Whole Foods Is a Hoax (And So Is White Activism)
an op-ed by Billy Agustin
Dear Asian Youth,
I am in a Whole Foods on my sixteenth birthday. I think it’s funny to peruse the aisles as if I am an upper middle class white woman with enough money to spend on overpriced soaps and luxury candles. I have never been in one with the intention to buy something until this point of my life. The air of a Whole Foods feels so...different. It’s like stepping into a polished log cabin trying its hardest to be homey despite its overwhelmingly manufactured feel. It’s the epitome of modern, gentrified suburbia.
There are reusable everythings lining the aisles. Reusable bags, storage bins, utensils. As I spot some beeswax food wraps, my mind drifts to the fabric sandwich wrap my mother made in kindergarten, still in use to this day. While browsing numerous lunch containers, I recall my parents’ distaste at using multiple takeaway boxes, how they had washed away rice grains and vegetable crumbs from a plastic food bowl formerly used for poké, proclaiming that it would be put to use as tupperware in the near future. I find myself smiling at a pack of metal straws, recalling my mother’s scolding criticism: “How hard is it for you to just use your mouth? It’s already made for drinking, you don’t need any tools to go help with it.”
I exit the Whole Foods with three frog-shaped cookies from the bakery and some ideas to contemplate. This entire discussion about being environmentally savvy felt terribly refined- just as refined as Whole Foods. There was a clean aesthetic to it, all Mason jars and vegan diets. Saving the earth has turned trendy, with nature-themed slogans plastered onto T-shirts you can buy at your local Target or Forever 21. The irony astounds me.
What baffles me even more is the exclusion of POC voices. After all, the climate crisis is a global affair. It shouldn’t be solely centric on a specific group of people. In fact, those that it hurts the most are third-world countries with POC populations: Yemen, Haiti, the Philippines, etc. Where are the keynote speakers from those countries? It was as if they didn’t exist. I remembered the experience of Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist who was cut out of a picture that prominently featured white figures in an article by Associated Press back in January (2020). In the act, they had cut her out of the conversation surrounding environmental activism.
And what about those immigrant parents, who, like mine, aimed to reuse almost everything that entered their lives? Why weren’t their junk-drawers filled with unused takeout utensils praised, or their innate ability to clean out old food containers?
What about the Indigenous populations of the United States and beyond who had essentially adopted the only sustainable lifestyle possible? Why aren’t they the faces of going green? The onset of colonial greed came with environmental destruction and in tandem, that fundamentally sustainable practice of living off of only what you needed.
Deep down, I knew why. The practices weren’t pretty enough to be mommy-blog material. A large population of POC live on the breadline, and living on the breadline often means living in a food desert. Access to organic, fresh food is extremely limited in those communities. Whole Foods only crop up in pretty, neat areas with folks affluent enough to actually afford their products.
This indicates a greater issue to me. There are so many issues that intersect with one another, so many that I see a lot of the world’s problems as intertwined in a massive web rather than distinctly separate. If you care about human rights, you likely care about wealth inequality, which is entangled with race and socioeconomics, so on and so forth. There are dire ramifications to promoting white activists as the faces for certain movements. It completely undermines the voices and experiences of the folks who are equally (if not more so) affected by a major problem.
Speaking on a sphere restricted to the teenage bubble, it’s hard to talk about activism on social media, especially concerning race. The idea of revolution seems so enticing to white teens. People produce cute little stickers surrounded by flowers that portray activist phrases in calligraphy fonts, speak over voices of color and undermine their experiences in favor of creating content that glorifies revolts, and they love taking beliefs to wild extremes (a prime example: cancel culture). It seems to me that there must be a diversity of voices surrounding every movement: feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, neurodivergent rights, climate change. There is an insane amount of intersectionality that goes overlooked, and to develop one undoubtedly correct solution is to undermine how multi-faceted a topic is. White feminism, for example, is a subject I have seen getting a large amount of attention. Ignoring the intersectionality of feminism is to pick and choose the parameters for who gets rights and who doesn’t. After all, there are unique differences surrounding a woman of color’s experiences versus a white woman’s experiences. That point isn't to invalidate any of the struggles either party goes through, just to indicate that there are varying degrees and different types of oppression.
The climate crisis, like many other activist movements, has often been reduced to an aesthetic. I feel as if that lessens its impact significantly. White leaders of activism serve to make movements more palatable to the general public. That isn’t to say allyship and support from the white community is unnecessary, just that those who are symbols of a certain movement shouldn’t be the folks who are impacted the least. There should be room for diversity to show the true scope of an issue’s impact.
Unfortunately, many POC are not offered significant opportunity because of the circumstances they are raised in. Truly, only those who are privileged and conventional enough to be comfortable can bring forth reform in the political sphere because those who do experience the greater brunt of issues can’t work their way out of it. Going back to climate change, that’s why today’s modern understanding of “going green” is so toxic- it’s a mentality that caters to the upper middle class, calling those trapped by circumstance ignorant or actively unsustainable. Communities of color are more likely to live near toxic sites, more likely to breathe in polluted air, and more likely to live near coal plants. They are the victims of climate change, and yet, they are blamed for being part of the problem because they don’t have the shiny supermarkets and aesthetically-pleasing shopping bags readily available. The more I scrutinize this vicious cycle, the more I realize that the mentality of reusing and repurposing within immigrant communities is born of poverty.
In truth, these issues need to be represented on a global, political scale. They aren’t astutely refined in the same way a Whole Foods is- there is an insane amount of complexity that should be properly dissected by a diverse array of people.
Cover photo source: AP images