Is Veganism Racist?

When people say “veganism is racist” I reckon that vegans can be terribly racist and that vegan narratives can be racist when they’re handled in racist ways, but veganism itself isn’t inherently racist.

There are loads of people of colour leading the way on this and that kind of statement just pretends they don’t exist. They do exist and you should pay attention to them. Vegetarianism was well established in plenty of non-white countries before it was ever in New Zealand. It’s not a new idea and I’m pretty sure Donald Watson was a cool guy and all but he did not invent the idea of veganism even if it was perceived that he coined this word. That is wrong. How could he have when people in India and other countries have been doing it for hundreds of years?
Also do not forget there’s a legit-as-fuck argument saying one of the key purposes of colonisation and land theft in this country in particular was to establish sheep and then later dairy farming, dairy farming that is destroying the (stolen) land quality and water ways. And that factory farming itself in its current incarnation is an absolute abomination and srs white people badness even if some jobs come out of it…

I mean don’t get me started on the whole idea that giving people jobs is this inherently good thing under the rule of a capitalist empire… or that even giving people jobs slaughtering and torturing animals for a living for terrible pay in terribly depressing conditions is helping their hearts and minds. I have empathy for meat workers and suicidal farmers too, you know? Like fuck, a good way to dismantle and pressure the system can literally be supporting the meat-workers union and encouraging their employers to double their pay.

That’s because the system is fucked and it’s not right to separate veganism from its radical roots or separate veganism itself as a thing from its relationship with other things. When I first started organising around veganism it was 100 people in Auckland on a Yahoo email list. That was it. Groups on Facebook in New Zealand didn’t even exist and that was only 10 years ago. Ten years. Veganism is a fledgling right now, it’s in its infancy. And yeah, it seemed like a white thing at first but that’s just because from the perspective of those initial founders in the city there were lots of white people around them and they clustered together and created a little bubble.

But that bubble is being exposed as just a bubble when you look at things from a different viewpoint and see the people who are genuinely leading the way when it comes to being vegan in Auckland, for example, almost all of the vegetarian/vegan food places have been established by non-white mostly migrant people.

Early on as advocates we wanted to mainstream veganism and that’s happening. But our method was wrong. It’s not a mistake to radicalise the mainstream but it was just wrong to communicate veganism as this tidy little idea deployed in isolation as we did. I don’t think it’s too late to start communicating what needs to be said. I reckon we should make sure veganism stays as true as it can to its radical roots because hey, the morality of going vegan as a consumer choice and holding up this boycott as the saviour alone to every issue on the planet is kind of basic thinking, and it’s annoying the shit out of our allies. Also we don’t like seeing vegans with shitty mainstream values being racist, sexist, classist, abelist, fatphobic, everything-phobic, bullies when actually, like the fuck, no! You don’t get cookies for being vegan if you have mainstream baggage that causes harm to others and fuck yes, we should and will call you in, call you out, call you to account. We have to remember as radicals that we ask and have always asked for more than just not eating animals. That need has to keep being articulated.

And this is when you realise this post isn’t just about racism…

The original request of veganism was and should remain that together we strike a position of rejecting a collection of terrible values in their entirety and embrace a new set of values as an act of defiance and self-preservation. Veganism should never exist outside of that. And this is something that’s lacking in other movements as well – everything seems at times very single-issue and isolated (opt-in values) and it’s about permitting influence and between movements. The environmental movement has a lot to answer for by ignoring the serious issue of animal agriculture in order to make gains elsewhere and to avoid being seen as economic bandits, and because many just enjoy eating animal products. They also have a lot to answer for placing only the environment, the wild animals and people as priorities while denying that the cruel acts toward farmed animals matter and that these animals should have their needs considered. Animal cruelty is not distinct from environmental cruelty or people-cruelty.

It is not OK to let an entire movement’s view on compassion simply be reduced to a few welfare changes and leaving farming in its current incarnation while we push for the availability of a few high-value commodities such as organic meat. Fuck. No. The environmental movement should start moving and let animal rights perspectives be a key pillar of their values as well. We have to influence one another to properly recognise similar root causes, then struggle together to overcome them.

I’m not going to hurt animals in most situations, it’s true. But also we have to get away from this perfection ideal. Honestly, forget about E numbers and personal purity. Even from the perspective of effective consumer boycotts that kind of purity-perfection thing communicates literally nothing to a retailer without direct political pressure, and it only serves to communicate to each other the idea that when it comes to our health and bodies we should be obsessive and that’s disabling to many of us with eating issues. Like if you’re vegan and you get fucked up and eat something because you’re just struggling, oh well. Perhaps in a more ideal community someone would have stepped up to better support you.

Here’s the thing, when we talk about veganism we are talking about something that relates to a very specific scenario afforded by captialism and the effect of large populations. I do not believe it should be about attacking people who do a bit of wild hunting, fishing or have a couple of loved chickens in the back yard and think that eggs are tasty. I mean that is the least of my worries. I’m not gonna encourage having chickens in this environment because as long as people have these messed up perceptions of themselves as “natural dominators” of nature and animals then they can’t be trusted – generally speaking – but a few kind people who keep chickens is my lowest concern.

What I see within veganism now is a values crisis that operates on a number of levels and as the commodity of veganism proliferates and is ramping up for exponential growth (due to the early work by advocates to create this mainstream groundswell) we see the emergence of leaders with terrible values of violence coming to the fore – like Yourofsky – the most hideously narcissistic person imaginable. I’m gonna say that he is not right to lead a movement because of how his other values are in such critical opposition to radical values, and nor are any others who lack a basic understanding of what it means to be more universally ethical.  This values crisis matters. It matters in a macro way (politically) and it matters in a micro way (interpersonally).

Like it or not vegans are now operating as a pressure group to force the hand of environmental groups to pay attention to what they willfully ignored. I think that instead of complaining about this and framing vegans as trolls they should consider the importance of gaining our support and that there is at least some relevance to our message.

In this less-than-10-year-span we see pages like vegan.com with 500,000 followers. And when you start publishing to that many people every act starts to become politically charged and there are varying degrees of political awareness with these groups. Some have an at-all-costs-vegan approach and others take a more nuanced stance. The next challenge with the commodification of veganism is that our consent as a group can now become a commodity and our consent for other causes can be generated or withdrawn. In this example, the vegan.com site shared to over half a million people this vegan-washing content, which seems intent on sanitising the image of the Israeli military. I find this interesting. I mean a radically empowered community would recognise the problem with our consent being manufactured on that particular issue. I found the lack of political literacy on that issue quiet astounding, but the fact that we have such influence has its pros and cons.

I believe that radical empowerment can be developed and one thing that I see as wholly important here is not only what we communicate (with I think can be inferred from what I’ve already said) but how we communicate with each other. A strong, safe and empowered community understands itself, what its shared values are and has good processes in place to deal with conflict. Right now, as people, we don’t even know each other and interpersonal violence abounds, with no responsibility taken and flimsy accountability processes. We’re just people who’ve come together over what seems to be a single-issue, we might share, two, or three values at most. We have no concept that being part of a community requires a responsibility to one another. We have to ask the questions:

What are our shared values beyond veganism? What should they be? How do we deal with the issue of interpersonal violence (such as bad ‘isms’, or even physical violence in our community?) Who is responsible for this? How do we organise our people power in meaningful ways that don’t abandon human rights and the environment at the same time? How do we deal with issues like human slavery when it comes to our vegan foods? How do we act in solidarity with each other? How do we behave as a community toward those outside of the community? I think safe, solidarity based community work is one of our most important group acts we can participate in by the way…

Healthy community values and acts of love for ourselves and our community are one of the best ways of opposing a world that uplifts the thinned down and psychopathic value-set it feels necessary for individual consumers in relationship with a state. Healthy community values are a powerful force against oppression when the state wants us to rely on structures such as police who continue to let us down and do nothing but reinforce hegemonic dominance.

These are discussions to be had.

We often come to radical politics or veganism as people under the influence of a heavy, wet blanket of mainstream thought that encourages social flippancy.  We come saturated in rape culture, patriarchy, colonialism and we are often messed up to the degree that we have the habit of treating others as disposable waste at the first sign of conflict. We have shit, shoot and burn approaches to relationships. Our minds are colonised with the understanding that the only power we have is in consumer choices, and that making consumer choices is the way to end a great act of ongoing cruelty to animals. Some people struggle out from under that blanket and are able to observe it. But when you’re trapped under there and surrounded by others who are trapped as well and simultaneously dependent on the blanket to quench your human thirst, it’s a struggle to gain the liberation you need. I feel veganism is literally a gateway drug to radical thinking for many non-radical people and we should consider what that means. We should think about the great responsibility we have when we communicate to each other, never forgetting, the medium is the message.

Truth be told there are so many challenges for this growing community that I struggle to articulate just how many there are. The situation is messy, wild, early and unconstrained… but right now everyone is walking down a very mainstream path of simply making consumer transitions with little else. People see this as a quick way to help animals but it’s at a risk of becoming a fashion movement.

As I speak and listen to others I agree our task is to never stop redefining our values, recognise ourselves as a political force and ensure we keep true to the touchstone of radicalism. We also need to mature and abandon this framing that capitalism presents us with that consumer choices are the best way to make change. Fuck that! The best way to make a change is to destroy the bad values and bad structures that cause the exploitation of the environment, the animals and people.

To finish I want to say I do feel it’s perfectly OK to be really fucking angry about what people do to animals and the earth and that raw emotionalism has its realness and place. I think that goes beyond moral superiority which does exist but shouldn’t. I barely ever say anything like this to people because honestly my kind work is the safest way I can communicate that rage and indignation without harming those who are under the influence of so many other forces (i.e. economic oppression). I think it is important to take the time to measure your actions and I encourage you to avoid calling people names. But the anger itself, is legit. What humans are doing and have done to animals is abhorrent for fucking real, and it’s OK to say it.

So let’s reject this basic concept that veganism is this distinct package of an idea that will single-handedly save the world and remember what it is about, it’s about the rights of animals and how they relate to the rights of people and nature. Let’s see this as the complex thing it is. And never forget veganism is just one of the ways in which we backlash against actions that have occurred under rapid industrialisation. That doesn’t justify its use as a way of oppressing indigenous people who have enough of a load to deal with. I’ve never seen that done, but if you’re doing it, you should stop.

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