The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming in the Pacific Northwest

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During my time at this year’s Tilth Conference as keynote speaker, the organizers of the panel “The Unbearable Whiteness of Farming in the Pacific Northwest” invited me to join them. I felt honored by their welcoming of my perspective alongside theirs, which was intended to focus on the black farming experience.

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The first portion of the panel was dedicated to creating a welcoming and safe space for our ancestors and each other, then to provide context for why this topic was proposed. The conversation soon shifted to a question and answer mode wherein audience members asked questions of the panelists. We were asked to elaborate on food deserts, defining food justice, and how to be an ally.

I won’t go into responses here because we covered much ground and I am reluctant to represent others’ reflections inaccurately.

Ovini took the initiative to follow-up on unanswered questions by email. They asked me to contribute to the answers, and this was the result:

A) In a sense I feel like the problem and the solution (I am here at the workshop after all). Is there utility in feeling both?

MN: In the abstract, yes, there’s utility in feeling as both the problem and the solution. If you felt completely removed from both problem and solution, then there’s no utility at all. If you felt only to be the problem, then we don’t get anywhere. As a solution, effective ones come from a clear understanding of the problem. The problem and solution draw from each other, so it is helpful to be in both.

Getting to specifics, one’s position depends on the problem itself. In this panel, we addressed structural and systemic racism — undoubtedly big problems. Within them, what are the problems you feel part of? What are ones that you benefit from, but didn’t create or intentionally perpetuate? What are problems that you’ve created, yet cannot and should not be part of solving? It is in these specific questions wherein our position may vary that we can make change. Assessing our relative position requires engaging those most affected with humility, openness, and a readiness to put, as Ovini aptly phrased, hands in.

B) How is the conversation different when people of color dominate the numbers in the room? I’ve only heard these conversations in white dominated spaces and would like to know how the conversation shifts.

MN:

  1. Numbers and dominant culture are different.
  2. Numbers and power are different.
  3. There are skin-folk, and there are kin-folk.
  4. ‘People of color’ is not a single, homogenous group. Intersectional, layered identities factor into the dynamics.

C) Other than speaking to and addressing racism we see, how else can white farmers encourage and support farmers of color?

MN:

  1. Shift capital and inheritances
  2. Undo systemic and structural racism in your family and community.
  3. Get political. Dismantle racist lending, zoning, compensation, and the multitude of other laws premised on and that perpetuate racism. Create policies that address historic inequities.

D) What is your favorite food you produce/aspect of farming and why?

MN: Non-patented grains. I feel connected to 10,000 years of humanity, and that I am contributing to sustaining it for awhile longer.

Resource List

Books and Articles

[From Ovini Sinclair unless noted otherwise]

Emergent Strategy: Adrienne Mae Brown

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide To Liberation of Land: Leah Penniman

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement: Monica White

So You Want to Talk About Race: ljeoma Oluo

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism: Robin Diangelo

50 Years of Cooperation: History of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (MN: Pretty much a guidebook to grassroots organizing and institutionalizing social movements for racial equity)

Collective Courage: A history of African American Economics and Thought, Jessica Gordon-Nemhart (MN: includes agricultural history and how cooperation can lead to collective liberation)

The Next American Revolution, Grace Lee Boggs (MN: multi-racial direct action for food sovereignty, fighting climate change, and taking back ownership of the commons)

Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, Robert Ji-Song Ku  (MN: I referenced Nina Ichikawa’s article in this book as it tells the history of grocery stores that source from local farms, premised on the work of Asian Americans)

Labor and the Locavore, Margaret Gray (MN: In part on the ethnic shift from Black to Latino workers. Relevant to anyone thinking about alternative food movements and labor.) With an analysis that can be applied to local food concerns around the country, this book challenges the reader to consider how the mentality of the alternative food movements implies a comprehensive food ethic that addresses workers’ concerns.

The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehesi Coates (MN: For an understanding of specific ways structural and systemic racism have taken effect on African Americans, as part of a case for reparations)

The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Food. Natasha Bowens

Podcasts

[From Ovini Sinclair]

Ear Hustle: Ear Hustle and Radiotopia

Delicious Revolution: Chelsea Wills and Devon Sampson

How to survive the apocalypse:The Brown Sisters

Healing Justice: Kate Werning

On Being: Krista Tippett

The Racist Sandwich: The Racist Sandwich PodCast