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  • Writer's pictureKeneisha Charles

A Recipe for Reimagining Mainstream Veganism

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

Various fresh vegetables and spices in glass bowls on a wooden table.

Photo by Angele J from Pexels

The current veganism conversation consists of tofu, graphic imagery of animal abuse, and documentaries like Cowsirpacy and Earthlings. It’s a conversation of fear, guilt, and individualization that leaves out mentions of capitalism, colonization, and white supremacy, and their effects on people, animals and the planet

Drawing strongly on the work of Reign, the Black vegan founder of Afro Liberated Taste (@AfroLiberatedTaste), here are the five key ways mainstream veganism fails certain marginalized groups and how we can begin the process of doing better.

Cultural Appropriation

Despite veganism’s whitewashed mainstream representations, BIPOC communities strongly engage in veganism. Black people are actually the fastest-growing demographic of plant-based consumers in the United States.

It’s more than jumping on a new trend too. As Reign states, “BIPOC communities have passed down plant-based cultural staples (e.g. rice, beans, plantains, lentils, jackfruit) for generations. Yet white folks are praised and rewarded for creating plant-based versions of foods that already were.”

White folks have taken plant-based traditions and removed them from their socio-cultural contexts—a process known as cultural appropriation. Not only have these traditions been co-opted, but they’ve also been profited off of through YouTube channels, cookbooks, brand deals, and more.

For example, Reign cites, “‘Thug Kitchen’, owned by a wealthy white couple, profited off of AAVE, vegan soul food recipes, and digital Blackface for nearly a decade before changing their name this year to ‘Bad Manners’. Yet Black bodies marked as ‘thugs’ experience threats to life.”

However, whitewashing renders these issues largely invisible in mainstream veganism, limiting serious discussion and action on the theft of Black and Indigenous food knowledge.

Fatphobia, Diet Culture, & Beauty Standards

Eurocentrism and fatphobia in veganism are key issues that often go unaddressed within the veganism movement.

“Achieving a lean body or fighting off disease is often a selling point of veganism. While incorporating plant-based options is associated with lower body weight and can have health benefits, we can share information without policing food or surveilling larger bodies,” Reign writes.

The fatphobia within veganism is rooted in anti-Blackness. As Reign explains, Black folks were marked by their “insatiable appetites” that contrasted the supposed self-control and restricted food intake of white women. “Self-control” was a “virtue” that maintained white people’s (especially white women’s) Christian nature and racial superiority.

Anti-Blackness continues through modern measures like the Body Mass Index (BMI) supposedly used as a marker of ideal weight for optimal health. In reality, the BMI was based solely on white Western European men, was used to justify eugenics, and was designed by someone with no medical background with the purpose of statistics, not individual health.

Most pertinently during the COVID-19 pandemic, we see double standards for BIPOC around food consumption and body size. This is evident “from blaming food practices in China to ‘pre-existing conditions’ which lack nuance in addressing government response and who can afford to stay home and receive medical care,” Reign expands.

Veganism’s complacency in weaponizing Eurocentric beauty standards and diet culture, especially against BIPOC, is a significant issue.

Ableism, Inaccessibility, & Classism

Veganism is not a level playing field. Food deserts, time management, and perfectionism are all barriers that prevent veganism from being accessible to many people, especially BIPOC.

“Poor Black and Brown communities are most likely to live in areas where there is limited access to fresh, nutrient-dense food,” Reign explains. Not only this, but “major grocery stores frequented by middle-class vegans (e.g. Whole Foods) have become markers of gentrification that raise property values of homes and small businesses and eventually push original communities out.”

There’s also often a lack of engagement with the time required to live a vegan lifestyle. “A single mom taking public transportation, on food stamps, living paycheck to paycheck, etc. doesn’t navigate food choices the same way as suburban married white women,” Reign explains. “How can we expect overworked and underpaid working-class people to rise up to an unrealistic expectation that doesn’t address these systemic issues?”

Finally, the pursuit of perfectionism within veganism is a barrier. “Food and healthshaming is a common (ableist) practice, especially towards chronically-ill persons, people with allergies, etc. Veganism has been touted as a cure-all and therefore people with different abilities and bodily experiences may face criticism that they just aren’t doing veganism the ‘right way’. That if they just stopped taking medications and ate organic, they’d be healed.”

Saying that “anyone can do it” may have an encouraging intent, but a harmful and ableist impact that renders invisible the challenges and unique experiences of many.

Anti-Black Racism

The vegan movement isn’t free from complicity in white supremacy and anti-Blackness. One way it’s perpetuated in the movement is through food policing. Reign describes vegan food policing as “typically involv[ing] nitpicking food choices that don’t adhere to a (subjective) set of standards for what is considered acceptable and ethical consumption.” This could take the form of giving people unwanted “advice” or criticising someone for eating a certain food.

However, this policing is not applied equally within the movement. As Reign explains, “perfectionism, as a manifestation of white supremacy, is more likely to be put on racialized groups who are already simultaneously invisible and hypervisible in vegan spaces and whose cultural proximity to food are constantly monitored and critiqued.”

As Reign further explains, “this can also be a symptom of a white saviour complex. Black folks in particular, are subject to the narrative that they are less informed about their food choices and therefore white western culture and it’s actors must intervene to make sure they are doing vegan the ‘right way’.”

Trauma porn is another area in which anti-Blackness surfaces in the vegan movement. Reign describes trauma porn as “media that uses representations of pain and suffering of a group to solicit emotional responses or ‘shock value’.” Vegan activists often use graphic imagery of violence against animals in order to encourage people to go vegan.

Its effectiveness as a tactic is contested, as it relies on evoking guilt, shame, and blame. Its most significant criticism is that it once again blames individuals (especially working-class people) instead of systems.

Where trauma porn becomes anti-Black racism is in mainstream veganism’s often comparisons of the brutalization of Black people during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the treatment of animals in the meat industry. It pushes the idea of a post-race society—that is, that “the dehumanization of Black people is a thing of the past and that of animals is still present,” as Reign explains. Plainly, “[this] is racist when Black people have never been granted full humanity and are still fighting for it.”

More than this, Reign explains how trauma porn “reaffirms which bodies are justified in their exploitation (even in death). Black and animal bodies are the few subjects permitted to be shared in this way, especially via social and traditional media.”

Paired with mainstream veganism’s overall lack of engagement with race beyond a comparison with nonhuman animals, this creates a movement environment in which Black people are effectively told to leave their Blackness at the door. White supremacy as a driver of exploitation is ignored as animal rights are upheld as a single issue in the vegan movement.

Reign asks: “Where does this leave Black vegans who must navigate the complexities of not being ‘treated like an animal’ in a violently racist system AND seeing non-human animals as being worthy of protection with a shared oppressor when the vegan community insists that they only choose one?”

Colonization, Industrialized Food Systems, & Individualism

Underlying most of these critiques of mainstream veganism is one central theme: pinning the problem on individuals instead of looking at systems. Many choose a vegan lifestyle to combat climate change. While it’s undeniable that veganism often does reduce one’s carbon footprint, the narrative that individual actions are the solution is harmful.

It’s rooted in western, colonial notions of individualism. As Reign explains, “we’ve been sold the lie that our individual decisions will be what saves us from the current climate crisis. BIPOC folks are expected to practice personal responsibility by shopping green instead of confronting the nearly 100 companies that contribute 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases.”

It’s not meat that is inherently unsustainable. This ignores the thousand-year histories of Indigenous peoples who lived sustainably while consuming meat. It’s our industrialized food system that creates unsustainability. The problem is the tightly interwoven oppressions of colonization, capitalism, and white supremacy.

Corporations have played a strong role in diverting attention away from these systemic issues and instead encouraging people to individualize issues like climate change. As more people become conscious of climate change, corporations engage in the marketing tactic of greenwashing—engaging in behaviours to appear “eco-friendly” without doing the real work, in order to make more money.

As Reign explains, “companies are producing plant-based foods at inaccessible price points and are often owned by major corporations with longstanding histories of environmental issues like Conagra Foods and Kraft.”

In individualizing instead of focusing on systems, mainstream veganism becomes what Mexican-American digital creator Quetzalcóatl terms “a by-product of colonization”.

“When colonizers came, they thought Indigenous foods were ‘subpar’ so they began to import domestic animals and food crops from their homelands. One of the tools of colonization is the disruption of Indigenous food systems. An example of this is the killing of Buffalo to make the Native Americans dependent on the colonizer’s food supply,” he explains.

In our blog post “Foodspiracy: Unsustainability, Oppression, and the Global Food System”, we talk more about this history and colonization.

He continues to explain:

“In the same way, veganism is the next phase of creating food dependence. It is not an idea born of connection and integration with the land, but of extreme disconnection from the natural world. We can see this by searching ‘easiest places to be vegan’. You will get a list of cities because cities is what makes this lifestyle possible. The closer you get to the natural world and food sovereignty, the more this illusion falls apart and the more conscious omnivory becomes the law of the land.”

Quetzalcóatl brings up a key concept here: Indigenous food sovereignty. Check out our blog post on global food systems for more on this.

His final statement sums up the key message:

“All industrialized food systems are out of balance and choosing one over another is creating a false narrative, especially for those of us that want to participate in the ecology.”

If we don’t change our systems, veganism can continue to perpetuate climate change, exploitation, and the other issues that we fight against. Deforestation for cattle grazing will turn into deforestation for soy. Mass carbon emissions for importing meat products will turn into carbon emissions for importing out-of-season produce. Labour exploitation will continue throughout each step of the system.

For veganism to be truly sustainable, it needs to be more than simply divestment from the meat industry. It must be thinking critically about our colonial, capitalist, and white supremacist systems and working to co-create more sustainable ways of being.

9 Ways to Reimagine Veganism

There’s no one solution to these issues within veganism, and this article only provided a slim snapshot of the picture. However, here are some places you can start.

1. Think systemically, not individually

Continue to learn about how the oppressive systems of capitalism, colonization, and white supremacy intersect climate change and the other issues you seek to combat through veganism. Individual actions won’t take us all the way. Continue to think and take action against systems, not each other.

2. Engage with the story of your food

Where does your food come from? How does it fit within the industrialized global food system? What is its history? Who produced this food? How can you contribute and align to their struggles against systemic oppression? For example, much of our food in Canada is produced by migrant workers whose struggles against racism and sexism we can align ourselves with and support (check out the Migrant Rights Network).

As Reign explains, “we have to honor those most impacted by and connected to our food systems. From migrant farmers to those whose recipes came out of survival against white supremacist imperalist oppression. Food holds history and we have to prioritize the storytellers of those histories.”

3. Rethink your usage of “intersectional veganism”

It might be tempting to take up the term intersectional to describe how your veganism implicates multiple oppressions like racism and capitalism. However, it’s important to be intentional about the language we use to ensure we aren’t co-opting other struggles. Check out this Instagram thread by Reign (@AfroLiberatedTaste) on the topic.

4. Address accessibility in your vegan activism

As Reign writes, “while adopting a vegan diet is an individual act, systemic racism and classism contribute to whether it is accessible and sustainable. Instead of pushing veganism as an easy switch, we should be looking at what factors make it easier for some groups and not for others.”

5. Learn about and centre community care

Veganism can be a powerful way for one to maintain their health and wellness. But as Reign says, “health is more than food, it’s our right to affordable housing, medical care, and to live free from a racist, capitalist society. Community care is what will see us through, and there’s no care in white supremacy culture.”

6. Emphasize appreciation and expect mistakes

Don’t perpetuate white supremacy through food policing and perfectionism in the vegan movement. Instead, do as Reign suggests and “appreciate progress and value effort, especially towards those transitioning or curious about veganism.” As they continue to say, “Know that including elements of veganism and feeling balanced is better than being guilted into a fully vegan lifestyle.”

7. Appreciate instead of appropriate other cultures than your own

Reign offers three suggestions on how this can be achieved:

  • “Purchase directly from BIPOC businesses

  • Pay BIPOC folks to create special menu items or do a pop up at your venue instead of basing your ENTIRE brand off a culture that ain’t yours

  • Stop exoticizing food from other cultures and overcharging them”

8. Follow the leadership of Black and Indigenous communities

As Reign explains, “the truth is that Black and Indigenous communities overwhelmingly have cared for our planet and know how to solve this [the climate] crisis. Until we mandate their leadership in the climate movement, corporations will continue to steal, whitewash, and destroy our planet.”

This article would not be possible without the scholarship and labour of Reign, founder of Afro Liberated Taste. Support them by following them on Instagram (@AfroLiberatedTaste), paying them reparations if you have the means to (Venmo/Cashapp @AfroLiberatedTaste), or booking them for speaking or consulting engagements.

9. Foster a shared commitment to growth with those around you

This article presents only a snapshot of all the complex issues that intersect with veganism. Commit to learning more and taking action from there. As Reign writes, “ignoring systemic barriers to healthcare, housing, and other factors & using shame towards BIPOC communities for their cultural relationships to food is racist.” Work with your networks to continue engaging with capitalism, racism, colonization, and the other oppressions that are intrinsically linked to veganism.

It’s only through consciously organizing and co-creating community that the veganism movement can begin to truly work to transform our food systems to be more sustainable and ethical.

Keneisha wears rectangular glasses, a blue cardigan with a yellow top underneath. They wear gold hoops, a necklace with a cowrie pendant and their hair up in a yellow headwrap.

Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.

Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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