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The Biotic Woman: Vegans of Color

People unfamiliar with veganism—and hell, even people within animal rights movements—tend to think of vegan and animal advocacy issues as predominantly white concerns. It's a fair accusation that white privilege is rampant in AR movements and that many animal rights groups are constructed in homogeneous ways—because generally speaking, it's true.

Of course, though sadly not apparent to many, veganism is anything but monolithic. That doesn't stop a lot of white AR activists from speaking/writing/acting in ways that alienate people of color. For many, being vegan is doing away with one more -ism that is pervasive in our lives: speciesism. That we—white and otherwise privileged vegans like myself—fail to examine the ways that our desire to end the suffering of animals may also be classist, racist, transphobic, or even sexist is deeply problematic at best. The animal rights movement is no more uniform than feminism is, and assuming so is tragically myopic.

One of my favorite blogs has always tackled issues of animal rights and race in tandem, as their tagline explains, "Because we don't have the luxury of being single-issue." Johanna Eeva, founder of the increasingly popular, always informative, and thought-provoking Vegans of Color blog, recently corresponded with me about the site and the challenges of deconstructing interlocking oppressions in an online forum.

What were some of the reasons you started the Vegans of Color blog?

I started the blog shortly after I became vegan, because in exploring the vegan blogosphere as I was contemplating the switch, I found it soaked with unexamined white privilege: whether it's food bloggers bewildered by what they deem as "exotic" food (which in many cases meant food not generally associated with white, usually U.S. folks) or playing into stereotypes and colonial histories when campaigning on issues in other parts of the world (again, this most often means parts of the world other than the U.S. but particularly nations that aren't predominantly white & with which the U.S. often has a history of exploitation).

I was griping about this to two of my friends, also vegans of color, & I asked if anyone knew of any online community that centered the experiences of vegan people of color. They said they would join a blog if I started one & they did!

There were two really egregious things that I saw that actually kicked my butt into starting the blog. The first was someone on an animal rights mailing list spewing venom about how humans had the legal system to protect them, while animals didn't. The implication was that people were in prison for a reason & that prison advocacy wasn't worth doing. This showed amazing ignorance about the racist, classist ways that the prison industrial complex works—I mean, who is most likely to be protected by the criminal justice system? And who is most likely to be victimized by it?

The other incident was seeing a thread on a vegan message board about unique ways to promote veganism. Enthusiastically touted by one person was the idea of white vegans adopting children of color & raising them vegan, so that when people said that veganism was just a white thing, they could pull out these kids as examples to the contrary. Again, the complete ignorance of how problematic that is—to use children of color as means to your own ends, to have no idea about the complexities & problematic nature of transracial adoption—was just astounding. And no one was really responding to that post with that critique, which was even worse—I think by the time I saw that thread, there were several more pages of comments after that one post (almost none reacting to it), & sorely lacking was the sense of outrage & offense with which I responded. To me that highlighted how white most online vegan spaces are, because I don't think any of the vegans of color I know would have thought that adoption idea was a good one!

I wanted the blog to be a place where vegans of color could address things like these, & also discuss how other forms of oppression interact with veganism. I also simply wanted the blog to serve as evidence that vegans of color exist. We don't always blog specifically about political issues connected to veganism (although that happens to be the bulk of the blog); I wanted the site to be, also, simply vegans of color blogging about veganism. I knew it wouldn't be a totally safe space for vegans of color—partly because safe spaces are impossible to guarantee anywhere, but also because talking about race & asserting a position that isn't white-centric are contentious things to do, & the blog is public. But I hoped that at least vegans of color—whether as readers or bloggers—could gain some understanding & validation for the uncomfortableness that many of us feel in predominantly white vegan spaces.

How have people responded to your work?

It's varied. We get all the trolls you might expect: some of them are angry white vegans, who think that we are somehow damaging the cause by refusing to allow the ethic of care to only be extended to animals. Some of them are angry speciesist people of color, who resent us giving the same care & consideration to nonhuman animals. Many see us as too angry & taking things too seriously: the sorts of things used regularly to belittle people talking about social justice.

We do get a whole lot of genuinely thoughtful & supportive commentators, of course. When I see our posts linked elsewhere as part of good faith, thoughtful discussions about privilege & veganism, I'm really happy that the conversations we have on the blog are becoming part of a larger conversation about these issues, & that we are disrupting the dominant narrative of vegans as white.

And other vegans of color reacting positively to the blog is wonderful. I started the blog because I felt very alone as a vegan of color, so when others in the same position say that things on the blog make them feel not as isolated, that makes my day.

The blog exists to discuss how other issues, in many instances race & racism, intersect with veganism. However, this doesn't mean that we are obliged to teach people. This comes up fairly frequently: people who clearly have no idea about race 101 (despite having a link in our sidebar with starting points) & who, instead of being willing to do the work to read & learn themselves, bring up all the tired derailing arguments you might expect. People of color are very often expected to lead white people by the hand & do all the heavy lifting in terms of explaining white privilege & racism to them—over & over again. This is not our job. We're generally happy to discuss things on the blog but we expect readers to at least have a basic understanding of how racial privilege works. Hand-holding is not our responsibility.

We have the right to stop the conversation. Those with white privilege frequently act as if POCs are obliged to explain anything a white person wants to know about race, in depth, whenever the white person wants. Even when discussions happen separate from that expectation, talking about race is very draining. We have the right to stop talking about it whenever we want; we have the right to keep ourselves safe & to make sure we're not burning ourselves out. White commenters on the blog tend to be the worst about that sort of thing, but there have been POC commenters too who adopt that very aggressive style of Internet debating where you always have to have the last word & everything you say has to receive a rebuttal from the other person, otherwise they've "lost." Often they're male, as well, which is telling.

Members of any oppressed group (& I'm not talking about vegans here) face this: this incessant demand to teach, to serve as an audience for any drivel a privileged person feels like spouting. And especially the expectation that we can only express ourselves in a certain way: we can't be emotional—especially not angry, the horrors!—we're expected to pander & to tolerate the same trite crap over & over.

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

thank you

This is so timely and informative. A lot of the public backlash directed at an animal-rights protest I attended recently boiled down to the perception that the protesters were a bunch of white, middle-aged women. This was largely true. (I'm white and female, though not yet middle-aged.) Since it was the Ed Block Awards banquet and we were protesting their decision to honor Michael Vick, issues of racism as well as speciesism also came up. It was very difficult, and the Vick case seems especially polarizing. I don't have any answers, but I keep trying to learn.

But teaching might mean learning

Of course, I agree that it is not the responsibility of oppressed people to educate the Privileged, but one of the reasons I am a vocal feminist (and, I imagine, why this zine exists) is so people will learn. I had a friend in college who was raised in the South with very traditional ideals. She was such a strong woman but bristled at the idea of feminism. When I took the time to explain to her all the ways she was feminist, she actually thanked me and became much more vocal about being treated with respect. Again, not that it was my "job" to teach her, and obviously young people get more leeway than full-fledged adults, but the dividends were apparent. Unfortunately, Privilege is fairly oblivious to Others, but it's not always willful. So, while oppressed persons can be rightfully annoyed at the notion that we are "required" to teach the ignorant, I don't think we should advocate against educating folks who seek knowledge in earnest.

Timely: Race HAS to be part of the vegan dialogue

Thanks for interviewing Johanna about this and her creation of Vegans of Color blog. It is a necessary topic to discuss, not just in the vegan movement, but the mainstream "Ethical consumption" mvmt in the USA in general. The effects of racialization and whiteness as the norm in the USA, in terms of how one comes to and practices, what they think is "ethical consumption" is a dialogue that still needs to happen in so many places in the USA.

Like Johanna, I get a significant number of white vegans/AR people telling me that race (racialization, racial formation, racisms, anti-racism, normative whiteness) has NOTHING to do with veganism and that they are offended that I pursue critical race studies within veganism. They perceived that by default, it is RACIST to pursue such work. As a matter of fact, there was such animosity towards me originally wanting to create the Sistah Vegan book project (which focuses on black female vegans and their racialized-gender experience of practicing veganism in the USA) on one blog, 4 years ago (it was VeganPub), that I used the animosity displayed on that thread as material to write about normative whiteness in supposedly "post-racial" vegan online spaces.

But, there are also plenty of people that write me (particularly black women since my doctoral work focuses on black women and their vegan epistemologies) positive messages that my work has changed their lives and that they are elated that finally, "Race and its discontents have finally come to the vegan dinner table."

Very good and interesting

Very good and interesting interview with Johanna. Vegans Of Color Blog sounds like something special to me.

Race or class?

I think this is a thought provoking and genuinely interesting topic if we talk about people of privilege vs. people who are underprivileged in this nation and the gap in nutrition and nutritional knowledge that usually leads to people becoming vegan. I wonder if this is a race issue or a class issue? Especially with so many white families recently falling below the poverty line.