Worry about Yourself: An Excerpt from “Eating While Black”

During the second week of Black History Month, enjoy this excerpt of Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America by Psyche A. Williams-Forson, which was awarded the 2023 James Beard Foundation Book Award in Food Issues and Advocacy.

Worry about Yourself
When Food Shaming Black Folk Is a Thing

In May 2019, an unsuspecting female African American employee of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was photographed while in uniform, eating while riding an area Metro train. Natasha Tynes, a passenger on the train, took a photo of the employee and tweeted it with the comment, “When you’re on your morning commute & see @wmata employee in UNIFORM eating on the train … I thought we were not allowed to eat on the train. This is unacceptable. Hope @wmata responds. When I asked the employee about this, her response was, ‘Worry about yourself.’”

Worry about yourself, indeed. That’s it. That is actually what this book is about. But we need to dig down to understand. For example, what would possess Tynes, an author and World Bank employee in Washington, D.C., to take this picture and post this tweet? Why did anyone, other than those on the train, need to know what this employee was doing? And why did Tynes feel as if it were her duty to inform the world, via social media? What was the actual point of this communication? And could it only have been accomplished by shaming this Metro employee? Most of us who use the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) Metro system are familiar with this policy and almost equally as many applaud others when they subvert it. But challenging the policy was not, in fact, necessarily the issue at play here. Because while Metro forbids eating or drinking (among other infractions) on its buses, trains, or in its stations, apparently an email had gone out earlier in the month advising Metro transit police to stop issuing tickets for “fare evasion, eating, drinking, spitting and playing musical instruments without headphones until further notice.” The transit worker was obviously aware of the new policy; Tynes, perhaps, was not.

On its face, it would seem that the incident is run-of-the-mill, a necessary calling-out by Tynes of a socially disobedient employee who seemed to be breaking the rules that nonemployees have to follow. But, in our current cultural climate where Black people’s lives are constantly being policed, surveilled, and regulated, this incident takes on a more insidious meaning. Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America begins with this occurrence involving the female D.C. Metro employee particularly because of the way in which the shamed Metro worker responded: “Worry about yourself.” Embedded in her plaintive response is the question, Who are you to regulate me?

This incident stands among a series of recent situations where Black people are publicly vilified and policed for “living while Black.” These incidents have been and continue to be all too common and, even more, incredibly disturbing. From “BBQ Becky” calling the police on Black Families grilling in an Oakland, California, park to “Starbucks Susie or Sam” calling police officers on two Black men in Philadelphia who were waiting for friends to join them in the coffee shop. Long before the present crisis of living while Black, I found myself thinking about what it means simply to eat publicly and privately as a Black person in America. So often, our food encounters—whether trying to get, prepare, consume, or enjoy food—are under fire. Somebody is always watching, waiting to tell Black people what they should and should not, can and cannot, eat. And why? Why do African Americans food cultures and eating habits elicit so much attention, criticism, and censure? The practices of shaming and policing Black people’s bodies with and around food arise from a broader history of trying to control our very states of being, and this assumed stance is rooted in privilege and power.

Eating While Black looks at how Black people’s food cultures are shamed and surveilled in even the most innocuous situations. I situate this discussion within a broader context of structural and systemic racism, violence, degradation, socioeconomics, and exploitation—conditions that have always been inflicted upon Black people in American society. I specifically discuss three sites—movement and displacement, cultural trauma, and formal/informal food spaces—as just a few of the many examples where these actions occur. Using food shaming and food controlling as central frames, I look at Black people’s experiences, because our relationships to food are, and historically always have been, intricate—from criticism and scarcity to creativity and ingenuity. In addition to the beliefs that our food cultures are limited to a particular set of foods, our culinary histories are often rooted in continued misinformation. This distortion aids in the idea that Black people are in more general need of regulation, correction, and control.

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

The examples above, which took place in a coffee shop and at the park, are just two demonstrations of this belief. And while the food itself is not necessarily the central reason for this surveillance, the violence occurs within the context of a food event, so they are relevant to my discussion. Despite the burst of scholarship on African Americans and food, Black chefs, and Black-owned eateries and restaurants, it is often still believed (even by Black people) that African American food cultures derived almost solely from “scraps” or only the worst pieces of meat and offal (animal entrails). There is also the inaccurate impression that all Black people primarily eat what is commonly known as soul food—foods such as fried chicken, fried fish, cornbread, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese.

Yet, as quiet as it might seem, not all Black people are the same. Nor do we eat the same foods, listen to the same music, wear the same kinds of clothes, and so on, despite most of us having ancestral roots from the South. No matter if we live in the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Seattle, Detroit, or Bangor, Maine, it is assumed we are all the same. And there is no regard for those who might “look” African American but come from other countries throughout the African Diaspora; hence, my use of both “Black” and “African American,” sometimes interchangeably. The discourses that imply Black culinary sameness are fraught with mistakes, even though they circulate throughout society at lightning speed, infiltrating our lives. But, when you look below the surface of any food conversation and dig deeper, you find that these discourses are generally denser, more multilayered, and more complex than we realize, because they are informed by our gender, class, regions, levels of exposure, family dynamics, and more, even when we are from the same cultural group. Food conversations seem simple, because it is food and we all eat. The fun nature of reality television cooking shows, the fact that everyone eats so they are an expert on their own cuisine, and a general lack of reading leave many thinking that talking about food beyond a surface level is unnecessary. In fact, the subject is so taken for granted because food and eating seem simple—you get food, you prepare it (or not), and you eat it. Most people do not know or consider food is a potent conveyor of power.

Most people do not know or consider food is a potent conveyor of power.

But it is; food is used daily in power dynamics. I realized this long before I began studying the ways that food and culture can reveal influence and control. When I first began my academic career, I worked at a university in New England. It was the eighties and vegetarianism, though widely practiced, was not necessarily known to be as popular a way of eating as it is today. I participated in a major diversity assessment initiative that would affect the university’s strategic plan. The two to three of us women of color on the committee often left the meetings feeling marginalized, silenced, and of course, extremely frustrated. Throughout the months of meetings, it became readily apparent to us that we were asked (or told) to be on the committee to serve as window dressing, and little else. Rarely were our suggestions and experiences further explored, though they were duly noted. Shortly after the final report was submitted, we each received an invitation “to celebrate our committee’s work” by attending a cookout at the home of one of the higher-ups who led the group. As a junior administrator, I felt my attendance was more than requested—it was required. I responded affirmatively, and when I followed the etiquette of my home training and asked what I could bring, I was assured that I did not need to bring anything; the host would take care of everything. On the day of the event, my sister and I traveled to the hinterlands of the region to attend the cookout. 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.”