Book review: Sistah Vegan

Veganism is a racist movement.

Let’s just start with that, OK? It’s time someone said it out loud.

That said: the latent racism that runs through the modern American vegan movement is, in large part, unintentional (I’m just going to speak for all vegans here. No problems with that, I’m sure…). Vegans, with some notable exceptions, are a kindhearted people working hard to live ethically.

Just as the so-called “second wave” feminists à la Gloria Steinem were, to a certain extent, blind to the concerns of women of color and working class women,* contemporary vegans are, to varying degrees, blind to the world outside their mostly white, mostly middle class bubble. (I should reiterate that here I am speaking about American vegans who are active, to some degree or another, in the animal rights world.) By and large, those of us who can afford to choose veganism are educated people not struggling to put their next meal on the table.

We live in a racist society. Thus, even though society is changing for the good every day (or we’d like to believe, at least), many of the people who have the luxury of thinking about their diets and thus come to veganism are white. It’s fucked up. And it’s why the vegan movement is so pale.

We have to know this, and to work hard to ensure that our vegan activism takes into account the fact that many of us are coming from a privileged place. We must work harder to bring the good word of veganism into communities who most vitally need that message, and not just the communities where we feel comfortable talking to people because they look exactly like us.

The irony of the whiteness of the vegan world is what the women of Bloodroot, my mentors, have been talking about forever: poor people around the world, who (because of racism) are overwhelmingly people of color, have historically eaten much less meat and dairy than middle-class (mostly white) people. In addition, pre-colonization African and other non-white societies, poor or not, around the world have historically eaten diets relatively low in animal products and high in local, seasonal vegetables. Bloodroot’s menus have always looked to African, Indian, Portuguese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and many other cultures for inspiration rather than the meat and dairy-laden menus of the European countries the owners’ families themselves are from. It just makes sense.*

Of course, we live in a topsy-turvy world, and these days poor people around the world, by necessity (and the migration of grocery stores to more affluent neighborhoods), are eating snack and junk food instead of rice and beans. As I said, things are screwy.

Which is why Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society is such a great addition to the vegan canon. It’s an anthology edited by A. Breeze Harper, who you’re probably familiar with if you read Vegans of Color (with their lovely layout!). I was lucky enough to have been given an advance uncorrected proof to read and review for this here blog, and it was a great read.

A few notes:

I would have liked more of a historical approach, instead of personal narrative upon personal narrative, but I understand that the volume was meant to give an idea of the multifaceted perspectives of people of color who practice veganism, and it did just that. It whetted my appetite (oy!) for a more full overview of how vegetarianism has historically been practiced in communities of color, especially because I’m concurrently reading this Super Boring Book All About White People:

For the past year, my cycling book (that is, the book I read while I cycle my laundry in my ridiculous bike-powered washing machine) has been “The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times” and it’s basically a compendium of white dude upon white dude upon white dude who have espoused a plant-based lifestyle throughout history, interspersed with dudes of color who taught white dudes not to eat meat. It’s tedious and dry as hell, but once in a while an interesting tidbit comes to the surface (I’ve bookmarked these bits to discuss here when I fiiiiinally finish it, which should be sometime around 2012, shortly before the world ends, of course.). What’s interesting (and gross) is that many of these dudes came to vegetarianism after visiting some “savage” community in India or something, and becoming “enlightened.” Even in the vegan world, “others” have been providing whities with “enlightenment” for ages. It’s the same as the Crocsmamas in my town who go on their sad little yoga pilgrimages to India.

But I digress! Here are a few quotes pulled from Sistah Vegan, to chew over as you nibble your organic carrots (or, as I’m about to have, homemade coffee-almond ice cream with a coconut milk base, yum!):

  • Breeze’s intro raises a lot of important questions, one of which is: “If a majority of Black people have had negative experiences with ‘whiteness as the norm’…and they have come to believe that veganism or an ethical eating philosophy is a ‘white thing’ and in no way connected to the deconstructing institutionalized racism/classism, how can sistah vegans and allies present a model that presents veganism…as a tool that simultaneously resists (a) institutionalized racism/classism, (b) environmental degradation, and (c) high rates of health dis-eases plaguing the Black community?” Good question! I wanna know the answer. (P. XV)
  • From Breeze’s essay, P. 20: “Unfortunately, in my opinion, it has been the tone and delivery of the message [that of the linkages between animal rights and human rights]–via the white, class-privileged perspective–that has been offensive to a majority of people of color and working-class people in America.”
  • Her essay goes on to say that in order to, as a/r people love to say, widen our** circle of compassion, we need to understand that people of color practice veganism in different ways than the “white, class-privileged, eco-sustainable, alternative food movements in the US.” It can’t be a one-size-fits all movement. My old cooking school buddy Bryant Terry is also doing good work in this area, bringing good solid vegan cooking to an audience far removed from Portland hipsters (not that Portland hipsters can’t enjoy it too, of course).
  • OK, I gotta point out one ludicrous thing. On P. 40, Breeze says that one way to start bringing about this more inclusive food revolution is to attempt (via “organizing and petitioning”) to get health food stores to “consider coming to your neighborhood but charging fifty percent less for the food.” Well…it never hurts to try, right? Might I suggest adding one teeny little step before that? First, smash the state and abolish capitalism as it is currently practiced, then maybe give that one a whirl. Seriously, this reveals a deep lack of understanding about the reality of running a food business that pretty much constantly pisses me off, because crap like this is pretty much constantly espoused in the vegan world. Yeah, Whole Foods overcharges. But my local health food store is continually on the brink of closing, and has to charge more than the supermarket next door for the same items because it’s not a huge chain that has the power to force prices down on the backs of the people who grow, pick, pack, ship, and sell their products. I’m all for capping CEO salaries and passing the savings onto consumers, but in the organic food world, 50% profit margins are just not happening.

  • Nitpick over, let’s get back to the gold. Have you been to killercoke.org? Breeze mentioned it—it’s a great catalog of Coke human rights atrocities.
  • I really liked this, by Venus Taylor, P. 59:
  • Veganism is about questioning the status quo, bucking tradition, and choosing to live in accordance with your own values—trusting your own mind and spirit over the beliefs of the larger culture, your ethnic culture, your family, and your friends. Veganism is just one more way that I’ve taken ownership of how I define myself. I took back my hair from hairdressers. I took back my spirituality from ministers. I took back my children from institutions. I took back my health from doctors.
  • “Being a Sistah at PETA,” Chapter 8, is a must read. The first-person account of PETA’s refusal to focus on anything but single issue a/r work is devastating. Ain Drew writes: “..I found that PETA wasn’t as concerned with helping Black folks overcome our health issues than they were about getting us to stop wearing mink coats or promoting dog-fighting. Apparently, Black folks wearing furs to the club was more of a problem than the health problems that plague us.”
  • P. 163, by Tara Sophia Bahna-James:
  • I’ve never been fond of hypothetical questions. I think they are a big distraction created by debate-minded folk to take the heat off of what people can actually do in the world.
  • Right??? Oh my GOD I can’t stand that “your dog or your kid” crap. Have you noticed that it’s only white dudes who want to endlessly debate bullshit situations that will never, ever, come to pass (because they can’t own up to taking any responsibility for their actions at all) who throw that shit at you? Grrr.
  • OK, and another great point, from the afterward by pattrice jones:
  • Desire for the steaks and shakes and deep-fried mystery meats that clog the arteries of so many African-Americans might best be seen as a form of literally internalized colonialism. And now come the sistah vegans asking other Black people to recognize their appetites as potential artifacts of white colonial rule. Anyone who has wrestled with the emotional reverberations of realizing that an intimate craving is the result of socialization—or, even worse, some kind of abuse—knows how sickening such revelations can be. And yet that nausea must be gone through in order to purge our bodies of the infectious ideologies that lead us to poison ourselves, each other, and the earth.

Nice.

OK, there we are. Buy the book! Let me know what you think! Discuss!

*I believe that things have changed a lot since those days, don’t you? Sure, white vegans and feminists could be doing a much much better job of integrating these concerns into our activism,  but I know that when I was in college, my professors relentlessly drilled into us that there were connections between race, gender, and class. Race, gender, and class. Race, gender, and class. Then my ecofeminist reading added speciesism + patriarchy to the mix, and it just seems so obvious that race/gender/class/species are all tied up together in one swirling ball of oppression, and in order to fight against one we must simultaneously fight against them all. Got it. Now we just need to stop infighting long enough to teach everyone else.

**I feel totally weird saying “our” when referring to the privileged whities the book is saying (and I’m agreeing, let me be clear) need to change. This is not just typical lefty white guilt (though that’s there too!), it’s also because I grew up in this weird very very working-class (well, not working, more like: drug-dealing) trailer parky environment and went to such inner city schools that we weren’t allowed to have lockers because kids would store guns in them and we couldn’t wear red and black together or any handkerchiefs, ever, because it would provoke gang battles with real guns. And because my name could easily be Spanish and I have dark hair, olive skin and dark eyes—and because no one at my school knew what an Ashkenazi Jew looked like—I was often assumed to be Mexican, since 80% of my high school was Latino. On the other hand, my mother’s side of my family are very hoity-toity upper-class Chicago Jewz. So I’ve got all these contradictions, and hey look at that! The white girl always has to turn a discussion about racism back to “I’m not racist because I can swear in Spanish,” doesn’t she? OY VEY! Ay dios mio! Let’s get back to Sistah Vegan.

8 Responses to “Book review: Sistah Vegan”

  1. Breeze Harper

    LOL. About your comment in regards to my chapter about asking folk to ask natural food stores to sell their product 50% less in their neighborhoods, my mother is like, “Yea right. Get real Amie” (she calls me “Amie”, not Breeze). So, when I read your comment, I was thinking about my mother saying that to me as well. I was thinking, “Yea, it can’t hurt to ask.” But she’s right, I can be a little naive at times. :-) I wrote that chapter for the book about 2 years ago, and of course things are always changing and I’m always thinking about new ways to approach food, health, social justice, etc. I’ve enjoyed the work the People’s Grocery and Oakland Food Connection have been doing in Oakland, CA. I’m thinking that that is now a better approach than begging Whole Foods to open up in low income areas and reduce their food prices by 50-75%.

    Thanks for reviewing and commenting on the book. SV is only an anthology, but my dissertation will actually look more historically at the black vegan grandmothers of the movement to the present OR it will just look at the problematics of “white middle class” racialized consciousness in the the movement. The former would be less emotionally stressful than the latter. But, we’ll see….

    Best,
    Breezie

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Well, if someone called me on my naivete every time I said something ridiculously idealistic, I wouldn’t be able to open my mouth, so I totally understand, don’t worry. :)

      Thanks for a great book.

      oooh, your dissertation sounds fascinating!

      Reply
  2. Louëlla

    “Have you noticed that it’s only white dudes who want to endlessly debate bullshit situations that will never, ever, come to pass (because they can’t own up to taking any responsibility for their actions at all) who throw that shit at you? Grrr.”

    Hmm, no, I haven’t noticed that. Most of the people in my social circle are white, but I stayed at a hostel in a majority-black area for a couple of months, and the owner was black. He once said to me out of the blue, “So you think animals are more important than humans?” simply because he knew that I’m vegan. After I pointed out that humans -are- animals (a statement which he initially thought was meant as an insult to humans), he was like, “If a little boy and a dog were hanging from a cliff…”

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Your one example totally refutes my point! ;) OK, yeah, I get yours though: Don’t make blanket statements, Lagusta! Still, though.

      Reply
  3. to v or not to v? « walking my karma

    […] – Being vegan is a (white) privilege.  The undercurrent of racism runs through the vegan movement. I am by no means saying that vegans are racists.  I’m just saying let’s be conscious of the […]

    Reply

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