Black Forager: Influencer Culture meets Black Veganism
So social media superstar Alexis Nikole Nelson aka Black Forager made a video about veganism and environmentalism. I knew such a video was eventually coming, and now that it’s finally here, I have a lot of feelings.
At first I tried to ignore it because criticizing a Black woman over one video when the rest of her content is sincerely outstanding smacks of misogynoir. And more than enough racist and sexist social media users choose to punch down. But this isn’t really a critique of a Black woman. It’s a cautionary tale about social media and the perils of influencer culture. So bear with me while I try to process this. It will be a messy ride.
First of all, in her video Alexis set up approximately 400 straw men based on the binary choice between veganism and localized eating, and then proceeded to score anti-vegan points by individually burning through each one. It was unnecessary. It was unhelpful. And it was uninspiring.
She then used a series of more false binaries between things like ‘backyard eggs vs Just Egg’ and ‘honey vs agave” without making it clear that none of these are particularly accessible to people below a certain income, which, according to Forbes, includes a surprising number of U.S. vegans, who statistically make less than $30,000 a year. And that leads me to my second point.
The people who generally accused veganism of being classist have mysteriously abandoned a class analysis of localization in this discussion. Because if veganism is inaccessible for poor people, then you’re off your face if you think poor people—rural or urban—have the time, energy, and land resources to grow their own vegetables, care for backyard chickens, shop locally, or hunt for deer. Yet the obvious classism of these “local” solutions was overlooked in the online discourse.
At best, veganism asks you to read food labels when you’re shopping or dining out. Localization, however, is a commitment that requires adherents to either become a farmer themselves, shop at farmers markets, or become an expert in supply chains when buying their groceries. And while these are admirable goals, I DON’T KNOW ANYBODY LIVING IN THE HOOD WHO CAN ROUTINELY DO THAT.
I also don’t know anybody who makes a daily decision between eating an avocado or bowhunting a deer for lunch (another bizarre binary example Black Forager implies) mostly because U.S. American people (and yes I am generalizing) 1.) don’t eat an avocado for a complete meal and 2.) don’t own a crossbow. Again, it’s a complete straw man to place these adjacent to one another in the same discussion.
I don’t know why she made this video, but her intentions don’t really matter. Because as an outcome, we can reliably observe that social media algorithms reward anti-vegan content. The only people who are viewed more negatively than vegans on one scale of biases are drug addicts (which is equally harmful to people who struggle with substance abuse, but I digress). And her video comes across as cover for followers who want to scapegoat vegans/veganism for being self righteous. So regardless of intent, that’s what she’s realistically done.
Interestingly, animal activist and content creator Seb Alex made a response video which cited academic resources that disagreed with or disproved many of her assertions, along with adding his perspective as a Lebanese person who has a viewpoint different from that of a social media influencer in the United States.
But here we are at only the halfway point of the weekend and Queer Brown Vegan Isaias Hernandez made a response video to Alex’s response (and yes, I’m aware that I’m writing a response to a response to a response, which is approaching EPIC levels of meta). And while points were made, QBV’s video hyper-focused on literally SIX SECONDS out of Alex’s 13-minute video to explain the white supremacist nature of vegan capitalism.
To be clear, QBV is not wrong. Vegan capitalism is not a solution. Not for the climate crisis, human liberation, or animal liberation. Capitalist solutions invariably reinforce racial and class inequality. But from my viewing of his YouTube video, Alex didn’t suggest that vegan capitalism was a solution. So this video response felt like the answer to a question nobody asked.
Also, and this is a big one, making a video about the limitations of vegan capitalism leaves QBV open to critique from social media users who would observe that he directly promotes green capitalism as an influencer who literally makes money, at least in part, by selling green products to his followers. This doesn’t make him right or wrong (he’s right btw). After all, everybody has to survive capitalism. But it’s an observation that strongly dilutes his message, which itself somewhat misses the point of Alex’s video.
My point, though, is that this illustrates (to me) the problem with social media, in general, and influencer culture, in particular. And it runs much deeper than just a handful of generic white guy vegan saviors.
Social media platforms almost force influencers to perpetuate tribalism and polarization through dangerously one-sided hot takes and a never-ending cycle of responses to responses to responses. And as comment threads become increasingly hostile, platforms win even more because they thrive on negative engagement (which again usually yields high returns when users pile onto vegans, who are disproportionately disliked).
But you know who loses? Animals. Because the one thing that would have avoided ALL of this is centering veganism as a social justice movement that prioritizes the needs of nonhuman animals as marginalized persons, instead of allowing it to be reduced to a diet. On Twitter, TyraTheTaurus makes this point better than anyone else I’ve seen.
Yes, there are some very vocal smug vegans who use veganism as a hammer to bludgeon people with their perceived moral superiority. But there are jerks in every movement. Focusing the conversation on the jerks is something that bigots do in order to avoid accountability for their complicity in systemic injustice by sidestepping uncomfortable conversations about victims of systemic injustice, who in this case are other animals.
My advice is this:
Follow whatever creators you want to follow, and like who you want to like. Don’t waste your energy trying to “cancel” anybody or tear anybody down. Personally, my mental health means ditching influencers altogether in favor of following funny comics, food accounts, thirst traps, and cute animal videos.
Please try to get your information from reputable news sources instead of social media. And vet those news sources appropriately.
If you choose to engage in online conversations (not recommended, but we all have the urge), focus your conversations on points of consensus, and avoid toxic people and comments.
Please, please, please be outspoken about misogynoir when you see it creeping into bad faith critiques of Black women, BUT ALSO don’t let people use it as an excuse to dismiss valid critiques.
Resolve yourself to the fact that the accounts you follow are run by humans who will invariably post things that are wrong, inaccurate, or occasionally harmful.
Stop eating expensive liquid sweeteners when sugar is RIGHT THERE and is functionally the exact same thing in your body, plus exponentially cheaper.
And most of all, know when to log off (like I’m about to do right now while y'all murder my mentions).