Mayo Buenafe-Ze: Little Brown Woman in Whole Foods

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How I feel about going into Whole Foods is reflective of my experience moving to America.

Context: I don’t shop at Whole Foods, but today in my Anthropology of Food class we are discussing Food Trends and I thought it would be a fun activity for my students and I to sample the Whole Foods products that they predicted to be Trendy in 2018 – then contextualize, analyze and discuss why and how foods become a trend by trying the products for ourselves through the lens of a participant-observer. I paid out of pocket, and hopefully my school will reimburse me for the expenses. Even if they don’t, oh well, at least it will be a fun class.

So walking into the Whole Foodiest of all Whole Foods in the East Bay, which is the one on Telegraph in Berkeley, first thing I notice is most of the workers are People of Color and most of the people shopping there are White or Fancy Asian. The usual demographic for Berkeley, no surprise. And it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore that I navigate spaces in this country where I am not surrounded by people who are from my community, but alas, when you are shopping in a place like this, you feel the out of placeness right away. You’d think it wasn’t a big deal, since I am just trying to get some damn groceries.

But I don’t know where things are in the store, and I don’t understand what a lot of the products are. Like what is Sparkling Cold Brew? What is protein powder infused with mushrooms for? Why is agua fresca labeled a “new product”? Why does this beef jerky say it is “Samurai inspired flavor” and that the cows were treated humanely? Was that according to the cow who died? (I chuckle to myself as I read the labels).

When I asked for help, this situation happened.

I approached the first employee I saw to help me look for products. Not ten seconds later a white woman interrupted me to ask the white male employee something, then made him help her look for something. I am forced to move to the side. I get tired of waiting so I just say, “I’ll look for it myself, thanks for the help.” I say this with a smile, the white lady customer doesn’t move out of my way with my cart, and continues to demand for assistance. I circle around the aisle to get past them.

I find what I need, but I still have 9 more items on the list I gotta find. The white male employee finds me again and says that he’s now ready to help. He doesn’t apologize for what happened earlier, instead I find myself saying “sorry to bother you, and thank you for helping.” He asks me why I am shopping for these items. I tell him about the class. He asks if the school will pay me to do this, “cos the products can be expensive here.” He says “how young are these students you teach anyway?” I say they are in college. He says, “wow I would have never guessed you teach college students.” He asks me where I’m from, I say the Philippines. He says, “I’ve heard they have great beaches and beautiful ladies out there. It’s awesome that you teach here and from how you speak it’s like you were born here.”

I roll my eyes. He says he can only help me find one thing cos he has other stuff he has to do. I say, it’s cool, I’ll figure it out. He leaves.

The security follows me around for 5 mins then asks if I need help. I say, no, I already got help, thank you. *Please stop following me*

I see the white male employee return to helping the white lady customer who interrupted me earlier.

I find the products I need. One of which is this Blue drink called Urban Remedy which I was especially curious about but honestly looked suspicious, and cost like $10 for one bottle as big as a Gatorade. I think about how a Gatorade costs $1.50 at the corner store. I grab the $10 Blue drink and remember this is for my class.

As I pull up my cart to the register, my credit card doesn’t work on the reader. It takes a couple swipes. The cashier looks at me with a glare like, “gurl get your shit together, you better be able to pay for this.” The security guard moves in closer. The card finally goes through. I find myself needing to apologise for something that wasn’t my fault. But it makes everyone feel more comfortable that I apologise. I try to get the hell out of there as fast as I can, making sure I have my receipt in my hand, visible for all I pass by, until I get to my car.

The bill was $86 and change. I don’t usually spend that much money on groceries, except when I’m in Costco and trying to stock up for a month’s worth of commodities.

But this experience reflects a lot of little experiences I have in America. About not feeling I belong in some spaces, belittled by assumptions because of how I look (maybe it was the Jimi Hendrix shirt, leggings and dirty Chuck Taylors I was wearing, I dunno), questioned about my validity and capability, receiver of sexist shit, seen as a potential threat, needing to apologise for things I didn’t do to make others feel comfortable around my presence…

I ain’t writing this to promote victimhood or get your awa/pity. This is a day in the life of an immigrant brown skin woman, navigating her way around what it means to live in America. And just trying to buy some damn groceries for class.

Mayo Buenafe-Ze is a Filipina with indigenous descent (Ifugao and Itneg) who was born in Caloocan City, Metro Manila, Philippines, and has recently immigrated to the US. She is a Cultural Anthropologist who specializes in indigenous knowledge systems and food and water security. She has taught at the University of the Philippines – Baguio, and earned her Master of Arts in Anthropology, specializing in Human Rights and Diversity at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln under a Fulbright scholarship. Mayo is soon to complete her PhD in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, learning from the Agta hunter-gatherer communities in Northeastern Luzon, Philippines.

She currently teaches the Anthropology of Food course at the University of San Francisco and is the Program Director for the Bay Area based non-profit organization The Cooking Project.