Gluten: A White Person's Allergy?
I remember hearing a standup comic ridicule a white woman for checking herself into the hospital for exhaustion. This, she posited, was something only a white woman would do. “When a sista gets tired, she takes a freakin nap!” I agreed. It seemed to me that there were certain things that white women did that black women just couldn't get away with. I had a white girlfriend who told me that she called in sick to work one day because she felt too vulnerable to leave the house. Inside I was thinking, too vulnerable to leave the house? Are you kidding me? You better suck it up and take your ass to work. I prided myself on being a black woman who could shake off the irritants and struggles of ordinary life and persevere. I didn't have the time, energy, or luxury to be plagued by stuff like exhaustion, anorexia, generalized anxiety disorder, or food intolerances. That stuff was for white girls with rich husbands or trust funds. I work for a living.
Or so I thought. Recently, after suffering some intense physical reactions, I saw a doctor and was informed that I am allergic to gluten, dairy, and sugar.
Now, I've been a vegetarian for a year and a half, and I've taken a fair amount of crap for being both black and veggie, but I could take it. But a black woman who's a gluten-free, sugar-free vegan? I can hear my black friends from college now: “do they even let you keep your black membership card for that?”
I don't really know if there's an average black woman, but sometimes it's easy for me to think that there is, and that I'm not her. I practice yoga at least four times a week, and when I go to class, I am almost always the only sista there. I'd just as soon listen to Dave Matthews Band or the Rolling Stones as I would to Mary J. Blige or Jill Scott. I don't eat meat, but now I don't eat a whole host of other things, too. Most of the time, I know that who I am transcends the narrow-minded stereotype that being a black woman means doing this and not that. But this change makes me a little uncertain; a girlfriend of mine said that if most people found out about these allergies, they would just ignore the information, and she's probably right. I have a hard time imagining that the average black woman would completely change her life if she found out she couldn't eat any sugar, gluten or dairy. She'd just roll her eyes and keep on doin' what she do, ignoring the host of debilitating physical and emotional affects.
My first trip to the grocery store, gluten-free, dairy-free, was an hour of me slowly pacing through the aisles of Whole Foods Market, reading labels, checking the lists of things I can and can't eat, and frowning thoughtfully at various containers before putting some into my cart. Meanwhile, I was steadily ignoring the voice in my head--a cross between my mother, grandmother, and Mo'Nique--saying, “Girl black women don't do stuff like that, who do you think you are?” Intellectually, I know this voice is lying: my body is proof that in fact black women do do this, are sugar-free, gluten-free vegans in possession of enough care and self-awareness to make good and healthy choices for themselves, despite the personal inconveniences and appearances to others. Culturally, it's a bit more of a challenge for me. Still a babe in the food intolerance world, I wonder how many sistas like me have been brave enough to go gluten-free, sugar-free, even if it smacks of the self-indulgent pickiness we always swore was indigenous to only white women. Perhaps what we thought was self-indulgence is really just tenderness and self-love to make healthy decisions for ourselves. Black women have been capable of tenderness and love for hundreds of years: it's about time we showed it to our own bodies.