When Black Vegans (Don’t) Rock
Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Back in 2014, when intersectionality was a buzzword for some in the animal rights community, a lot of folks started following as many influential black vegans as they could, earning bonus points along the way if they were women. One of those people was cookbook author Deborrah Cooper. Cooper had written the book Why Vegan is The New Black and moderates the associated Facebook group Blacks Going Vegan.
Unfortunately in December of that year, it turns out Cooper had been dropping receipts all over the internet that revealed a disturbing amount of transphobia. She repeatedly invalidated the struggles of transgender women, in fact denying their existence as women altogether.
Some followers gently tried to educate Cooper on trans issues, especially the issues that face black trans women in particular. Undeterred, Cooper doubled and tripled down.
For some, this introduced a painful dilemma. The way that many of us learn about intersectionality, we are supposed to always believe and protect black women no matter what. But what happens when black women are the ones upholding systemic violence? And specifically against other black women?
For some, the answer is easy. Cancel the transphobia. But for others, the rules of social justice doctrine just got complicated. Is blackness inherently infallible? Does having a black female identity render someone invulnerable to critique? The answer to both? Resoundingly no.
As phrases like ‘white veganism’ permeate the animal rights community to describe a single-issue veganism that elevates white perspectives as the norm and ignores the influence of race, gender, and social class, the rise of black veganism became a natural answer to address inequality within the movement. But what value does black veganism have if it reproduces the same outcomes for marginalized groups?
Black veganism is not better or worse than white veganism. It’s just, well, blacker.
As Cornel West wrote in his groundbreaking 2004 book Democracy Matters, “Racism is not a lens to justify sentimental stories of pure heroes of color and impure white villains or melodramatic tales of innocent victims of color and demonic white victimizer.”
But it would be unfair to place Cooper in the spotlight alone. As it turns out, black people have to contend with our own struggles around bigotry all over the animal rights community.
In December 2018, Black Vegan Social co-founder Gigi (Gina) Graham held a Facebook live video where she expressed even more questionable views on gender and sexuality.
Graham stated in the video (shared in three 10-minute parts at the end of this piece) at approximately 5:33, “The other thing, lastly, that I created it [Black Vegan Social] and I said it was pro-black continuation. And I stated that that black continuation was through the heterosexual relationship between the black man and the black woman. It doesn’t meant that we are anti-anything else.”
Interestingly, bell hooks observed in her 1989 book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, that the notion that homosexuality exists apart from or outside of “the continuation of black families seems to have gained new momentum […] We pointed to the reality that many black gay people are parents, hence their sexual preference does not threaten the continuation of black families…We suggested that we should all be struggling to create a climate where there is freedom of sexual expression.”
In other words, Graham would do well to understand that—contrary to her misguided perception—queer blackness actually plays an integral role to black continuation, and she would be well served to ’promote’ queer black veganism.
Graham would also be well served to do her pro-black history homework before coming to pro-black class, but I digress.
Graham goes on to say at 17:43, “Because I have not openly promoted the LGBT community, many people have deemed that as hate. I don’t promote bestiality, but is that hate?”
Bestiality. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, she went there.
To her credit, Graham giggled sheepishly and said, “Wait that was a fucked up comparison. I just say this, that was an unjust comparison and I apologize if I offended anyone.”
However, as we have seen countless times from politicians, apologizing if you were offended unfairly places the fault on the insulted party for taking offense rather than taking ownership of being a bigot. Also, it’s interesting that such a comparison was so easy to reach for.
It speaks to the ways that black queer people have to navigate the vegan community. Not only are we animalized by white constructions of humanity by our race, we are further animalized by people of all races who buy into the notion that same sex attraction is rooted in being something other than human and therefore undesirable. And ALL of this before we can even address how this influences our attitudes toward queer animals or persons of any species who enjoy non-reproductive sex, irrespective of their gender presentation or sexuality.
And for the record, yes. Yes we should hate bestiality! We should hate any form of sexual violence that involves stealing the bodily autonomy of another person who cannot provide informed and enthusiastic consent.
Graham later says, “I feel like there’s a culture that if you don’t get on a bullhorn and yell from the rooftop and proclaim from the highest mountain that you support me, then that means I hate you.”
Unfortunately, it seems nobody has taught Graham that systemic injustice does not require her hate. It only requires her passive (and sometimes very active) complicity in violence through continued indifference.
But possibly the most eyebrow-raising line in her monologue came when Graham announced, “In black vegan social, we have transgenders, people with disabilities, we have love in here.”
In an Instagram post from August 6, 2018, the account vegantake0ver wrote “transgender isn’t vegan” because certain drugs some trans people rely on to transition contain animal hormones. Stunningly, the Instagram account for blackvegansocial had no trouble 'promoting' quite full-throated support for this statement with their comment, “You have said nothing wrong!!!”
So by any reasonable observation, the existence of black trans people in the Black Vegan Social space is not an indication of love or meaningful acceptance within that space.
Graham claims, “I ain’t never say I hate a white man. I just love black people […] People want us to change the logo to a rainbow, but them same people don’t have no pro-black stuff when a black person is being killed and that matters to me. That really matters.”
Oh really? I have to wonder which dead black people Graham is talking about. Because the murder of black trans women has become an epidemic in the United States. And it is a very fair question to ask if the black trans women who experience violence throughout their shortened lives feel the warm embrace of this vegan love. In fact, the survivors of the Pulse massacre in Orlando would like a word as well.
Also, statements like Graham’s erase the existence of black queer vegans from the conversation. She heavily implies that blackness and queerness exist in isolation from one another, that queerness is conflated with whiteness. Believe it or not, we’re here. And we post pro-black content and rainbows nonstop. Graham's ignorance of us does not mean we are not there.
It begets the question, for those of us who are both unapologetically black and unapologetically queer, where are we supposed to go? What are we supposed to do? How are we to express our equally unapologetic commitment to anti-speciesism?
We cannot be single-issue vegans because it is impossible to compartmentalize aspects of ourselves into neat little boxes. I cannot be a black vegan in one space and a gay vegan in another space because I am both at all times without exception. Naturally, this is not to say that white spaces are more inclusive of queerness than black ones. This is merely to state that bigotry is not absent in black spaces simply because they are black.
Of course some will be critical of openly critiquing black advocacy, critical because airing our dirty laundry under the white gaze emboldens white people who seek opportunities to perpetuate anti-blackness.
But what social contract obligates us to protect the face of bigotry because it wears a mask of brown skin? Oppression thrives in isolation. Trying to hold people accountable behind closed doors is as useful as cleaning up hot garbage by locking it inside the room with you.
It is that very silence which allows our queer youth to die unprotected.
Just as there are white vegans who would excuse racism, sexism, and ableism in the name of animals, black vegans who would compel queer silence to preserve the appearance of some feigned black solidarity is an injustice unto itself, an injustice that relies on our collective silence in order to thrive.
So please don’t try to gaslight us by claiming that accountability is equivalent to tearing down black empowerment. We’re not that gullible.
In a February 2019 interview with Liam Gilliver for Plant Based News, Graham said, “Learning to appreciate our diversity is important.”
Black Vegan Social has over 60,000 members.
Soon there will be one less.
Learning to appreciate our diversity is indeed important. I hope Graham and others figure out what that means.
And for everyone who read this all the way to the end, a question during Pride Month—am I a black vegan? Or am I a gay vegan? Because that's your intersectionality.
You tell me how I, and other queer black vegans, should cut ourselves into so many cellophane-wrapped steaks for virtual consumption.
For inclusive animal rights advocacy, try Vegan Voices of Color, a project launched by Unique Vance and Aaron Luxor. And look out for my list of queer vegans of color to celebrate during Pride month.
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[video below in three 10-minute segments so you can watch for yourself and be certain nothing is taken out of context]