There’s a special entitlement that white people feel to ask people of colour all kinds of questions – about their history, their culture, their appearance. And there’s another special entitlement, on the part of omnivores and vegans/vegetarians alike, to ask vegans and vegetarians questions about their food choices. It’s the overlap of these entitlements that produces some of the little gems of ignorance and casual racism that we’re going to look at today.
1. White person, 53, fishing for compliments: Does this dhal taste authentic to you?
Um, yes, it tastes fine. Pass the salt? Thanks for cooking for me, but I’m not here to hand out badges of authenticity, nor commend you for being a good white person. If you’re gonna make dhal, do it cause you like it, not to impress me.
2. White vegan, 31, Aztec print backpack: “I would never go to (insert non-western country here) – they are so cruel to animals, and they eat so much meat!
Wait, hold on White Vegan Saviour. Do you know what western culture has done to animals? Factory farming was pioneered by western capitalists – the warehousing techniques, the invisibility, the harsh legislation around animal activism, the cultural expectation of cheap meat. You’d better leave your own, trailblazingly effed western country first if that’s your line of thought.
And sure, maybe you’re used to easy access to heaps of great vegan food. But if going overseas for you is mainly about consuming stuff, and not trying to understand and involve yourself in another culture, maybe you shouldn’t be traveling. And if you’re not interested in doing the research and learning enough language to realise you probably have a lot of food choices in most places, and are more interested in calling out another cultures’ practices, you’re probably demonising non-white people as a way to make yourself feel better as a vegan. Ew.
3. White omnivore, 34, loves whisky:“People from traditional, cultures have always eaten meat – they’re in touch with the reality of life and death, man. Vegetarianism is a modern invention, a denial of death.”
Congratulations for winning the pseudo-science award. Your prizes include a generous eyeroll for reducing every traditional culture in to one hunter-gatherer ideal and some generalised resentment for culturally appropriating other cultures’ sustainable, ethically complex animal practices to justify your own purchasing of an 8-pack of factory-produced chicken drumsticks.
There are many traditional cultures that have practiced vegetarian and vegan diets for ages, particularly in South and South-East Asia. Sure, it’s gross when white vegans harp on about this, and talk about how they feel really connected to those noble brown people and their peaceful ways – it’s reductive and culturally appropriative. But these diets have been around for a long time, and the facts don’t really fit the strangely hip ‘Paleo’ narrative of a lost golden age of meat, from which vegetarianism is some kind of religious downfall.
“If you want to be in touch with the “life and death” that your food choices create, don’t forget the life part…”
Traditional cultures have certainly been more in touch with the realities of life and death for the animals in their midst than under contemporary capitalism, and treated those animals better. But most vegans are not motivated by a desire to “deny death”, but by an understanding of the new and shitty kind of life that is created for food animals today.
When animal activists try to share information about the circumstances of animal lives they are often shut down and dismissed for investigating exactly these realities. If you want to be in touch with the “life and death” that your food choices create, don’t forget the life part – the suffering, the isolation, and the disease that food animals experience. Don’t just congratulate yourself for being, like, cool with death bro.
4. White omnivore, 28, feeling empowered:“Surely you would know that racism is a bigger problem than eating animals? And all foods are connected to systems of oppression anyway – so I’m just going to eat whatever!
No, the whole “there is no hierarchy of oppressions” touted by Audrey Lorde thing is pretty real, as it happens, and applies just as well to animal politics. Race, class, gender, sexuality, and species membership are all categories of oppression that are interconnected. There’s no reason that you can’t care about multiple kinds of oppression at the same time, and no reason that these kinds of activism can’t reinforce and inform each other.
This “accelerationist” (or maybe more accurately nihilist) “may-as-well-eat-maccas-until-the-revolution-comes” approach is fine for some, but no-one escapes wincing at the excesses of cruelty for pleasure: the foie gras, the mink coats, the sadistic abuse of household pets. If you’re going to use this logic to avoid thinking about what cruelty you’re complicit in, at least be thorough with it: buy some blood diamonds maybe? Plasma for your toilet? Child labour? Dating advice from Julien Blanc?
Don’t worry, no-one’s perfect, and there’s no way to buy moral purity so just buy whatever, right?
No capitalist food is perfect. And sure, eat whatever you feel you need to. But acknowledge that some ways of consuming are far more damaging than others, and reinforce more oppressive systems in the world, which is why fair-trade and animal movements do make sense – not as a way to be totally outside the system, but as a way to destroy some of the most harmful parts of it first.
5. White vegan, 26, punk t-shirt: “It’s hypocritical for people to be involved with antiracist (/feminist/class activism/criticism) if they eat meat – don’t they understand the oppression of animals and people are the same thing?”
While you are carving out a nice authoritative position there for yourself, you might want to think about this a bit more. Just because different forms of oppression are interconnected doesn’t mean they are the same, nor that that everyone has, or should have, the same understanding of them. Making veganism into a moral baseline below which everybody is framed an unethical non-person is a self-serving project that divides movements rather than building on common ground. Learn how to work with people who think differently to you, or you’re not going to get anything done.
6. White omnivore, 55, shirt & tie & prawns: “Vegetarianism is a luxury that poor people just can’t afford.”
Working out how to remove animals from your diet can be a difficult process for some. And most of the food infrastructure in our lives is not set up to make the information or decisions any easier. Parts of vegan culture too are inaccessibly priced, bourgie health-food enclaves that are cliquey, white, rich, and unwelcoming – heaps of Los Angeles’ mainstream vegan culture for example. But many people do find cheap, sustainable, ethical, and inclusive ways of eating non-animal diets despite these obstacles, and these ways of eating should be shared, not dismissed.
Sure, the material obstacles might seem too much for some people, and that’s their decision to be respected. But assuming these obstacles are immovable truths for everyone is mostly a way of deferring critical thinking from our own involvement food systems, which is the last thing we need.
7. White omnivore, on tumblr: “Conversations about meat and animals are traumatic – talking to POC about animal abuse just seems rude.”
There is nothing worse than people grandiosely calling out the food choices of people who are more marginalised than them. Imperious yuppies loving to hate on the unhealthy diets of working class people, casual racists describing other cultures’ foods as disgusting, and vegans getting righteous about the animal consumption of people with different class and cultural backgrounds.
But these are not the only kinds of conversations that can happen about food. I’ve been part of many conversations in Australia and overseas where issues of animal practices are critically discussed, conversations which have sometimes drawn on traditional ways of thinking about animals to raise criticisms of contemporary food systems.
“If the only vegan culture you can imagine is one where white people get to decide what counts as real racism, I’m going to be a whole lot less interested in supporting that culture…”
When I’m with extended family and friends from different cultural backgrounds I often think of my animal practices like my queerness – sometimes it’s more respectful not to bring it up, and sometimes it’s more honest and productive to talk openly about it and engage people. And it’s up to me how I negotiate that – I don’t want to be told I’m rude for discussing it, or that I’m unethical for not bringing it up.
It’s stupid, disrespectful, and ineffective to tell people what they should eat. But it can be necessary and constructive to have conversations about the systems we are complicit in and how we feel about them.
8. White vegan, I had a Mexican girlfriend once: “Thug Kitchen is not real racism.”
The popularity of Thug Kitchen, the product of a well-off white couple imitating Black English to sell vegan cookbooks, is disappointing enough, let alone the dismissive reaction that white vegans have had to the criticism that has poured in from people of colour.
If the only vegan culture you can imagine is one where white people get to decide what counts as real racism, I’m going to be a whole lot less interested in supporting that culture, and you can be sure plenty of people of colour will feel the same.
Cultural appropriation in food is a problem that exists in vegan and non-vegan cultures (white people selling ‘Po’ Boys’ anyone?) and if veganism wants to be an effective movement it needs to be on top of it, not apologising for it.
9. White omnivore, 41, loves “Asian” food, lol:“Veganism is such a strict practice and doesn’t allow people to make their own ways of eating.”
People approach veganism from many angles. Some vegans are extremely strict, and will not tolerate others eating animal products, even in freegan contexts or situations where not eating them is likely to offend. This approach easily becomes a practice of policing what enters the body.
Other vegans (including many vegans of colour I’ve met) see veganism as a political act, often primarily as a boycott, and as such a situational one that does not produce a dogmatic set of rules. Heaps of vegans of colour are developing new ways of carrying their culture and their beliefs about animals along with each other.
It does suck that some (particularly white, class privileged) mainstream vegans spend a lot of energy calling each other out on minor deviations from veganism, and this has unfortunately become part of the public face of veganism – and a way its claims are easily dismissed.
But dismissing every vegan as being a food cop ignores the other approaches that those outside the vegan mainstream are taking – unwittingly silencing people who often have other experiences of marginalisation that have led them to develop these approaches. The point here: that the food-policing dogmatism of veganism comes from outside itself as well as within. Prime example is this doozy:
10. White omnivores and white vegans, ages mixed, always with clean shoes: Well, if you eat animal products when you’re visiting family or friends overseas, you’re not really vegan then are you?
Oh thanks guys! Thanks so much, it’s really nice of you to talk about what I eat with my family and community like that. You’re obviously just trying to care about cultural difference and animals in one big lovey accusatory, policing clusterfuck of a question and not trying to diminish my beliefs (omnivores) or my cultural decisions (vegans).
Shush – I’ll eat what I want and call myself what I want.
For me veganism has to be more than an identity, more than a food choice. It is not real change for there to be vegan options at maccas, or privileged vegan enclaves within urban spaces. It’s not enough for vegans to make themselves feel better about their own moral purity, or whatever, by dismissing marginalised people. And it’s not enough for omnivores to dismiss cultural concerns as the ‘end’ of veganism in the face of vegans of colour.
For veganism to be a movement that actually transforms relationships between humans and animals it needs to take seriously issues of race, class, and gender, and the ways these impact animal systems. Just like the transformations feminist and queer struggles have undergone as they crossed cultural boundaries, so must animal struggle change across these boundaries. White vegans need to get with the program, and white omnivores need to know that it is possible.
Bon appetit white ppl. xx