E6: "It's Double Trouble": On Being a Vegan of Color (with Emiko Badillo)

We start with a brief conversation about Pokemon Go, #BlackLivesMatter, and the place of politics in food media. Then we interview Emiko Badillo, one of the owners of Food Fight, the first vegan grocery store in Portland. She also started Vegans of Color and is a COOL LADY DRUMMER! She talks to us about lifestyle veganism vs. political veganism, the "double trouble" of being a racial as well as a political minority, and how human-centered social justice can have a place within veganism, too.

Music by AF the Naysayer, Blue Dot Sessions, and Puppy Breath. Photo of Emiko Badillo by Annie Paulson.

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[theme music]

SOLEIL HO Welcome to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, gender, and class. I'm Soleil Ho.

ZAHIR JANMOHAMED And I'm Zahir Janmohamed.

SOLEIL What's up, Zahir?

ZAHIR I'm doing well. How are you doing, Soleil?

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR You put down Pokémon for a second for this episode?

SOLEIL Um...maybe. Maybe. I might be playing it right now. Who knows?

ZAHIR I have to say, this whole Pokémon thing [chuckling] is the most curious story ever.

SOLEIL This is totally a generational thing, and I love it. I think a lot of my friends are really into it, but then I have a lot of friends who are just so confused and just like, "You're adults. We're adults. Why are we doing this?"

ZAHIR So, what's going on? How are things with work? What's new?

SOLEIL Work is fine. It's busy. It's just like when the weather's bad, more people want ramen. And the weather's been pretty bad this weekend.

ZAHIR Yeah, that's true. So, it's good ramen weather.

SOLEIL [chuckles] Yeah. That's a weird way of thinking about it, I think, but what are you doing, Zahir? You got a new job!

ZAHIR Yeah, so, I joined the faculty of The Attic Institute. Shout out to The Attic Institute for inviting me to teach a class. I'll be teaching a class on writing personal essays about race and sexuality and trauma. So, I'm really excited. That starts September 19th. Check it out.

SOLEIL Can any of our listeners also enroll in these classes?

ZAHIR If they're in Portland they can. Check out TheAtticInstitute.com, and you can find out more information.

Another interesting thing about food media: Epicurious, which is a website that I use a lot for cooking, they just had a article today about appropriation of Southern food by white cookbook writers. It's a good article, and to me, I was more surprised 'cause it's like, whoa, Epicurious doing an article like this? Props to Epicurious for doing stuff like that, and I hope more food media does stuff like that.

SOLEIL Yeah, I mean, that's really interesting because earlier, last week, with the shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I opened up Twitter, and I saw that there are a lot of woke people who are freaking out, rightfully so, and posting a lot of really provocative material and really affirming material. And then there was the food media websites that I also follow. They were just posting like bar-b-que recipes and advertisements for other places that were offering their hot new food. So, it's really interesting to me how much of an illustration of two Americas that is.

ZAHIR So, for you, as someone who's worked in the food industry and worked in restaurants for many years, what would you recommend that they do on a day like that, on a tragic day like that?

SOLEIL Well, I mean, what happened when the Paris attacks occurred? Everyone, all these restaurants, posted up flags, or they posted some sort of, "We're thinking of you, #WeAreParis." But no one does that for Black Americans. It also just reinforces how much the Black Lives Matter Movement matters.


SOLEIL Because so many people at large refuse to believe that, that there's a difference in how we treat victims of violence depending on where they're from and what they represent to us.


SOLEIL On this episode, we spoke with Emiko Badillo, the co-owner of Food Fight Grocery in Portland. It's an awesome vegan grocery store, actually really close to KBOO. Yeah. And she also has founded the Vegans of Color group. I think they're on Facebook, and they might have a blog.

ZAHIR I think one of the things that was so interesting about this episode--well, a few things--first of all, Emiko said something that a lot of our guests said, which is, as a person of color, they never really thought about their racial identity until they moved to Portland. And that's something that we hear again and again from people either that have been on our show or people that we're interviewing for possible episodes in the future. So, as Soleil says, Portland does sort of radicalize you. It does make you think about your racial identity in a new way 'cause it is such a shockingly white city. But I also thought what was cool was how she connects veganism to social justice.

SOLEIL Yeah, actually, what's funny to me is that I had an inkling, but I didn't realize how much of a gulf there is between white vegans and vegans of color before I talked to her. There's a lot of politics in there that are really fascinating to pick through. And I haven't really been, I've never really been, a vegan or a diet culture person, I guess. So, that was really interesting to go over.

ZAHIR Yeah, she's awesome. So, we're super excited to have her on. Hope you guys enjoy the episode.

SOLEIL So, I've noticed just in meeting a lot of vegans and vegetarians, everyone seems to have a very personal definition of what that means and why they do things. What's your definition of veganism?

EMIKO My definition is it's a boycott of the animal agriculture industry in its participation in the murder of animals. Not wanting to be a part of billions of animals be murdered every year. That's my definition.

SOLEIL Mmhmm. Yeah, no, that's pretty heavy.


SOLEIL It's a big sort of-- 'Cause when you think about the cumulative effects that each human has on all the animals that they've encountered, either on their plates or elsewhere, it's huge.

EMIKO It is.

SOLEIL For sure, through a lifetime.

EMIKO Yeah, it's huge. And not to mention the amount of impact environmentally on how much water and land is used because of animal agriculture. Being vegan, to me, is just such an easy thing to do to not be a part of that industry and that huge impact on the world and the impact of being a part of murder.


EMIKO Yeah....

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR Yeah, so--

EMIKO Murder.

ZAHIR Murder [laughs]!

EMIKO How many times can I say murder on this podcast?

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR Oh, you can say it as many times as you like.

SOLEIL We can do a count at the end.

EMIKO OK. Ding, ding.

ZAHIR I was talking to my partner today, who's vegan, and a lot of foods from different cultures around the world is vegan, you know?


ZAHIR I'm Indian-American. A lot of our food is already vegan, you know?

EMIKO Oh, yeah.

ZAHIR It's funny 'cause my mom, she always says "vejan." And she says, "What is this nonsense?"

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR I'm like, probably 7 out of 10 meals that we eat in my parents' house are already vegan.

EMIKO Totally.

ZAHIR But my mom says there's no way she'd ever consider it.

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR But it's a interesting thing. There's the obstacle about that word, you know?

EMIKO There is an obstacle about that word. We were just talking about that last night, which how much veganism has changed, and it's become, they changed it to "plant-based" now. That key term, "plant-based," is taking over veganism because I think the political side of veganism is diminishing. So, "plant-based" doesn't have that connotation that came with "vegan." It's plant-based. It sounds delicious, you know? Vegan, it had this reputation of being this bland, gross kind of like, hippie food, I don't know, granola, whatever. And then plant-based, oh! That has no negative connotations.

SOLEIL Oh, that's interesting.


SOLEIL It's almost like, I don't know, like feminist versus I just believe in equal rights.

EMIKO Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

ZAHIR and SOLEIL [laugh]

EMIKO Exactly.

ZAHIR That's so interesting.


ZAHIR I mean, it's also interesting how the culture has changed too. I heard a interview with David Chang, that famous chef in New York City, and he was talking about how even sometimes the way that people talk about meat is as if they're making the most ethical choices. Or our animals are farm-raised. What is it? Grass-fed.

EMIKO Yeah, yeah.

ZAHIR Free-range chickens.

EMIKO Cage-free.

ZAHIR Cage-free and all of that. And so, it seems like in the '90s and the 2000s, in order to live an ethical lifestyle, with regarding to food, you had to be a vegetarian or vegan. But now, it seems like so many of those who eat meat have sort of coopted that language.

EMIKO Mmhmm.

ZAHIR Have you noticed that?

EMIKO Yeah, sure. I think people want to feel like they're always doing something good and something that's changing the world in their own way. So, if they think cage-free or grass-fed or humane is, I feel like, if it's making them feel better--


EMIKO --that's their own thing. But I think, in the grand scheme of things, it's not-- I guess it depends on what your drive is, what your goal is, you know, why you're choosing to do it. If you're choosing to eat cage-free or humane to stop having a part in cruelty to animals, then you need to probably rethink it.

ZAHIR You're also the founder of Portland Vegans of Color.

EMIKO Mmhmm.

ZAHIR You said you started your grocery store in 2003. When did you start Portland Vegans of Color?

EMIKO I started that in 2013.

ZAHIR Oh, so, recently.

EMIKO Yeah. There's a long journey into becoming aware of social justice in general. I think because of where I grew up in San Antonio, I was fortunate to grow up in a really racially and economically diverse city and to grow up immersed in both my cultures that I'm made up of. And to move to Portland was such a shock to me. I mean, we lived in New York City before here, which is--we lived in Queens, which is--the most--


ZAHIR Diverse, yeah.

EMIKO --diverse part of the world, probably. And coming here, I was just so shocked, and I had never truly experienced feeling marginalized till I lived here. And then it took me a long time to go on this journey of figuring out why this is. Why is it like this here? Because I had never had to confront it before.

ZAHIR If you're comfortable, can you speak a little bit about that? You said you'd never felt so marginalized.

EMIKO You know, before we opened the store, and we'd go shopping, anywhere where there's large groups of people in a building, I'd be the only person of color in this place. Where we'd eat, where we'd go shopping, everywhere. And I'd feel so weird about it. I just...I never experienced that before, you know? And it was--

ZAHIR Was it the stares? Was it the comments? Did you get that?

EMIKO The stares, yeah. I mean, got stares, so many stares and being asked if I speak English [chuckling].

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR Do people ask you like, "Where are you from?"

EMIKO All of that, yeah.

SOLEIL Especially when you're mixed, right?

EMIKO Oh, yeah.

ZAHIR So, can you explain your background?

EMIKO Yeah. I'm Japanese and Chicana. My mom is from Japan. She's a Japanese immigrant. And my dad is Mexican-American, South Texas Mexican-American. This neighbor was like, "Oh, hey!" Came up to us and, "What were your names again?" I said, "Emiko." And he said, "Oh! Japanese, right?" And I said, "Yep." And he said, "Ah so!"

SOLEIL Ugh-grrrrrrr.

EMIKO And I was just like, I gotta go, man.

SOLEIL Gawd [laughs]!

ZAHIR [laughs]

EMIKO I can't even look at you. And I think being biracial, it's a little bit more of a spin on it because I do feel a part of both cultures. But I feel like most people assume I am some Asian, but I feel very strongly to my Mexican side because I grew up in San Antonio with my dad's side of the family more than-- My mom's side of the family are all still in Japan. And then people assuming who I am because of what I look like on the outside, it gets tough sometimes.

SOLEIL I know you just spoke to this very eloquently, but can you talk a little bit more about why vegans of color need their own space?

EMIKO Yes. Veganism is a majority white movement. I still wanna call it a movement because it still is to me. But it's a majority white movement, and it always has been. I recognize that, but I think, because being vegan in Portland, which is a majority white city, on top of that it just makes it extra hard. You know, you got double trouble.

ALL: [chuckle]

EMIKO So, I think being vegans of color, you're such a minority within a minority.

ZAHIR How have other vegans responded-- Let me be more specific. How have white vegans responded to this Portland Vegans of Color?

EMIKO It took me a while to think of do I wanna start this group and start my own thing from scratch? I had help starting it, luckily, but I just had never had started my own group before; I'd never done anything like that. And I posted on Food Fight's Facebook page to see. I was like, "Hey! Any folks out there would be interested in this group, Vegans of Color? Any vegans of color out there would be interested in joining this group I'm thinking of starting?" And it was just some, you know...a good handful of white folks saying, "It's racist. Well, I'm colorblind. I don't care if you're red, white, purple, green. Everyone's equal! Blah blah blah."

SOLEIL Grrrrrr.

ZAHIR So, from your experience having created this wonderful in Portland Vegans of Color, how has that been for you and for others in this group?

EMIKO We will have meetups where we just end up talking and confiding in each other about what we're going through every day. It becomes therapeutic for most of us. And it's so necessary to have those spaces where you feel safe to talk about these things and not be judged and not feel like someone's gonna get defensive about it. And it's been really good. I can't say the same about the Food Fight Facebook page [laughs].

ZAHIR Does that make you feel disappointed? 'Cause you've created this wonderful community with Food Fight, this amazing resource, trail-blazing for the city of Portland. Does that make you sort of frustrated?

EMIKO it does. Yeah. It does a lot. But I've gotten used to it. I was just [chuckling] thinking about when I decided to come on here, automatically I think, "Oh, I can't wait to see the flack I'm gonna get on the Portland Vegans Facebook page."

SOLEIL [chuckles]

EMIKO As soon as I started talking about veganism and racism and vegans of color and wanting to work on being more inclusive with POC and veganism, any time you start talking about these things and also talking about how veganism's gone mainstream, how the ethics and politics behind it are going away, how people care more about food than lives, people get mad. People get defensive. Just when you talk about anything that's disrupting their feeling of do-gooding [laughs]. I think especially vegans, I think a lot of vegans feel like they're leading these really perfect lives of compassion, but there's so much more work to do. And once you start confronting maybe that they're biased or maybe they're prejudiced in regards to their food choices and stuff like that, people get mad. And I've done other interviews, and so much flack, you know? So much flack. Of course, they just go move on to the next thing, but I know I'm gonna get it for this [laughs]. I can't wait.

ZAHIR We appreciate you coming on!

SOLEIL You'll get a lot of support too. Don't worry.


EMIKO Oh, no. I definitely know that. And I mean, I don't care, honestly. Any opportunity I can have to talk about these things, I'm gonna take it.

SOLEIL So, what are the ways in which you've seen white supremacy manifest in vegan spaces? Talk about flack.


SOLEIL [laughs]

EMIKO Exactly. That's exactly it. I think the biggest example I could think of, especially recently, there's just so much anti-Asian sentiment around vegan food and veganism and animal rights, actually. It gets political. There's always the festival in China where this small village eats dog meat, and it's such a small percentage of people that partake of this. But there's just this generalization that all Chinese people eat dog. And there was recently this protest in Chinatown in New York City where this group of white protestors went and protested in Chinatown in New York City, just randomly, yelling at people in Chinatown and Chinese folks just going through their daily lives. And it's just that kind of generalization and anti-Asian sentiment and about Japanese whaling and the cruelty that Asians supposedly partake in, in regards to what they eat. And is any more worse than what's happening in the United States with white people, how white people eat. The idea that white colonial vegan food is the median to base everything nice and great and compassionate on, it's ridiculous.

SOLEIL Yeah, I do notice that ethnic cuisine often gets used as the gross-out.

EMIKO Yes, exactly.

SOLEIL Right? Like, balut, the fertilized duck egg with the little baby inside, like yeah, it's hard to look at, especially if you are not a meat eater. But there's a lot of other things in western food canon that are just as gross to other people. But it's just so easy to use that as a reference point.

EMIKO It still causes...it just perpetuates that anti-Asian, that white food is the best food, white colonial food is the best food sentiment. And it just, I get really angry! I feel myself getting hot right now!

SOLEIL I've gotten a lot of this rhetoric from friends or friends of friends who say, "Black Lives Matter doesn't really matter because the bigger picture is the earth is dying, or we're killing animals."

ZAHIR [laughs]

SOLEIL You're either into environmental justice/animal activism, or you're into social justice. Like, there's no way those two can meet, which I think is absurd. The existence of Black vegans attests: You can care about both of these things. So, why do you think there's such a disconnect between those two strands of activism?

EMIKO I think because it's so white-led. I think because these groups aren't being led by who's most affected. If they're doing work but not being able to associate or relate to the oppression that they're trying to work on, being vegan is the easy part, you know? With animal rights work, you need to do more than just be vegan. Go outside of veganism, you know? That's why I joined Social Justice for Northwest is I was burnt out on veganism. And not that I'll never be vegan, but veganism as a movement and as a people, I felt marginalized. I felt like nothing was going on to change anything. Once I started thinking about race, I was like, I need to get to the core of why I'm feeling marginalized, why I experience racism.

ZAHIR Did this all start when you were in Portland?

EMIKO Yes, yes.

ZAHIR 'Cause a lot of people I meet really didn't start thinking about race until they moved to Portland, a lot of people of color, I should say.


SOLEIL Yeah, Portland radicalizes a lot of people.

EMIKO Yeah! That's what happened to me. That's why it took me so long from opening the store to starting VOCs is that I joined SJF and then learned about oppression. That's what kind of gave me the kick. I learned we need to focus on the people before we could do anything for the animals. This mainstreaming of veganism, it hasn't put a dent in murder or cruelty to animals. It's just giving corporations more money! We need to show people that we care about them, you know? We need to stop being so single issue.

SOLEIL My thought is that it's so easy to boycott the meat system, the meat industry. You can buy your vegan cheese and go home. But people can't even imagine what it means to boycott white supremacy. How do you do that?

EMIKO Exactly.

SOLEIL It's harder.

EMIKO You're having to look inside yourself, and you're having to change your whole person and your whole mindset and confront all these things, your own prejudices, your own thoughts and actions and way of doing things. And people don't want to do that work. It's hard, but it's necessary for anything to change.

And people have these stereotypes of vegans, and I hate that that exists. And that's why we do VOCs, to try and break those stereotypes. But we're such a small number of people, and we're trying so hard to show not all vegans are single-issue, white, high-income people. There's people that are like me, that are vegan and people that just don't care about the diet part of it. It's not just a diet. I hate saying, "a vegan diet" because that has so many bad things that go with it.

ZAHIR [chuckles]

EMIKO It's not just a way of eating, and it's not just the vegan lifestyle. It's a political movement still, to me, and it is still to a lot of people. And I think showing that to people that might not get it, that there are great examples of people that are trying to break these stereotypes that aren't just the white [laughing] Gwyneth Paltrows!


SOLEIL Well, you've done a lot already in the span of one conversation to bust a lot of my stereotypes and ideas about vegans.

EMIKO [laughs] Good.

SOLEIL So, thank you so much.

[cheery music]

EMIKO Portland Vegans of Color.

SOLEIL Where can we find it?

EMIKO You can find it on Facebook, and we do have a website: PDXVOC.org. We're always trying to find more folks to join our group. We're a small group, and we've kind of slowed down a bit 'cause of the few organizers that we have were all very busy. But please find us and connect with us.

SOLEIL Thank you.

EMIKO Yeah, thank you.

ZAHIR Thank you so much for joining us. It's a pleasure.

EMIKO Thanks.

[driving punk music]

ZAHIR Thank you for listening to Racist Sandwich. Our show is recorded at KBOO Community Radio in SE Portland and produced by Alan Montecillo.

SOLEIL Jen Tam designed our logo. You can find more of her work at www.JenTam.com.

ZAHIR Our music comes from AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions. The song you're listening to right now is called "White People" and comes from Emiko Badillo's band Puppy Breath.

SOLEIL We are raising money so we can pay Alan and also pay for a bunch of other things that will enhance our show experience. It is on Indiegogo. You can find the link on our website and also on Facebook and Twitter. We're at 72% of our goal, which is amazing. Thank you to all of our listeners for contributing.

ZAHIR Yeah, thank you so much. We're a few hundred dollars, we've nearly raised about $1300. Just an idea of what we're spending this money on: We've hired a producer, Alan, who's just incredible. He's really helped us immensely. But we also want to do more. We want to do some field recording. We want to do more meetups. We had a really successful meetup at Kim Jong Grillin'. We wanna do a meetup in August. And we want to maybe, possibly, some people have reached out to us to do some freelancing for us.

SOLEIL If you like the show, share it with your friends, and leave us a review on iTunes. That helps more people find the show! It also makes me feel really warm inside. And go to RacistSandwich.com to find more episodes and some more content and also a link to the crowd funder.

Email us at racistsandwichpodcast@gmail.com. And you can find us on Twitter @RaceandFood or on Facebook at /RaceandFood.

Next time on Racist Sandwich, we'll be talking about Filipino food with Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalie Roxas of Filipino Kitchen.

ZAHIR That's all. Thank you so much for joining. We'll be back in two weeks.

Transcribed by Storyminders