White Privilege & Veganism: The Luxury of Being Single-Issue

Looking back on the day I became a vegan, I realize I was already unconsciously undergoing a process of political radicalization. I had been introduced to activism through learning about the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in the U.S. As I started to dig deeper into these problems, I had a disorienting wake-up call in which I realized that the War on Drugs wasn’t its own separate problem, and that, in fact, there are no “separate” problems. All the problems we face are parts of a whole interconnected system of oppression. We in the USA live within a mainstream value system in which structural ableism, racism, sexism, cis gender privilege, heterosexism, and classism are the norm—and all these forms of discrimination intersect. Upon this discovery, I felt like I was becoming “enlightened.” I started to see oppression everywhere—in the media, in my textbooks, in my own language and that of my friends—and it made me sick.

We are sitting on land that was violently stolen from indigenous people and built largely by enslaved Africans—and this is the foundation of our system. I rejected this system and vowed to do everything I could to help heal the damage that has been done. I made a pretty big step when I joined the Occupiers and started learning for the first time about the true nature of “privilege.” Having white privilege means I get to ignore my race most of the time—as a white person I don’t see the world through a filter of racial awareness like people of color do. Having class privilege means I do not fear being hungry or homeless. I can live where I choose. I can afford to attend a private university. And I have consistent access to foods that nourish me.

I became a vegan when I finally faced the truth of animal oppression and factory farms. I faced chickens shoved into cages, unable to flap their wings or see the light of day. I faced cows being violently penetrated with metal rods without their consent in order to be impregnated—only to have their babies stolen, and either killed on the spot or shoved in a cage to become veal. The thing is, I knew about factory farming before I went vegan, yet even with this knowledge, I still ate animals. When I didn’t pluck up the courage to face the gruesome details, it was so easy to push the cruelty out of my mind as I bought the turkey sandwich and bit into the turkey flesh.

It was so easy to eat meat because everyone else was doing it. Then I realized it was yet another form of negative socialization: we are all taught to be complicit in this horrifying massacre—the slaughter of 10 billion nonhuman animals a year. I started resenting my former meat-eating self and indeed all meat-eaters. I wanted to shake them and make them feel the guilt that I did. I wanted everyone to reject the system like I had. I wanted everyone to become a vegan on the spot (the night I became a vegan, I went home and said that my whole apartment should become vegan, which was met with some discomfort to say the least). And I thought that everyone could and should become a vegan.

In my first 5 months of being a vegan, I somehow forgot or ignored everything I had been learning about privilege. I was developing a vegan philosophy without critically reflecting on my whiteness. As a white person, I don’t have to consider what food is culturally appropriate. I don’t have any special ties to food, like my vegetarian Cuban housemate who feels disconnected from her culture because she chooses not to eat food such as Cuban bread (it contains lard). As a white person with class privilege, I don’t have to worry that veggies are more expensive than meat and cheese. I live 5 minutes away from 3 vegan restaurants at which I can easily afford to eat. The fact that many poor communities and communities of color don’t have access to food that is not only culturally appropriate but also allows them to be as healthy as possible never once crossed my mind.

I didn’t stop to think about how racial formation and racism negatively affected our food system. In poor communities and communities of color, the food that is accessible is not only unhealthy, but also follows a chain of cruelty, from the factory farms to the dinner plate—and it’s very rare that any other option is available. I never thought about any of these things until I started frequenting a blog called “Vegans of Color (because we don’t have the privilege of being single-issue).” Shortly after, I was introduced to an anthology called Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Health, Identity, and Society. After reading the first essay, I realized I had been blindly promoting veganism through a white/Eurocentric view of the world. I didn’t realize that for many vegans of color, there is an additional struggle of reaching out to people in their communities who dismiss veganism a “white thing.”

Animal rights activists of color are often criticized for trying to liberate animals while their own black and brown brothers and sisters are still being oppressed. Sistah Vegan taught me about true food justice and nutritional racism. For instance, if you’re a BU student, look at the posters outside CVS next time you walk past it. One of them shows a young man of African descent drinking cow’s milk. This is painfully “unmindful” as Sistah Vegan editor Breeze Harper has said about a similar ad, considering that 90% of African-Americans are lactose-intolerant. Both ads are clear examples of nutritional racism, meaning that we base our understanding of nutrition and health on the notion that most people have a Euro/Anglo-Saxon relationship to food.

I too was basing my approach to veganism on the notion that everyone could and should eat only a plant-based diet when this is, in fact, not the case for everyone. It is mostly only the case for white, class-privileged folks such as myself. Throughout my journey I’ve learned that it is so important to read books, blogs, and articles written by veg*ns of color, especially women and queers, and prioritize these voices over white voices. Through this, I’ve developed a more critical eye for both manifestations of white supremacy, as well as my own privilege, but I still have a lot of work to do. We all do. At a recent animal rights advocacy presentation, I asked the speaker, a cis-gender white male, how to approach veganism with people of different cultures, ethnicities, and classes. He said that he hadn’t given it enough thought (most white folks don’t, myself included), but that animal cruelty is a cross-cultural issue.

While I agree, it doesn’t address the problem of how food justice is underrepresented in poor communities and communities of color. Indeed this issue is very rarely addressed in the mainstream vegan movement, which is, in the words of Breeze Harper, “dominated by ‘white class privileged 1st world’ epistemologies, logic, rhetoric, and ontologies.” We have to start bringing these issues to the forefront.

That’s why I’m going to Breeze’s talk on the intersectionality of oppressions and how it relates to food justice. Tomorrow, Thursday, at 6:30 in SAR 101. If we want our animal rights activist efforts to be properly directed, we need to understand how structural racism operates in our society. We need to learn how to incorporate mindfulness and anti-racism in our everyday lives. We need to understand different ways of knowing and being in the world.

K.C. Mackey is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences studying philosophy and religion. She can be reached via email at kcm2188@gmail.com.

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One thought on “White Privilege & Veganism: The Luxury of Being Single-Issue

  1. [...] on November 1, 2012 at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. The topic I was to address was “Intersectionality of Oppressions: A Look at How Race and Gender Shape the Vegan Experience in…The title of the talk that I gave to examine this topic was called “Feeding a Black Nation: [...]

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