Sophia Roe on Wellness and Racism’s Inextricable Ties

The chef and wellness expert uses her platform to talk about white privilege and systemic oppression—topics that may be new to some of her followers, but certainly not to her.

Photo courtesy of Sophia Roe, @sophia_roe

Welcome to The People, our series highlighting those who have emerged as central figures in the anti-racism and Black Lives Matter movements. What began as a series of protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white former Minneapolis police officer, has become a global racial reckoning. No industry or corner of culture has been untouched by this essential push for change—and there’s still so much more to do. In this series, we’ll speak with those who are at the forefront of this shift, redefining what it means to be an activist, and the folks transforming their platforms to disseminate information and resources on the way forward.

This week, we’re speaking with the chef Sophia Roe, who’s worked in some of the most haute kitchens around the world, including Eleven Madison Park in New York City. Since then, she’s become a wellness influencer in her own right, with an enormous following on Instagram and a stable of brands eager to partner with her. (Although she’s hesitant to classify herself that way, and clarifies that “I consider myself a chef.”) But as she describes in the conversation below, she’s a Black woman first and foremost, and her identity has informed her approach to wellness—one that fits and is accessible to all. A self-described pedagogical person, the Florida native speaks directly to her online audience through Instagram Live and a conversation series called “Pillow Talk.” She sees the function of a wellness practitioner and food expert—especially one as active on social media as she—as shifting with the times, and, in turn, with this current movement. “This is not a self-care, self-improvement moment for you,” she says, addressing those influencers capitalizing on anti-racism with empty, performative posts. “I’m seeing a lot of that on the internet. It’s not about that. It’s about accountability. It’s about really learning the history. Don’t just think about what you were taught, think about what you weren’t taught.”

I was on Instagram before we got on the phone, and I listened to some of your Live conversation there about white privilege. I’m just curious what prompted you to have that talk.

Typically, I go Live five days a week. Sometimes I do a little bit more storytelling; sometimes it’s a little bit more educational. Other times, it’s really just like, I’m going to talk to you about the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Today, I was supposed to talk about gentrification. A Black woman reached out to me and said, “Soph, I think you should probably have a conversation about whiteness and about accountability, and education beforehand.” I was like, “That is a very good idea.”

Part of my job is absolutely educating people on food access and food inequity, and in my opinion these are the same conversation. You can’t have a conversation about food apartheid and not also have a conversation about gentrification and white supremacy. They’re all the same conversation in some way—there’s a lot of intersection there.

You’ve made your Pillow Talk sessions on Instagram into an open forum of sorts, and you hosted one that was called the “Black Story Share Session.” Tell me more about that.

It was wonderful, and it’s something that I should have done sooner. Now, I’ll be doing it every month.

I know what it’s like to have to share my story in the wellness world because I am a black woman who works in that space. Black and Brown people, especially Black and Brown women and Black and Brown LGBTQ community members feel so invalidated when they tell their story. It’s important to me to create a space where you’re going to get that validation, because you’re going to hear the similar stories from 300 other people who understand where you’re coming from. If I have a platform, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the people sharing information, educating, and facilitating conversations are right for this community.

Photo courtesy of Sophia Roe @sophia_roe

You’ve mentioned being “social justice Soph.” Before the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests began, was this already woven into your everyday discourse?

It definitely was. First thing, I’m a black woman. I live in a black neighborhood, and like I said, my work is trauma informed. I was a foster care kid. I’ve done work with the Women’s Prison Association because my mom was in and out of prison my whole life. My mother is still a drug addict to this day. And if we’re talking about wellness, I say it all the time: wellness is food, air, water, sunlight, movement, purpose, and community. That’s it. If at any moment in time a group of people don’t have access to that, then they don’t have access to wellness. And I think that’s something everyone should have access to.

I’m curious how you’ve seen your platform, and the conversations happening on your platform, change during this movement for anti-racism.I got a lot of new white people following me on Instagram. A lot of interesting questions. “What’s the difference between systematic and systemic?” I’m used to answering questions about like, “Why do my Shishito peppers get soggy?” You’re going to see me talk about white supremacy, but then the next post is going to be me teaching you how to make the most delicious beet salad you’ve ever had, because that’s my job. I don’t consider myself an activist. I am not Angela Davis, I am not bell hooks. I’m here to give you that introductory kind of preparation. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I’m an activist.” I wake up in the morning trying to get a goddamn farmer’s market in my neighborhood. That’s my activism.

I think this movement has brought forth a whole new type of activism, and is changing what it means to be an activist.

This information was free for everybody the whole time—it’s not like I had a separate library. That’s how I feel about it: if you were really interested in this information at any moment in time, you could have investigated. I did it because I literally was just trying to figure out who I was, and that’s the very much a Black, Brown, Indigenous experience. It’s just trying to figure out who the hell you are. And Black people, in so many ways, feel like they’re born with weight vests on. I do think it’s great, what’s happening, but I’m apprehensive at the same time. I just hope it lasts.

The apprehension makes sense to me. Why would you trust a system that has failed you over and over again?

And even for me, I have lighter skin. I have a certain type of face that you like, I have a certain type of hair that you like. I have a certain type of body that’s acceptable. Even I have privilege.

I’m having some trust issues with some followers. It’s like, why are you here? Are you going to leave the second I start talking about rhubarb pie? Do you care about rhubarb pie? Are you following me just because I hit some demographic for you? Even dealing with privilege, equality feels like oppression. Are you ready for that conversation? If you’re not ready to go there then I don’t know if I can trust you.

That sounds like a very difficult thing to grapple with.

Yeah, it’s tough. And it’s this thing that’s hard for me because I love my internet community. I remember when it had just 127,000 followers and I was fine right there. I don’t have the sort of people on the internet following me who are horrible. People were following me because they wanted to. And now, I don’t know who I’m talking to every time.

Like you said, you’ve always held these ideals, but now they’re coming to light more and you have to sort of explain yourself to both new and old followers.

I know I don’t have to, but it feels like I do. It feels like I need to say this is for all those people who don’t think racism is real. I go back to 2017, and I’m writing about living in these food apartheids, this food insecure area that I live in, and I’m like, what in the heck do you think I’ve been doing with my Instagram this whole time?

I have to protect my community, too. I have to make sure that some person doesn’t attack a Black woman, a trans, queer, gender-fluid person—whoever it is, in the comments.

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