churches have routinely urged Black people to avoid foods like pork, fried chicken, potlicker, and watermelon for their association with the Black underclass. Instead, eating “right,” “clean,” or “healthily” are often promoted as ways of demonstrating respectability and worthiness of inclusion. “[There is] something slightly askew when participating in these choices means overthrowing and discarding cultural traditions and practices in favor of information derived from distortions, myths, and stereotypes,” Williams-Forson notes. Together, intra- and interracial food shaming undermines the reality that eating familiar food is a critical source of comfort and spiritual restoration for all people, including Black folks.

Sadly, resisting shame often requires exposure to spaces that see transgressing food norms as rationale for exclusion. Williams-Forson analyzes an episode of the HBO TV series The Wire, during which inner-city Baltimore high school students take a painful field trip to a fine dining restaurant, to show how fraught cross-cultural interactions around food can be. The episode reminds me of a job interview I had for a consultant position at a high-end Danish research firm, where the administrative assistant scoffed at my inability to operate the manual espresso machine. Later, during fancy business dinners with executives at that same firm, I was keenly embarrassed to realize that I had never really learned how to eat a full meal with a fork in my left hand and a knife in my right. It was a painful reminder of how Black folks’ chances of upward mobility and social acceptance are often tied to a white, Western habitus, which can be so hard and so devastating to fake or take on. That’s why food shaming is political, and why Eating While Black is a womanist critique.

…even though Black folks have been given too many lemons, we should all focus more on what’s beautiful and generative about our lemonades.

Interestingly, Eating While Black has conspicuously little to say about Black-on-white food shaming—a beloved pastime in Black communities. If there’s a genre of roasting (no pun intended!) that people of color tend to get away with, it’s shaming white cooking in America. Tropes about raisins in potato salad, boxed macaroni and cheese, unseasoned chicken, and mayonnaise abound. These are sometimes playful yet always problematic ways that Black people give white people a taste (again, no pun intended!) of their own prejudices. And what is there to say about the value of unfamiliar foods or eating across cultures? I’m reminded of a beloved “international potluck dinner” event my mother threw for my elementary school every year to help me understand that while my racial difference was more visible, there were important cultural differences within my student body to appreciate and explore. In short, there are just as many opportunities for solidarity as there are shame when it comes to race and food.

Ironically, Williams-Forson herself could be seen as straying into food shaming territory at times, particularly in personal anecdotes. These stories lend themselves to wide-ranging interpretations, of which the author tends to be the least generous. I found myself bristling while reading about her disgust and disappointment at being fed tofu by a white university administrator during a meal hosted and catered at their own home. Williams-Forson writes, “It was astounding, really, and as we sat around the table, amid ready-to-be-discarded paper plates of half-eaten tofu, we were irritated by the lack of consideration.” To her, the administrator’s choice to take on the labor and cost of the meal while adhering to their vegetarian lifestyle was not only an affront to her personal taste, but also a sign of disrespect to omnivores and a demonstration of social power. A kinder read of the situation might have foregrounded the expression of hospitality and/or ethical commitments.

All in all, after putting the book down, I was left with a newfound realization of how razor-thin the line is between shaming and critique. But that’s also Williams-Forson’s point—that we Black people are heterogeneous and have many points of view. That single stories are not whole answers, and that we can and will disagree when it comes to food.

One point I do agree with Williams-Forson on—and it’s the main point—is that even though Black folks have been given too many lemons, we should all focus more on what’s beautiful and generative about our lemonades. Some of us may mix it up with bourbon and iced tea, others with agave, and others with lots and lots of sugar. But after reading Eating While Black, your tastes and concerns are certainly not going to stop me from satisfying my thirst with a long, cool, sweet sip, so worry about yourself.

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