Pumpkin Spice Lattes: Brought to You By Brown & Indigenous People

Author’s Note: Hey y’all! Before you read this article, I suggest you treat yourself right by grabbing a pumpkin spice latte and reading this brilliant article by Sasanka Jinadasa. My goal was to present a bunch of cool facts about brown and indigenous peoples in my own snarky way, but Sasanka provides a much more fleshed out story about decolonization and Brown histories connected to the PSL. After talking with her, we both realized that as Brown folks who study critical race theory, our goal to present Brown and indigenous histories in otherwise White narratives can take similar paths. Hopefully, my article can serve as a companion piece to Sasanka’s and generate more discussion about whitewashing Brown and indigenous contributions! Ura! (Thanks!)


I could ramble forever about my love for all things pumpkin spice. Pop-Tarts, cookies, coffee creamer, liqueur, scented candles, its connection to the fall season… I love it. I love it all. But there is no love truer (sorry bae!) than my love for Pumpkin Spice Lattes (hereafter, PSL).

It’s accepted that the PSL is basic. Mostly because we all know that the stereotypical consumer of the PSL is The Basic White Girl™. They come in all shapes and sizes, but as a college student in Norman, Oklahoma, I am picturing a smallish YT, swamped in a campus-event shirt 3 times too big for her, that’s covering up some Nike running shorts and with weird, strappy, athletic sandals on her pink feet.

Where's the lie?

Where’s the lie? By Steph Cross

However, as a smol, Brown consumer of PSLs, I want to make the case that the PSL is not the basic one in that latte-white girl relationship. If you recall, regardless of how seldom YTs use spices in their cuisine (boneless skinless boiled chicken breast, anyone?) today, it’s common knowledge that the trade of spices fueled early colonization efforts, creating a vast network which eventually led to the Taínos discovering the first European fuckboy on their soil, Christopher Columbus. Let’s look at the major players of the pumpkin spice latte — besides the expected consumers — which are cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and pumpkin (actual pumpkin was added in puree form to the mix in September 2015). All are ingredients that could not exist without the knowledge, and exploitation, of Brown people. For instance…

Cinnamon

There are two types of cinnamon, Ceylon (Cinnamomum verum) and Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), which are stripped from a type of evergreen tree primarily grown in Sri Lanka. Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known then, continues to be one of the major suppliers today. Brown people have been using cinnamon for a really long time, y’all. Well before Starbucks columbus’d the Chai Tea Latte, cinnamon was often featured in masala chai throughout Southeast Asia. Two thousand years ago Egyptians were using it in their embalming process and for perfume. Hebrews also used cinnamon in anointing oils and incense. Arab traders introduced cinnamon to Europe. During the Middle Ages, perhaps in an effort to keep white folks from killing themselves in the Cinnamon Challenge, Arab traders kept the origins of cinnamon to themselves — y’all, they told some tall tales about how cumbersome it was to harvest cinnamon!

Do you think they'll believe we found a cinnamon-hoarding dragon? Via

Do you think they’ll believe we found a cinnamon-hoarding dragon?
Via asiawelcome.com

Cloves and Nutmeg

Cloves are basically small dried flower buds from a kind of evergreen tree (Ayzygium aromaticum), whereas nutmeg is the seed of a different evergreen tree (Myristica frangans). These spices (in addition to mace) can be found on the Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas, a part of Indonesia), which much of the colonized world recognizes as “The Spice Islands.” For thousands of years the Indigenous islanders sailed and traded with Chinese and Arab merchants. Spices they traded were valued not only for their uses in cuisine, but also for their healing qualities. Nutmeg, especially, was sought after for its medicinal properties. Much of the information I’ve come across tends to focus on the spice trade and major colonizing powers, rather than the original peoples (funny how that works), but I found a small blurb that gives a brief glimpse into the often disregarded relationships between Indigenous peoples and land. One Maluku Islands ceremony involved the planting of a clove tree when a baby was born, with the growth and progress of the tree linked to the child’s life. Once the Dutch seized the trade completely, they begun burning down the trees that grew outside of their control. This was another way of devastating not only the physical link between human beings and Earth, but also their psychological and spiritual beings.

Clove buds Via

Clove buds
Via flickr.com

Pumpkin

Pumpkins are, of course, indigenous to the western hemisphere and one of the more versatile fruits. They have been growing for at least 7,500 years in Mexico, and these particular types of pumpkins were described as “small, hard, and bitter.” Y’all, I think I found my new Twitter bio. Although somewhat different from our pop culture sense of pumpkins, pumpkins grown by Indigenous peoples in Mexico were, and still are, featured heavily in numerous recipes, like pepitas (roasted seeds), papadzules (corn tortillas in a sauce made from pumpkin seeds) and tamales and moles. Nations like the Wampanoag and Abeki have been cultivating and cooking pumpkin for thousands of years. I’m sure anyone with the typical American education could tell me about how pumpkins were considered one of the “three sisters” or how pumpkins were featured in the “First Thanksgiving.” I personally like to think that the tradition of chunking pumpkins most likely started around this time, too. Fed up with European settlers’ horrible cannibalistic practices, tribal nations could have started chunking pumpkins at them in an effort to break their nasty habits (but hey, that’s just an idea. I don’t have the science to back that up).

"Eat this, not that." Signed, "The Savages"

“Eat this, not that.” Signed, “The Savages”

From the small amount of fact-gathering that I’ve done, I know that this brief article doesn’t come close to all the ways cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pumpkin have featured in Brown and Indigenous stories, ceremonies and practices. But let me say that as a small, hard, bitter, Brown person who enjoys the heck out of some PSLs, it gives me just the tiniest bit of satisfaction when I think of how much Brown people complicate something as “basic” as the PSL. As Brown folks, our contributions to all facets of humanity are often omitted or downplayed. Is the PSL not another reminder of this?! Pumpkin? Spice? I know you don’t think a white girl made that shit up.


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Stephanie Cross is a Latina and a proud member of the Comanche Nation. Mostly a Texan, she currently attends the University of Oklahoma, where she received her master's in Native American Studies and is now pursuing her Ph.D. in Social Psychology. She is a Ravenclaw primary/Slytherin secondary and thinks that already tells you too much information.

Sister has written 1 articles for us.

63 Comments

  1. Ay, I had no idea about the Pilgrim cannibalism! Yet maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, since they were doing it symbolically in a way as well. Anyhow, I enjoyed this article, and now I want to eat pumpkin again.

  2. YES. I love PSL unapologetically, and it doesn’t make me less Latina. I’m glad people are reclaiming it and enjoying whatever they want without feeling like they have to justify their tastes. Thanks for setting the record straight on some really whitewashed history. I may joke about how “basic” and “white” I am, but the truth is that my self-depracating humor is just a coping mechanism. It really stings when people insinuate that I’m inauthentic or a “coconut.”

    (On a side note, I really could’ve done without the YT insults, but eh, I’m accepted that arguing that is a lost cause here)

  3. this is so good, even the captions are hilarious. “eat this not this” hate being reminded not to eat human flesh. havent tried a pumpkin latte but i’ll fight you for a slice of pumpkin pie

    also, my mother uses cloves to make african donuts, mandazi. spicey, sweet donuts. the coast of kenya is heavily, heavily, portugese and arab influenced so there are so many different recipes for mandazis. mahamri, cinammon, allspice, cardamum, even nutmeg can be used.

    http://www.africanbites.com/soft-mini-mandazi/

  4. This is pretty much beside the point but: pumpkin spice lattes are disgusting and as sweet as candy bars. BUT. if there were a REAL pumpkin spice latte that was just espresso and steamed milk and real cinnamon, nutmegs and cloves and a bit of pureed pumpkin, that might just be totally amazing. has anyone had that??

  5. Hey friends,

    I don’t mean to start anything, but I wrote an INCREDIBLY similar article to this last year for Black Girl Dangerous. I’m a little hurt by this — they have basically the same structure, subject matter, premise, and takeaway. I’d appreciate having a conversation with the author.

    Much love to queers of color, of course, but please read for yourself.

    http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2015/09/heres-why-we-need-to-stop-calling-pumpkin-spice-a-white-people-thing/

    • Hey! I’d love to talk to you about this, because I in no way want you to think I plagiarized your article. As a POC and a PhD student, plagiarism is the worst crime I could ever commit.

      I’ve never read your article, but I’m also not stupid enough to believe I’m the only person who had this idea. I was adamant about presenting this centered on POC and indigenous peoples, being an indigenous person myself, and the last thing I ever want to do or be is disrespectful. Please email me at strae18@gmail.com

    • WhIle the articles are similar, they are also different. Reading them back to back you can see that the same sources were consulted, but there are enough differences that it is obviously not plagiarized. Just because an idea is similar doesn’t mean it was plagiarized and it appears as though the authors of these two articles will discuss the issue respectfully and privately.

  6. I feel the need to commend you Steph for bringing up the cannibal pilgrims, hardly anyone does and never for the right reasons. Now if I’m ever invited to a pumpkin chucking I will make pilgrim target for the range.

    Now all y’all clamouring “PLAGIARISM” it is the same topic and theme yeah, but it’s 2 different perspectives of the topic. One Native American, one Sri Lankan American both have their own personal investment to whitewashing (colombusing?) of the components of what makes a pumpkin spice latte and the PL itself.
    It does not seem out of the realm of possibility to me that 2 POC whose culture or region has a history of being exploited and colonised could have the same thought of “fuck this idea of an item made of colonised components from my people or people like me being a basic bitch white people thing” and decided to write about it from their perspective and for the empowerment of fellow POC to enjoy said item fuck the idea it’s a white people thing.

    But if you still think this is a case of plagiarism, okay I’m not going to argue with you. You’re entitled to your opinions.

    Just dudes pick up the information from both pieces and use it to think and grow about the topic (whitewashing of international goods) they discuss.
    That is quite important and we can agree upon that, yes?

  7. First off, Australians actually use Pumpkin as a vegetable. No pies or lattes, totally gross I know. They even put it on Pizza. Ew.

    Anyhoo, the pumpkin spice we know of is actually made from cinnamon, clove and ginger.

  8. when i google “white people pumpkin spice,” the first thing that comes up is the BGD article by sasanka. the two articles aren’t exactly the same, but i’m not sure how the author (& editorial team) wasn’t aware the other one existed. two POC authors totally can and should write about the same thing, but there are a lot of similarities and even a hat tip might have worked at the beginning of the article. looking forward to seeing what the response is to this.

  9. Hey all — Stephanie Cross and I got a chance to talk about our articles and decided on working together as Brown folx to make sure that we are supporting each other’s work. She has put up a note at the beginning of her article linking to mine, so that we can make sure that people have access to the ~*~pumpkin spice latte~*~ discourse (okay, actually, lol).
    Thanks for chatting with me, Stephanie, and thanks to all the publications putting in the work to create better and more accessible thought and scholarship by and for queer people of color.

  10. I do think this could have done without the “WT” bashing, and the image of the “basic betch”—that’s offensive to anyone of any color. As a QPOC and PhD candidate, this article’s language use is offensive and came across more of a bashing of “WT” than emphasizing the historical importance of POC in the spice trade.

    Perhaps next time think of your target audience?

    The drawing was ridiculous and over the top.

  11. You’re painting with a pretty broad brush to call all spice trading exploitation of brown people. For example, you acknowledge that Arab traders first brought cinnamon to Europe, and in fact the Arabs got rich off this deal. So who was being exploited? If the indigenous South Asians were being exploited, then it was the Arabs (aka other brown people) who were doing it.

    Also, the spices would exist without indigenous knowledge, just as they likely existed in some form or another before the region even had indigenous people.

    Of course, if you had just tried to educate people about the geographic and cultural origins of commonly used spices instead of trying to turn it into a political guilt trip thing, those kinds of errors wouldn’t come up.

    Also it should be noted that cannibalism is part of the cultural history of every human on earth, if you go back far enough. The right move would be to accept that instead of continuing to try to bring shame on certain cultures for it, which makes you no better than the Europeans who told tales of ferocious cannibal islanders.

    • Hi Greg! I appreciate the comment, but I especially appreciate how you missed the point. We know spices; the world you’re currently living in is a world where brown and indigenous people know spices. And thank you for reminding me about ferocious cannibal islanders! This is not a stereotype I’m familiar with! Brown?? Savage??? CANNIBALS??? Wow. That really is a first for me. It must be really hard for you to understand why I would bring up the fact that those fair, mayo-skinned settlers ate their dead. Almost like, it’s a part of history YTs are reluctant to talk about, or teach in schools. But hey! As long as we teach about those SAVAGE BROWN CANNIBALS!!!

      • Cannibalism shouldn’t be portrayed negatively in the context of any culture because it’s universal. Telling people about the cannibal pilgrims is interesting and a nice opportunity to rise above the historical prejudice associated with cannibalism; why call them horrible for it when every culture did it at one time or another? There are still cultures that do it, or did in recent history, and they’re not horrible for it either. Schools should teach the truth, which is that cannibalism is historically common to people of all colors and we can’t judge any of them based on our modern values. There are no savages. What I was saying is that I think we shouldn’t sink to the level of the European colonists by using that kind of language like you did in the article.

        And I’m aware that many spices come from places where the people are brown, and that they were the first ones to use them, but it didn’t seem like that was the only point you wanted to make. Was all use of spices throughout history exploitation? If that’s your opinion, I’d be interested in a deeper explanation.

        • If you don’t think the European colonists were savages—even without any cannibalism—then I don’t think anyone really owes you an explanation of any sort.

          Also, wowza, internet commentary is at an all time low when there’s an cannibalism apologist up in AS.

          • And now we have #NotAllCannibals!

            So, I’m curious Dylan, if the Colonists aren’t savages, how does one “sink to their level”? That seems pretty inconsistent.

            In further news, if you didn’t get the point of the article, don’t panic! First, turn on a light and look at the skin on your arm. If it’s white, then your reaction is normal and you don’t see to see a doctor.

          • The colonists were cruel and despicable and I’m not apologizing for that. But since lots of native Americans also ate people (like other Europeans did, along with the rest of the world) I don’t think it’s good grounds for criticism. Criticize them for the genocide and the theft of a continent.

          • One sinks to their level by judging them for a cultural practice common to the cultural history of all humanity. That’s what the Europeans did to many indigenous people, because they were ignorant of their own past, since cannibalism was of course widespread in prehistoric Europe and continued in times of hunger.

  12. I hated US history because we learned it EVERY YEAR and it NEVER GOT LESS BORING

    But damn did I love the part about all the people who ate their dead after running out of food and starving / freezing thru the Harsh American Winters

    Our elementary school text books on Jamestown didn’t exactly paint a Grizzly Picture, but I did just fine with my imagination, Thank You

    Right up there with Roanoke and the Donner Party in terms of my fav chapters of white colonial american history

    Anyway, thank you for bringing up my most favorite of things

  13. Well my genetic history isn’t as German and I have 29% Persian and 3% Japanese but I was pretty impressed. I am glad that this is racist because white blonde women are the worst for me. I am a bisexual man and they are just a group of people who you guys need to be careful to trust. They think they are the mom. I was impressed to see the synopsis.

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