Food Ink 18

Climate Farm School, Being Asian, and Food Failures

(13 minute read)

Hello friends and farmers,

Another Saturday send this week, but keeping the streak alive! I came back to San Francisco this week to finally pack up the last of my things from my old apartment. It’s been over two years since I was last here, and what a ride it’s been.

Today, I’m heading up to a farm in Sebastopol for a week as part of Terra.do's Climate Farm School. I’m skeptical but cautiously optimistic. I'm skeptical that it could be a watered-down, glamorized "puff piece" of a program that perpetuates the romanticized fantasy of small farms saving the world, lacking examination of the nuanced complexity of the many issues intertwined in agriculture. But this host farm comes with praise from a trusted friend, and some of the other folks attending seem values aligned and aware of these nuances. I'll report back on the experience in a future Food Ink!

For this edition, I want to share some thoughts on race, from my perspective as a first-generation Asian American, and I'm going to pull from the archives. Last month, I was invited to speak at an award-winning workshop aimed at coalition building and advocacy for the AAPI community. (Who knew there were awards for workshops 🤷🏻).

At first, I was immediately hesitant because:

a) I don't feel qualified to speak on that topic (simply being a member of an out-group does not automatically qualify one to speak on the experience in the context of racial justice education; there are people who spend decades studying and have PhDs on the subjects of race and racism; their cultural, societal, and economic implications today; and their rich and complicated social and legal history), and

b) it was being organized and led by two White folks.

There's obviously nothing wrong with the latter aspect inherently, but it gave me pause. One of them I met a long time ago at a sustainability-driven food conference and loosely kept in touch with. The other, the creator of the workshop, I had never met. Before agreeing to make a recording to be included in and associated with this workshop, I wanted to make sure I could trust what they were teaching. After a few emails back and forth, a long Zoom conversation, and perusing through the slides for both days of the workshop, I felt that his intention was true, his background qualified and relevant, and the context and awareness was appropriate enough for me want to contribute. Ultimately, it seemed that their aim was to use their platforms and networks to amplify the often overlooked and downplayed racism against Asian Americans, provide commonly unknown historical context that is often left out of our formal education, and to center real AAPI stories. That, in my view, is good allyship.

I lay out all this backdrop because that whole evaluation experience was new to me and something I had never thought about before. And the evaluation itself requires so much emotional and mental labor. It made me wonder whether most people, beyond the context of this kind of advocacy-oriented work, actually do the diligence to evaluate the intent and potential impact of speaking engagements and the like, or if they just think of it as publicity and credibility caching.

If I'm being totally honest, that was something in the back of my mind. As I continue to work on this newsletter (and continue to implore all of you reading it to share and help spread my circulation 😉), I often think about how I can build my reach. One of those ways is leveraging the platforms of other people and organizations, and I can't help but think that many people do this at the expense of their integrity in some way, ignoring or rationalizing a moral conflict or contradiction of values.

I wonder: Can an end justify the means of achieving it? At what point do those compromises stop becoming temporary 'means' but a pattern of behavior that defines who we are? Can we make those sacrifices without changing - slowly, painfully, conscientiously - the acceptable range of what we're willing to do, and therefore the core of what we believe, even who we are?

In any case, I did submit a video covering the three questions they sent. I tried not to hold anything back, while keeping in mind the audience and the requested context of my work in sustainability. I can only hope that it was received the way I intended, which can be difficult because the same string of words can mean very different things to different people.

At the very least, it was a good prompt and forcing function for me to synthesize some of the disparate thoughts, notes, and journalings I have collected about my personal experience as an Asian American born and raised in the US. A modified version of the questions and that synthesis is below.

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🇰🇷 I am sharing this modified script I wrote for myself in the hopes that it hits some people here in the way intended, with the caveat that I am/was speaking for myself, from my experience, to a predominantly White audience, and as vulnerably and honestly as I could afford.

Would you mind sharing a bit about your own Asian identity, and how you feel it may (or may not!) relate to your work in sustainability?

I read this question as: How does my Asian identity relate to my work? Or even before that, does my Asian identity relate to my work?

And it absolutely does. Because my being Asian follows me everywhere I go. No matter where I am, who I'm with, or how I dress, I am seen and perceived as Asian. It's not a choice, and its expression is not a choice. Meaning, I can't hide from being perceived this way. No one should have to hide any part of who they are, but even if I wanted to, it wouldn't be possible. So, ultimately, my Asian identity inherently relates to anything and everything that I do.

When I think about this Asian identity, in the most pedantic way, it simply means I am descended from the people of a country that is within the continent of Asia. Its meaning beyond that, and its impact on me, is dictated not by me but by White people, then perpetuated by us all (and our entrenched systems).

There is no "Asian" identity without the White perspective, because there is no singular Asian culture. For example, I am Korean - that's my heritage, that's the culture I'm familiar with, that I identify with. But at the same time, being Korean American means I'm also Asian American, and that's generally how I'm viewed, and so I share a similar experience with other Asian Americans in that we are boxed into that same category.

Even if I don't identify myself as Asian American, I am forced to; I always have been. Because the concept of America is based on a White-centric view of the world and of history. Because in the US, in the Western World, in the Global North, in capitalism at large, White people are at the center of it and they are centered by it. Everything in this context comes out of a White center: policy is made by and for White people, from a White perspective; history is told from a White perspective; and our children and our citizens are indoctrinated and naturalized into this fabric.

To illustrate my point here further, consider flipping this question: As a White person, do you grapple with the fact that you're White? Do you try to understand how that impacts your identity, and how your Whiteness relates to the work you do? Are you asked these kinds of questions by others, explicitly, subtly, consistently?

Hopefully, these are now questions that more and more White people are thinking about, because understanding the concept of Whiteness is more fundamental than understanding me and my Asian identity, which only exists in the context of Whiteness.

Without first understanding your Whiteness, you cannot truly understand my Asian-ness. Or Blackness, or anything else.

The term used to describe people who look like me, Asian, is a construct imposed upon us by the White center. That term encompasses a multitude of nations, peoples, cultures, and histories, and reduces them into a single umbrella category. As does White, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, etc. And it's important to think about what purpose that serves and has served for the White center.

It's a catch 22, but this umbrella category is not completely without utility for those of us it groups together. Because if there's one common thread across the life experiences of Americans-descended-from-one-of-the-many-nations-on-the-Asian-continent, it is that we all have lived with being perceived and labeled as Asian and all the preconceived notions that come with it.

All that is to say that my Asian identity is something I've always felt disconnected to. From childhood, it was thrust upon me without my having any say in it, try as I might. It made me feel othered. It made me feel inadequate.

It made me feel angry. It made me feel ashamed.

It made me wish I was White.

It made me internalize White-centric values, and along with that an anti-Blackness that I'm still unpacking and learning to overwrite.

It made me internalize a self-hatred that I've only begun to unravel.

Throughout my adult life, I've promised myself several times that I would relearn all the Korean I had forgotten, a casualty of my self-hatred and aspiration to Whiteness. I've promised myself that I would become more familiar with Korean history, and my own family history. That I would reclaim my heritage with pride.

All that is a journey that's really still just beginning for me. And it's important to me to align it with the values I've uncovered and cultivated over the years.

This gets into the second question...

Could you share a bit on how your regenerative agriculture work relates to social and racial justice?

Right now, it doesn't. Or it hasn't. The farms I've worked with, and most farms for that matter, be they regenerative or not, aren't doing much by way of racial or social justice. What my limited work in ag so far has done is further inform my vision of how I can align my work with justice work in this space. It's been a steep learning curve because I came into agriculture very recently and with little context outside of the environmental lens.

I've dreamed of building an ecologically beneficial farm long before this, but I only recently found out that my grandfather, a refugee from North Korea at the time, found some work as a farmer in South Korea for a while, just to survive. And for thousands of years prior, our ancestors had persistently farmed the same land over and over without extracting it of all its fertility, something I'm still learning about. So for me, I see agricultural and related work as a way to channel some of that heritage into my life.

At the same time, there are a lot of obstacles to farming in America, particularly around land access and especially for first- and second-generation Americans. Virtually all farmland in America is owned by White people, usually generational landowners. According to USDA data, "Of all private U.S. agricultural land, Whites account for 96 percent of the owners, 97 percent of the value, and 98 percent of the acres."

And so it is that most of the voices in the regenerative agriculture space are White, which influences the perceived problems and solutions that the movement pays attention to, i.e., soil health and animal welfare over people, specifically migrant and undocumented workers, BIPOC laborers in the fields or in highly centralized processing facilities, and lower-income families who can't afford the expensive products from niche farms and are therefore effectively barred from influencing change in the vote-with-your-dollar zeitgeist of the better food and ag movement.

These are some of the things, grounded in my Korean heritage and in my imposed identity as an Asian American, that inform my outlook today. They are the things that I am striving to integrate directly into my work now and into the future.

Is there anything you haven’t shared in response to the previous questions that you would like to say, relating to Asian affairs, advocacy, etc.?

Ask yourself why you're here, because workshops like this can be great, but your intent is key because it will dictate the outcome...

Are you here because you just want to know the right things to say and do?

Or are you here to truly work to understand other perspectives, to examine your own internalized beliefs, values, and mindset, and, as needed, give up some of those things that may be serving you but not others?

What I'm asking is: Are you prepared to give up the comfort and security of your existing worldviews and behaviors, and make the sacrifices needed? Or will the learning and advocacy stop where change meets the edges of your life?

Racism towards the AAPI community has a unique and complex dynamic. We're a bunch of very distinct and disparate cultures lumped together into one category. There have been several Asian diasporas and immigrants who have arrived at different times and to different contexts in America. There are those of us that have remained relatively insular versus those who have assimilated heavily. We tend to lack a unified voice, or much of a voice at all. And then we're stuck between the Model Minority Myth and generations of discriminatory and exclusionary laws and a longstanding culture of xenophobia.

The upshot of all this is that racism towards Asians is relatively invisible, buried, and undermined. So much of the social justice work advocating for the Asian community is centered around simply convincing others that we do experience racism. So much energy goes towards getting people to see us, hear us, and believe us.

At the same time, we have to recognize how some Asian communities have benefited from the anti-Blackness that undergirds racism as a whole. The Model Minority Myth, in one sense, is actually a contributor to that. We are held up as an example to prove the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, to prove that it's a level playing field. Ultimately, that hurts many groups within the AAPI umbrella who are left invisible and without the support they need. Meanwhile, in the modern era, during lulls in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia, some of us benefit from that public perception. That is, until we don't.

Growing up in a predominantly White community, I can't tell you how many times I've been told "You're basically White." And yet now, since the pandemic started, it's been made explicitly clear that my acceptance, our acceptance, is always conditional.

Those things, the Model Minority Myth and proximity to Whiteness, are so dangerous because they can derail coalition building within the Asian community. And then those of us that benefit, at times, from our Asian identity often don't want to rock the boat and fight for ourselves let alone others at the margins.

This is why, in my view, anti-Blackness is so prevalent in the Asian community. We are used as a "racial wedge," weaponized against other minority groups, particularly the Black community, to minimize the role of racism in their challenges. And we become indoctrinated in that narrative.

You don't have to be White to hold White Supremacist values, or White-centric values to use a less inflammatory term. Non-White people can also have internalized White-centric values. This makes coalition building tricky, not just in the AAPI community, but across all racial groups.

I also believe that more policing to combat Asian hate crimes isn't the answer - it's another way for the White center to weaponize the Asian community against other People of Color, similar to the function of the Model Minority Myth.

Finally, it's important to remember that race is a construct.

As we all become more fluid with talking about race and racism, it's important to keep in mind that race is a construct. It's a human invention. One that dehumanizes a group or groups of people in order to justify violence, theft, enslavement, forced conversion, genocide, oppression, and exploitation of those people.

I think remembering this can help us recognize the invisible lens through which view the world, a lens that has developed around our sight over many years of indoctrination and reinforcement from our existing institutions, including media, popular culture, and public education. It is a lens that centers a capitalist, patriarchal, Western- and Christian-centric, colonial world system.

And then I ended with a quote from a recent TV series called Station Eleven (highly recommend it, by the way, especially for the bards out there). It immediately resonated with me when I heard the line, and I think it's deeply relevant to the construct of race and division: “To the monsters, we’re the monsters.”

💥 Recently, I found myself reading about failed food and beverage startups. In doing so, I felt a bit of catharsis and relief about my own experience with Eat Tribal (an old company that I started, delivering Paleo-friendly meals to subscribers in Manhattan). The more in-depth post-mortem write-ups of these companies are pretty lackluster and hardly convey anything tangible about why these companies failed, but it offers a bit of nostalgia for those in SF or NYC who remember this particular moment in time. I caught myself reminiscing about those couple years, the era when food startups were hyper popular and popping up seemingly every other day, and you could eat pretty well, pretty cheaply from all the VC-subsidized poor business models.

I came to this article because I can't seem to get rid of this itch to build another food business. I’m less naive than the first time around, have that first experience under my belt along with much more startup work experience, and, I think, a more broadly informed perspective on potential problems that require attention. Yet the Impostor Syndrome is still in full effect.

If anyone has good resources for managing Impostor Syndrome, or more helpful post-mortems on failed food businesses, please share!

😊 Delight No. 7: Yesterday was Gordy's Gotcha Day. It was exactly one year ago yesterday that we brought this little guy home and he's been an endless source of joy and delight (after some initial tears). Here's our story tribute on Instagram in honor of this good boy.

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Betting the farm,

Edlin