On Paleo Diversity

My view of the AHS festivities from the courtyard.

Since 2012’s recent Ancestral Health Symposium, there have been lots of wrap-up posts. I apologize for not throwing my two cents in, but I’m withholding the goods until Doc Fermento (aka @AskBryan) goes live with his podcast featuring myself and some friends discussing the event. I’ll be sure and let you know when that airs.

In any case, maybe it would’ve been boring. I had no controversy to discuss. But plenty of others did.

It’s the usual story. Women are on high alert for men who seem condescending and misogynist. Overweight people feel discriminated against by the thin CrossFitters. Try to find someone non-white, and you’ll have yourself the worst drinking game ever because everyone will stay sober. Old fogies can’t stand the young whippersnappers running on their lawn. Amateurs feel insecure next to scientists and researchers. Ugly people want to hide in shame from Dallas and Melissa Hartwig.

So here’s my question: Who the hell DOES belong at AHS?!

My working theory: Many people are introverts who generally interact with Paleo from behind their computer screens, and when faced with actually having to deal with people face-to-face, they freak the eff out and can’t handle the pressure. And then they blame everyone else for their bad time.

See? That’s what happens when you give an introvert a drink. Bad things, man. Bad things.

And I can say that as a shameless introvert who only feels witty and interesting after several decidedly un-Paleo adult beverages. My apologies to everyone who had to suffer through this obvious fallacy.

So there have been calls for more diversity at AHS. Frank Forencich, Mr. Exuberant Animal himself, has a good post on this here. I agree with all of his assertions. I would like to see fewer “carbohydrate” conversations and more on community, movement, sexuality, spirituality, and play. There is so much more to being human than what we shove in our gluten-free pieholes. While diet is undoubtedly a huge part of the problem, we’re actually seeing the effects of a much larger mismatch between environment and organism—that is, humans and our modern world.

I also think it would be fascinating to have more perspective from these hunter-gatherer groups we romanticize all the time. Many moons ago, an anthropology professor told my class that these groups know about the outside world and they are curious. One Amazonian village plastered the inside of their huts with Black Sabbath posters, I kid you not. They wanted to know what Black Sabbath was. I would’ve loved hearing the response—I dare you to try and explain Ozzy Osbourne to an indigenous Amazonian. (Go ahead and give it a go in the comments, maybe I’ll even send a prize to the winner!) Many of them want what we have, and who are we to deny them? Wouldn’t you like to live free from the threat of botflies?

But when people complain and say they don’t see themselves reflected back at them when they look in a Paleo mirror? I don’t even know where to go with that. I’m sorry? When I hear that someone is upset because we’re all too white, too rich, too smart, and too thin, I’d like to ask what they want out of pointing that out. There is nothing remotely actionable there. I should buy a ticket and not attend in lieu of donating it to an inner city kid? I should gain weight? I mean…what?! What would they have us do?

And yet, people blame the Ancestral Health Foundation, as though it’s somehow their fault for not filling seats with non-whites, non-academics, old people, overweight folks, welfare recipients, and ugly people. Can we all just admit right now that Paleo is predominantly white, middle class or better, college-educated, and health-obsessed? Seeing as how this is a self-selected population, there are probably reasons for that. I’m not going to speculate on those reasons, it’s enough for me to see that it is so, and that it is so on its own. Maybe this will change with time, but for now, it’s close enough to fact.

From my view (an admittedly “privileged”, white, upper-middle-class, thin, mid-30s, fairly attractive, and college-educated one), there are two ways you can go about voicing your displeasure. You can complain and whine about how excluded you feel, or you can invite your friends and family. You can bitch and lodge claims of racism and bigotry, or you can make specific suggestions to the foundation for how to improve next year’s symposium. You can moan about how rarefied the air is, or you can take the momentum home with you to start spreading the message where it matters most.

But let’s dream something up, shall we? For a case study, let’s imagine that all of us rich Caucasians start reaching out to all the Paleo disenfranchised. How the heckity-heck would we address this as a movement without coming across as paternalistic assholes? Immediately, we’d be faced with accusations of being out of touch because the way our world is set up, the working poor need convenience and value. Which means they’re tucked comfortably into the pockets of the Industrialized Food Complex, leading to an intimate relationship with Big Pharma and our newly minted government healthcare system. It’s a self-sustaining cycle, and the very victims of it will defend it because they’ve been sold on the “benefits”.

I’d like to remind everyone of what happened in the 70s when our government decided to push milk in their school lunches and was accused of being insensitive to the one-third of black children who are lactose intolerant. Believe it or not, this debate is still going on, a powerful testament to the tenacity and power of the dairy lobby. That’s the Law of Unintended Consequences in action, chugging along in concert with No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. As human beings, we just don’t have the foresight or all the information necessary to make good, broadly-brushed policies.

It’s for reasons like these that I feel, when it comes down to it, that it’s every man/woman for him/herself. You must save yourself. And then be a shining example for those around you and keep the conversation going for those who are ready to hear what we have to say.

When it comes to a broader approach, I think that the Weston A. Price Foundation has more of a chance than Paleo to reach across class and race. Their approach is more from the ground up, rather than from research/science/theory down. They have more cred when talking about eating how our ancestors ate because they are more in touch with traditional preparation methods. Instead of telling Hispanic folks they can’t eat the beans that have been a part of their culture for thousands of years and going on and on about “lectins”, they remind them of how their great-grandmothers prepared them. I think that nearly everyone feels a sense of connection with their non-modern-American past, so to promote getting in touch with it, whatever that is for you, is a great message. It’s one being embraced more and more on Indian reservations and Pacific Islands, among other cultures. If there’s a way to encourage this trend without seeming like a condescending majority, I’m all for it.

One of the worst things AHS could do would be to try to please everyone. Clearly, it’s not possible and I hope they don’t attempt it. It’s Marketing 101: Identify your mission and do not waver. This is a fledgling operation that needs our support. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t criticize or make suggestions. Of course we should, but I hope we can do so constructively.

Addition 8/30/2012: Because I have an unfortunate, pathological need to be understood, I’ll use this space to respond to a certain-tumblr-I-don’t-want-to-promote. If you don’t understand the reference, suffice to say someone has taken issue with this post.

1. “Isn’t that [old people] a rude way to describe our elders?” Yes. Of course it is. I’m still working on my satirical skills. Bear with me.

2. “My opinion on her is the same as it was back when she was defending Dr. Jack Kruse on Paleohacks.” Please see here and here. It seems that if you defend a person’s right to be treated as a human being, you get conflated with their cause. My point was, and continues to be, that if we debate him on the science, that’s all we need and we don’t have to descend to personal attacks and heresay. I also said he’s hanging himself with his own rope. I think time has borne me out.

3. “[Insert comment about how I allegedly claimed believing in evolution is elitist or not]” Folks. Seriously. I love evolution. I would marry it if that wouldn’t count as polygamy, but I’m already married to a wonderful, hawt, evolution-loving man. But I’m also aware that if you take data on who believes in evolution and you match it up with class and race data, there will be some strong lines drawn in that sand. So yes, belief in evolution can be seen as a mark of elitism, whether that is a fair assignment or not. My view (to clarify this AGAIN, FFS) is that personal health and well-being are too important to care why someone is eating according to a Paleo template. I don’t care how people get under the Paleo umbrella, I only care that they come. This is not the same as accommodating bad science. It is being a good citizen. To tell people they don’t belong because they don’t believe the science is reckless and yes…elitist. Wait, isn’t this person telling me I’m the one that sucks at diversity?

4. “It’s pretty telling that her about page is a re-hash of the carbs-insulin obesity theory and recommends Taubes as a good intro book to ‘paleo.'” Thank you for pointing out that the blog I started back in February of 2011 is out of date. I’m quite aware of it. Oh, what’s that? You’re not a faithful reader? Oh, because if you were, you would know that I’m currently working on a site redesign and that I also took a health hiatus. Just as Kurt Harris told Don Matesz, it’s hardly fair to use old material as evidence. But thank you for the impetus to take time away from my family for no monetary reward to explain my Paleo educational evolution. I’ll get right on that.


27 Responses to “On Paleo Diversity”

  1. Well said, Karen. This needed to be addressed. And I only hate you a little bit (a lot) for the photo.

  2. Good write up Karen. I agree with the last paragraph wholeheartedly. Free speech is “Paleo” after all.

  3. Russell House was lots of fun.

  4. As long as the AHS refuses to sanction Richard Nikoley (and continues to turn a blind eye to the Melissa McEwens, CarbSanes, Kurt Harrises, etc.), it will grow increasingly irrelevant. As long as paleo as a big-tent movement refuses to call out charlatans like Kruse and people like Jimmy Moore with his cornpone ‘paleo’ (and blatant attempts to conflate low carb with paleo), the further down the slippery slope we’ll go. And what’s at the bottom? The great multitude of diets relegated to the fad diet dustbin of history – and bargain book tables across the land.

    • I have a hard time figuring out what any of those people have to do with what I put in my mouth or how I live my life. Granted, they’re all presences in Paleo, and I appreciate most of their contributions. But whether or not Paleo is a valid movement or not has nothing to do with the choices I have to make every day. I have as much to learn from folks I disagree with as folks with whom I do agree. I just think that if certain personalities affect how you identify with and practice Paleo nutrition and lifestyle, it’s time to step away from the computer. All that stuff is a distraction from reality. Consider getting involved in something local, like Farm to School.
      As Hamilton Stapell presented so well this year, this movement has happened before. It will likely lose steam again and be recycled for all the young’uns again in the future. And I’ll tell them to get their skinny barefooted selves off my lawn.

      • trevligresa 08/29/2012 at 9:54 pm

        Ignore ELMM. He is a troll that enjoys pitting various female bloggers against each other.

        I am bothered that people seem to think diversity = bringing in fat/old/stupid people who don’t even want to be there. Diversity is about acknowledging privilege and helping qualified people who are under-privileged, whether it be financial or social. I have met a lot of different interesting people through paleo, from artists on food stamps to retired professors who struggle financially to First Nations people in isolated parts of Canada. You’ve even pointed out on Paleohacks that I am an elitist. It’s true. And I wouldn’t talk to these people if they weren’t amazing. And I hope at some point AHS can offer scholarships and recruitment efforts to these people. I personally approached some of them, but many were not able to afford the expense.

        Otherwise you are going to have a disproportionate amount of people who are successful established diet book authors. They have something to offer, but is it really that much more than the type of people I just mentioned?

      • Melissa, I called you an elitist? Yikes. I’m sure it’s there in print, but knowing me I probably didn’t quite mean it that way.

        I agree with you 100%. I think there was a lot at AHS this year that was all about acknowledging our privilege and figuring out how to help. I disagree with some of the ways people think we should do that, because I prefer “the-personal-is-political” angle on change. And I take it seriously, having many friends and family who struggle financially and can’t make the food choices I do.

        The list of folks you gave is exactly the sort of thing me and most of the folks I gravitated toward at AHS want to see at future gatherings. When diversity happens, I want it to be real and organic. And in the meantime, I will drag my ass to these things, causing trouble in my marriage due to the cost, and keep learning all that I can.

  5. Daniel Kirsner Reply 08/29/2012 at 9:51 pm

    Karen–“EatLessMoveMoore” is a troll, if you skim the comments at Free The Animal you’ll see many of her(?) inane droppings, all of which essentially consist of “I don’t like these people, so I am going to call them names”.

    • ELMM is a man. If you follow the trail of his comments the only thread in them is that ELMM wants to cause chaos. He actually does not have any opinions of his own. He often professes support for a particularly blogger on someone else’s blog and than privately berates that particular blogger. Carbsane, Emily Deans, Richard Nikoley, ItsTheWoo, and many others have been egged on by this troll. I think it’s pretty funny he defends me on other blogs, but on my own blog calls me a feminazi harpy.

  6. Good post. I have seen this story before. Stop the whining self-hate now. Start with yourself, family and friends then on and on. I have lost 25 pounds and have muscles now and not a single person at my diverse work place has (as they drink their 20 oz) said, “hey, what’s going with you?” this kind of self-serving demand that I must constantly reach out and preach tires me out.

    although, I would like French-Canadian names to be pronounced correctly, let’s all do that, OK?

  7. This is a smooth bit of writing by Karen, and of course I love the commentary by Melissa. I would have appreciated having had a benefactor send me to the AHS. Although I doubt my presence would have added much diversity, unless it is an undereducated, middle aged, unhealthy, poor, white guy that’s needed- Then send me! If you see a poorly postured, gaped, glazed, dude outside smoking during a break at the next AHS, that’s me! Please be sure to say Hi.

  8. Fantastic post. I’ve never read this blog before, but now I’ll be back. Melissa’s tweet led me here.

  9. Have the courage of your convictions, Melissa. This isn’t about me. I’m just a cipher – totally irrelevant to the entire discussion. Stand by your remarks. I also find it interesting that, in all this talk about privilege and the ‘paleo demographic’, that your omit mention of your OWN highly privileged position (as Richard pointed out, working seems to be an option for you, which I’d say sets you apart from even the bulk of ‘privileged paleo’).

    • Um, I don’t think it’s exactly a secret that I’m part of the privileged elite. I have several blog posts about meals that are at the most expensive restaurants in the world. However, the privileged elite should acknowledge their privilege and their power to change things for the better.

      • I’m just taking issue with this “should.” Just as you didn’t like me telling you that we “should” be civil to Kruse and use science to show him up, I’m not sure there’s a “should” in changing things for “the better.” Whose “better”? If those in power change things for the “better”, that is directly opposed to their interests because then they won’t be in power anymore. Which isn’t to say they shouldn’t, just that if we apply human nature to this situation, it stops making sense. And it still doesn’t rule out the Law of Unintended Consequences. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
        All that being said, of course I’d love to see scholarships to AHS and more presentations like the one this year about ancestral health in the Hispanic community.

  10. Really, Melissa? I for one didn’t know. People see pictures of food – that they’re from ‘the most expensive restaurants in the world’ is a nuance usually lost on most of the them. Don’t be surprised if a lot of your readers weren’t aware that you – like your favorite nemesis Dick, interestingly enough – are part of the One Percent. As obvious as you think it is, I’m not sure I’d advertise that. Kinda makes blue-collar bloggers like Jimmy Moore look a little more sympathetic. Working-class beats trust fund paleo any day of the week. Look at that – I’ve managed to change my own mind in just one paragraph! Guess I do have have actual opinions. ;)

    • Aw, that’s so cute, but I have money primarily because I have my own business that I started when I was on food stamps. A business that unlike Jimmy’s does not require me to hawk anything but really good open-source IT solutions.

      Sadly I am not part of the 1% yet, but maybe someday. I do get free grass-fed beef from my family though, but that is not a profitable operation. And what exactly does this have to do with anything? I’m pretty sure I acknowledge my privilege and I have donated quite a bit of money to other bloggers, non-profits, and kickstarter projects. I always counsel people I meet not to quit their regular jobs to do “low-carb” or “paleo” as a job. Because at some point you have to write not because it’s the truth, but because you have a Quest Bar sponsorship.

      • Melissa, you are clearly a bright, interesting, worldly person. But comments like these just undermine all of it for me. While I intensely disliked Nora Gedgaudas’s dismissal of you as “young”, I’m beginning to think she might be right, because only those who haven’t been around long enough believe that what they do is “right” and what others do is “wrong.” It’s just incredibly unnuanced and lacks perspective and empathy. I mean, I’m glad you live an uncompromised life of absolute integrity, but could you stop making the rest of us feel bad?
        Criticism is of course important. But I really think you could better channel your efforts for the powers of good. Notice I said “could,” not “should.” I’m sure you’ll get right on that just as soon as I stop “aggregating content.”
        “While you may not like the style or substance of the arguments that Melissa and others have made on this blog, just keep in mind the intentions are very noble.” See, the problem with this perspective is that there won’t be anything left to create once it’s all torn down. The goodwill will be gone. Melissa, I’ve seen you defend yourself on PH as not really being all that “Paleo”, so why then do you insist on tearing it down?

  11. Quest Bars are actually pretty good. Followed Jimmy’s instructions and got the free one AND a cool magnet for my refrigerator. But what happened to that n=1?

  12. The Fitness Explorer Reply 09/03/2012 at 5:38 am

    Karen – you are one of the most impressive people I have met mostly because you talk a lot of common sense. Hopefully I will get to see you again next year – one thing that intrigues me is that most of the people I have met in person who preach about what and how to improve one’s wellbeing don’t tend to look very healthy themselves… Irony.

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