• Christopher Sebastian

If veganism is racist and classist, bad news for nonveganism...

Updated: Aug 22, 2019


I spend much of my time examining the ways in which white institutions negatively affects human relationships with one another and our relationships with other animals. So when black people hand those institutions the tools to exacerbate this violence, it’s as disappointing as it is frustrating.

Just over a week ago, a popular black academic used their public platform to post the following image. For those who are unable to read the image, it states, “Until farm workers get living wages and are provided fair and just working conditions veganism is not and will never be cruelty free.”


Then they went on to caption it with the following message (note: names and information leading to identifying them have been redacted to minimize abuse):


In case, the text is too small or people are unable to read it, the transcript is quoted below:

Quick chat circling back to this topic:
All my sociology academics and public health professionals and other scholars: please use the comments below to drop facts, figures and information regarding the true privilege it takes to even be able to be fully vegan in today’s economy as well as the truths of food deserts, eating while poor, and the limited options available to other socioeconomic demographics in which people of color are overrepresented.
I have nothing against vegans but you, your kale and your holier than thou attitudes can stay over there.
Note: this is not an attack on vegans OR on kale…nor a space to argue the “wrongness or rightness” of ones decision to be vegan. BUT this message is in reference to the many many members of the vegan community to feel that they have obtained an ultimate lifestyle in which they can now judge and criticize others.
It’s also a place where I’ve decided to illuminate the privilege embedded in making such a choice.
Please do not comment with “not all vegans….if it’s not in reference to you then you can let this comment slide right off your back….
ALSO: I hope those of you who are coming in full steam to speak up and out for animals will also be at the next BLM march with such passion and prose.

Friends, this is not activism. This is misdirection, deliberate obfuscation, animal violence, and anti-blackness all wrapped up together. And it’s long past time we addressed it because the situation is dire and we’re running out of time.

Let me start by saying about the meme itself that I completely agree. The phrase “cruelty free” to describe veganism is inaccurate at best and a dangerous erasure of the many types of violence within our food system at worst. I never say the phrase myself, and I discourage other people from using it.

I understand that people use it hyperbolically, but it is still a harm nonetheless. That said, it’s beyond hypocritical for a nonvegan person to be making such a statement because exponentially more workers are exploited by a nonvegan lifestyle than through a vegan one. So in the hands of this author, the meme itself loses credibility immediately.

But the meme aside, let’s examine the content of the caption, and there’s a LOT to unpack. So bear with me, this will be a long post.

“All my sociology academics and public health professionals and other scholars: please use the comments below to drop facts, figures and information regarding the true privilege it takes to even be able to be fully vegan in today’s economy…”

It’s interesting that someone can call upon their massive following to prove the privilege of veganism while simultaneously show absolutely no desire at all to call upon their combined intellectual resources for ways to dismantle that privilege or highlight organizations and individuals who are doing their best to that end. The complete erasure and outright disinterest of them is dismissive. From Food Empowerment Project to Food Stamp Vegan to Babymomma Rachel, folks are out here doing The Work ™.

“…as well as the truths of food deserts, eating while poor, and the limited options available to other socioeconomic demographics in which people of color are overrepresented.”

I’m sorry to say this. But…I’m tired of food deserts. Yes, they exist and yes they are a problem. However, research suggests that proximity to healthy food doesn't necessarily make people eat healthier. What does this mean? It means that dropping a Whole Foods Market in the middle of the hood rarely means poor people will suddenly eat better. It only means that gentrification is on the way and the price of housing is about to skyrocket. The bigger indicators of how people will eat have to do with education and early childhood exposure to healthy (and especially plant-based) foods. And that's where the greater disparity lies. So yes, food deserts exist, and they're indeed important. But it's not the only factor, or even the main one, in the discussion on food insecurity. And it's based almost entirely on the United States, which doesn't help us have a very good global conversation on food insecurity and reeks of U.S. American imperialist approaches to food justice.

"I have nothing against vegans but you, your kale and your holier than thou attitudes can stay over there."

On its face, this statement seems pretty benign, right? This person doesn’t have anything against vegans. But who then DO they have something against? Exploited animals? Slaughterhouse workers who live with higher risk of PTSD? People who are forced to live near high intensity animal rearing facilities who experience higher rates of chronic and degenerative disease? Incarcerated humans forced to work on factory farms and in slaughterhouses and dairies? Because it seems like if someone wants to exercise solidarity with these marginalized groups, they would already be vegan themselves.

The author of this post attends Columbia University and is NYC based, according to their bio. This is not endemic of someone living in a food desert themselves, nor of someone experiencing the type of economic hardship that would preclude them from limiting their participation in human and animal exploitation. So readers are left to assume that they eat animal products as a show of some bizarre solidarity with people whose choices are more limited, which is tokenizing at best (and utterly reprehensible).

Of course, there is always the possibility that the author experiences some disability (physical or otherwise) whereby they need animal products in order to live. However, if that’s the case, then why go out of their way to promote and defend animal exploitation rather than responsibly use their platform to provide resources for people to remove themselves from that system?

If they cannot be “fully” vegan themselves (an unnecessary qualifier in the quote), then surely it’s not hard to encourage others to be vegan.

As has been stated by people far more articulate than me, veganism is a multi-problem solver. You would be hard pressed to find any individual movement for justice that reduces our climate footprint, reduces harm against economically disenfranchised human communities, makes a statement about reproductive autonomy, and expresses solidarity with black and brown people, ON TOP OF not senselessly killing the billions of animals with whom we share this planet.

One would imagine that as often as we condescendingly tell each other to educate themselves, the author would probably have weighed the evidence and gone vegan after all the overwhelming and thorough documentation explaining why it is necessary. But when it comes to veganism, demanding everyone educate themselves becomes a cudgel.

...also just for the record, nobody is eating kale. But nice move invoking a prestige green to mask your disdain. As an American black person, I'll stick with collard greens as made by Black vegan chef Bryant Terry (no ham or turkey necks necessary).

"Note: this is not an attack on vegans OR on kale…nor a space to argue the “wrongness or rightness” of ones decision to be vegan. BUT this message is in reference to the many many members of the vegan community to feel that they have obtained an ultimate lifestyle in which they can now judge and criticize others."

I actually would have been okay with this statement. There’s no shortage of self-righteousness in our community, just as there is no shortage of it in any other socially conscious circle. But adding this statement as a ‘note’ is nothing more than a very tiny fig leaf designed to provide cover for what is clearly contempt for veganism as demonstrated by all the other ways in which the author seeks to divorce themselves from culpability.

And perhaps one could make the argument that black and brown people are not responsible for the capitalist patriarchy that created inequality in our food system to begin with. Fair play. But to then do absolutely nothing except make it worse is an abdication of personal accountability and quite frankly downright ignorant. In an era of climate catastrophe, it’s akin to [rightfully] telling your family that the house is on fire and then going on to tell them to pour more gasoline on it and burn to death because you’re not the ones who set it.

“It’s also a place where I’ve decided to illuminate the privilege embedded in making such a choice.”

And that’s fine. Then let this post and all places where it is shared be a place where I have decided to illuminate the privilege embedded in the mass reproductive violence and sexual violence of animal exploitation, the torture and murder of billions of sentient lives, the multiplying of humans with physical disabilities and psychological traumas, and the environmental racism that these choices enable.

"Please do not comment with “not all vegans….if it’s not in reference to you then you can let this comment slide right off your back…."

That’s hard to do when high profile supposedly radical 'activists' deliberately and willfully creates opportunities for tens of thousands of their followers to dismiss veganism without any type of literacy around why this is literally a matter of life and death for millions of people of color inside, and especially outside, the global west.

"ALSO: I hope those of you who are coming in full steam to speak up and out for animals will also be at the next BLM march with such passion and prose.”

This is probably the most blatantly disrespectful, passive aggressive, and unspeakably atrocious statements I hear in various forms from otherwise socially conscious black and brown people time and time again. Let me speak very frankly here. Black liberation and animal liberation do not exist in opposition to one another. Placing them in this false binary is something I constantly see people do. Not only is it a tool of white supremacist institutions to pretend that these are mutually exclusive, it’s ahistorical. The 20th century is littered with black human rights activists who also called people to account for animal violence.

Imagine the indignation if I went to my local BLM community and said so flippantly, “I hope those of you who are coming in full steam to speak up and out for black people will also be at the next animal rights march with such passion and prose.”

It is both unnecessary and absurd to casually frame this as either/or, and it would be disingenuous for the author to pretend that they weren’t when they plainly do not support animal liberation (and by extension, only partial liberation for the black and brown communities they are exposed to). This author has callously also said elsewhere that they would go vegan when and if white people do [insert demand here] first.

Personally, my veganism is about offering solidarity to my family of fur and fin because participating in institutional violence against any marginalized group is wrong. Full stop. And making veganism conditional by haughtily stating that you’ll go vegan when white people meet certain magical conditions literally reduces the victims of animal exploitation (in all racial groups and across species) into bargaining chips.

This person is literally willing to shoot the hostage. And they would do it with a smile. It reveals that they don’t care about liberation. They care about gaining privilege.

Listen, I understand why it is uncomfortable to talk about animal exploitation and anti-blackness. It feels like a betrayal of our blackness when we do not walk in lockstep with one another. It’s also deeply painful to have these conversations under the white gaze. But when we use our platforms to publicly promote anti-animal and anti-black rhetoric, we need to have equally public accountability. Having an unsophisticated conversation about veganism that frames it as inherently inaccessible in order to protect our own selfishness and laziness leads to a one-dimensional type of justice that only privileges those of us in the global west who experience relative privilege when juxtaposed next to our counterparts around the world.

Let's stop engaging in this evasive maneuvering.

It’s past time.

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