Essential Reading for White Vegans
When Aph Ko’s article “#BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans To Check Out” popped up in my feed back in 2015, I remember feeling thrilled that the list included my friend Rain Truth, a Wisconsin-based chef and culinary instructor. But lots of white vegans were offended by the feature, reacting viciously when others pointed out that their criticism itself was patently racist. As Ko explains in the BVR FAQ, “We live in a culture that routinely spotlights and celebrates white folks and the work that they do. It is not racist when Black folks (or any minoritized group) carve out spaces of empowerment for themselves. In an age of mass incarceration, police violence, systemic racism, injustice, and Black Lives Matter, we feel that celebrating Black achievements and Black diversity is necessary and life-changing.” I imagine the vegans who protested that article would be horrified to find themselves compared to a stereotypical Fox-News-obsessed Republican, and yet, just as card-carrying racists reply to #BlackLivesMatter with “all lives matter,” these angry white vegans chose not to read the implied “too” at the end of #BlackVegansRock.
The racist uproar over Ko’s “100 Black Vegans” piece isn’t an isolated incident; vegans of color face resistance and microaggressions from white animal-rights activists all the time. As singer/songwriter, actor, and playwright Lacresha Berry told me, “I was part of a vegan Facebook group, and after three police killings in a row I was feeling so sad and helpless, but when I mentioned it in the group they were like ‘This is a group for animals. We have enough groups fighting for human rights.’ So I left. It just didn’t align. We have to be compassionate across the board.” It may sound extreme to identify the group’s reaction as white supremacist, but let’s be real here: had Berry expressed sorrow and frustration over yet another school shooting — in which victims and perpetrators are predominantly white — it’s hard to imagine those people would have deemed her post inappropriate.
We vegans are accustomed to dealing in inconvenient facts, so why are so many of us continuing to overlook the racism permeating the animal-rights movement? (And plenty more -isms besides, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece.) Why did so few of my white vegan friends respond when I posted “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color” on Facebook, and why would prominent white vegans decline to be interviewed for such an article? The sooner we white vegans acknowledge our complicity (yes, yes, we know you mean well, but what are you going to do about it?), the more effective our movement will be — for the animals and for every human exploited, oppressed, and ignored by our corporate overlords and every other keeper of the status quo.
If the phrase “white vegans” makes you uncomfortable or defensive and you’re willing to figure out why, check out the books listed below. Purchase a new copy (so the authors get paid for their work) and/or request that your local library acquire a copy. Read them cover to cover, take notes, and share the work of these brilliant vegan intellectuals from marginalized communities. Consistently elevate the efforts of vegans of color (without congratulating yourself for doing so), and your activism will become as unhypocritical as it can possibly be.
Feliz Brueck and her contributors draw on years of critical thinking, research, and lived experience, and as a result this book offers facepalm epiphanies for the white reader on pretty much every page. “As it stands, the vegan movement is centered on a majority of vegans from a group that does not have to navigate through life with these intersecting oppressions,” Feliz Brueck writes. “Unfortunately, the refusal of the vegan majority to acknowledge how these oppressions work and how they affect other communities continues to sustain nonhuman oppression and in turn, inaccessibility of the movement itself.” Laila Kassam adds, “Our privileges allow us to ignore issues that we think don’t affect us. Those in marginalized groups don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.” Winnie Kaur points out “how crooked, selective, and discriminatory our moral compasses are when we continue to voice our concerns against specific kinds of marginalized bodies while ignoring the pain of Others.” Chilis on Wheels founder Michelle Carrera recalls meeting a vegan homeless man who told her, “I fight for the animals, but nobody fights for me.” She asks, “How can people be asked to join a movement that does not want them?” And as a white woman who practices yoga, Rama Ganesan’s “Vegan Misappropriations of Hinduism” was particularly relevant for me — I told myself that the more embarrassed I felt as I was reading these essays, the more certain I could feel that I was learning.
In this follow-up volume, Feliz Brueck opens with a note to white vegans: while she hopes we’ll learn from this book, just as it says in the title, it was not written for us. As in Veganism in an Oppressive World, the contributors represent a range of backgrounds, philosophies, and religions, and their stories will inspire any veg-curious person of color to begin decolonizing their diet. In an introductory section titled “Breaking Down Myths and Perceptions,” Feliz Brueck and contributors Saryta Rodríguez and Ayoola M. White also articulate the problem of white-centric veganism: “[A]s in most spaces and movements, whiteness always demands center stage. Because of this, Vegans of Color are seldomly allowed to lead and given a platform — beyond tokenism — to speak about our own views on veganism as they relate to ethics, oppression, and social justice…In essence, mainstream white veganism makes white vegans ‘feel good’ while doing the bare minimum within the social justice spectrum, since the majority do not address the root issues preventing communities from accessing veganism (but still condemn those communities).” It’s precisely that attitude of “we’re the good guys” keeping us from checking ourselves when we sigh condescendingly at someone eating fried chicken, or accuse a person of color of not caring about animal suffering; these are gaps in our “circle of compassion” that we must address. (Also check out the videos and/or transcripts from Julia Feliz Brueck’s Veganism of Color conference, held in Dublin in September 2018.)
While black women are this anthology’s primary audience, any reader can appreciate the breadth of experience represented here. Only one contributor, pattrice jones, is white, and her reflections on failing to see her own white privilege — “what a sickening and rightfully destabilizing realization that was!” — gave me chills of mortified recognition. Adama Maweja’s description in “The Fulfillment of the Movement” of the mental transformation she experienced upon going vegan is absolutely exquisite, as is Tara Sophia Bahna-James’ psychological insight in “Journey Toward Compassionate Choice: Integrating Vegan and Sistah Experience.” Dr. Harper’s essay “Social Justice Beliefs and Addiction to Uncompassionate Consumption” highlighted my inconsistent consumption of Fair-Trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and sugar; sometimes I’d look for the label and sometimes I’d succumb to something I craved, like the holiday coffee blends that appeared on the shelves at Trader Joe’s every November — no Fair Trade label, but I bought it anyway. “Unless your addictive substances are labeled ‘fair trade’ and ‘certified organic,’” Harper writes, “they are most likely supporting a company that pays people less than they need to live off, to work on plantations that use toxic pesticides and/or prohibit the right to organize for their own human rights.” She points out that global water shortages disproportionately affect people of color, who will also suffer disproportionately in any armed conflicts that result. (Also check out “Uprooting White Fragility: Intersectional Anti-Racism in the ‘Post-Racial’ Ethical Foodscape,” “Racial Inequities in Veganism and Animal Rights,” and the Sistah Vegan blog.)
Rodríguez has compiled this introductory guide for privileged vegans looking for a more nuanced understanding of the issues: a concise history of the food justice movement beginning with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta campaigning for farm workers’ rights in the 1960s; how livestock corporations collude with local governments in Brazil to raze the rainforest for cattle grazing and remove farmers from their ancestral lands, and how this injustice led to the founding of the Landless Workers’ Movement in 1984; how Big Ag continues to exploit an immigrant workforce with dangerous working conditions, appallingly low wages, and for many, the constant threat of deportation; how many cities across the United States have criminalized the charitable sharing of food with the homeless; how economic racism creates food deserts (“food swamps,” to be more accurate) in urban communities, and how community gardens established to improve access to fresh produce can ironically speed up the gentrification process. I found Starr Carrington’s contribution, “Food Justice and Race in the U.S.,” particularly helpful. Many excellent food-justice organizations are profiled in these pages, so it’s easy to put your money where your heart is and make recurring donations to A Well-Fed World, Chilis on Wheels, Grow Where You Are, Fuel the People, and/or the Food Empowerment Project (and of course you should also source your tea, coffee, and chocolate from companies like Equal Exchange, who support fair wages and labor conditions for workers in Africa and Latin America).
I found Aph Ko through her essay on Everyday Feminism, “5 Reasons Why Animal Rights are a Feminist Issue”: it’s my go-to link whenever my white meat-eating friends get to talking about misogyny. These essays are satisfyingly cerebral (as is the very concept of two sisters writing essays in response to each other’s essays until there’s a book-length manuscript), and in particular Aph Ko’s “Why Confusion Is Necessary for Our Activism to Evolve” has become a touchstone as I employ these resources in the process of educating myself. When I first read Aphro-Ism I assumed the book would find its primary audience among vegan activists, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. “Seeing that Aphro-ism was written by two Black women (Aph and Syl Ko) that name themselves as being animal rights advocates and anti-racist activists, I gave the book a try,” Sincere Kirabo writes in a must-read piece on The Black Youth Project. “Now I’m rethinking the entire way the defining biases of our society create dehumanizing standards that not only impact me as a Black person, but also extend to animals, inform our food options, and empower the anti-Black food industry…[Aphro-Ism has] pushed me to reassess what I think I know about history and the ways white supremacist standards have informed our culture, the language we use, and what’s become legitimized means of diet and food sources.” A white animal-rights activist who compares animal agriculture to black slavery is never in a million years going to reach a meat-eating social justice activist like Kirabo because white-centric animal-rights advocacy is still plugged into the system it has pledged to dismantle.
Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, edited by Lisa Kemmerer (University of Illinois Press)
“I am one of those many white, middle-class, female vegans whose voices dominate Western animal activism,” Kemmerer writes in the introduction. “My whiteness — my blindness [sic] and ignorance — limits my effectiveness as an activist. Race matters.” Without this realization, our philosophy of kindness is incomplete and therefore complicit. Sister Species includes typically excellent contributions from Tara Sophia Bahna-James (“The Art of Truth-Telling: Theater as Compassionate Action and Social Change”) and Dr. Breeze Harper, who writes in her essay “Connections: Speciesism, Racism, and Whiteness as the Norm”:
“Animal rights activists are often frustrated when animal exploiters become defensive or downright hostile if asked simply to reconsider what they’ve been taught about a ‘normal’ diet, or ‘normal’ reactions to animal suffering. I’m asking you to do the same. And if you are white and/or ‘postracial,’ and become defensive or downright hostile when I ask you to reflect on the effects of ‘whiteness as the norm,’ racialization, and racism on your perceptions, how can you ask others to reconsider — let alone change? How can any of us be exempt from the same critical reflexivity and emotionally difficult self-analysis that we demand from speciesists?”
Anything by Christopher Sebastian McJetters
Christopher Sebastian does not have a book out yet, but I very much hope he is working on one. He has a gift for telling depressing truths in a way that leaves his followers feeling inspired and entertained. “When morning shows et al. want to talk about veganism, imagine if they replaced white vegan pretty boys and unobtrusive white women with black people,” he wrote in a recent Twitter thread. “I mean, just imagine C a C k L i N g while watching these angry, shouty anti-vegan farmers #CHOKE trying to white-splain what’s ‘humane’ to a person who has never been considered fully human.” Read Sebastian’s essays “The Language of Justice” and “Slavery. It’s Still a Thing,” follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and listen to his (relatively) new podcast. (He’s also written some excellent essays on what he terms “radical veganism,” but they’re currently down for revision; I’ll post the links here when they’re live again.)
Thanks to these books and essays, I’ve come a long way from asserting that “going vegan is easy,” because making that claim as a middle-class white person — without explicitly stating that I was writing to a privileged, predominantly white audience — was irresponsible at best. Now I notice immediately when those asked to speak on behalf of farmed animals are disproportionately from privileged groups, or when food is proclaimed “cruelty free” with little if any thought given to the suffering of human laborers. You may have noticed I haven’t used “intersectional” anywhere in this article, and that’s because the word — coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 — has been abused by white people who fundamentally misunderstand it. “Intersectional” is not a synonym for “diverse,” and you can’t apply the term to your activism just because you organized a film screening or demonstration and two or three people from marginalized communities showed up. As Angela Davis recently pointed out, “The term ‘intersectionality’ is expected to do the work that those using it aren’t willing to do.” That said, the difference between considering yourself an ally and actually being an ally is perfectly obvious once you admit you’ve been coasting on white liberal platitudes. So assemble a new TBR pile, friends — and become an ally to every-body.
Stay tuned for part two, in which I’ll cover Claire Jean Kim’s Dangerous Crossings and more essential reading for white vegans. Big thanks to Cina Ibrahimi and Steven Saranga for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.