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Healing and Thriving from Racism, COVID and their Colonial Roots

By Shane Bernardo

COVID-19 isn’t going away. Instead, the racial disparities around COVID-19 have been entrenched within the recent spree of killings of Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and David McAtee. The prominence and timing of these racial justice and public health issues is not by accident. They’re both endemic of a system predicated upon white supremacy and enriching the world’s elite of mostly cis white men.

One of the most enduring aspects of racist violence could be characterized by how unstable and uncertain our relationship to food has become during this time period. In addition to contracting the virus from potential vectors, massive unemployment and confusion about federal aid, social distancing, and sheltering in place orders have surfaced many fundamental questions around how we will feed ourselves and our families as we continue to fight for justice. No doubt, these impacts will have severe disparities for Black, Indigenous and families of color as well. This violence reveals our torrid colonial history around food, land and labor.

For many BIPOC communities, this question has persisted long before the coronavirus became a global pandemic. Food insecurity has been a prevailing issue since 1492 and primarily for people kidnapped from their homelands along the West African coast and Native peoples of Turtle Island otherwise known as North America.

Today, our food system has become incredibly standardized, centralized, and industrialized, a legacy from the plantation economy designed to appropriate Native land, extract wealth, and enslave Native and Black people.  From migrant laborers on large monoculture farms, meat processors to grocery delivery drivers and warehouse employees in the gig economy, vulnerable low wage workers have little recourse than to work long hours to compensate for not having proper protection, sick days or healthcare if they were to become hurt or infected in the process. All the while, shareholders and top executives reap record profits and salaries.

The scale of the COVID pandemic, food insecurity and white supremacy is matched by the amount of anxiety they have sustained in its wake. What’s being made invisible by the numerous media accounts of workers being forced to work sick, panic buying, unstable supply chains and farmers letting food rot in the fields is how the industrial food system also perpetuates the emotional and psychic violence that is better understood within the context of colonial settlement of the Americas.

In Detroit, a confederation of three Native Nations, the Anishinaabe (Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe) grew, foraged, fished, and hunted well before the city was established. Colonial contact has meant the formation of colonial settlements and its accompanied violence. Currently the city is being billed as the “arsenal of health,” despite the mass water shutoffs and mass incarceration adding to the spread of COVID-19 in a Black majority city. As Detroit’s majority resident navigate massive disinvestment, displacement, and economic upheaval since the 1950’s,  Detroit’s elite thrives, including Dan Gilbert, billionaire owner of Quicken Loans, who is building a $533 million “criminal justice” center that will house the new county jail, and the Illitch family whose newly constructed hockey arena benefited from $324 million in public funds and it’s currently be used for detaining BLM protestors.

Growing our own food should be part of our collective response to these challenges. Community farms and gardens are not without its own issues. For example, there’s a renewed interest in “victory gardens” popularized around World War II. This well-intended campaign conveniently dismisses the history of Japanese internment and the interned Japanese farmers who tended those gardens. Remembering this history cautions us against the danger of recreating the colonial violence that accompanied the corporate food regime. It is critical that we think more broadly and creatively so that we are not settling for only the opposite of what we don’t want.

The urban farms and the enticing produce are byproducts of our relationships with one another and the soil. Our healing and sense of wholeness come from divesting from capitalist notions that treat land and labor as commodities, and building a movement that centers mutual aid, collaboration, and shared risk and autonomy.

I work with soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks, where many people are organizing to address and heal from the root causes of chronic hunger, poverty, and structural anti-Black racism. This work is very personal to me. Over the course of my father’s lifetime, I witnessed how being displaced into the Philippine diaspora led to his untimely death due to chronic health disease. I learned through grief that there was this clear connection between ancestral land loss and being able to maintain one’s sense of self, spirit, and belonging.

For me and my family, this journey started long before my job as a food justice organizer. My journey’s memory extends long into my ancestral connection to land and how my people and family cultivated this relationship over the course of a lifetime. Reclaiming this connection is more than survival. It’s an act of resistance.

Water warrior Charity Hicks, founding member of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Detroit ancestor, points out that, “social change happens from the ground up and from the inside out.”  In addition to the structural conditions that normalize scarcity and violence, compounded intergenerational trauma poses yet another front of our struggles for justice. Our ability to do so is deeply tied to our connection to the earth.  As we have become more and more reliant on the industrial food system, our ability to maintain our mental health also wanes.

For us to heal, we cannot simply reason ourselves out of generational trauma. We must break open and see how our insides also mirror the colonial destruction that continues to lay before us. Healing is when we stop conceding that colonialism only happened in the past. As long as we suffer from chronic poverty, hunger, structural racism and generational trauma, we are still being subjugated, and need to heal. When Charity was wrongly arrested for intervening in her neighbors water being shut off, she saw the sacred connection between our water and our rage and encouraged us to “Wage Love”.

As early as 1967 and through our many rebellions and solidarity movements, Detroit signaled, in the words of long time activists couple and co-founders of the Detroit-based Boggs Center, James and Grace Lee Boggs, how we could “grow our souls” and “become more human beings.”  As we seek to reimagine a different future, their voices in particular show us the way to a future that moves from solidarity to co-liberation between Black, Indigenous and other people of Color and how our liberation is intertwined as one.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Tostada Magazine.

Shane Bernardo is a co-founder of Food As Healing, a social movement to center ancestral, Earth-based traditions that are critical for maintaining our identities, sense of belonging, health and wholeness. Shane is also a grower, anti-oppression facilitator, storyteller and food justice organizer based in Detroit, Michigan that uses food and the stories embedded within them as mediums for healing and decolonizing.


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