Veganism is the fastest growing social justice movement of today. Unfortunately, some racial groups in the US face social barriers that limit their access to joining the movement.
Please read: A few weeks ago I discovered an interesting article that offered opinions as to why African-Americans do not make up a substantial portion of the Vegan movement. My commentary is in red below.
There’s no right answer, but I bet that your mental depiction of veganism is predominantly (if not exclusively) white.
Veganism has been seen as a “white thing” for quite some time, and it’s not completely off. The vegan community is predominantly white. Organizations try their best to stay mindful of diversity, but despite their attempts, veganism is still seen as something for the white and privileged.
———————————————————————————————————————————–The idea that people of color need to become a part of the Vegan movement is a ludicrous and broad statement for the simple fact that it is already pervasive in the black community. However, immigrant groups that now identify as African-Americans do not always specifically identify as Vegans. Instead they use terms like Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists, and ‘Vegetarians who are also lactose intolerant.’
Black “Vegan” public figures such as Dr. Aris Latham, Venus Williams, Dr. Sebi, and rapper KRS-1 have discussed diets void of meat and dairy for decades. Veganism is not a new movement. These voices have been very loud and clear, but the problem here is their reach is not as wide and African-Americans, like many other people, do not always care to listen. By the same token “Veganism” has also had a long history in the black community dating back to the African empires that flourished on plant-based diets centuries ago. Now that a new title has been slapped on this compassionate lifestyle and primarily marketed to one community, it is considered novel. However, this is simply not the case.
For example, I have always been aware of plant-based communities, but I did not decide to convert until the documentary “What the Health” highlighted the corruption in the food industry, and the links between processed food and disease.
So what’s my point? Why would race have anything to do with animal liberation?
In 2012, an analysis of meat consumption by race showed African Americans as the leading consumers of meat in the US.
When a very white movement needs to “sway the black vote” away from meat consumption, it will take some understanding of black culture—something the mainstream vegan movement doesn’t always have.
So what can you do to make veganism more appealing to African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and other communities of color? Here are some factors to keep in mind and how to address them with cultural awareness.
Meat is a huge part of black culture
Centuries of enslavement and poverty means making do with what you have.
Black culture was built on eating everything from common staples—like chicken and fish—to chitlins, pigs’ feet, and other discarded animal parts our ancestors ate in desperation. These recipes have been passed down for generations and both cooking and eating are central parts of the black family.
When meat is seen as a cultural connection and a means of survival, it’ll take time for the black community to see “normal” meals in a negative light.
Turning away food is also teetering on disrespect. It may take three Thanksgivings to build up the courage to deny our grandmothers’ cooking.
So how can vegans support pre-vegans of color? Applaud small wins.
You don’t go from turkey gizzards to garden burgers overnight. Aspiring vegans may not transition at a pace you’d prefer, but since most black omnivores spent a lifetime with meat in every meal, small gains for you are big deals for them.
Celebrate and give continuous support (not judgment) during their period of transition.
I think it’s important to preface this analysis with a complete, but brief history of the Black diet. I think it is a historical disservice to analyze the history of the African-American diet by choosing to begin at slavery–black people were not even considered “Americans” at that time. It would have also been more compelling as a reader to see the evolution in our diets beginning in Africa to today. As I mentioned earlier, before black people were forced to subside on the worst parts of animals, we largely survived on plant-based diets. Further, Nzinga failed to address the fact that there are a plethora of African-American groups who choose not to consume any meat at all.
Additionally, I think that the latest “healthy eating” campaigns have done an excellent job of reaching diverse audiences, but there is always room for improvement. We need more accessible resources and impactful campaigns like “What the Health.”
Black people are dealing with other issues
Newsflash: veganism is for the privileged. But privilege isn’t always financial. If you’re living such a safe, supported life that you can put the needs of animals before the needs of your community, that’s a privilege.
How can we ask a black teen to fight for animal rights when she’s still getting followed trough department stores? And isn’t it reasonable for someone to care more about systematic imprisonment of males in their community that the welfare of circus animals?
Racism is exhausting. When black people don’t have a basic sense of wellbeing, they can’t care for the wellbeing of others. Until we live in a post-racial society, encouraging African Americans to fight for animal rights when our own welfare is questionable is a strange order of operations.
My suggestion: don’t promote veganism to communities of color from an animal rights perspective alone. Encouraging black people to go vegan “for the animals” might show just how disconnected you are from the black experience.
Lead with health benefits instead. Every African American has an uncle with high blood pressure or a diabetic grandmother, so highlighting veganism as a panacea will be better received.
While, Nzinga Young presents some good points in this paragraph, I completely disagree with her statement “When black people don’t have a basic sense of wellbeing, they can’t care for the well-being of others.” This statement is simply untrue and reckless. Yes, African-Americans have to face multiple obstacles in order to successfully navigate the American landscape, but that does not mean that we are unable to assist others, including animals. History supports my point of contention. Black people have for years been very vocal in other movements, such as women’s rights, and black people defend movements every day on CNN. Personally, I have also seen plenty of black people who also identify as animal advocates. Young is correct, that the black community has prioritized movements intended to secure civil rights and respect as a community, but I think her perspective is too limiting because it excludes the tremendous efforts of African-Americans who have been instrumental in other campaigns. Instead of stating that black people “can’t” care for the well-being of others, it would perhaps be more appropriate to say that not all black people have the ability to advocate for the well-being of others because of systemic and societal pressures.
I also believe that Young is correct in identifying that for most people, being a Vegan is about obtaining personal health benefits. These individuals consider animal rights as secondary to the health benefits that they stand to gain on a Vegan diet. With that being said, I agree that Vegan promoters should promote the lifestyle to African-Americans from the health benefits perspective, rather than the animal rights perspective.
We don’t know any vegans
In general, the black community doesn’t understand what veganism is all about.
We may have limited interactions with the message through a sexualized PETA ad or Russell Simmons sound bite, but the annual mention of veganism isn’t enough to create lasting change.
And since we’re less likely to support something if we see no black representation, it helps to have a few black celebrities in mind who recognize the benefits of veganism.
Rapper Waka Flocka, NBA champion John Salley, Black-ish actor Anthony Anderson, and the legendary Williams sisters are a few public figures who follow plant-based diets.
True, true, true. Now I wish Young would have led her last sentence with “The legendary Williams sisters” instead of Waka Flocka, but that is inconsequential to her point. On occasion, I would encounter a Russell Simmons Youtube clip about Veganism, but I barely listened to his discussions because in my mind, I had categorized him as another “out-of-touch rich person.” Now that I have been enlightened, I will admit that I have changed my perspective and listened a bit closer.
My one critique with this section is that Young failed to address the influence of having a Vegan family member. I would argue that it is much more powerful than seeing a black celebrity Vegan advocate for most in the black community, although admittedly the celebrity does have a larger audience.
Poor access to vegan options
Food deserts are real, and communities of color are more likely to live in areas where affordable produce is limited.
We can’t expect people to live off instant rice and ramen noodles for the sake of animal welfare. If families can’t find or afford nutritious options in their area, it’s obvious they’d feed their families animal products.
One of the most effective ways of promoting veganism in communities of color is by fighting for more access to plant-based options.
Reach out to organizations that work on food security and see how you can help. (Respectfully) ask store clerks in inner-city grocery stores why their produce selection is so limited.
Instead of expecting low-income communities to live off affordable, nutrient-void vegan options, work to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into these areas.
———————————————————————————————————————————–Store clerks in inner-city grocery stores have limited selections of produce because the shelf-life of these foods are short. Produce has to be replenished 1-2 times per week. This is where the consumer must take a stand. Of course, polite requests are a start, but consumers must actually purchase healthier products. Think of your selections as votes. Every time a person selects Almond Milk over a gallon of cow’s milk, then that individual is signaling to the owner that she must consider related products.
Access is a major obstacle that is interfering with successful vegetarian and Vegan conversions. When a neighborhood is riddled with fast food establishments and bodegas filled with processed foods, it is no wonder why more black people have not caught on to the lifestyle.
Watch and learn
There are lots of organizations that promote both plant-based eating in black communities and racial diversity in veganism; turn to them for inspiration.
Black Vegans Rock showcases vegans of color every day of the year to bring more brown faces to the forefront of veganism. The 10th Element of Hip Hop mixes urban culture and health to influence veganism within communities of color. Ron Finley saw a need for more plant-based options and started sidewalk farms in South LA.
Commentary from black vegan thinkers like Dr. Breeze Harper and Bryant Terry will give you new insights into veganism from a brown perspective. Use their writings as a learning experience and see how their perspective can influence your activism.
How do ad agencies get us hooked? They invest lots of time and money into making their audience feel understood. Advertisers know that in order to get a consumer on their side, they need to speak their language.
Try taking a page from their manual and speak with your audience in mind. By adjusting your message and appealing to African Americans, you’ll draw the leading consumers of animal products to the benefits of veganism.
Perfect way to end the article for curious viewers! One point that I wish Young would have addressed are the African-Americans who have no interest at all in converting to a plant-based diet. I will add it to my ‘to-do’ list.
What do you think? Do you think there are any missing points? Should I explore this topic in other ethnic communities? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below! If you are a black Vegan share your thoughts below, or on the Facebook Page “Black Vegans Speak.”