What does the US Capitol attack have in common with the recent controversies within the vegan movement? White supremacy. We’ve talked about how environmentalism and white supremacy are deeply connected before, but these events warrant a revisiting of the relationship between the two. Why should environmentalists (cc: vegans) care about white supremacy? What can we do about it anyway? We answer all these questions and more…
The US Capitol attack: a (very) brief overview
On January 6, 2021, I, along with the rest of the world, woke up to the news of the US Capitol being stormed by violent extremists. It felt like a surreal moment. Scrolling through Twitter and reading the first reports, seeing images of mostly white men triumphantly breaking through to what must be one of the most protected spaces on the planet, in protest of election results obtained by way of a basic democratic process. Somehow, even though the US police force has a budget of $500 million, they failed to—and this was a choice—protect and stand against such extremist behaviour. Unsurprisingly, the attack ended with the extremists being filed out of the building, with only a few dozen arrested.
As Gizmodo writes, “the initial response pales in comparison to how Black Lives Matter protestors were treated this summer. Not to mention climate-related protestors like Fire Drill Fridays where police created a huge perimeter to cordon off press and onlookers and brought in buses to process protesters who were arrested.” After the events that transpired that day, “the boundaries of permissible violence have now expanded to a distorting degree, at a time of increasing climate instability. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists literally took over the halls of power and got away with it. When climate change upends communities with far fewer defences—communities that hate groups already scapegoat—the results will be catastrophic.”
What this has to do with veganism
That comment gets at the crux here: white supremacy is a toxic, deadly disease that has permeated, is permeating, and will permeate through all of our lives. It is present everywhere, and even in the environmental movement. Since the Capitol attack, a diverse coalition of vegans, led by @tyrathetaurus on Instagram, have been calling on white animal rights activists to publicly stand against white supremacy on their platforms. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, some of them have responded in particularly deplorable ways.
Unnatural Vegan, a popular YouTuber, when confronted by a Black woman, asked for examples, tweeting that she’s “not going to condemn something if it doesn’t exist. I know of no vegan educators/influencers promoting white supremacy. Do you have examples or not.” Following that tweet, she tweeted that the “burden of proof is on you, regardless of your skin colour.” She continued by saying that she “talk[s] about problematic elements of the vegan movement constantly. Things that are common, like nutrition myths and anti-vax. I don’t believe racism is common and you’ve made no attempt to change my mind.” (See screenshots via @sisoyvegan).
Rob Banks, an Instagram activist who has a major following, doubled down on an old Facebook post of his, saying that: “People love to tell Animal rights activists that we should be out fighting for “people of colour”. How about YOU get off your lazy ass and go fight for your own damn rights just as those who lived during the civil rights movement did.” (See screenshots via @sisoyvegan). James Aspey, who has an even bigger following, has been repeatedly comparing the animal agriculture industry to the Holocaust, and saying things like “If I went up to a black person and said animal lives matter, it would be a relatable way to connect with them.”
Image: Daniel Fishel via Thrillist
White supremacy plagues the vegan movement
What these examples show us is that prominent and influential voices in the vegan movement are not able to be good allies, despite the fact that veganism, today, itself, is already deeply intertwined with white supremacy (more on that later). As Debbie Morales, vegan influencer (@sisoyvegan on Instagram), puts it in a recent Instagram post, these activists “are openly misrepresenting veganism, harming BIPOC and Jewish communities, and upholding white supremacy.”
Why should they be good allies? Morales highlights that “Veganism is inherently political. Your ability to be vegan is political. Your choice to ignore or endorse white supremacy in the movement is political. Veganism intersects with workers’ rights, food colonialism, and climate justice. As the late Black feminist vegan Audre Lorde once said: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.”” @tyrathetaurus adds in her Instagram post that “As vegans, we claim to care about all forms of oppression and all sentient life on this planet. Correct? Therefore, it’s inconsistent with our own message to not fight against all injustices that are occurring daily.”
She concludes in her post with these final thoughts, which is something else to think about: “It’s also interesting to me why certain vegans feel like they must get something in return for being the change they wish to see in the world. Do you expect animals to kiss the ground you walk on for rejecting their bodies at the dinner table? No. So why do you expect black, lgbtqia+, disabled, etc. oppressed beings to give you something in return for doing the bare minimum? The right thing. You do the right thing because it’s just.”
Not just because it’s the right thing to do
Now, generally speaking, of course, we’re not expecting everyone to be experts and loud activists on every single issue. We too have learned that sometimes it is important to say less and learn more. Especially when we have much to learn. But, as alluded to earlier, veganism is deeply intertwined with white supremacy. Isaias Hernandez, environmental educator (who’s better known as @queerbrownvegan on Instagram), made an Instagram post recently that breaks it down.
The full post is worth a read, but here’s the most important part. Veganism, or rather white veganism, as he calls it, that is quite common today, is a form of veganism “that focuses solely on animal liberation while actively ignoring the effects of coloni[s]ation and how it is interconnected in the oppression of humans and animals. Furthermore, it portrays human supremacy as the main issue rather than addressing the role of white supremacy in how it operates in creating oppressive hierarchical roles.”
The point here is this. Inherent in veganism today is an erasure of BIPOC cultures and practices and continued suppression of their voices. And this is all despite the fact that veganism is historically and culturally rooted in BIPOC communities. And the fact that the animal agriculture industry exploits these very same BIPOC communities. So there are many reasons why white vegans should rethink their approach to activism.
“Reminder: the roots of veganism aren’t white”
This is the title of an essay on Atmos, which explores in-depth all of this in greater detail. Again, the full essay is worth a read, but here are the crucial points. For one, “some of the oldest and most influential examples [of modern cultures that don’t eat meat] come from India. They gave the world Buddhism and Jainism, which went on to influence vegan diets in the rest of Asia, as well as Europe.” So yes, veganism isn’t a concept that came from white people. Surprise, surprise.
Something else that might come as a surprise is this: that the animal agriculture industry exploits and actively harms BIPOC communities. These communities live in areas that are polluted by the industry and lack access to affordable, healthy food. On top of other historical injustices perpetrated by the system. As vegan influencer Demi Colleen says, “[v]eganism can only be about the liberation of animals when it also stops the oppression of people.” White vegan activists must do more, because white supremacy plagues the very industry that they are trying to fight.
Instead, what are we seeing? White veganism: “[t]he poster children of the movement—the ones with the most followers who, in turn, work with the most brands—are often white, able-bodied people.” And that’s not the only problem. As we’ve seen, they’re “less likely to address diversity or be actively involved in anti-racist conversations—while simultaneously telling people to be anti-speciest.” They care more about the animals than the nuance required for vegan activism. They remain “in the dark about the colossal human rights breaches occurring in plant agriculture across the globe, the cultural sensitivities surrounding meat consumption, and the capitalist systems which led to unethical farming practices in the first place.”
How to show up in moments like these
The most common response we’ve seen falls into the category of emotional outbursts, which, for non-BIPOC, can be incredibly unproductive.
As illustrator Danielle Coke visualises in this diagram, horrific injustices often cause shock and confusion. These feelings trigger emotional responses, and with such responses, most actions taken afterwards tend towards performative allyship. Ultimately, because performative allyship is ineffective, feelings of guilt and fatigue inevitably set in. And what happens when you associate such feelings with allyship (no matter how performative)? You stop doing anything. And finally, you end up getting desensitised to it all, until another injustice appears on your social media feed. Instead of this unproductive cycle of inaction, Coke suggests moving towards a cycle of action. The key here is two things: avoiding (performative and unproductive) outrage, and practising real allyship.
Outrage reinforces a broken system
Lenéa Sims, founder of @inner.play and @outer.work shared on her Instagram stories recently that she had no interest in writing about the Capitol riots or the impeachment trials. Focusing on them means focusing on “one-and-done moments of outrage”. This approach, she believes should be replaced by “providing sociological, historical context to modern symptoms (the news) of long-standing issues (racism) and [encouraging] folks to connect the dots between said education and reflection and actual actions they can take”.
When we get angry at the “bad guys”, we all suffer. The nuance here is that focusing solely on these bad people (e.g. those who stormed the Capitol, and white vegans who aren’t active allies), is missing the forest for the trees. Instead, we should focus on why these “bad guys” behave this way, to begin with. And the system that allows them to continue behaving as they do. Outrage reinforces a broken system, and its power. It’s worse because often, rage-based activism is loud (performative) and not sustained (unproductive). And at its worst, it can lead to apathy.
So what do we do instead? One of our favourite guides to return to again and again is this: The 8 White Identities by Barnor Hesse. Identify where you, and those around you, stand. Work towards real allyship—i.e., more action-oriented white identities.
(Re-)building a better vegan movement
Circling back to the topic in question: how do we challenge institutions and dismantle whiteness in the vegan movement? The first step, of course, is educating yourself. Reading about the true roots of veganism is the first step. And learning about how veganism and white supremacy are intertwined. Then take action on that. This post by @sisoyvegan provides great actionables. Including, but not limited to: acknowledging the role BIPOC have had in developing vegan foods. Recognising the impact of food injustice on BIPOC communities. Calling out anti-blackness, racism, and cultural appropriation in the vegan movement. Amplifying BIPOC vegans’ voices and supporting them.
All of these will be difficult. But they are essential if we’re going to tackle the white supremacy that’s found its way into the vegan movement. A disease that’s not going anywhere, especially after the events on January 6, 2021. A disease that will most probably fester in the coming days. And a disease that we’ll have to grapple with in light of the unevenly destructive climate crisis. We must show up. Before it’s too late.
Featured image: by Brett Sayles from Pexels
Editor’s Note: Just to be clear, we are not saying that all veganism is problematic. What we are saying is that there is a subset of veganism, as highlighted with some of the most followed white vegan activists above, that is.
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