Racism festers when we don’t talk about it, says scholar Breeze Harper—even in vegan and Buddhist communities. Andrea Miller reports.
Breeze Harper likes to joke that whoever came up with the idea of meditating every morning didn’t have kids. Harper has four, so it’s only in the evenings while she’s nursing that she has time to practice. In the darkness, she pulls her baby close and takes a mindful breath.
The fact is that Harper has a lot more on her plate besides motherhood. With a master’s from Harvard and a doctorate from the University of California, she’s a scholar, author, speaker, and diversity and inclusion consultant. Her focus is on ethical consumption and sustainability—on making veganism a tool for simultaneously resisting institutional racism and environmental degradation.
Harper moves her hands a lot when she talks, speaking bluntly but without losing her compassion. She regularly uses the high-voltage term “white supremacy,” which, she clarifies, she uses to define societal systems, not individuals. Racism, animal rights, Buddhism: for her, these issues are intimately connected.
“I don’t consider myself a vegan; I consider myself a practitioner of veganism,” says Harper. Similarly, “I don’t consider myself a Buddhist; I consider myself a practitioner of Buddhism. For me, I’m always going to be on that continuum toward trying to alleviate suffering and pain.”
Harper feels it’s unmindful not to teach children about issues such as racism, sexism, and transphobia.
Harper grew up in a small rural community in Connecticut. Her family had an orchard and a chicken coop, and across the street there was a sheep farm. As she puts it, hers was “the only other Black family” in the area. Racism was something she endured personally and—worse, in her opinion—she endured seeing her twin brother targeted.
“I remember some kids saying that I had the same color skin as dog shit,” says Harper. In this environment, the N-word floated around, but it was never directed at her personally—not until her first day of middle school when she was twelve years old.
“The first greeting I heard was, ‘Look at that skinny little n——. Run, skinny little n——, run,’” Harper has written. “From that point on in my consciousness, I became very aware of my historically and socially constructed position in the United States through the unique fusion of Black/girl.”
Harper remembers how her parents always advocated for her and her twin whenever racism or gender stereotyping came into play and taught them to defend themselves. “My parents were role models,” Harper says. “They were like, ‘You’re going to work really hard, and the truth is that you have to be two to three times better than white people at the same thing for you to make it in life. It’s not a meritocracy, and it may not work out for you, but at least you’re going to do your best, because that’s what we do.’”
When Harper and her twin got accepted to Dartmouth College, someone made a crack that it was because they were Black. “No,” their mother said firmly, “it’s because they’re straight-A students.”
Harper now finds herself advocating for her own children. Recently, her daughter was being picked on for having an afro. Some girls said it wasn’t as pretty as straight hair; one kid said it looked like poop. A whole generation later and the words of racialized bullying have hardly changed.
Harper’s parenting is informed by Buddhism. She feels it’s delusional and unmindful not to teach children about issues such as racism, sexism, and transphobia, and she always emphasizes compassion and keeping one’s heart open, even to bullies. “When my husband and I talk to the kids about people who are bullying them, it’s not just an easy binary of bad person versus good person,” she says. And the children get it. “My oldest sees that a lot of kids bully because they’re projecting their fears, or they might have problems at home and they don’t know how to express themselves. So, he’s compassionate with people who bully him.”
Harper and her family live in the Bay Area, a “progressive” place full of liberals. Yet even in progressive places—even in vegan and Buddhist communities—racism, rooted in ignorance, continues.
One summer evening in 2005, Breeze Harper was checking out the discussion boards on BlackPlanet.com when she learned that the animal rights organization PETA had an ad comparing cruelty to animals with racialized cruelty.
“The NAACP was upset that they used the images of lynched Black people to push their campaign for non-human animals and saying that cruelty to animals and atrocities against people of color are basically the same thing,” says Harper. “The president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, responded to the NAACP by saying that we’re all animals, so get over it. But a white woman saying that is highly problematic. As much as we are all from the animal kingdom, Ingrid Newkirk, a white woman, has always had full human rights as a white human being, while Black people were animalized in a negative way to promote the logic of why they should be enslaved.”
In Harper’s words, PETA, with their ad, “appropriated the racialized suffering of Black people, without being real allies of anti-racists and without realizing that formal lynching has ended, but systemically and institutionally, it’s still there.”
This ad was not an isolated incident. Over the years, PETA has had a number of similar ad campaigns and in general, Harper asserts, “It has a very white framing of animal rights and veganism.” Indeed, most American organizations dedicated to animal rights have a decidedly white point of view and the result is that people of color tend to feel that animal activism and veganism are not for them.
Harper herself first turned to veganism for health reasons. In 2002, she had painful fibroid tumors, so a coworker suggested she read Queen Afua’s Sacred Woman, which presents an Afro-centric approach to womb health through a vegan diet. Harper embraced Queen Afua’s recommendations and when Harper’s fibroid tumors disappeared, her gynecologist said, “I don’t know what it is you’re doing, but keep doing it, because it’s very rare that this can happen.” To this day, the tumors have not come back.
Harper wondered why other Black women decided to embrace veganism and if any of them were, like PETA, “post-racial.” To explore these questions, Harper collected essays, which she compiled in her anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society.
“None of the women were post-racial,” explains Harper. “They were all very much aware of what it means to be racialized, and how their relationship to food, which is primarily the way veganism is enacted, was greatly shaped by their own racial, gender, and class experiences.”
Harper reports that when Black women adopt a vegan diet, it’s often to combat health issues caused or exacerbated by systemic racism, which bleeds into the education system, food systems, and health care institutions. This, Harper asserts, “negatively impacts Black communities in terms of their access to having the food they need—and just everything they need—to thrive and have healthy bodies.” Veganism, therefore, can be a tool to decolonize the body.
In 2007, Harper founded Critical Diversity Solutions (CDS) to offer organizations training and consulting for diversity, equity, and inclusion. CDS’s specialization is supporting the diversity initiatives of organizations dedicated to animal advocacy, ethical consumption, and sustainability. The Pollination Project, The University of Oregon, Food First, Animal Charity Evaluators, Animal Grantmakers, and PetSmart Charities have all been clients.
Don’t come in as the all-knowing person, even though you have the best intentions.
CDS’s work takes many forms, but often it involves helping animal rights groups understand what might be problematic about their assumptions, the way they interact with communities of color, and the language and images they use in their pamphlets, ads, and other materials.
“Most white people have been taught to speak to nonwhite populations in an imperialistic, missionary way, and they may not even be aware of it,” says Harper. “A lot of folks who are white identifying tell me, ‘I tried to use this pamphlet, and these non-white folks told me that it was offensive, and I don’t understand how.’ So, I’ll look at their pamphlet and analyze it. I’ll say, ‘When you use this type of language it sounds like you’re assuming this population doesn’t know any better—that they’re the white man’s burden and you’re going in as the savior.
“Instead of telling the population what they should and should not be doing to become more moral, you should be listening to what the community’s needs are, understanding their realities, and understanding that they have agency. You just can’t go in and say, ‘I learned that Black people don’t know how to eat right. I’m going to come in and tell you the best way to cook kale.’ Don’t come in as the all-knowing person, even though you have the best intentions.”
In her trainings, Harper often shows a problematic image that VegNews created. It depicts Mount Rushmore, but with the presidents’ faces replaced by the faces of the four people who, according to VegNews, are the most influential animal-rights activists ever. Firstly, she points out, there’s the issue that VegNews used Mount Rushmore. For indigenous people, it’s a sacred site, which was desecrated by the faces of white presidents who, for them, represent genocide. In addition to that, there’s a subtler, but troubling, assumption at play in this image.
In society at large, there’s the idea that there are makers and takers. “We’re taught that the makers in society make advances in science, food, technology, and philosophy, and they’re always white people,” says Harper. “And then there’s the narrative that it’s usually the others—the nonwhite populations—that are the takers. They don’t pull their weight in society and they don’t really have much to offer intellectually.”
VegNews’s image of Mount Rushmore implies that the makers of veganism are all white. But what about the nonwhite laborers who harvest the foods, often under abysmal conditions? It’s their work, says Harper, which gives “vegans, mostly white vegans, the food choice and food access to enact their ethical practice of being vegan.”
As Harper says, “VegNews has really good intentions. They’re trying to celebrate who they think are the makers of the vegan and animal-rights movement.” But unless they can learn to think outside of the white box, their message about protecting animals won’t be heard outside of white communities. It’s not enough for organizations to say they’re against racism; they need to dig deeper and actually educate themselves.
“Fourteen years ago, when my husband and I first started dating,” Breeze Harper remembers, “I spoke a lot about my frustrations with white supremacy and racism in this country. Anger isn’t bad or good, but he noticed that it wasn’t necessarily productive the way I was engaging with it, so he said, ‘You should consider reading this book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Anger.’ So I read it, and it was life changing.
“Then I discovered Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s book Seeking Enchantment. She grew up as a dark-skinned, Black woman in a generation of intense racial hostility, and she really dealt with that pain, which was profound for me. Those two texts made me realize what engaged Buddhism has to offer me as someone who’s focused on social justice and has struggled for years with resentment toward white society’s refusal to take seriously that systemic racism and white supremacy are significant impediments to happiness and justice—not just for people of color, but for all people.”
Buddhist teachings “helped me reformulate how I went about my anti-racism work, scholarship, and activism,” says Harper. They helped her develop compassion for herself, her anger, and those she considered her enemies. These, she says, are some of the hard questions she learned to navigate: “How do you have conversations and enact action plans that don’t just involve Black women or women of color doing all the work, but rather engage those with the power in the racial status quo? How do you engage white people to do this work without them either getting angry with you or stewing in their own white guilt? How do you create tools using Buddhism to strip away delusion and replace it with mindfulness and compassion?
“When I show up to do a workshop or a talk, I say, ‘This a safer space. There will be accountability and responsibility, but there isn’t going to be shaming. We’re all on a spectrum, so you’re not a good white person or a bad white person.’ I try to get out of the binary thinking. I also explain to people my own stories of power, privilege, or lack thereof. I say to them, ‘I’m not just Breeze Harper, a Black woman who is the victim of systemic racism. I am Breeze Harper who also is a cisgender woman, who because of my own ignorance and delusion has upheld systems of transphobia and cis-sexism because I was ignorant that I even had cisgender privilege.’ And I talk about my own responses to being called out on my privileges and having discomfort with that.
“I go back to Buddhism,” says Harper, and its teachings on interconnectedness. “I try to explain to my white audiences that systemic racism doesn’t just hurt people of color, it also hurts you too, because it takes away who you really are.”
Harper says that before reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s and Earthlyn Manuel’s books, she had a misinformed image of what Buddhism was. She recalls, “I thought it was something, in the context of the United States, that white people do—using it to spiritually bypass or not really engage in race, class, and gender.”
That perception was not entirely unfounded. “In my own experience and in that of many Buddhists of color in the United States,” says Harper, “if we tried to talk about race and systemic racism pre-Trump, we were told we weren’t mature with our practice and that we were holding on to the ego. We were told we shouldn’t be so obsessed with this race problem. We’re all human beings and there is only the human race. The spiritually advanced person is a person who doesn’t have to think about race.”
Trump winning the presidency has forced many white Buddhists to reconsider their position, as—clearly—ignoring the white elephant in the room did not make it go away. In Buddhism, there are two truths: absolute and relative. At the absolute level, skin color is immaterial. But, at the relative, racism is real and causes very real suffering. Understanding the causes of suffering and finding a path out of that suffering—isn’t that what Buddhism is all about?
Harper is glad that predominantly white Buddhist communities are finally starting to talk about race and racism and how it plays out in the sangha. “It took thousands of years to build systemic racism,” says Harper, “It’s not going to end in a hundred years, or even in my lifetime so easily.” Having these difficult conversations is a good first step.