Eating Cultures: Race and Food


RRG fall 2006Back row from left to right: Robert Alvarez, Carolyn de la Peña, Michael Owen Jones, E. Melanie DuPuis
Photo by Jennifer Wilkens”


E. Melanie DuPuis, Sociology, UC Santa Cruz, Convener


Robert Alvarez, Ethnic Studies, UC San Diego
Carolyn de la Peña, American Studies, UC Davis
Marie Sarita Gaytán, Sociology, UC Santa Cruz
Julie Guthman, Community Studies, UC Santa Cruz
Michael Owen Jones, World Arts and Cultures, UCLA
Kimberly Nettles, Women & Gender Studies, UC Davis
Parama Roy, English, UC Davis

“Food both Subject and Method of Study for UCHRI Researchers”
in Horizons, UCHRI’s newsletter, February 2007 (PDF)

Group Proposal

This Residential Research Group explored ways in which analyses of eating practices can inform a broader discussion of race/whiteness and social justice. In classical social theory, “foodways” became the iconic social research practice used to understand groups notions of belonging (Mary Douglas, Claude Levi-Strauss). Classical studies of foodways examined how food, while an everyday practice, embodies the society in which it is found. How foodways became a way for one group to dominate over or exclude the other has been less explored. A few studies have focussed the issue of eating as a form of exclusion based on explicit racial nationalism (Pillsbury, 1988; Pilcher, 1998). The purpose of the research group was not to identify racist eating or food production practices but to bring the discussion to a deeper level of analysis of race and the racialization of eating. Therefore, studies of eating practices can contribute to an understanding of larger issues of social justice.

To that end, the Residential Research Group explored ways in which analyses of eating practices can inform a broader discussion of race and social justice. While the words “race” and “social justice” often occur together in political discourse, the philosophical literature on social justice seldom has direct contact with critical theories of race. This is in part due to where these different literatures “rest” in academe: theories of justice generally stem from European philosophical traditions in the humanities beginning with the Classical philosophers. Critical race theory begins by setting itself apart from that tradition, consciously setting itself the goal of looking at the margins rather than at the center, at diasporas rather than nations, and in particular questioning the ways in which “The Other” becomes characterized as outside discussions in “The Public Sphere” (Gilroy, 1993; Hall, 1997). Yet, there are some surprising parallels in the social critiques presented by both Western social justice philosophers and by critical race theorists. Specifically, both perspectives show remarkable congruence in their critiques of American politics.

Western social justice theory has been dominated for many decades by John Rawls and to a lesser extent by Ronald Dworkin. Rawls and Dworkin, despite differences, both begin their analysis of social justice by taking seriously the utilitarian critique of authoritarian moralism. Along with the utilitarians, they argue (against Plato) that the better society is one in which moral values are not pre-determined fixed ethics of the perfect life. All these philosophers—utilitarian, liberal egalitarian, and libertarian—therefore reject “perfectionism”: the defining of a good society through the discovery of a fixed set of standards for “the good life.” Perfectionism denies democratic political processes because it sets the standard ahead of time, making politics thereby irrelevant, except in the attainment of the pre-set goal.

For both social justice and critical race theory, the problem with perfectionism or whiteness is that it sets forth a pre-fixed morality for social action rather than creating a process by which social action is the product of political contest and decision-making. Critical race theory provides the additional critique that privileged groups impose a perfectionist politics on others while presenting it as the product of democratic political processes. From both critiques, a good society is one in which laws are set by inclusive democratic processes which enable everyone to participate and be represented – critical race theorists add to this the politics of recognition and respect (Fraser, 1997; Childs, 2003) in which group autonomy and identity become part of the democratic political process.

The politics of “whiteness” in critical race theory provides a not-synonymous but interesting parallel to the critique of the politics of perfection in social justice theory. The exposition of whiteness as the “unmarked category” shows how a particular set of values set by a particular racial group become represented as universal values, in other words, as perfection. Yet, the overlay of race veils the particularity of a supposedly universal ethics. While setting itself apart from Western social theory, this perspective does draw from Marxian critical theory’s critique of bourgeois ideology as claiming the universal for the benefit of a particular class, which in critical race theory gets remade as “whiteness” becoming the universal which benefits a particular racial group. Therefore, both Western social justice and critical race theory begin with a critique of the universal, which in critical theory becomes whiteness as the emblem of perfection. However, perfection is not presented as the “ideal” that others emulate but as the “unmarked category” by which other groups are judged as different from the norm (Lipsitz, 1998; Frankenburg, 1993). The politics of perfection therefore can be seen as a politics of whiteness. The Humanities Research Group therefore, brought together scholars from both critical race and Western social justice perspectives.

In Food Studies, issues of race and social justice have focused on the sphere of production, namely the use of racially segmented labor forces in agriculture. There is significantly less work on race and the consumption of food. In part, this is due to an ontological difference between those who study production—generally from a political economy standpoint—and those who study consumption, generally from a more cultural perspective (Goodman and DuPuis, 2001). A number of scholars, however, are attempting to examine food systems from a perspective that integrates consumption and production as social practices (Dixon, 2002; DuPuis, 2002). This Humanities Research Group therefore, brought together both scholars in political economy and scholars from cultural perspectives.

In my own work, perfectionism as a major touchstone of U.S. American social thought has proved to be a productive point of departure in this more integrative study of food. In my history of milk drinking in the United States, Nature’s Perfect Food (DuPuis, 2002), I examine the rise of milk as an icon of perfection and use this iconic food to explore the idea of perfection in American social history. Only recently, however, have I discovered the connections between my critique of middle class food reformers, the critique of perfectionism in social justice theory, and the critique of whiteness as the “unmarked category.”

My preliminary work has convinced me that nowhere is the connection between perfectionism and whiteness in the United States more obvious than in the social history of sanitarian reform movements, particularly pure food movements. Pure food reform emerged directly from Temperance and Abolition movements based in American religious revivalism. The Second Great Awakening, a U.S. revival movement championing the perfectibility of humanity, laid the basis for the major U.S. social reform movements, from Abolition all the way to social welfare movements. Revivalists defined perfectibility as a return to God’s original design and used a form of deistic science (reading biological life forms plus the Bible) to determine that design. Included was a type of Anglo-Saxon nativism that played out as a romantic racial nationalism charged with the perfection of American society. Temperance reform groups in cities eventually evolved into social reform groups charged with the determination of the “deserving poor” (the perfectible) who would receive social services. I am particularly interested in extending this work to contemporary issues which would explore racialization of food safety, particularly phytosanitary and other “standards” of quality (Gouveia and Juska, 2002).

Increasingly, historians have been exploring the relationship between social reform and racialized forms of nationalism. In my work on the politics of milk purity, for example, reformers associated milk drinking with Aryan superiority and advocated the increase in milk drinking for perfection of American society. This was despite the fact that many races were not genetically capable of digesting the amount of milk prescribed by nutritionists. Nutrition reformers declared milk “the perfect food” which should be consumed by everyone, everywhere. At the same time, social workers were discouraging new immigrants from continuing their ethnic food traditions and encouraging an Americanization of their diet. This project of assimilation was also, sometimes explicitly but also by implication, a project of perfecting American society. A perfect, uniform American diet eaten by a public informed by nutrition information such as The Food Pyramid, would lead to perfect physical bodies and, particularly, healthy, well-adjusted school children who would become perfect citizens. It also de-politicized problems of hunger, poverty and social inequality.

Perfectionism therefore is the social philosophy that has inspired much of U.S. social reform. This HRI group will explore the relationship between perfectionist ideals and whiteness in which white lifestyles become the “unmarked category”: the ideal from which other groups are judged as different. These studies will go beyond simple histories of ethnic assimilation through nutrition policy to look at how the eating practices of a particular group became an embodied universal ideal. The studies will also include examining the effects of contemporary perfectionist food projects, whether it be an examination of the food pyramid, organic food, “safe” food, etc. The group will also address the ways in which this perfectionist project has been undermined and ask whether such challenges tell us something about less perfectionist, and therefore more political, ideas of social justice and democratic process.

-E. Melanie DuPuis

Works Cited

Childs, John Brown (ed.). 2003. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Frankenberg, Ruth. 1993. White Women: Race Matters. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Fraser, Nancy. 1989. Unruly practices : power, discourse, and gender in contemporary social theory. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Gouveia, Lourdes and Arunas Juska 2002. Taming Nature, Taming Workers: Constructing the Separation Between Meat Consumption and Meat Production in the U.S. Sociologia Ruralis 42(4).

Hall, Stuart. 1997. “Representation, Meaning and Language,” In Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifiying Practices. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage).

Lipsitz, George. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Pillsbury, Richard. 1998. No foreign food : the American diet in time and place. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).

Pilcher, Jeffrey. 1998. Que vivan los tamales! : food and the making of Mexican identity. (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press).