By Nancy Huang
2017. New year, same old resolutions – get healthy, save money, try something new. Are you one of the people who decided to ‘Try Vegan This January with Veganuary?’ With almost one million likes on Facebook, Veganuary is one of many initiatives promoting veganism, a ‘way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose’ (Donald Watson, founder of The Vegan Society). In this article, I will mention slavery, racism, ableism and transphobia.
In the past decade, veganism has picked up a lot of interest, with 2016 research finding over half a million vegans in the UK (See the Vegan Society homepage). People go vegan for many different reasons – animal welfare, health and nutrition, economic – or quite often a combination of them. For me personally, the environment and humanitarianism were the most significant factors – how could I claim to be a feminist while contributing to an industry that is the largest source of greenhouse gases, exploits people of colour (PoC), fuels poverty, and impacts climate change (which disproportionately affects women of colour)? Felicity Carus’ article in The Guardian from June 2010 provides excellent further information.
Portrayed in the media as a new fad or trendy middle class diet through social media and celebrity culture, veganism has become increasingly popular, especially in Western and white communities. This is great, right? Or is it?
I have issues with mainstream (white) veganism. Veganism is not new. Veganism is not white. Stop erasing what little visibility we have in this non-intersectional veganism. In the animal liberation movement, activists are infamous for their use of shock and reactionary politics to provoke a response, often to the detriment of marginalised groups. The classic example is PETA’s campaigns – comparing factory farming to the Holocaust, dressing up as KKK members, fat-shaming, and a long history of misogynistic advertisements (See, for example, their ‘Boyfriend Went Vegan’ video).
Elsewhere, and most memorably the speciesism meme compares the lynching of black people to hanging pig carcasses. Are we really comparing black people to animals? Given the recent and ongoing history of how PoC have been deemed sub-human and ‘animal’, (https://theconversation.com/the-ape-insult-a-short-history-of-a-racist-idea-14808) these insensitive and highly distressing images highlight the blatant anti-blackness and racism upheld by animal liberation activists.
In their attempt to humanise animals, they dehumanise PoC and other marginalised groups. How can activists campaign to break the institutions that torture and kill animals, yet stay silent in the face of the kyriarchy’s systematic oppression that tortures and kills fellow human beings? Such non-human animal rights activism upholds white supremacy.
Many PoC cultures and religions (eg. Rastafari, Buddhism, Hinduism) have practised veganism and vegetarianism across African and Asia long before it was popular in the West – India has more vegetarians than the aggregate of the rest of the world. While the word ‘vegan’ may only recently have been added to the dictionary, the history and culture of caring about and abstaining from the consumption of animal products is not – veganism has just been white-washed.
A quick online search of ‘vegan recipes’ finds a trail of white chefs and bloggers ‘discovering’ some traditional cultural dish, often food and practices for which PoC have long been ridiculed and shamed for (See Ruth Tam in The Washington Post August 31st 2015). The appropriation (and if I may say, bastardisation) of foods to have their cultural significance stripped away and then repackaged for white consumption, leads to phenomena like food gentrification.
In the media, veganism is commonly associated with the white bourgeoisie, when in fact many low-income families are and have been vegan or vegetarian due to economic reasons. Yet within mainstream vegan communities (which I personally find elitist and exclusive), classism is rampant and accessibility is often brushed aside. Those who aren’t ‘real vegans’ are shamed for not immediately switching to vegan items – though surely throwing away non-vegan items is wasteful and environmentally damaging.
Where food deserts (See http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/) exist, often it is difficult to obtain nutritious foods due to distance, availability and affordability – ‘necessary’ foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables may not be accessible. In addition, access to pharmaceuticals and hormones is not equal – ableist and transphobic debates about the ‘necessity’ of non-vegan treatments are often dominated by (cis) people who themselves do not have to consider such treatments.
In these cases, while the vegan community is very supportive, I feel that what it lacks most is respect – understanding people have different privileges, listening to people’s experiences and opinions, and respecting choices that may differ from yours. We need to consider intersectionality or risk the continued alienation and ostracisation of marginalised individuals and groups. Engaging with other movements will make veganism a more inclusive and accessible community.
Photograph by Kate Sheets via Flickr and Creative Commons