The Fight for a Truly Ethical Vegan Future
Tenderly’s interview with writer, speaker, and diversity consultant A. Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper doesn’t list “soothsayer” among her qualifications, but she very well could. Ten years ago, the writer, speaker, and diversity consultant foretold the evolution of the plant-based food industry. She saw a future of Silicon Valley-esque technological innovation, an often one-dimensional understanding of “cruelty-free,” and the potential for building a cutting-edge industry on a foundation of ages-old inequality. Since then, she’s been actively working against these forces in an effort to realize a future that’s ethical in every sense of the word.
In 2009, Dr. Harper edited the anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, which elevated a unique perspective on veganism and illuminated the connections between Black feminism, nutrition, ecological sustainability, and social injustice. She now runs a consulting and strategic planning business for diversity, equity, and inclusion, offering trainings and workshops to businesses, nonprofits, and individuals.
A common thread throughout her work is the push to question what we’ve been taught and what we know to be true. She encourages us to ask: What is our personal relationship to food? What does “ethical” really mean? Who benefits from a skyrocketing infusion of cash into the plant-based and sustainability sectors? What separates unhealthy from healthy, illegal from legal? (As she puts it, “Why was it ‘weed’ and now it’s ‘cannabis’?”)
Her new book-in-progress, Seeds of Sankofa, imagines an even more dystopian future than the one she predicted 10 years ago. But Dr. Harper believes it’s not one we have to succumb to. She points to fellow critical theorists Aph and Syl Ko, and to organizations like the Food Empowerment Project and Food First, as forward-thinking leaders in the intersectional vegan and food justice movements. And with an awareness of our power, privilege, and other forces at play, she believes all of us can fight for a more just future and the liberation of every oppressed being — nonhuman and human alike.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you first get involved in veganism? What galvanized your activism?
Dr. A. Breeze Harper: In 2004, I was diagnosed with fibroid tumors in my uterus. One of my colleagues saw that I was underneath my desk, kind of crumpled and moaning. I said I had really bad fibroid tumors, which makes my period really horrible. She [said], “You have to check out Queen Afua’s work.” She gave me her book, and it was an Afrocentric plant-based diet for mostly people dealing with reproductive health issues. [It says] the industrialized diet — the foods that we eat — are not foods as medicine, and a lot of these things that happen to your body are the consequences of what she calls nutritional racism, and the consequences of Black people being enslaved and not being given access to what they really need to thrive. Five hundred years later, it looks like higher amounts of fibroid tumors among Black women, [and] all these other different ailments that could be combated with nutrition.
I got interested in how this whole system of oppression goes beyond race and gender. The United States is kind of ecocidal. They’ve normalized the oppression and the consumption of animals.
It expanded my knowledge and my questioning. [I thought], If I was taught this lie in junior high that you start your period, it’s going to hurt, [and] you take ibuprofen, but no one told me anything else, then what other lies have I been taught? I start[ed] researching more about plant-based diets, beyond just as a nutritional thing, at the same time that I’m interested in Black feminism and understanding the consequences of systemic racism on Black people. I got interested in how this whole system of oppression goes beyond race and gender. The United States is kind of ecocidal. They’ve normalized the oppression and the consumption of animals. I read The Dreaded Comparison, I read Eternal Treblinka, in tandem with Queen Afua’s work and Dick Gregory’s work. So making those connections: That’s what veganism is, but what does that look like for someone like myself, who’s interested in antiracism?
Since you first became aware of these interconnected issues, the plant-based food industry has really taken off. One thing I’m conscious of, as a vegan and a consumer of those products, is that these plant-based or vegan businesses might perpetuate other systems of oppression in the pursuit of profit. Like, you might not be hurting nonhuman animals, but maybe your leadership is only men or you have poor working conditions where your product is made.
That’s a central question that I focus on, the question of capitalism. If you understand the history of capitalism, it relies on exploitation and systemic racism, poverty, sexism. There is this assumption that if you just have the right “ethical products” that are plant-based, then that’s going to save humanity, save the planet. But of course, whether it’s green capitalism or not, capitalism is capitalism. If you also look at the history of technocracy, it has always privileged that one percent.
I have this burning question for this movement: How can you prevent that when you’ve been invested in that capitalist model for so long? Is green capitalism using plant-based products really the future, or is that just the continu[ation of] a historical past? There are ways to prevent it, but those who are fully invested in it, do they really want to prevent it? Because it could mean that they lose that financial privilege.
If you understand the history of capitalism, it relies on exploitation and systemic racism, poverty, sexism. There is this assumption that if you just have the right “ethical products” that are plant-based, then that’s going to save humanity, save the planet. But of course, whether it’s green capitalism or not, capitalism is capitalism.
A lot of my work looks at the vegan commodity chain and how capitalism still uses exploitation to make that happen. [Food startups] are not interested when I say, “Great, this is plant-based, but if you’re sourcing ingredients from exploited labor, how is that the future and how is that equitable? How is that cruelty-free?” They’ve never actually been on the plantation, so when they start creating that plant-based product, they’re coming from that privileged side of the consumer, not the exploited who’s extracting the ingredients.
I started doing my work as a Ph.D. student 10 years ago, where I really started looking at the vegan commodity chain, and this concept of cruelty-free and how it was marketed. And I was like, this is dangerous. I can actually see this creating plant-based products of the future, but there is still the one percent, there is still uneven distribution of power and resources along the lines of race, class, and gender that have existed since colonialism. You can have a completely vegan world and still have the same systems of power in place. Granted, maybe nonhuman animals would no longer be affected the way they are now, but you can easily have a vegan world with white supremacy. No one’s talking about that. It’s all about [how] green marketing [and] plant-based diets are the future of sustainability — but for who?
Okay, so say we’re now asking these questions and aware of the trappings of capitalism and we want to make more conscious choices. How can someone do that, while acknowledging there are limitations? How can we be the “best” consumers?
I start with myself, recognizing that I am in this privileged space as someone who is lower-middle class living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I talk about the subject of choice in voting with your dollars as privilege. So, what can you do within your reality of the privileges, or lack thereof? [Don’t] engage in any guilting or shaming of yourself or others if you don’t meet some expectation that you read about. How can you meet yourself where you are? How can you educate yourself with the resources that you have, and make the best decisions that you can within your own material reality?
It’s a continuum, there’s never overnight perfection. As long as you’re always working toward and educating yourself, being gentle with yourself, understanding that the choices you’re making are often within particular confines.
It may be that [you] want to stop buying so much packaged food, and maybe several times a week [you] start transitioning to bulk items. Maybe I’ll try to bike more if I can, versus using my car all the time. It’s a continuum, there’s never overnight perfection. As long as you’re always working toward and educating yourself, being gentle with yourself, understanding that the choices you’re making are often within particular confines. I grew up working class, but we were never food insecure, so this is also from [that] perspective. It’s often helpful for people to find support with those who have similar backgrounds. If someone has been food insecure or is food insecure, then maybe ask those who have similar experiences but were able to go forward on that continuum toward making change. Find a community of people who have similar experiences and figure out how to hack it.
Based on your own experience with fibroid tumors, it seems like another thing people can do is just start thinking about their own personal relationship to food and what they’ve been taught about it.
It never occurred to me if I ate lots of sugar and chocolate in the morning in college, it would be inflammatory and would cause me to bleed really strongly, and probably increase the size of the fibroid tumors I didn’t know I had. Just the awareness and making that connection is transformative. Also, one of the most important things one could do is really understanding or knowing your history, your people’s history, and how colonialism affected you, whether you’re the privileged or not. That’s really important, that people are not disconnected — at least in the United States — from where their food comes from, how food affects their health.
[O]ne of the most important things one could do is really understanding or knowing your history, your people’s history, and how colonialism affected you, whether you’re the privileged or not.
Gaining critical thinking about what is “healthy.” Why was I taught that body mass index is something that is scientific, when actually [its history is] racist and sexist? Who taught me that healthy is this or that? Even questioning MSG [monosodium glutamate] and the history of why was MSG “bad” — [how] it was connected to the “invasion” of Asians coming to the United States. A lot of people ask me, “Is tofu really bad? Is tofu going to mess up hormones and make me effeminate?” There’s so much happening in that — transphobia, xenophobia. Know the history: how colonialism has labeled certain people [and] food to colonize your mind and disconnect you from your own history.
You edited the anthology “Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society,” which was published in 2009. What are you working on now?
I have a new book I’m working on called Seeds of Sankofa, a social fiction based on everything we’re talking about. [The] book looks at this African American woman protagonist in the San Francisco Bay Area — it’s an Afrofuturistic novel — where she’s communicating about 250 years into the future with a young Black woman who is on a colonized planet. You learn that thousands of Black and brown people were transported to a newly terraformed planet because of the dying of planet Earth to start growing and harvesting hemp. The global west and north have become completely plant-based, but things have not really changed. They’re still exploiting brown and Black people.
It takes place now, 2019, and she’s communicating through dreams with this 16-year-old on this plantation, learning about the consequences of relying on technology, being post-racial, this whole cannabis industry, and other plant-based items. What would happen if we had this plant-based future that’s supposedly sustainable that still relies on capitalism and all of the racism and -isms embedded in keeping that alive?
Hopefully, we can work to avoid a terrifying future like that one. What gives you hope for our movement?
I’ve seen those that were historically disenfranchised moving into more powerful roles, especially in terms of technology. We’re seeing books like Algorithms of Oppression coming out, we’re seeing books that really tackle the “New Jim Code” — understanding what these racialized consequences are when we’re talking about technology. I’m seeing that as hope.
No matter how grim it may seem, I tell people that you still need to fight. It doesn’t matter what the outcome will be — fight in any way that you can.