Veganism* is in crisis.

*as an anti-oppressive social (justice) movement

Veganism, as an anti-oppressive social (justice) movement, is in crisis.

Recent iterations of anti-Black and antisemitic social media posts by influencer-activist vegans vividly exposed white supremacy in veganism, “white veganism”. In response, Black, brown, Indigenous, POC and ally vegan and plant based advocates and activists have pushed for more introspection in veganism to root out white supremacy and layered forms of oppression.

These racist posts harken to early campaigns of vegan centered animal rights organizations, like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who throughout the 2000s and 2010s vividly compared nonhuman animal suffering with U.S. chattel slavery and the Holocaust in Europe. At the height of recent controversies surrounding James Aspey and others in January 2021, a majority white “nonhuman animals ONLY” vegan contingent responded to the protests of BIPOC and allies by spewing indignities and more racism exposing the lack of consensus on how veganism functions as an anti-oppression social (justice) movement.

However, the issues of whiteness within veganism as a social (justice) movement is at its roots, not just its branches. Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” in 1944. In England, he founded The Vegan Society, along with other Vegetarian Society defectors, to emphasize a dairy-free form of vegetarianism and animal rights. From its beginnings, veganism, as structured by this organization and its off shoots, was unequivocally colonial, white centered-supremacist, and elitist. Culturally Eurocentric, veganism required moral astuteness, restriction, vigilance, and shame. It was not liberatory, intersectional, radical, or decolonial — at least from the perspective and standards of the colonized world (“The sun doesn’t set on the British Empire”).

Although reference may have been made to Mahatma Gandhi (an early member of The Vegetarian Society), Buddhism, and Jainism, veganism did not emphasize or give reference to Black, brown, Indigenous cultures throughout the world that practiced forms of veganism and conscientious consumption within the narratives of veganism’s history. This is particularly important because of British colonialism, and cultural forms of veganism practiced to radically resist imperialism and European-American colonial culture, such as Rastafarianism in Jamaica formalized in the 1930s.

The Vegan Society describes veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.” The forms of veganism are split in three: “dietary vegans” (or ‘plant-based’) — people who practice a vegan lifestyle as a short term or long life diet; “health vegans” — people who practice a vegan lifestyle as a short term or long life dietary health intervention; and “ethical vegans” — people who practice veganism “for the animals, the environment or social justice”, and includes lifestyle alternatives (such as clothes, entertainment, household products, cosmetics, hobbies, etc.).

Since a vegan way of life requires some level of commitment to changing personal aspects of one’s existence, these general forms can always intersect or be layered. I have experienced Black Veganism as politicizing all aspects of these spaces, incorporating sustainability, decolonization, and social justice into dietary and health veganism — Plant based is still very political.

While recent publications like Jordi Casamitjana’s Ethical Vegan and Tara Roeder’s chapter “Beyond Diet: Veganism as a Liberatory Praxis’’ within Veg(etari)an Arguments in Culture, History, and Practice explore veganism as a revolutionary social justice movement. These text position the most radical aspects of ethical veganism — such as Feminist Veganism, Environmental Veganism, and Vegananarchoism — as a vital part of the movement highlighting Black, brown, Indigenous and POC communities, theories, activists, advocacy and activism. But in addition to these radical spaces being within the fringes of Veganism as a social (justice) movement, they also exclude, gaslight, discriminate, and abuse Black, brown, Indigenous people and interconnected activist spaces.

Although scholar-activist works from Aph Ko, Syl Ko, A. Breeze Harper, and Omowale Adewale have organized, theorized and contextualized an expansive future of veganism as radical, shifting, just, and transformative — their work seems to be positioned as novelties in vegan movement spaces. Additionally, recently Decolonial Veganism, Intersectional Veganism and Radical Veganism has entered the visual mainstream through social media, which has been met with confusion from mostly white “nonhuman animal ONLY” vegans.

Some people have also co-opted these terms (Decolonial, Intersectional) without a full understanding of their rootedness in Black activist spaces. With BIPOC — particularly Black women and femmes — leading the movement for a more radical veganism, there is a lack of consistent and incorporative support by way of funding, platforming, and normalizing these contributions.

Although both Casamitjana and Roeder’s work gives space to Black, brown, Indigenous vegan activism, their optimistic and tunnel vision perception does not adequately position veganism in crisis. Casamitjana and Roeder actually project a “representation matters’’ viewpoint, in which because a diversity of vegan and plant based activists are visibly working to decolonize veganism that mainstream veganism should be well-received.

Roeder states that: “When prominent white vegans sidestep issues such as food injustice and environmental racism in their analyses, or PETA relies on the objectification of women and people of color or the employment of fatphobia in its campaigns against animal cruelty, they re-enforce stereotypes that veganism is exclusionary, or that vegans ‘care more about animals than humans.’ To dismiss veganism as the purview of a privileged elite or anti-speciesism as politically disconnected from human liberation movements, however, de-centers the voices of vegans of color, vegans with disabilities, queer vegans, vegan women’s rights activists, and poor, incarcerated, and homeless vegans, among others, as well as the voices of nonhuman animals themselves.”

In deconstructing portions of this statement, it is important to see two things. First, she addresses white supremacy in veganism through the language of stereotypes and the workings of some “prominent white vegans”. This does not address systemic white supremacy in veganism. In addition to minimizing the issues of elitism, she does not acknowledge the use of anti-speciesism as a rhetorical play on “ALL Lives Matter”/ “nonhuman animals ONLY” in white veganism. White veganism is beyond a few “bad apple” prominent white vegans and misplaced stereotypes between vegans and non-vegans.

This is how white supremacy and white power is projected and maintained in veganism. There are deep rooted truths in these characterizations. It is in these truths about white veganism and how it marginalizes Black, brown, Indigenous people is what the majority of BIPOC activists are fighting against when pushing to decolonize and dismantle white supremacy within veganism.

Second, we can not rely on the voices of marginalized people within systems of oppression to then do the work to redeem, rectify, save, and represent a social (justice) movement in crisis. This reliance on marginalized labor is white supremacy. Just because Black, brown, Indigenous, POC, disabled, and queer vegan and plant based activists are doing the work to decolonize veganism, create safe and alternative spaces to mainstream veganism, and collaborate with intersecting social justice movements that directly address colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy — does not mean that veganism (mainstream or not) can or should claim this work without deep restructuring, internal shifting, and colonial unsettling.

This is labor. Labor forced upon Black, brown, Indigenous peoples because of experienced trauma within veganism. Veganism, just like feminism, does not deserve the people who are doing this work. Mainstream white centered vegan organizations, institutions, and platforms will capitalize off of, co-opt, and appropriate this labor without doing the internal work of unsettling and truly radicalizing veganism.

Diet culture and white supremacy have personified mainstream veganism as a lifestyle and social movement. The burden of veganism as a social (justice) movement under an intersectional decolonial liberatory praxis becomes the labor of Black, brown, and Indigenous vegan and plant based activists.

In “Dismantling White Veganism”, Yvette Baker posits “white vegan advocacy has garnered a widespread negative reputation for the movement that will not help it grow. Individually, white people struggle with confronting the ways their power and privilege is being enacted (complicity) just by existing. And if they continue to fail, we will never get to a state of confronting / dismantling larger systems of power, we will never disrupt speciesism.”

For veganism to be truly ethical and liberatory, white people need to actively unsettle and work to dismantle white supremacy within veganism. Moving forward as an anti-oppressive social justice movement means veganism must:

1) Place emphasis on access, not choice and morality.

2) Be forthright about the unethical aspects of veganism.

3) Contend with the fact that NOT ALL vegans are activists, and too many vegan activists are unbridled white supremacists which is dangerous to all liberatory social justice movements; and

4) Understand that representation does NOT matter, if there is no seismic systemic and ideological shift in veganism from those who currently wield power — inversely, this means the platforming and funding of grassroots BIPOC, particularly Black women and femmes, led forms of veganism and vegan/plant based activism.

Veganism must place emphasis on access, not choice and morality — and be forthright about the unethical aspects of veganism.

Veganism as a social (justice) movement needs to emphasize access, not choice and morality. A focus on access gives representation to a diversity of vegans and plant based communities, especially those without adequate access to plant based foods living under food apartheids or people that have to take certain non-vegan medications. Understanding access allows veganism as a social (justice) movement to veer away from western based theories and ideologies about morality rooted in anti-Blackness and ableism. From the Enlightenment to the Eugenics movement, narratives of individual choice and morality require shame and perfectionism to create exclusion and exclusivity. This white supremacist logic model excludes and targets BIPOC vegan and plant based advocates as “not vegan enough” or “not vegan at all”.

It also deters veganism away from its full realization as a social justice movement by focusing on individual inadequacies rather than addressing systemic issues and the history of “white supremacist capitalist speciesism” — which is what the movement should be fighting against.

Expanding veganism as a movement to address ableism, fatphobia, poverty, and geography will address the layered experiences of people transitioning to or sustaining a plant based, sustainable, anti-speciesist and anti-capitalist conscientious way of life. This creates a robust movement that intersects with communities already fighting compound injustices.

Access addresses unethical aspects of veganism as well. White supremacy, capitalism and neocolonialism are the most prominent issues within veganism, and the reason why I am placing “justice” in parenthetical brackets.

Recently, I watched a youtube video from Unnatural Vegan entitled, “Anti-Capitalism is Anti-Vegan”. I am not even going to elaborate on the nonsense that this video is propagating — there are response videos make a great analysis against this content. The creator has 250K subscribers and the video 142K views. But this explains why veganism as a social (justice) movement is in crisis. There is truth here — Veganism is not inherently anti-capitalist, and this is truly problematic as an anti-oppressive social (justice) movement. Unnatural Vegan’s arguments align with a white supremacist imperialist veganism, which was never disrupted by Watson and The Vegan Society, and is currently propagated by John Mackey of Whole Foods Market. This is a morally astute form of capitalism, “Conscious Capitalism”. For too many people there is only one form of veganism — a single-issue movement that is anti-indigenous, anti-Black, colonial, capitalist and centered around white supremacy and white saviorism.

Mainstream veganism does not contend with neocolonialism that currently enslaves and displaces Black and brown indigenous peoples throughout the Global South tropical zones all in the name of coffee, cocoa, coconut, avocado, almond, and banana plantations.

Modern human slavery alludes many vegans that haplessly compare five centuries of chattel slavery experienced by Black people in the western hemisphere to the current conditions and confinement of nonhuman animals in agricultural industries. In addition to exploitation of humans, plant based agricultural industries that vegans rely on — destroy, displace, murder, and poison nonhuman animals on a massive scale daily. This occurs in the name of “Vegan Capitalism” which increases market access for vegans and plant based eaters while promoting rather than disrupting white supremacist speciesism.

The animal agriculture industry has expanded in the Global South. Roeder’s “Beyond Diet’’ piece explains that for some BIPOC contemporary vegans around the world, “the return to a plant-based diet signifies resistance to a legacy of European colonialism that harms both human health and the natural environment.” But this walks around neocolonialism that enforces European-American customs and food traditions based on diets high in meat, dairy, and gluten (the Western Patterned Diet). Although Roeder positions veganism as “an obvious threat to the animal agriculture industry,” neocolonialism exists in more ruthless and hegemonic ways.

While mainstream veganism focuses on contentions with meat and dairy industries in the US and Europe, there is very little investment in disrupting the neocolonial take over by meat and dairy industries in the Global South. Neoliberal free-market policies in the last 40 years have exponentially expanded meat and dairy industries and pushed consumption throughout the world. In continental African, where prior to European colonization food was often vegetarian and still is in many regions, growing capitalist markets are attempting to change that.

All aspects of the agribusiness based global food system are unethical, but these are the spaces where veganism’s anti-oppressive movement work would be vital. Although organizations such as Food Empowerment Project — along with a bevy of BIPOC and ally vegan and plant based activists — give space for these issues, it is barely a footnote in the political contextualization of veganism. Mainstream veganism has a sacrificial zone where some people, spaces, nonhuman animals, and contexts of oppression just do not exist.

Veganism must contend with the fact that NOT ALL vegans are activists, and too many vegan activists are unbridled white supremacists which is dangerous to all liberatory social justice movements. Also, representation does NOT matter, if there is no seismic systemic and ideological shift in veganism from those who currently wield power.

Being vegan does not automatically make a person an activist, thus most vegans are NOT activists. This is not to be condescending or exclusionary, but we should take the role of activists in a white supremacist death cult capitalist society very seriously — activists are fighting for our future. Making this distinction is integral in our current global context of celebrity-influencer activism, where sensationalized posts and tweets eclipse accountability and needed connection with intersecting social justice movements.

Veganism is a white-led anti-oppressive social (justice) movement. So like feminism and environmentalism, this movement centers white power, histories, theories, and gatekeeping. At the same time, we can not make white veganism something different from veganism itself — a few white supremacists “bad apples”.

White-led anti-oppressive movements will always be problematic. Veganism is institutionalized, those who wield power and moral authority within veganism are white. PETA is still propagating award winning trauma porn campaigns that compare nonhuman animal confinement to U.S. chattel slavery of Black people — even in court cases against animal abuse the organization used the 13th amendment.

Just last month Jan 2021, Ingrid Newkirk, the organization’s founder and president, sent out an email to all staff pushing back on demands to not center a “nonhuman animals only” narrative or comparative of Black social justice issues with animal rights in her yearly MLK day post. What was encapsulated in the email chain demonstrates peak white supremacy and color-evasive racism.

Still many do not understand why comparing genocide (the state sanctioned killing of humans by humans) to theriocide (killing of nonhuman animals by humans) is controversial. Or why it is important to think critically and engage with cross sections of anti-oppressive movement work when connecting the dots, which leads to white supremacist capitalism — but is never clear in any comparative, just plain vivid trauma porn.

Anti-blackness has never been positioned as unethical in western settler colonial nations, and neither has white savior trauma porn. The work of Reign Hervey contends that “race is seen as only worthy of discussion as a means of advancing nonhuman animal liberation. …Instead of addressing white supremacy as an ideology responsible for exploitation, white veganism maintains animal rights as a single issue or uses nonwhite bodies to fill a quota to avoid talking about race directly.” Hervey’s work connects with Aph and Sly Ko’s Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters: “Comparing and contrasting the literal/physical violation these subjects experience misses the conceptual boat since the reason why they are each oppressed is precisely because they are all citizens of the same subhuman space. Naturally, their oppression might physically resemble one another since they have a common oppressor.”

Many leading vegan activists and vegan centered activist organizations are problematic, and promulgated white supremacy, anti-Blackness, antisemitism, and anti-indigeneity. Liberal white animal rights organizations showcasing the most radical and liberatory aspects of activism within veganism as mainstream veganism is disingenuous.

In recent years, PETA has highlighted Black Power icon Angela Davis and other Black vegan activists in their campaigns. In addition to “Martin Luther King Jr-ing” Angela Davis, PETA began centering Davis in their campaigns after much criticism over white supremacy.

When white supremacy and capitalism is ejected from our collective understanding and activism against speciesism, veganism as an anti-oppressive social (justice) movement is stripped from truly being revolutionary. The question that I have is: What if mainstream veganism really aligned with the liberation work of Angela Davis rather than using her likeness and words for the moment and then backtracking per usual into white supremacy?

Conclusion: Black Veganism as a social justice movement rooted in an intersectional decolonial liberatory praxis (practice).

I was introduced to forms of veganism from Black people. It was always political and rooted in social justice, the environment and living beings, communal wellness and rootedness, spiritual health, decolonization, and justice. Even when placed within the framework of plant based diet and health, veganism is and was always political. I instinctively never spoke about food, conscientious consumption, plant based eating and veganism with white people. Because they would say this:

“If Black people would be vegan or plant based and took their health seriously, there wouldn’t be so many medical problems.” (Really?)

“Veganism is solely about animal rights and nonhuman animal liberation. Stop talking about human rights.” (What?)

“What does white supremacy have to do with veganism? Stop talking about race …” (Okaayyy?)

“Veganism has nothing to do with food systems or the environment.” (I’m about to head out…)

With any social movement there is a reckoning. White supremacy and exclusion are at the foundation of vital movements that are predicated on being anti-oppressive ideologically, in rhetoric, and in protests. But like with feminism, environmentalism, sustainability, and LGBTQIA movements, just because Black feminist, Black environmentalist, Black sustainability, and Black queer activists exist doesn’t mean that the mainstream movements are not problematic. This also does not mean that Black people or Black Veganism is here to save mainstream veganism. This work should not be appropriated and co-opted by the mainstream to make veganism look less white and more radical.

Although an anti-oppressive social (justice) movement, mainstream veganism as it stands is white centered, very anti-Black, and openly anti-indigenous. In addition to earlier European-American animal rights, conservationist, and vegetarianism organizations being linked to the Eugenics movement, the fact that a white British man dehistoricized the cultures and contributions of Black and brown colonized people across the Global South to fit into a specific framing of “veganism” is colonialism. Additionally, T. Colin Campbell coined the term “plant based” to depoliticize veganism and focus solely on diet culture further pushes colonialism and cultural appropriation. This connects currently with John Mackey, a self proclaimed conscious capitalist and vegan health advocate. So we can not be surprised when veganism projects and sustains elitism and white supremacy.

Radical veganism remains at the fringes and may not even interact with mainstream veganism. There are people who don’t self identify as vegan through the white centered rhetoric and norms of veganism because that would mean the same colonial violence, trauma, and harm experienced generationally.

Within Black sustainability and naturalist communities, I connected with the concept of plant based eating, sustainable living, and connectivity with the world and living beings as a liberatory practice and one predicated on decolonization.

Historically, plant based consumption is an integral part of many Black cultures and societies. In addition to Black and African cultures and traditions across the world that have been plant based before European colonialism and have sustained their societies, forms of veganism and conscientious consumption a part of Black people’s lived experience in the western hemisphere in protest of white supremacy and capitalism during repressive eras of chattel slavery, colonialism, segregation, and state-sanction retaliation against Black liberation movements — such as the MOVE organization.

Black sustainability and naturalist communities, in which self-identified Black vegans are apart of, use the intersectionality of Black cultural identities (Afro-indigenous/Black Indigenous, Black Latinx, Black American, Black Caribbean, Black Central American, peoples across the African continent) and intersectionality itself to create dynamic and global conversations about plant based eating and interspecies justice for the future.

These communities recognize that veganism and other forms of conscientious consumption are not for “the elite”, but rooted in Black traditions of food sovereignty and sustainability. Vegans, vegetarians, etc… are in prisons and detention centers, live in public housing and are unhoused, are reliant on food stamps, are living in urban and rural food swamps and deserts, and live on islands and in countrysides affected by climate crisis.

Most importantly, Black vegan and plant based activists within these communities recognize that vegans are also non-Black Indigenous People of Color, and actively lead efforts to decolonize veganism and plant based eating bringing about a collective and intersecting Black, brown, Indigenous POC history of plant based and conscientious consumption to the forefront. Black vegans and plant based and conscientious consumers create alternative activist and advocacy spaces that connect anti-speciesism to sustainability and environmentalism, antiracism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-fatphobia, gender equity, accessibility, and global food sovereignty efforts.

Veganism is not yet fully ethical and not yet fully liberatory, but Black Veganism shows the way.

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.