In Defense of What the Health

Yep, you read that right. Never thought you’d see the day, right? I’m going to defend The What the Health vegan #crankumentary that inspired my blog post entitled How the Health Argument Fails Animal Liberation. To keep track of the critical take downs of this movie there is also a post called What the Health Review Roundup and I’ve been updating it with reviews. Some skeptics have opportunistically used this movie to take pot-shots at veganism itself. I feared this was one of the discrediting effects junk science has on our movement. Actually, it’s not so much that I’m going to defend this movie, because I still do think it’s a pile of pseudoscience crap. But I’m critiquing the reaction (or non-reaction) white critics are having to this film.

With all that I still do think that is wrong about What the Health, there is a Truth threaded in-between the doctor guru talking head bits. This, for the most part have gone virtually unnoticed, particularly by my white self. It wasn’t until I was listening to reviews of this movie by (white) skeptics that I noticed a weird trend. Instead of picking apart the numerous shaky nutrition claims, they seem to be most peeved by the claims of racism related to diet and the environment. And when white people poo-poo something about racism, a red flag goes up for me.

So when I dug in wondering why there was the weird visceral reaction discounting the social justice claims in this movie, I went down a rabbit hole. I still have yet to emerge though. After a year of organizing for science activism I realized finally, Science actually can be pretty shitty. So I’m taking a breather to read and listen. But, I need to just get this post off my plate and it’s coming atcha with less commentary and more citations (which honestly I am still crawling through myself).

These are the racial issues mentioned:

Institutionalized Racism / Food Oppression

Dr. Milton Mills made this claim:

“73% of African Americans are lactose intolerant, 95 percent of Asians, roughly 70 percent of Native Americans and 53 percent of hispanic Americans are lactose intolerant . Our Government is encouraging Americans of color to eat foods that it knows it’s gonna make me ill. Ultimately what that boils down to is the government is telling me as an African American to eat food that’s going to make me ill for no health benefit so that it will benefit dairy farmers, that’s a form of institutionalized racism.”

That’s not too bold of a claim to make. It’s no secret that lactase persistence was an evolutionary adaptation of some human populations particularly those of European decent. While a majority of the world’s population is lactase nonpersistant, in the US it is the intolerance to lactose that is cast as the deviation. So for a governing institution to make food guidelines that marginalizes non-European white populations is pretty much the definition of institutionalized racism.

Environmental Racism/Justice

There was a scene in the movie where they interviewed René,  a black woman of Duplin County, North Carolina. The neighborhood she grew up in became the landing spot for a pig farm. Dealing with the ensuing pollution of this farm was an example of environmental racism. There is no debate about the USA’s racial caste system that marginalizes non-white folk and that includes a long rich history of NIMBYism. Environmental Justice is a movement that deals with the environmental inequities against communities and individuals by people in power.

Pseudoscience Oppresses

What/how people eat and where people live are largely a result of the social institutions that provide these basic needs. These social institutions are subject to the legacy of bias built into them to favor a particular group of people. The racism we struggle with today was born out of Enlightenment ideology using (pseudo)science to justify exploitation inventing a version of race based on phenotypic categorization. This is dangerous pseudoscience that is making a Trumpian comeback and skeptics have a duty to rally and squash this the fuck out.

Vegan Traditions as Human Health Politics

This is a topic for another post but for now I would like to acknowledge the intertwined aspects of animal rights vegan traditions that buck the mainstream culture. The culture (in the United States) that makes whiteness the norm. Whatever the intention, the creators of What the Health tapped into racial politics. They gave credence to a truth which, when bundled may have justified a slew of smaller untruths. People of color may better identify with this movie because the large truth of racism was actually given screen time in a ‘scientific’ way. While the nutrition facts may have been dicey, the larger unspoken truth resonates.

One of the the things that now concerns me is the way I have fought against “health vegan” traditions in a perceived attempt to depoliticize our movement. But I think that’s only depolitical from my white perspective when bodies of people of color have been crushed by systemic white supremacy. I see communities of color springing up around vegan health traditions that seemingly have little to do with animal rights but that in itself is an intermingled political struggle. As a privileged person in the United States I cannot fathom what it feels like on a daily basis to be part of a marginalized class. There is something good happening here and instead of harping on the smaller bits, I would like to see a larger justice issue realized. There is a legitimate distrust of science when it is wielded to justify bigotry and excluded from communities with their own developed epistemology. This needs to change and social science needs to play its role in helping to shape behavior towards constructive solutions that truly avoid our social biases.

–citations and asides–

Dietary Racism

The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk: Food Oppression and the USDA | Andrea Freeman

Skeptics and “The White Stuff” Promotion of Cows’ Milk and Other Nonhuman Animal Products in the Skeptic Community as Normative Whiteness | Corey Lee Wrenn, PhD

[VIDEO] Uprooting White Fragility: Intersectional Anti-racism in the ‘post-racial’ Ethical Foodscape | Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper

Are the US Dietary Guidelines on Milk Racist?The government recommends everyone drink three cups of milk a day—but a new study suggests African Americans might not need any. | Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones

Doing Nutrition Differently | Jessica Hayes-Conroy, Adele Hite, Kendra Klein, Charlotte Biltekoff, Aya H. Kimura,Gastronomica, The journal of Critical Food Studies

Milk, a symbol of neo-Nazi hate | Andrea Freeman, the Conversation

[VIDEO] Food Health and Whiteness | Panel, Critical Race Studies Program at UCLA

An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System | Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems

[VIDEO] Recipes For Racial Tension Headaches in a ‘Post-Racial’ USA | Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper

Doing Nutrition Differently: Critical Approaches to Diet and Dietary | Allison Hayes-Conroy,Temple University & Jessica Hayes-Conroy, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Environmental Racism

Duplin County: Life Under the Waste Sprayer | Corey Robinson, National Geographic Blog

Is Rural North Carolina the Next Flint? Groups Say People of Color There Bear the Brunt of Hog Farm PollutionAdvocates say that many of the poor residents living near CAFOs in the state haven’t been protected by the law. | Steve Holt, Civil Eats

UN poverty official touring Alabama’s Black Belt: ‘I haven’t seen this’ in the First World A United Nations official who tours the globe investigating extreme poverty said Thursday that areas of Alabama’s Black Belt are suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place he has visited in a developed country. | Connor Sheets,

Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice | Website

[VIDEO] Environmental Racism Is the New Jim Crow | Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic

[VIDEO] Environmental Racism Explained | Al Jazeera

This is What Environmental Racism Looks Like | Kat, Culture War Reporters

Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency finds that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air—even as the agency seeks to roll back regulations on pollution. | Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic

Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities | Carrie Hribar, MA, National Association of Local Boards of Health



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