Veganism's Race Problem

*The Dutch translation for this story in Vegan Magazine can be found here.  

*This article was also featured on Black Vegans Rock along with an interview.

When I was asked to write about veganism within the black community as the new columnist for Vegan Magazine, I was both excited and apprehensive. It’s nice to talk about veganism in black communities, but the magazine’s mostly white readership gave me pause. Understanding veganism and black communities has a prerequisite of understanding the racial politics of white privilege, legacies of slavery, and oppression.

Since an article like this might be easily misunderstood by an audience unfamiliar with these topics, I decided to focus on giving accounts of these issues and mechanisms using my background and experiences as an American, middle class, college-educated black male to illuminate why mainstream veganism isn’t as accessible to black communities as it could be. Having said that, I do not intend to speak for all black communities; rather, illustrate some of the forces that play roles in our relationships to veganism.

 

White things—a brief look at what privilege looks like

As a kid, I played ice hockey, skateboarded, ran long distance, read a lot, listened to rock music: “white” things as labeled by my black peers. I found this color-coding of interest ridiculous; however, it was reflected in the racial composition of these activities. I went to a private university that had only a handful of black students out of a little less than 7,000 undergraduates. I studied philosophy, another “white” pursuit, sitting in classes filled with white faces. My interests were overwhelmingly popular among whites, but were they “white” things? Did they belong to white people? Of course they didn’t, but a half-truth was embedded in the question because whites did control the narratives. Where were the other stories?

During graduate school in philosophy, I learned of both the sexism and racism present in the Western philosophical cannon, which is composed of mainly class-privileged, white, Western men. Many of my favorite philosophers would have viewed me as less of a person due to my race, with white men standing as the only people in possession of the intellectual rigor required of philosophy.

Even in the feminism courses I took, I found out how minority voices were undermined within the field, as the mainstream movement was largely populated by white women with class privilege and spoke to their needs. For all women are not equal, I also learned, and a working class woman may have more in common with a man of her class than a college-educated, female CEO, for example. Equality with men was also shaky ground because white men enjoy privilege over other men, minorities for example, undermining the idea that all men are equal. All of these inequalities were occurring at the intersection between class, race, sex, and its sociological representation in the form of gender.

Reading a diverse range of feminists, I learned to locate myself in reference to feminism, which meant recognizing my male privilege and beginning the life-long process of unpacking the many ways I act as an oppressor, even if unintended. I couldn’t understand feminism or its necessity if I didn’t understand my male privilege. 

Speciesism caught up with me in graduate school. After years of learning about animal rights in philosophy classrooms I became a vegetarian. Another“white” thing. Feminism and philosophy both involved the critical thought I was drawn to, but it in large part left out narratives of minorities like myself, acting as if their viewpoints were complete. Luckily, I was made aware of these marginalized voices, realizing that who says what is just as important as what is said, and traditionally white groups held control over the narratives in some of my favorite subjects, meting out legitimacy as they saw fit to people that looked like them. Feminism, philosophy, and vegetarianism weren’t of necessity “white” things, but white people did legitimate the narratives in these subjects, which is a trait that has spilled over to veganism.

 

For Worse

 Although I think the argument for ceasing to consume animals is powerful enough on its own, politicizing/marketing an idea in order to convert often crosses into comparative realms. We humans learn new things by comparing them to something we already know, so it seems natural in trying to sway people to veganism that the exploitation of animals is compared to the enslavement of black peoples—something the majority of us can agree was horrible.  These methods are offensive to black people, causing us to question being involved in a movement that uncovers the oppression of animals but doesn’t truly understand how oppression functions, which reflects mainstream veganism’s focus on marketing to whites. 

Comparisons to slavery only appropriate the past suffering and the continuation of the effects of slavery—discrimination, both on individual and institutional levels—that occur today. The appropriation part comes in the majority group, whites, taking advantage of an experience—slavery and the resulting systematic discrimination— their ancestors, or themselves, did and do not experience. It talks about the past like it’s over, and moreover only uses slavery as shock value without being invested in the movement to end racial oppression.

Ending racial oppression, like ending oppression of animals, requires those who oppress and benefit from these types of oppression—whites in the case of race, humans in the case of animals—to rigorously interrogate their privileges/advantages, which often make the oppression of others unfathomable and their own advantages invisible because that is the norm.

Part of white privilege has been the ability to set the standards for narratives and have authority over them—who has access to what, when, and how—and tap into this advantage. Just think of how few minorities exist in journalism, as evidenced by De Correspondent’s (a Dutch newspaper) recent call for more minority contributions, or the NRC Handelsblad’s (a Dutch newspaper) headline, written by  white editors, for a review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me: “Nigger, are you crazy?” Both of these instances point to one group controlling information and what is appropriate for all audiences, but the former at least is aware of this contradiction while the latter isn’t involved in questioning the appropriateness of a using such a headline.

This interrogation also isn’t happening in the mainstream vegan movement, and while the use of slavery isn’t the only reason blacks are loath to take part, it’s a good example for black disinterest because it shows how racial bias functions to ignore the perspectives of different groups, even unintentionally.

 

Points of resistance

 When I turned vegan a few months ago, I knew I would be one of the few black vegans I knew. I was also one of the only black vegetarians I knew. But that didn’t bother me because I was used to being the “only one” and I knew I was taking another step in creating a more conscious world—ultimately, the world I want to live in. Not that one can’t make strong connections to their black or African culture in veganism, or that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive; it’s just that my identity as a vegan is not rooted in my existence as an African-American. I’m a vegan who happens to be African-American, not an Afro-vegan who locates my veganism in African culture, or even the black culture found in the diaspora.

There are, though, many who identify their veganism with African culture or in the fused culture of the diaspora, connecting consciousness to their roots in terms of food, spirituality, and wellness. Cookbooks catering towards African Americans such as Afro Vegan, which was covered by Vegan Magazine, give a different, more familiar flavor to vegan cooking for those, like myself, who grew up eating “soul food.” And there are many dishes that can easily be accommodated by a vegan diet. As much as we like to pretend that veganism has universal truths, mainstream veganism fails to account the differing food practices and the related social, historical, and economic realities that come with making veganism attractive to minority communities.

In the U.S., our communities and their food traditions are legacies of slavery and not having choices in what we ate, to having to eat the unwanted parts of animals, to having to survive on things others deemed unfit for consumption. It’s as much a symbol of who we are, our collective struggle and our strength, as it is a throwback to the colonialism that ripped us from our homes and buried us on plantations. We made due with what we had and made delicious food to nurture the soul’s pain in the process.

However, the food we cook is often anything but edifying from a nutritional perspective, which is reflected in the highest rates among all Americans for high blood pressure and disproportionally high rates of obesity. Heart disease is also the number one cause of death for African-Americans, as it is for the rest of the population, but African-Americans face increased risk for contracting the disease. Although genetics, diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors all play a role, many urban areas where African-Americans live lack the means for balanced and nutritious diets, being populated with fast food chains and corner stores filled up candy, chips, and soda. Right around the corner from where I grew up you can find fried chicken and BBQ joints, liquor stores, and abandoned storefronts with the lone supermarket thrown among the changing landscape.

Black activist veganism—veganism rooted in repairing some of the above harsh realities borne by the black community—is a means of disrupting these realities in which we have little control by exercising what control we have. It’s about using food as a means of resisting the fatal eating habits in which we inherited and deafeningly opposing the food options in our communities. It’s about community gardening in cities like Los Angeles and Detroit that provide healthy foods to neighborhoods sorely in need. It asks the question of how a people can effectively fight racism while eating food that is killing them and is built on the oppression of another species. It’s about giving the communities that will feel the brunt of the environmental and economic fall out due to climate change the power to survive. It’s about connecting the dots of oppression.

 

End Game

Veganism has a problem dealing with race that seems impossible to solve due to the complicated nature of our oppression as black people, where many white people aren’t even aware that they have privilege. As a white vegan, you might ask yourself: Why is comparing the current state of animal “welfare” to slavery inappropriate? They share so many parallels! Yes, there are, but due to the horrible legacy of slavery and its perpetuation into the present in the form of discrimination, among other things, it is inappropriate to use this comparison. Thus, understanding why comparisons like these are inappropriate has to do with one’s one racial fluency, and more often than not this is critically lacking in mainstream veganism.

So what can you do?

For one, as stated above, all oppressions are linked despite being different. Many prejudices are built in to our society, both when it comes to people and animals, eschewing the politics of what’s right with the legacy of what has come before. Therefore, white vegans that want to create a more inclusive environment could join the movement for racial equality, or any movement that highlights the plight of minorities. It’s important to all movements to end oppression that these connections are made, and that we avoid piliarizing oppression. We have to support one another, stand with one another, but this involves looking inward and honestly asking ourselves what privileges we enjoy and exercise, just like many of you have already done with coming to the conclusion that us humans critically oppress animals.

Being vegan, though, doesn’t mean one is necessarily against killing animals for food and clothing, but in becoming vegan we are exposed to different perspectives that center on animal well-being, and also the environmental impact of raising animals. We all became vegan because we wanted to change something. The true power in veganism is this exposure to different perspectives, different reasons for change, and letting these different viewpoints continue to change us and open our eyes to new points of connection to the world in which we live. Making these connections, including to race, are key to veganism increasing its relevance and truly pulling the world towards change.