On January 28, online women’s magazine xoJane saw fit to publish a personal essay by Jen Polachek, writing under the name of Jen Caron. The essay, titled, IT HAPPENED TO ME: THERE ARE NO BLACK PEOPLE IN MY YOGA CLASSES AND I’M SUDDENLY FEELING UNCOMFORTABLE WITH IT, was a failed attempt by Ms. Polachek, a white woman, to memorialize a recent experience in her yoga class which revolved around her perceived assumptions about the thought process of a “fairly heavy black woman.” Below is my parallel universe responsive piece.
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February is always an odd month in the refrigerator: with little exception, the fridge is usually filled with vegetable cast-offs from the well-meaning yet contrite backsliders who have failed in one way or another on their quest for diet domination. You know, that all-consuming vow to shed those unwanted pounds that mysteriously crept upon the body during the preceding few months and holiday feeding blitz. These February vegetables are atypical to the refrigerator’s regular crisper drawer inhabitants and, for the most part, usually fall out of fashion by months’ end.
Yesterday, as I found myself sandwiched in between Super Bowl leftovers and milk that had expired two weeks ago, a fairly heavyset vegetable suddenly showed up on the shelf across from me. It appeared this funny looking veggie had never seen the inside of this, or any other, fridge before—it just sat there, looking quite alien and nervous with its large, striped bulbous head. We sat in the cold darkness after the human closed the refrigerator door and the emptiness was stifling and scary for poor little me. As we adjusted to the absence of light, I could sense the paralyzing fear in the veggie—this thing that nature mockingly calls a turban squash. There it rested upon the shelf, frozen in time, staring, for the rest of its brief stay in the refrigerator.
Because I was directly in front of it, I had no choice but to look straight at it—even in the midst of darkness. It was worse whenever the refrigerator door was opened (roughly every five minutes) for that lone act allowed light to flood into our confines. It was then that the trepidation became real. I’ve seen vegetables seize up in here many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as a fellow caring veggie there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about that turban squash. Even when I wasn’t looking at it, I knew it was giving me the stink eye. As the minutes ticked by, I could feel as the squash’s despair morphed into resentment then turned into outright contempt. I felt it all—every bit of it—directed toward me and my luscious body.
I was completely unable to focus on staying fresh for the salad my human would make with me later in the week and, instead, was hyper-aware of my taut skin, my beautiful green vegetable-like coloring (even though I am, botanically speaking, a fruit) my well-versedness in the dishes that my brethren have been tossed in hundreds of times. My skinny green organic cucumber body. Surely this turban squash was noticing all of these enviable things about me and judging me for them, stereotyping pitiful little me, resenting me in my woe-is-me state—or so I imagined.
I thought about how even though good eating habits come in many forms and even going meatless on Mondays stems from back in the days of World War I, healthy eating has been shamelessly co-opted by Western cooks as a way to capitalize on skinny, desirable vegetables. I thought about my beloved CSA that has turned out fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables for years, and offers cooking classes—some are very big and often very crowded—on how to live a fulfilled life through eating right. They preach the gospel of healthy eating, that their style of cooking is approachable for people of all ages, experience levels, socioeconomic statuses, genders, and races; that it is non-judgmental and receptive. As such, the refrigerator is populated largely by carrots, lettuce and asparagus stalks; there is a much higher ratio of Brussels sprouts to cucumbers than at many other refrigerators, and you never see the freshly-picked, tear-inducing, I’m-Too-Good-To-Be-Refrigerated-Because-It-Will-Slow-Down-My-Ripening veggie stereotype.
I realized with a miniscule degree of distress and a whole helluva lot of relief that despite the non-marginalization preached by some recipes, despite the peekaboo blindness to socioeconomic status, despite the sizeable population of offbeat vegetables that we find peculiar but we are gracious enough to allow them to mingle within our midst anyway, turban squash were few and far between. And in the large and constantly rotating roster of vegetables in the crisper drawer, I could only ever remember two being as incongruous as the turban squash.
I thought about how that must feel: to be an oddly shaped, knot-headed turban squash entering for the first time a refrigerator that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate its misshapen form. What could I do to help it? If I were that monstrosity, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want any other vegetable to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in its direction each time the refrigerator door was opened, but I could feel its hostility just the same, even when the door was closed and the light was extinguished. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the human could or should have done to help it. Would a simple “Are you even supposed to be refrigerated or should you be left out on the counter, at room temperature?” whisper have helped, or would it embarrass it? Should I tell it—before I’m thinly sliced for a beautiful salad—how awful I was when I first came to the refrigerator and how I thought I wouldn’t stand up to the rigors of a lovely, healthy salad? Should I encourage it to stick with it and keep hope alive, or would that come off as colossally condescending? If I asked it to articulate its refrigerator encounters to me so I could just listen as the compassionate and understanding vegetable that I am, would it be at all interested in telling me about its pitiful existence? Perhaps, more importantly, what could the human do to be more accessible to a broader range of vegetables? Because obviously I’m open and amenable to a refrigerator where all vegetables can get along. Is having more diverse recipes enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of the human’s gastronomic desires?
I waited for the refrigerator door to close once again and promptly broke down seeding. The refrigerator, a beloved safe haven that has helped me stay as cool as a … well, you get my drift … suddenly felt deeply suspect. Knowing fully well that a few minutes of perhaps arrogantly believing myself to be the justifiable target of organic-loathing resentment is nothing, is largely my own self-important, haughty, bigheaded mentally deranged projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in American gardening relations, I was traumatized for life by it all the same. Poor me.
The question is, of course, so much bigger than the refrigerator—it’s a question of enormous systemic failure. But just the same, I want to know—how can we practice organic gardening in good conscience, when mere mindfulness is not enough? How do we create a space that is accessible not just to every vegetable, but to every vegetable that doesn’t look like me? And while I recognize that there is an element of narcissistic spectatorship to my experience in this instance, it is precisely this feeling of not being able to engage, not knowing how to engage, that mitigates the hope for change.
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In response to Jen Polachek’s essay, voices were raised—in the form of fingertips flying across keyboards—all across the internet at the blatant audacity and shameless self-pity of Ms. Polachek and her willingness to so easily insert herself into the role of accursed victim. She actually admitted that once she returned to the sanctity and safe confines of her home—obviously, there were no fairly heavy black women in sight—she “promptly broke down crying.” Awwww . . . poor thing.
I must admit that I, too, was highly offended by her self-absorbed diatribe. This, however, does not make me angry at every white woman inhabiting planet earth. My annoyance is reserved for and directed at the author of that piece and the powers that be who let it slip through the fingers of the editing machine and into the public’s line of vision. It has now been seen; it cannot be unseen. What this piece did bring to light in a sense, however, is that the whole notion of color blindness in today’s society is a fallacy. It exists. So while I was upset by the words, my anger is in check. This is the world in which I live.
Perhaps the decision to publish the article is now one of deep regret by xoJane’s managing editor Rebecca Carroll, who incidentally, a) is a Black woman and, b) was the assigning editor for the piece. Maybe her overzealous nature should have been curtailed by an in-house checks and balances system. Or more likely, she doesn’t “give a fuck” (her words, not mine) about page views and really did publish the essay in earnest, in an attempt to provoke stimulating dialog. I don’t know the true answer to the question of ‘why she did it’ , and it’s not for me to speculate. What I do know, however, is that regardless of its initial intent, the piece did spark conversations, albeit highly contentious and combustible ones.
My responsive piece is obviously written in jest. I wrote it in this manner because it helped me to process my feelings without being exceedingly venomous. That this piece revolves around vegetables is obvious; I hope so too is the reason—Bon Vivant is a blog about food. I believe I can have my say (which I would do in the absence of anyone’s blessings anyway), and still manage to make it about food.
And now that that’s off my chest, I think I need to rejuvenate my mind, body and spirit; it’s time I find a yoga class to join. Downward facing dog and goddess pose, here I come.