March 18, 2017
By Jacqueline Souza
Veganism is a microculture that has garnered a significant amount of attention in recent years. Vegetarians account for roughly three percent of the U.S. adult population, and within that percentage, vegans account for about half of a percent. Many choose to modify their diets in order to live more sustainably, but most change so that they can actively protest the animal cruelty that deeply permeates the U.S. meat and dairy industries. Vegan individuals are often incredibly passionate, and rightfully so. However, white people within this food subculture often end up ignoring the opinions and needs of vegans of color, and by doing so, perpetuate racism within this already socioeconomically privileged demographic.
This may seem like a bold claim initially, but the unwavering prioritization of animal liberation should be criticized because of how it manifests throughout the white vegan community. Throughout social media, animal consumption is regularly equated to societal forms of violence and abuse. For example, one popular vegan blog posts an infographic which claims that “Racism = Speciesism = Sexism.” A vegan Twitter account makes the argument that “black lives matter… more than chicken or cow lives, apparently” and another Twitter account posts a cartoon depiction of a black man and a cow side-by-side, each hanging from a tree by a noose, explaining that over the last few decades, “only the victims have changed” in regards to brutality and discrimination. The equation of animal cruelty to the types of discrimination and oppression that Black Americans have experienced is deplorable, but it is present, front-and-center in mainstream vegan culture.
The fact of the matter is, people often go vegan so that they can fight for a cause: the elimination of animal cruelty, and perhaps even the consumption of meat and dairy on a national level. These objectives are well-intended, but the problem stems from the single-issue tunnel vision that white vegans seem to intensely adopt as time wears on. It is estimated that out of the three percent of self-identifying vegetarian and vegan adults within the U.S. population, over sixty percent of those people are white. While a predominant interest in animal liberation is not inherently racist, the unexamined privilege of white vegans allows them to choose animal liberation as their main priority as activists. With that choice comes obliviousness to more socially pressing issues, many of those which affect vegans of color, who strive for visibility in the vegan community. All social movements must have a main objective to be successful and, of course, veganism was intended to directly protest the mistreatment and consumption of animals. However, by ignoring the needs, motivations, and other social priorities of vegans of color, we are pretending that part of our community is nonexistent and unimportant, which does nothing to stop racism within the community.
In order to gain some insight as to the experiences of black vegans in our local community, I reached out to members of a private online Facebook group, Pittsburgh Vegans, which has surpassed over one thousand individual members. Rasheda Davis-Gordon, a black woman aged forty-four, just celebrated her first year as a vegan. Having suffered from obesity, kidney disease, and high blood sugar and cholesterol levels, she decided to go vegan in order to improve her health. “A lot of people of color don’t think they can give up meat and dairy,” she noted, “usually because of geographical location, cost, and lack of access to transportation and education.” While the local vegan community may be strong, she does note its lack of diversity. “People of color are grossly underrepresented [in the community], as most local vegans are young, white, college-age, and very thin.”
So, how do we make veganism more inclusive? How do we amplify the voices of vegans of color who already contribute to the movement? For starters, white vegans, as the majority, need to shift the argument for such a drastic dietary change. In conversation, we must focus on conveying the economic and health benefits of making the switch so that we can appeal to people of all backgrounds. Instead of expecting every person of color to align with the exact priorities of white vegans, we should be making space for them to voice their personal objectives, should they be different than our own. Additionally, white vegans need to recognize that not all oppression is created equal, and while some of us may be able to prioritize animal liberation, we need to keep our eyes open in regards to the oppression of human beings.
Jacqueline Souza is an intern for New People and also studies sociology and journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. She is interested in racial justice, social movements, and U.S. politics.