‘Conscious consumers’ must do more than just shop right
Tunde Wey, a Nigerian-born chef and activist, was the guest speaker at Seward Community Co-op’s Annual Owner Meeting held October 23 at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union in Minneapolis. Wey, who has lived in the U.S. since age 16, also planned the menu for and supervised the cooking of the Nigerian cuisine served at the meeting.
In his speech, Wey told the story of how he began to blend being a chef with social justice activism, the lessons he learned from doing so, how that relates to the “real costs of food,” and how people can be “conscious consumers” in a way that goes beyond just shopping at the “right” stores, such as co-ops, or buying the “right” products, such as fair trade or organic items.
In 2015, a food stall Wey operated out of New Orleans’ St. Roch Market closed. “I spent about six months trying to figure out what my next step would be,” he recalled. During this period, the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of law enforcement and the resulting protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and others compelled Wey to respond in his own way.
In 2016 Wey started a national touring dinner series in which, over a meal he prepared, he facilitated conversations with the diners about immigration and, in a separate series, Blackness in America.
In the process of holding these dinners with people of various racial identities, Wey said, “I moved away from exploring Blackness as an identity to querying White supremacy as this tool that has subjugated and exploited Black folks and people of color.
“I started to ask the folks in the room this very pointed question: White supremacy is a legacy that this country was founded upon, and what that means is that folks who have White skin privilege have disproportionately more wealth and more privilege than other folks, folks of color; and so in this room, when nothing is going to be taken from you — and this is only a hypothetical [question] — what are you willing to give up?
“Nothing — that was always the answer. It was honest and I appreciate that, but I had to understand why I was troubled by this response. I started thinking about my own life and how I move [in it]…
“I’m a man. I began to see my relationships as a man as problematic… I was in my relationships exploitative, and I was the problem…
“I had realized that I was that which I was condemning in White folks and that I wasn’t willing to give up anything. Even though I understood my privilege, the work to traverse the knowledge that I had about myself to a space where I actualized this knowledge and treated the women in my life — my wife, my friends, my mother — the way that was devoid of misogyny and patriarchy was something that I was not able to do.”
When Wey tried to address the problem of people recognizing and dealing with privilege and oppression, “I made the mistake of trying to walk in the ‘victim’s shoes.’ I wanted to understand the problem from the other person’s perspective, and in that framing I was still the protagonist. I was the hero who had to understand the victim to change the problem.
“What I needed to do and what I’m trying to do right now in my life is understand myself as the villain, to walk in my own shoes and realize that I am the tool of oppression in my relationships.”
Connecting these ideas to the real cost of food, Wey said, “What the focus should be is the real cost of consumption, because food is part of [the] consumptive reality that we all participate in.”
Americans in general hold two false beliefs that get in the way of recognizing the costs of consumption, according to Wey. One is “the idea that consumption, by nature of itself, is virtuous. That is not true. Consumption at its best is a compromise. It’s a compromise that we make because we live in a society and a community where this is how things are done — we have to buy clothes. We have to buy food.
“The other thing is because we think consumption is virtuous and we are the consumers, we have put ourselves in the role of protagonists, and we haven’t identified ourselves as potential villains.”
The “villainy” that consumers potentially perpetrate is the consumption of food and other items historically produced on “land has been expropriated from indigenous people, the tilling of that land by slave people, and right now the degradation of the land by commercial farming,” Wey said.
In addition, the labor force that works to produce the goods people consume is “endangered…threatened…and vulnerable and… [much of] the capital that goes into producing goods that we consume is…concerned with profit at the expense of people and the planet.”
To tackle the issue of consumption’s relationship with exploitation and oppression, “We have to ask ourselves how far do our good intentions go, because we buy food that is organic and we shop at places where the employees are paid well.” Wey emphasized.
“So it is impossible, in my mind, to be a conscious consumer and still tolerate segregated schools for children of color. It’s impossible, in my mind, to say ‘Black lives matter’ and still be unconcerned about the racial wealth disparity in this country.
“We have to realize that using our [buying] power to make changes is a compromise. Ultimately, we have to take this idea of cooperation beyond the co-op and into public and private spaces because these spaces are permeated with inequity. We can’t contain our protests to sanitized spaces. We have to be everywhere, protest everywhere, because that’s where the inequality is.”
For more information about Chef Tunde Wey, go to www.fromlagos.com.
Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.