A critical look at veganism and its connection to race identities
By: Olivia Levesque, Arts and Culture Editor
In the last decade, vegetarianism and veganism have become rather trendy, and surely many cafes, grocery stores, and restaurants are capitalizing off of these trends. Veganism can be seen as the more extreme sibling of vegetarianism, and it encompasses way more than just the food one consumes. Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use and exploitation of animals altogether; however, some may have their own book of rules based on their own veganism. The ideology disagrees with the belief that animals are here for us to use in whatever way we choose, including clothing, food, and service. It is a rejection of the carnist and speciesist beliefs, and it demands justice for animals.
Smoothie bowls, avocados, hemp hearts, coconut oil, and soy cheese all are fine and dandy, but veganism is marketed and draws distinct correlations to white privilege and often overlooks cultural significance of non-vegan diets. Organizations such as PETA rally against those with conventional diets and shame those who are nonconforming, ultimately ignoring intersectionality. Additionally, in North America, about 78 percent of vegans identify as female, according to Google statistics. So, the question now becomes why does veganism, an institution for change, have such a race problem?
Understanding white veganism is as important as understanding the trajectories of veganism itself. Veganism is no longer just a lifestyle choice, but rather a political statement. White veganism is rooted in the privilege of being able to buy whole foods from a large enough income that will support this method. It ignores issues of food security and rights in urban areas where it is difficult to buy affordable food. Historically low-income and coloured communities are often subject to the mass exploitation of farm and food workers. In an article entitled “Dismantling White Veganism” shared by the organization Vegan Voices of Colour, the author eloquently states that “white vegans are the most prominent faces of veganism and so white veganism has shaped the dominant discourse around animals rights, the environment, and health to be basic.” This is problematic not only because this ideology ignores the privilege surrounding the cause, but also because white vegans often use Black bodies and marginalized people of colour to compare the experiences of animals to a history of slavery and genocide.
Some might not argue this as being a problem, as they do not see animals as inferior to humans; however, nowhere in the doctrine of speciesism does it state that it is acceptable to reduce only certain groups of human bodies that are excluded from the fight for animal rights to make a point of liberation. Who actually thinks that showing illustrations of slaves in chains side by side with a pig in chains is acceptable, or comparing cows in a slaughterhouse to prisoners in a concentration camp circa WWII?
Reality check: This will not entice people of colour (POC) to join the cause. In fact, it will do the farthest thing from it. These ever so popular comparisons of animal abuse to the intense lived experience of the ancestors of POC communities proves exactly how little value white members of the vegan community place on Black lives.
The PETA organization often publicizes their angst towards non-vegan feminists. Ingrid Newkirk, the president and founder of PETA, explains the ideology behind this tactic: “We’d rather go naked than wear not only fur but leather or wool—any skin. We see animal liberation as a logical part of a philosophy that rejects violence to, and the exploitation of, those who are not exactly like oneself in some way or another. We reject prejudice on the basis of any arbitrary factor such as skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion or species. For surely there is something fundamentally wrong with moaning about freedom for yourself while denying it to others.”
No thanks, Newkirk, I think I’m still going to use my feminist powers to fight for the rights of all POC, LGBTQ+, disabled, and any other marginalized human groups. In the current political climate, there is no room to place animal rights above issues such as the Muslim Ban, wage gap, or any other fundamental human right, as well as countless other hardships that feminists have been fighting for what feels like eternity. White veganism plays a huge role in this ideology because placing animal rights before your own comes from a very poignant place of privilege. Vegan activists question whether Black lives and human lives are as significant as the lives of cows and chickens. This is just another example of the ignorance of the shift from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter.
White veganism also ignores any narrative of cultural and religious significance when it comes to dietary choices. Just as Hinduism abstains from consumption of beef, and the Jewish practice kosher diets, many cultures and religions have feasting and sacrificial rituals that involve the consumption of meat.
Arguments can also be made that the “traditional diet” of vegans is not one everyone can be proud of. Vegan proponents point to grain production for cattle feed as the cause of deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction, but industrial agriculture involves huge monocultures like wheat, corn, and soy. Virtually all their agricultural systems depend on crude oil, including planting, harvesting, processing, packaging, and transportation.
White veganism also fails to consider the mass exploitation of farm and food workers who make up the backbone of the agricultural labour force. These workers are mainly women of colour living in rural areas within the global south. Women make up somewhere between 70-80% of the agricultural labour force, yet most are poorly compensated, living in acute poverty, and are completely divorced from access to the land and other productive resources. The work of women of colour in agricultural labour is largely what makes food security possible in the so-called “first world.” The importance of eating locally produced meat and locally grown vegetables and fruits, when available, is huge. The importance of speaking out on the issues surrounding white veganism and the lack of intersectionality within the movement, is also huge.