In her new book Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America, Psyche Williams-Forson unpacks the ways that anti-Black racism shapes perceptions of healthy diets and food shaming.
Williams-Forson, a Professor Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that she began her book after noticing the emergence of refrigerated foods in dollar stores. “I began to question why we weren’t having a larger conversation about cooking, about buying foods from dollar stores, at the same time that we were having a lot of conversations about community gardens,” she tells Food Tank. Williams-Forson explains that the discussions focused on these spaces became “moralistic” and “very one dimensional.”
In the years that followed, the focus of the book expanded in response to the world around her. “The summer of 2020 happened, the murder of George Floyd, our political landscape really became much more insidious, and then we began to hear all of this conversation around divisiveness and critical race theory being a bad thing,” she says.
As she wrote, Williams-Forson identified anti-Black racism as a through line connecting these events. “A lot of this is about policing bodies, Black people’s whole beings,” Williams-Forson tells Food Tank. “In society as a whole, it’s about policing all of us, right? Women in particular, people of color. But around what I was focused on—and that’s Black folks eating—I said, oh yeah, this is also a part of that same conversation: How do we control people? How do we execute power?”
Eating While Black opens with an analysis of a 2019 event that went viral on social media. In May of that year, a commuter on Washington D.C.’s metro snapped a photo of a transit employee eating on the train. The rider then shared the photo on Twitter along with a caption berating the worker for consuming food in that public space.
“I felt like that was a perfect, unnecessary example of public shaming that just did not need to happen,” Williams-Forson says. She continues, “[T]he point I wanted to make [by starting the book in this way], is a lot of times we make judgments about what people are doing and how they are consuming food. And we have absolutely no idea the numerous decisions that go into that particular one that we are now witnessing.”
From there, Williams-Forson takes on the relationship between food and identity, the surveillance of food choices in different settings, and racial stereotypes that have contributed to food and body shaming historically and in the present day. Drawing from her own experiences, as well as analyses of mass media, policy, nutrition science, and more to underscore just how pervasive these notions are.
Through the book, Williams-Forson says she hopes to make the case to “allow for maximum flexibility to embrace the fact that people have different lives,” she tells Food Tank, “That’s the point of the book: let’s take our foot off of people’s backs and necks that say you have to do this, or you have to do that.”
Listen to the full conversation with Psyche Williams-Forson on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to hear more about the ways that food and body shaming affect Black women and girls, the importance of avoiding assumptions around eaters’ food preferences, and reaching substantive change through hard conversations.
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