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

On February 15, 2010, an event dubbed “The Compton Cookout” took place on the campus of University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Hosted by several fraternities, it used the guise of Black History Month to celebrate Black culture – but in reality, it was steeped in belittling racist tropes and stereotypes. Attendees were invited to experience “life in the ghetto;” women were told to dress as “ghetto chicks;” “purple drank”  and watermelon would be served. The party sparked protests and sit-ins by students and faculty. Among those protesting was Marilisa Navarro, who at the time was a PhD student in the Ethnic Studies program at UCSD.

“It was devastating,” recalls Dr. Navarro, now an assistant professor of African American Studies in Jefferson’s College of Humanities and Science. “It was also an example of how racism is reinforced through food and food culture .”

This is a central theme of Dr. Navarro’s research. The reality is that access to nutritious food is not a guarantee for everyone, especially for low-income and marginalized communities. Dr. Navarro studies not only the link between food and racism, but also how oppressed communities produce power within this system. Find out more about Dr. 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.

Based on this work, I developed a concept called “Black culinary epistemologies” which I define as the culinary knowledge produced by Black chefs, cooks, and food preparers that build upon the Black radical tradition, reframe Black foods and consumption.

Q: What are you working on currently?

A: In a full circle of sorts, I’m actually taking a look back at “The Compton Cookout” and its flattened interpretation of Black femininity as the “Ghetto Chick” and the parallels to the iconic Aunt Jemima brand. These are two figures who seemingly have nothing to do with each other, but they’re both examples of sites in which Black women are being constructed through food as threatening in some ways, but also palatable and less than white womanhood.

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. – Dr. Marilisa Navarro.

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

A: With both my parents being activists in social justice movements of the 1960’s-70’s, the importance of racial representation was central to my upbringing. As an African American and Puerto Rican, I’ve also often encountered being a minority in predominantly white spaces. In fact, as the drama of “The Compton Cookout” unfolded, I noticed feeling marginalized beyond UCSD’s campus.

At the time, San Diego had these massive farmer’s markets that would go for several blocks. Whenever I went, I noticed how both the vendors and consumers were primarily white. I was usually one of the few people of color there.

I began to think about how a food space like a farmer’s market, touted as being equal access, could shape ideas about race. I wondered if communities of color had similar access to nutritious, fresh food and soon became involved with an organization that started a farmer’s market in a predominantly Black and LatinX neighborhood. It was much smaller compared to the markets in majority white neighborhoods, and not easily accessible by public transit. This inequity became a driving topic of my doctoral research, examining how food is connected to social, political and economic issues, including segregation and gentrification.

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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