Alex is a current high schooler and dedicated advocate for social justice, mental health and body positivity through her account @alexfoodfreedom, which boasts 5k followers. We talked with Alexandra on May 30th, 2021 for ten minutes to speak about embracing ethnic cuisine, Eurocentrism and Gen Z’s BIPOC.
Serena: I understand you do a lot of work with public health and diet culture and how that connects to race. How would you say that has affected your identity or helped you better understand yourself?
Alex: I would say, previously in middle school when I was struggling with my eating and exercise and living in a predominantly white district, I kind of faced assimilation pressures, where both my parents and I, we tried to adhere to a so-called like, "healthy" wellness diet, that was really dictated by Eurocentric wellness standards that involved us cutting out - going like, gluten free, grain free, all these super trendy diets that were allegedly healthier - so this involves cutting out a lot of ethnic foods. I think by realizing that like, that this diet culture and anti-fatness in general are largely rooted in white supremacy culture, that really enabled me to frame my struggles in a broader context. This helped me recover, and also just like reconnect with my own cultural food.
Serena: I think that's really cool. As someone who has also experienced these kinds of struggles with food, I can definitely relate to what you said regarding the kind of like, demonization of ethnic foods. Can you talk a little more about why that happens?
Alex: Interestingly, if you look historically - this has definitely been a historical trend. If you look back at the days of European colonialism, starting right from that day when they would come to indigenous lands, they would establish that kind of discourse of right versus wrong foods, because they believed indigenous foods would like, corrupt their "superior European constitution". And because they were so obsessed with ensuring they had these quote unquote, "right foods", that's why they imported horses and cattle and things like that, which are actually traditionally associated with Mexican cuisine but they are definitely a product of settler colonialism. So from that day, the origins of settler colonialism society, you already see the distinction between so-called "healthy" European foods versus these like, morally inferior, corrupting ethnic foods. This has definitely continued with waves of immigration to the U.S., for example Asian immigrants, that trend kind of continued. And often, a purported means of Americanizing immigrants or getting them to assimilate would be to demonize the ethnic cuisine and get them to eat the so-called American cuisine.
Serena: Yeah... So it all kind of goes back to white supremacy.
Serena: That's really interesting. So regarding your kind of like, healing process and embracing of cultural food, how else does your cultural identity affect you as someone living in a predominantly white town?
Alex: I feel like when I was younger, I would say that I didn't really focus on my Asian identity. I wouldn't even mention it, and it would come up in school and be a bit of a joke, like oh, the Asian friend, LOL, like haha. (Laughs)
Serena: (Laughs) Can I keep the "LOL, haha" in?
Alex: (Laughs) It would just be like - it turned into a comical, funny thing. Like my Asian identity would be like a joke to everybody and I would go along with that I guess. So I didn't really embrace it and dive into it until later, I guess. Because eighth grade was the year when I had all my eating issues, and then I went to a different school after, to Prep, which was definitely more racially diverse, so these two things kind of coincided, which was helpful for me in reconnecting with my roots, because while I was re-embracing my ethnic cuisine through my recovery process, I also went to this more diverse school for high school, and everything together really helped me embrace my identity.
Serena: Yeah, and I mean - as a fellow student at our school, I know you are very active both on and off campus working with social justice. How has that been for you, you know, balancing like school with your extra advocacy work?
Alex: (Laughs) I mean it's definitely been a struggle at times to balance schoolwork, especially junior year, with extracurriculars, advocacy work, as you said. But I've found that as time goes on, I've been able to sort of tinker with different time schedules and stuff like that, and find like, a balance - delegate the right amount of time to all my tasks, I guess. So it's literally just like learning as I go, it's a work in progress, and always finding - refining my schedule to see what fits my needs, and ensure that I can get everything done in proper time. And even if I'm like really busy or have a lot going on, with school, I always think it's important to try to find time to continue engaging in advocacy work. It's truly like, a necessary pursuit that at least I and people around me are obligated, in a sense, to continue doing throughout their lives just to ensure a more equitable environment for those around me, and ensure future generations of Asian Americans, for example, don't have to go through the same sort of struggles that I did.
Serena: That's certainly very inspiring. I was speaking to my friend yesterday and we were talking about how our generation (Generation Z) of Asian Americans is kind of the first in history, in a way, to be a mass group of Asians living in another country because of our immigrant parents. What do you see the future of AAPI Gen Z being?
Alex: I definitely see this... a pattern of increasing social consciousness and a desire to engage in activism work to just ensure more racial equity, and definitely, I think, forging solidarity with other people of color, that sort of sense of BIPOC solidarity, and also recognizing the history of cooperation between various marginalized groups including Asians in the past - and definitely through forging these alliances and like, engaging in community organizing and speaking more frequently about these issues - I think ultimately, there's this kind of partnership being formed among all Gen Z BIPOC to dismantle oppressive systems including white supremacy.
Serena: Yeah, for sure. I have one last question, which I guess is kind of related to that. But has your perception of health changed over time as you’ve gone through this kind of advocacy work?
Alex: I think before, when I like really bought into the sort of white wellness that vilified ethnic cuisine, that came with viewing health as an individual responsibility, like a sum of a person’s behaviors and lifestyle choices. And that perception of health really just aligns with, you know, that Western ethos of rugged individualism and even capitalism. Health has really become this commodified thing, and the wellness industry profits significantly by reducing well-being to a matter of, like, individual choice and so-called discipline. But what I’ve come to realize is that health is largely shaped by things outside of individual control. Public health experts call these the kind of social determinants of health, which include things like environmental conditions, socioeconomic status, and even the experience of racial trauma and oppression.
So I’ve moved from that very individualistic, highly moralized view of health that places the burden on the individual to treating health as like, a fundamental social justice issue. And seeing the importance of not just self-care, but community care and collective liberation - yes, we can meditate and set aside time for movement, but if we really care about people’s health, we also have to simultaneously call our reps and legislators, confront our friends when they, like, promulgate these kinds of harmful, bigoted ideas, and more. Our current approach to health just causes so much harm by, like, neglecting the more systemic issues and remaining neutral or apolitical while calling people lazy, when the truth is our bodies just weren’t meant to operate in environments of so much socio-political injustice.
Serena: Wow, that’s a really interesting take. I think it’s really interesting how intertwined these two like, seemingly separate issues of health and social justice are. I never would have thought much about that, so that’s really amazing. Now before we wrap up, I know you have your own kind of platform where you write about these kinds of topics. Can you share it with us?
Alex: Yeah, sure. I often discuss issues of mental health, body liberation, health equity, and racial justice on my Instagram account @alexfoodfreedom.
Read Alexandra's full speech delivered at a Scotch Plains Rally featured on visions here