decolonizing veganism to make it more accessible and less racist

November 1, 2017
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By Gloria Oladipo* / WearYourVoice Mag, AFROPUNK contributor

Give people of color space to care for themselves, deal with the hurdles life provides, and to generally live their goddamn lives compared to exerting the constant pressure of joining a movement that, so far, doesn’t seem to care about them.

Brace yourself: I am proud vegan. But, not that proud. While I recognize and appreciate the value of veganism in a world rampant with increased health ailments and environmental crises, veganism remains a fairly inaccessible and ‘white’ movement.

An introspective veganism movement, one with a more inclusive focus, is critical. It will be hard to reform veganism, but it can be done. Many tangible efforts can be made to create a more encompassing veganism movement for all:

Cooking “cultural” vegan food

For many cultures, meat tends to be a prominent ingredient. This can make efforts to reduce people’s reliance on meat seem an appropriation of ethnic recipes. To counteract this, it’s important that trying to “veganize” ethnic recipes comes from people of that ethnicity compared to white vegans trying to “spread the good word”.

For example, there are clear differences between a white-owned vegan soul food restaurant opening up in Harlem compared to a black-owned version opening up in Chicago’s Southside: one is a classic case of “culture vultures” while the other is a move towards a more sustainable and healthy way of eating supported by community members.

Additionally, it is key to remind people who talk about the cultural centricity of meat that non-meat eating cultures do exist. Jainism, an ancient religion from India focused on harmlessness as a means of liberation, Hinduism, and Buddhism are just a few groups that don’t eat meat and instead promote plant-based diets.

Making produce more accessible

A major tenet of veganism is a renewed focus on a plant-based. However, for those who live in a food desert, an occurrence that happens in mostly minority communities, constantly buying fruits and vegetables can be near impossible. It is important that vegans take an active interest in trying to make produce more accessible by supporting community gardens and encouraging similar initiatives.

Groups such as Growing Power, a nonprofit based in Milwaukee, WI with an active Chicago office, has started many programs in Chicago that bring gardening into vulnerable communities and engage residents in the growing and buying process. Growing Power and groups like it are always looking for volunteers and funding — needs that vegans can and should meet.

(“Where my people at?”) Feature more vegans of color

Usually, when one imagines a vegan, the most prominent visualization is a preppy, skinny white girl preaching about the need for a raw, organic, all-natural, gluten-free, juice pressed diet. Having this narrative centered in the vegan movement keeps people of color out and acts as a convenient erasure of vegans of color all together. Vegans need to make sure that people know vegans of color do exist. Vegans of color seldom get featured in conferences or popularized by popular vegan blogs and even when they do, they are featured as tokens of “we’re not racist — look, black people”.

It is important that white vegans genuinely attempt to feature and showcase vegans of color and the intersectional message that they provide. Vegans of color such as Lauren Ornelas, founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, Dr. A Breeze Harper, founder of Sistah Vegan, and Liz Ross, founder of Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color, are all amazing vegans of color who are also fighting in different realms of social justiceThese examples and more show that there are (gasp) non-white vegans. Center us more.

People of Color go through a lot—acknowledge that

Often the strategy vegan groups use to recruit more members is a rather aggressive “go vegan or die” method. Generally, this is a poor strategy when trying to get new members period, but this is an even worse move when trying to recruit people of color.

For people of color dealing with racial violence systematically and interpersonally everyday, veganism can emerge as the last thing on people’s mind. It is important that white vegans stop adopting a zero sum approach to recruitment (i.e. you’re either with vegans or against vegans). Give people of color space to care for themselves, deal with the hurdles life provides, and to generally live their goddamn lives compared to exerting the constant pressure of joining a movement that, so far, doesn’t seem to care about them.

Avoid using language which compares chattel slavery to the current meat industry. Not only is it racist, but it dehumanizes African Americans and creates a very real and valid reason for us to distrust you.

In line with this, white vegans need to show up for people of color — attending protests, community meetings, and other social justice events that people of color organize to claim their humanity. Take an active interest in the victory and struggles of people of color compared to using them to fill quotas.

There you have it. Let’s expand the movement. If white vegans want veganism to have a chance of having a lasting role in the future, it is key to improve the movement now, opening it up for all.

For people of color interested in exploring vegetarianism or veganism, there are a number of great resources to get you started:

  • Food Empowerment Project: A non-profit focused on food empowerment and different intersections of ethical eating including abuse towards animals and workers rights.
  • Vegan Richa: A vegan food blog showcasing various delicious recipes
  • African-American Vegan Starter Guide: A free starter guide specifically for African-Americans interested in veganism
  • The Sistah Vegan Project: A blog exploring ethical food practices through intersectional feminist perspective
  • Black Vegans Rock: A website showcasing the work of various black vegans while providing a number of resources for those interested in a plant-based diet
  • Vegan Voices of Color: A website that explores the issues surrounding the veganism movement and the importance of centering intersectionality

This post is in partnership with WearYourVoiceMag.

*Gloria Oladipo is a vegan woman of color and freshman at Cornell University. Based in Chicago, IL