Does the growing brand of ‘white veganism’ tend to overlook vegans of colour by excluding them from the dominant discourse?
“Eat the rainbow!” we’ve heard numerous dieticians advise — the rainbow, referring to the extensive array of bright and colourful vegetables. But for a concept so colourful, why, then, is veganism so whitewashed?
Despite what media images will have us believe, veganism isn’t just a fad invented for your token white friend. In fact, veganism didn’t emerge from the West at all. Animal rights and cruelty-free living is, undoubtedly, one of the major aspects of ‘white veganism’ — a radical idea originating from developed Western societies, right?
Several major indigenous and religious groups within non-white communities in Asia and South America have been practicing this way of life long before. In India, vegetarianism is expected for Jains and encouraged for Hindus and Buddhists, as these religions disdain violence toward animals. Taoists in China are generally vegetarian or vegan; a Taoist is even credited with the invention of tofu. In Jamaica, the Rastafari follow the Ital diet and generally consume only natural, plant-based foods. The Nation of Islam advocates a vegetarian diet. Groups like The Coptic Christians of Egypt participate in a vegan fast 210 days a year, and Orthodox Ethiopians also fast often, spending up to about eight months a year on a vegan diet.
On the other hand, the meat and dairy industries actually can be traced back to white-settlers, rooted in colonial history. While Latin America’s diet, for example, is considered rather meat-heavy, we must acknowledge the legacy of colonisation behind it. It’s almost entirely traceable to the conquest and the process of Spanish colonisation, as is the cultural, social, and even gendered significance attached to such consumption.
The expansion of the commodification of animals as an industry in Latin America is also rooted in the same legacy. Through this commodification, dairy also became a huge industry in colonial Spain. This is often willfully ignored in Western vegan societies.
Western plant-based accounts also often omit or forget to nod at the origins of some of their favourite foods — legumes, yams, rice, quinoa, chia seeds, tofu — and who cultivate them. Moreover, they perpetuate racial stereotypes by touting reductive recipes such as ‘Asian veggie stir-fry’ or ‘African peanut soup’.
What’s more dangerous than white-appropriated plant-based eating, however, is that white veganism is ignorant of the blatantly exploitative working conditions of farmers from the global South, or immigrant farmers working in the global North. While some white vegans put in the effort to purchase only locally produced goods from independent farmers, there is no general conversation regarding race and the colonial nature of plant-based mass production surrounding white eco-warriors’ campaigns en masse.
Indigenous farms and farmers the world over are now being profited off for foods they once produced and consumed moderately, as per their sacred agreements with their lands. Plants like chickpeas, quinoa, avocado, cashews and coconuts are suddenly being mass-produced to meet the demands of corporate supermarkets, supplying foods such as hummus, cashew butter and coconut milk to modern-day northern hemisphere consumerists. This has a devastating effect on the price of said plants, the welfare of the farmers and inhabitants of the land, and the land itself.
Moreover, Western-imposed ‘solutions’ to global environmental crises, such as bans on overfishing and hunting, are extremely threatening to indigenous traditional practices and food security. The seal product trade ban, for example, imposed by the EU in 2009 was strongly opposed by the Canadian Inuit community. Very few people outside of the Arctic understand how important the seal is in the preservation of this community.
Besides, seals are not an endangered species. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the seal population is healthy and abundant. None of the seals hunted commercially are at risk, and are indeed listed by CITES as a species of least concern. While there is undoubtedly a problem surrounding overfishing and hunting across the world, to brand all hunting as ‘unethical’ is nothing but a modern-day manifestation of an imperialist mindset.
So is white veganism truly the flagbearer of radical sustainability and animal rights? Or does it simply come charging in on a moral high horse, imposing beliefs that veganism is the only way forward, overlooking the truth: that the white popularisation of plant-based consumption is only shifting unethical food production from meat to plants.
While shifting to a more inclusive world, where veganism is being adopted by more BIPOC — even pop star Lizzo has come out as vegan, coupling her new diet with the body positivity movement and racial justice — it is important to note the intersectionality between veganism and race. When white vegans insist on avoiding a racialised lens, they actually underscore veganism’s racialised nature. White is a race, too, and protecting its supremacy in a social movement is a political act with consequences. Veganism is, unfortunately, not ‘colour blind’.
It is important to take note of the fact that any concern for animals and environmental rights that comes at the cost of the welfare of non-white peoples around the world makes veganism a purely performative form of activism. The imposition of personal choice, however well-intentioned and admirable it may be, on indigenous people and people of colour, makes veganism a form of cultural colonialism.
And most importantly, ecological reform cannot come about while being ignorant towards the fact that there can be no reform without decolonisation. Such fundamental healing requires the dismantling of a system that disproportionately affects non-white communities in the developing world.