How Is Structural Racism Reinforced Through Food?

We sit down with a Jefferson professor to discuss her research on the ways marginalized communities resist oppression, and the impact COVID-19 has had on racial inequities.
Professor Marilisa Navarro
Marilisa Navarro, PhD, Assistant Professor of African American Studies in Jefferson’s College of Humanities and Science

Food is a basic necessity of life. The reality is that access to nutritious food is not a guarantee for everyone, especially for low-income and marginalized communities. Marilisa Navarro, PhD, an assistant professor of African American Studies in Jefferson’s College of Humanities and Science studies not only the ways in which food reinforces racism, but also how oppressed communities produce power within this system. Find out more about Professor Navarro’s research and the questions she’s trying to answer.

Q: What is your research focus?

A: My focus is on critical race studies, food studies, popular culture, and community engagement. In all of my research, I focus on the relationship between oppression toward marginalized communities (people of color, women, and those who are working class), and how these communities resist oppression.

Q: What’s one question you’re investigating?

A: What are the ways in which food has been/is used to reinforce structural racism? On the other hand, how have communities of color engaged in food sites to produce equity, power, and freedom? My most recent project analyzes the slow food movement, which promotes local food and traditional cooking as an alternative to fast food, and how black culinary traditions have been left out of what has been considered “slow food” despite the fact that black communities have been cooking “slowly” for centuries. I analyze the work of African American gourmet, vegan chef Bryant Terry as someone who both aligns himself with the slow food movement, but is also critical of the ways in which whiteness is seen as the norm. This is an investigation of how we understand knowledge production (whose knowledge counts as legitimate and whose is made invisible) as well as how subjugated knowledge is uncovered and shared.

Q: How has the COVID19 pandemic affected the inequities that you study as part of your research?

A: COVID 19 has only exacerbated underlying racialized health inequities. In addition, those jobs considered “essential services” are primarily made up of low-income people of color. There’s a strange irony in that – this demonstrates that the work of low-income people of color is vital to the functioning of everyday life in the U.S. On the other hand, and as a result, those folks are also some of the most vulnerable as they are forced to interact with others during this health scare. So COVID 19 has not only exacerbated health inequities, but also racial inequities in the workforce.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: I moved to southern California for graduate school and noticed many food movements (community supported agriculture, farmers markets) and food activism (food justice organizations). I noticed that there were particular issues that communities of color were concerned with: where to access food. Is it nutritious? Can we afford it? I became really interested in what was happening around me and decided to get involved.

Q: What’s a cool fact about your study subject?

A: Everyone feels connected to food in one way or another. It’s a basic human need with which we all have a relationship. We all recognize that food is a fundamental right to which all people should have access. Yet, food is often seen as something solely personal rather than structural. It is often dismissed as insignificant to dialogues on racial equity and justice. In my research, I study not only food access, but also stereotypical representations on race and food, food sovereignty, food justice, foodways and foodscapes. Food is inherently connected to social, political and economic issues, including segregation and gentrification, media, community-based organizing, and white supremacy, to name a few. I love that I can share the ways in which food is not just about individual choice, but is a cultural artifact that is linked to so many other important topics.

Q: Many researchers have superstitions. Things they’ve done to cosmically help their research work succeed. What are yours?

A: I can’t say that I have any superstitions that I believe will help my research work succeed. However, I do deeply believe that exercise, getting good sleep, eating healthy foods, spending time with loved ones, and taking time for yourself are vital to being a successful researcher/academic.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: I love studying and teaching my area of interest, even when that subject matter changes.

Q: What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: My age! I’m much older than I look.

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