Graphic of broken chains on both sides of center text that reads: Colonization

Colonization

Food is a principal tool of colonization, which is the practice of acquiring control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. We can see this in how the descendants of colonizers continue to force dairy products upon the Indigenous people of North America.

One instructive example is the Mojave people of what is now Arizona, California, and Colorado. Their ancestral diet was primarily plant-based: they grew beans, corn, melons, and pumpkins. The Mojaves were not used to cow’s milk, which they said was poisonous.[44] In 1911, a physician with the U.S. government (which by this time was “administering” the reservations where many Indigenous people were forced to live) called the Mojaves “willfully ignorant and hopelessly lazy” because they refused to give their children milk.[45] Yet the Mojaves had no ability to digest cow’s milk—indeed, it made them sick—so they were perfectly correct to say it was poisonous. From the U.S. government’s viewpoint, however, feeding the Indigenous people dairy foods was just another step toward “civilizing” them with a “superior” European diet—a diet they hoped would instill “American” values in the Mojaves and other native peoples.

The colonization of the Americas was a gradual process, and when Columbus first arrived in 1492, he and his fellow Europeans did not find the foods they were used to, such as bread, olives, “meat,” and milk. They feared they could not survive on the unfamiliar diet the locals ate—or worse, that their bodies might somehow cease to be European.[46] So when Columbus returned in 1493, he brought sheep, pigs, and cows from Europe.[47] At last, the colonizers believed, their bodies would be sustained on “superior” foods—and they could force the Indigenous people to adopt the “right” way of eating.

Not only does this attitude go back centuries, but it is still reflected in current practices. Although studies show that “as many as 75 percent of all African American, Jewish, Native American, and Mexican American adults, and 90 percent of Asian American adults” are unable to digest lactose[48] (a sugar found in dairy), the U.S. government and the dairy industry continue to push dairy consumption on these populations.*

In the 1920s and ’30s, dairy promoters went so far as to link the whiteness of milk with the alleged purity of the white race, proclaiming, for example, “Of all races, the Aryans seem to have been the heaviest drinkers of milk and the greatest users of butter and cheese, a fact that may in part account for the quick and high development of this division of human beings.” [49]

In the mid-20th century, the dairy food company PET Milk began a marketing campaign for their baby formula that targeted Black women, suggesting it was healthier than breast milk. It became a myth that is perpetuated today, and only 12 percent of Black mothers still breastfeed at six months, compared to 26 percent of Latinx mothers and 24 percent of white mothers. These racial disparities correspond with infant mortality, which strikes more than twice as many Black babies as white babies—a ratio that has remained consistent since slavery.[50]

Food has always been a fundamental tool in colonization, and the legacy of dairy in North America has been particularly difficult for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. For anyone looking to remove the influence of colonization—as well as help animals, the environment, and exploited workers—moving away from milk and other dairy products is a great place to start.

*Because it is not natural to consume the milk of another species, Food Empowerment Project refers to people who are unable to digest lactose as “lactose normal.” In addition, lactose intolerance implies there is something “wrong” with Black, Brown and Indigenous people who are not able to digest milk—a product of colonization.