A Black Vegetarian (Gasp!)

We need to acknowledge the intersectionality of our social justice movements.

Many of the vegetarian/vegan vs. anti-veg arguments on the internet seem to forget a couple things and are frustratingly reductive of vegans/vegetarians and the cause of animal rights.

As a queer black person who also doesn’t have the money to blow on expensive vegan cheeses and faux meat products, I constantly feel that queer and POC perspectives are omitted from these discussions — or, when our communities are acknowledged, they are used merely for misdirection away from the topic of animal rights.

“Why do you care about animal rights more than human rights?”

The alternative “Why do you care about animals when black people are facing problems?” falls along the same lines. I see these types of questions posed to vegans a lot on the internet.

First of all, if you only bring up the need to fight racism or sexism or heterosexism when you’re arguing with a vegan, you probably don’t care all that much about these human oppressions. If you aren’t trying to educate yourself about the various oppressive -isms and talk to people (or read the work of said people) who have lived experiences with the above systems of oppression, you’re just trying to distract from the issue of animal rights.

Additionally, marginalized communities don’t exist for the purpose of providing you with a convenient argument. It’s insulting; don’t do it.

However, if you genuinely feel that caring about animal suffering takes too much energy away from fighting the social injustices that humans face, I can assure you that it doesn’t. As a person of multiple marginalized identities and belief systems, I would simply explode with the stress of caring about too many activist causes if this were true. I dont only have to focus on Black Lives Matter or feminism or atheist activism or LGBTQ+ rights, and leaving any of those activist causes out would make me feel incomplete because they all affect my life on a daily basis.

If you are engaging in the type of “but don’t you care about humans?” deflection, please remember that intersectionality is a thing and that people can focus their time, attention, and energy on multiple causes. Caring about any of the above is not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite: They’re very intricately woven together. (Explaining these connections is an altogether different post!)

“Veganism is extreme.”

So was every other position that led to societal progress. Remember when the notion that black people are people or the idea that women are people was super radical?

A lot of people say that you can’t equate those things with animal rights. There’s a couple things that I want to address here.

I’m not saying that vegan activism is the same as or equals other kinds of activism. However, forms of oppression are interconnected and based on the idea of a heirarchy where certain beings are more important than others and a system that, by its nature, requires some to be at the very bottom.

I am drawing lines between different struggles, but I’m not equating them.

Additionally, when I’m talking about animal rights, I’m focused on the problem of factory farming and the idea that humans, as some kind of “supreme” species, “deserve” to use, consume, and abuse animals.

As Syl at the Vegan Feminist Network explains, people in “dire straits” situations, wherever they happen to live, are not the concern of vegan activism. Rather, Syl points out that vegan activism should be concerned with the “consumption narrative,” the idea that humans have a right to consume and use the bodies of animals. This is an idea that is entrenched in society and has nothing to do with survival situations.

“Animal rights activists are rude/pushy/annoying.”

We do need to be sensitive about how we advocate.

For the millionth time, I’m going to say what thousands of vegetarians and vegans have said before, which is that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) does not represent all of us. No one elected them to be the leaders of our movement, and they aren’t.

People are regularly enraged by PETA’s sexist campaigns that rely on exploiting women’s bodies as sex objects (and normalizing sexual violence), and it’s disturbing that many of their ads initially feel like softcore porn before the viewer picks out the message. I certainly don’t like their campaigns and am deeply disappointed that a group dedicated to ending one form of oppression actively engages in other forms of oppression.

We don’t need to garner support for exploited animals by comparing animal suffering and factory farming to sexy women who volunteered to be put in cages. We don’t need to play at exploitation of women, a group that is still marginalized. And no, the hasty and not-well-thought-out comparisons of animal factory farming to American slavery or the Jewish Holocaust don’t work as arguments either.

Unfortunately the most vocal and visible vegan activists — I mean you, PETA — are upsetting to a majority of people, and it’s the only experience most people have with veganism and animal rights. Fortunately, there are many smaller grassroots organizations that advocate in more sensible, respectful ways. For more approachable (and intersectional!) sources on veganism, check out Vegan Feminist Network, Aphro-Ism, Intersectional Vegan, and The Sistah Vegan Project.

“Veganism is elitist/classist.”

I’ll give you that, but it really doesn’t have to be, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of people have made it seem this way.

As a vegan and vegetarian at different points in my life, I distinctly remember finding recipes that looked interesting only to feel dejected when I realized that it called for copious amounts of pine nuts or some essence of a tropical fruit — neither items that were affordable or available in my small rural town!

As a teenager, I remember scanning the pages of a popular glossy vegan magazine only to feel disappointed and annoyed with their recommendations for $67 vegan skin creams, expensive snacks, and a large travel section that advocated visiting far-away places that I knew I’d never have the money to visit. Looking back on it, I can’t help but feel that this magazine never had people of my socioeconomic status in mind.

However, actually being vegan doesn’t have to be as expensive as some recipe suggestions would lead one to believe, and you don’t have to have an elitist attitude about it. Whole grains and legumes are perhaps the most humble and affordable foods on the planet and are staples in the vegan diet. At the same time, I don’t want to push the idea, as so many others do, that fresh fruits and vegetables are super cheap or accessible. Not everyone lives near a farmer’s market, and unfortunately food deserts exist. I don’t always feel like I can afford or find a good apple or bag of spinach.

Additionally, not everyone has the privilege of being able to cook their own food or cook from scratch. There should be absolutely no judgment there. It’s easy to say “go vegan” when you don’t understand others’ living situations or income levels, and I don’t want to add to that.

If we really want to dig deeper into the issue of the availability of affordable healthy vegetarian foods, we get into the socioeconomic issues that disproportionately plague communities of color. (See: intersectionality!)

Every vegan is not white and upper-middle class even though people of this group are the majority of the movement and are therefore the most visible. However, there are plenty of vegans who don’t fit this stereotype. A quick Google search will reveal people like Dr. Breeze Harper, creator of The Sistah Vegan Project, and others who advocate for a more intersectional approach to activism.

Animal rights can certainly stand on its own as a worthwhile cause without relating animal suffering back to human suffering in a what’s-in-it-for-me kind of attitude — much in the same way that feminism is valid without needing to explain how the patriarchy hurts men.

However, I also think that it is irresponsible activism not to address other oppressive -isms within one’s own activist community. For instance, classist ideas and white privilege, though perhaps unintentional in their manifestations, can put some people off of vegan activism. After all, one can’t examine and correct what one isn’t aware of, and priviledge acts in a way that blinds the one who has it.

In the future, I would love to see this more inclusive and aware veganism embraced by the larger community, as it’s really the only way that our message about animal rights will reach more people. Inviting other considerations into the vegan movement will not weaken it but only make it stronger.

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